Looking back on opera

George Hall
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A scene from Royal Opera's Robert le Diable. Photo: Tristram Kenton
A scene from Royal Opera's Robert le Diable. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Despite difficult financial times, the UK’s opera companies maintained quality and ambition throughout 2012. The Royal Opera presented four cycles of Keith Warner’s Ring in preparation for Wagner’s bicentenary, with leading lights Bryn Terfel, John Tomlinson, Susan Bullock and impressive newcomer Stefan Vinke taking on Wagner’s vocal challenges under the sure and certain baton of Antonio Pappano. Though Judith Weir’s new opera, Miss Fortune, disappointed and Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s staging of Rusalka caused dismay, David McVicar’s journey through Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens (again with the indispensable Pappano) proved worthwhile. At the end of the year, the company aimed at another romantic blockbuster – Meyerbeer’s Gothic extravaganza Robert le Diable, not staged here since 1890.

English National Opera’s commitment to non-opera specialist directors continued with mixed results, though Tom Morris’ presentation of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer was a major success, and Yoshi Oida’s staging of Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress made something viable out of intractable material. New operas were mixed, too. Wolfgang Rihm’s Jakob Lenz proved far less interesting than Detlev Glanert’s lavishly Straussian Caligula, vividly staged by Benedict Andrews and supplying Peter Coleman-Wright with a daunting title role, while Doctor Dee felt meagre. David Alden’s Billy Budd was a triumph, Richard Jones’ Julietta characteristically atmospheric, Fiona Shaw’s Figaro lacklustre and Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Julius Caesar dismal, but Calixto Bieito showed what an experienced opera director can do with such familiar material as Carmen, given his deep understanding of the medium.

In Wales, David Pountney’s arrival as the head of Welsh National Opera saw some exciting plans announced for the future, though his programming has yet to kick in. Scottish Opera celebrated its 60th anniversary and continued with its extensive small- and mid-scale touring as well as fielding some big productions – David McVicar’s The Rake’s Progress marked the Scottish director’s outstanding return to the company.

Ylva Kihlberg in The Makropulos Case by Opera North. Photo: Robert Worknam

Opera North opened its Makropulos Case, directed by Tom Cairns, conducted by invaluable music director Richard Farnes and starring Ylva Kihlberg, at the Edinburgh International Festival, while some of its opening nights in Leeds – especially Christopher Alden’s Norma (led by Annemarie Kremer’s feisty priestess), but also Alessandro Talevi’s Don Giovanni and Ran Arthur Braun and Rob Kearley’s Faust –   offered much of interest to audiences.

At Glyndebourne, Melly Still’s new Cunning Little Vixen flopped, but both Michael Grandage’s Figaro and Laurent Pelly’s Ravel double bill hit the spot. Garsington presented Vivaldi’s L’Olimpiade – an opera set at the first Olympics – to chime in with London 2012, David Freeman supplied a witty staging. Offenbach’s La Perichole, conducted by David Parry and with Jeremy Sams in charge of translation and production, proved a winner. Grange Park mounted an ambitious Queen of Spades, in which conductor Stephen Barlow showed his mettle, as he did in Strauss’s Intermezzo in Buxton, where he’s the new artistic director.

The most extraordinary event of the year was undoubtedly the world premiere of Stockhausen’s Mittwoch by Birmingham Opera. Graham Vick proved that an impossibly ambitious (some would say lunatic) work that other major companies gave up on could be presented thrillingly given the will and the imagination – four helicopters taking off and flying over the city included. It was an unforgettable experience that deservedly played to sold-out houses.

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster