2017: Best opera and dance of the year
While George Hall picks the best operas from rival country houses and the national companies, dance critic Neil Norman toasts mavericks and regional innovation in a year when the big guns played it safe
This was the year of the country-house opera wars. Wasfi Kani built a new opera house at West Horsley Place in Surrey in less than 12 months to relaunch Grange Park Opera, after falling out with the owners of the Grange in Hampshire, where she had started her festival in 1998.
Kani’s new ‘opera house in the woods’ may need fine-tuning, but productions of Tosca, Wagner’s Die Walkure (a particularly big ask) and especially the revival of Katie Mitchell’s staging of Janacek’s Jenufa did her credit. Back at the Grange – renamed the Grange Festival – countertenor Michael Chance began his tenure with Tim Supple’s clumsy staging of Monteverdi’s Ulisse, but had better luck with Carmen and Albert Herring. The result of the initial skirmishes was more or less a draw.
At Glyndebourne, the season included Graham Vick’s worthy but dull staging of Cavalli’s Hipermestra, a thought-provoking production of Mozart’s La Clemenza Di Tito by Claus Guth, and a major premiere in the shape of Brett Dean’s excellently performed Hamlet. But in December general director Sebastian F Schwarz announced his departure after just two years in the job. The search for his replacement begins in the new year.
Also on the festival circuit, Netia Jones’ Aldeburgh version of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was sensationally good while Joe Hill-Gibbins’ punchy account of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek spiced up the Edinburgh International Festival in a co-production between Scottish Opera and the new Opera Ventures.
At Scottish Opera itself, The 8th Door – a new companion piece to Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle by Lliam Paterson – gave notice of a confident compositional voice, while David McVicar’s staging of Debussy’s Pelleas Et Melisande deservedly won the UK Theatre award for achievement in opera.
Welsh National Opera had a good year: Polly Graham’s production of Le Vin Herbe and Olivia Fuchs’ Der Rosenkavalier were highlights. In Leeds, Opera North renewed its idea of programming one-act pieces, with exceptional results in the cases of Karolina Sofulak’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti as realised by Annabel Arden.
In London, the Royal Opera brought Thomas Ades’ mixed The Exterminating Angel to the UK for the first time, and offered some transfixing singing in David Alden’s production of Rossini’s Semiramide. Richard Jones’ new La Boheme boasted a spectacular second act and may yet bed in well.
English National Opera’s music director Martyn Brabbins brought the orchestra on stage for a well-deserved bow at the end of Nico Muhly’s Marnie, a new work of genuine appeal, while Ryan Wigglesworth’s The Winter’s Tale and Jonathan Dove’s The Day After (at Lilian Baylis House), as well as Daniel Schnyder’s ‘be-bopera’ Charlie Parker’s Yardbird (at Hackney Empire), emphasised the company’s ongoing commitment to new work.
Best and worst
BEST OF THE YEAR
Benjamin Britten’s Shakespearean opera came home to Aldeburgh, where it started life back in 1960. Netia Jones’ brilliant use of projections turned the Maltings platform into a moonlit Athenian wood, combining with an exceptional cast and conductor Ryan Wigglesworth to produce an utterly magical experience.
WORST OF THE YEAR
There were strong musical elements, but visually the show was a severe disappointment as departing director of opera Kasper Holten seemed to be commenting on his lukewarm reception in the UK.
It will not go down as a vintage year for ballet and dance. The big companies relied on tried-and-tested productions to keep audience figures buoyant and revivals were the name of the game. Perhaps the uncertain economic future for subsidised arts bodies created a risk-averse climate.
Innovation, when it occurred, came from outside London. Northern Ballet’s Casanova was a triumph that delivered sex and style and fine dancing in spades. Scottish Ballet staged choreographer Crystal Pite’s striking Emergence just before her Royal Ballet debut – the equally amazing, refugee-inspired Flight Pattern – took off.
ENB held its breath with Akram Khan’s radical reworking of the second oldest classical ballet in the repertoire, Giselle, as it gathered momentum on tour after a muted opening, before finally blossoming into full magnificence this year. After reviving Wayne McGregor’s astonishing Woolf Works, the Royal Ballet charged through a series of stalwarts until its unprecedented collaboration with BRB and ENB to celebrate the works of Kenneth MacMillan. McGregor also played with floating drones for +/- Human in the Roundhouse: not quite as exciting as it might have been in spite of allowing the audience an unusual proximity to dancers such as Edward Watson – reward enough for some.
But it was in the independent sector that one unearthed gems. Boy Blue’s Blak Whyte Gray was exceptional even by the company’s own standards, showing a growing maturity in its hip hop narrative style. Flamenco maverick Israel Galvan went into uncharted territory with Fla.Co.Men while Aakash Odedra made a huge impact with Echoes/I Imagine – a double bill that was spiritual, spiky and amusing. Syrian choreographer/dancer Mithkal Alzghair’s stripped-to-the-bone show Displacement – part of the Shubbak festival of Arab culture – conveyed more about the Syrian crisis than many more well-tooled productions. Arthur Pita continued to exercise his surreal imagination in the nightmarish Stepmother/Stepfather and Lost Dog’s Ben Duke gave Rambert its most provocative and immediate work for years with Goat, persuading dancers to delve deep into their own psyches in response to current events.
The commercial sector upped its choreographic game with two kick-ass productions: An American in Paris and 42nd Street, the former hauling classical ballet into the context of a West End musical, the latter delivering wall-to-wall tap dancing a la Busby Berkeley. Tap was also in evidence from New York’s Dorrance Dance – a firestorm of percussive footwork and techno wizardry. At Chichester’s Festival Theatre, Alistair David’s choreography for Fiddler on the Roof had plenty of pep and character while Kate Prince’s hip hop dance sequences added street grit to Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
And when I finally caught up with Rosie Kay’s Five Soldiers, which has been touring around the UK, it was as good as I had heard – a serious attempt to explore the effect of military training and combat on four men and a girl.
Best and worst
BEST OF THE YEAR
Fla.Co.Men (Sadler’s Wells)
Israel Galvan proved once again that he is the Luis Bunuel of flamenco. Simultaneously irreverent and respectful, it was off the radar and divided critics and audiences alike.
WORST OF THE YEAR
Satori (Sadler’s Wells)
At the risk of incurring the wrath of Polunatics, Sergei Polunin risks squandering his extraordinary talent by loving himself in the art more than loving the art in himself.