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Year in review: 145 shows that defined theatre in 2016

Declan Bennet (front) and Tyrone Huntley (back, centre) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo: Tristram Kenton Declan Bennet (front) and Tyrone Huntley (back, centre) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Jenufa at the London Coliseum. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Jenufa at the London Coliseum. Photo: Tristram Kenton

It has been an exceptional year for new opera. To experience the Scottish Opera/Music Theatre Wales co-production of Stuart MacRae’s Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation The Devil Inside, the Royal Opera’s co-production of Philip Venables’ powerful setting of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, and two major new scores from Welsh National Opera – Elena Langer’s Figaro Gets a Divorce (a sequel to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro), and Iain Bell’s accomplished In Parenthesis (derived from David Jones’ poem on his experiences during the First World War), has been as thrilling as it has been extraordinary. Each of the composers brought appreciable skills to the medium, and they hold out significant promise for the future.

While not out of the woods, English National Opera looks more stable at the end of 2016, despite the sudden departure of music director Mark Wigglesworth in July. He has been replaced by Martyn Brabbins, while Daniel Kramer now has his feet under the table as artistic director. Before and since his departure, Wigglesworth conducted masterly performances of Jenufa, Don Giovanni and Lulu. The company also had success with Philip Glass’ Akhnaten, directed by Phelim McDermott.

Cecilia Bartoli  in Norma. Photo: T+T Fotografie
Cecilia Bartoli in Norma. Photo: T+T Fotografie

The Royal Opera announced Oliver Mears as successor to Kasper Holten as director of opera. Conducted by Antonio Pappano, and with Richard Jones directing Bryn Terfel in the title role, Boris Godunov represented the company’s work at its best, as did Barrie Kosky’s manic staging of Shostakovich’s The Nose. Katie Mitchell’s Lucia Di Lammermoor, on the other hand, was idiosyncratic when not actually perverse, while David Bosch’s Il Trovatore flopped badly.

Wasfi Kani’s final season at Grange Park Opera in Hampshire included Oliver! starring Simon Keenlyside as Fagin. Kani is building a new opera house in Surrey that will open next June; at the Grange, meanwhile, Michael Chance will launch a new festival. But while still an expanding sector – Nevill Holt Opera has also announced a new theatre – 2016 was hardly a vintage year for country house ventures, with Garsington Opera’s focused Eugene Onegin directed by Michael Boyd and conducted by (no relation) Douglas Boyd probably the pick of the bunch.

Richard Farnes completed his distinguished service as Opera North’s music director with a semi-staged touring Ring that garnered universal approval; his successor Aleksandar Markovic opened his tenure with a revival of Der Rosenkavalier. The company also had hits with Andrea Chenier and (another co-produced new work) Mark Simpson’s Pleasure, in which Lesley Garrett starred as the lavatory attendant in a gay club; but Billy Budd, directed by Orpha Phelan and conducted by Garry Walker, was the company’s proudest achievement.

With Cecilia Bartoli appearing as a dramatically powerful Norma, the Edinburgh International Festival enjoyed a starry year, while Opera Holland Park had an exceptional season, with a rare revival of Mascagni’s Iris, conducted by Stuart Stratford and directed by Olivia Fuchs, the compelling highlight.

Best and worst

 The Devil Inside. Photo: Bill Cooper
The Devil Inside. Photo: Bill Cooper


The Devil Inside (Theatre Royal, Glasgow, and touring)

Stuart MacRae and librettist Louise Welsh struck gold with their chamber opera setting a creepy tale by Robert Louis Stevenson about an imp contained in a bottle. Michael Rafferty conducted a taut account of the tense score, with dynamic performances from Nicholas Sharratt, Ben McAteer, Steven Page and Rachel Kelly in Matthew Richardson’s assured production.


Il Trovatore (Royal Opera House, London)

Verdi’s borderline horrifying revenge tragedy is as difficult to stage as it is to sing, and it was primarily in dramatic and visual terms that the opening run in July of German director David Bosch’s feeble and incoherent Covent Garden staging fell so conspicuously short of requirements.

George Hall, opera critic

Now read: Our critics’ best and worst regional shows of 2016

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