Roundups (or should that be ’rounds-up’?) of the past year seem to be all the rage, so I thought I’d join the party. And, rather than just write it up, I thought it deserved the infographic treatment (click on the image, left), which was a neat way of whiling away a few leisurely Christmas hours and learning a bit about my Adobe software along the way.
By an odd, and nicely symmetrical, coincidence my operatic year began and ended with Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, starting at the Royal Opera House and finishing in the altogether more bijou King’s Head Theatre in Islington. Neither make it into a list of highlights, however enjoyable that opera inevitably is.
Wagner got a reasonable outing, not least an excellent and intense Parsifal at ENO with John Tomlinson dominating and the excellent Stuart Skelton playing the fool made wise by pity. If there’s a league table, it was probably pipped to the top spot by the remarkable Glyndebourne Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, a presentation revelatory in its intimacy and detail, with a strong sense of ensemble about it, albeit anchored around a thoughtful and moving Hans Sachs from Gerald Finley. After disappointment in the roulette game that is the Glyndebourne Associate Membership ballot, perseverance in the search for returns proved worth the effort. A trip to Manchester for the Hallé’s Die Walküre introduced the truly astonishing Bridgewater Hall, with an expansive performance led by Sir Mark Elder. Expansive would be a charitable description of parts of Jeffrey Tate’s Der Fliegende Holländer in November: whilst some parts flew, others dragged in what was nevertheless, on the whole, a rewarding performance.
Verdi was the year’s dominant composer, just (which would have pleased Wagner, no doubt). Aïda was a moderate success, with an early introduction to one of the year’s knockout (almost literally) performers, Liudmyla Monastyrska. Monastyrska returned in Macbeth with a voice of such thunderous weight and gleaming accuracy it was truly a joy to behold. As the year ran to a close, that old warhorse La Traviata seemed to be on at Covent Garden twice-nightly with three shows on Saturday. What had looked lacklustre on paper was brought ravishingly to life when Ailyn Pérez donned the big frocks for a performance that packed its punch in the dramatic later acts rather than the glittering first act, but which chalked up one of the most impressive performances of the work since Gheorghiu launched it in 1994.
Verdi was of course the basis for that centrepiece of the operatic calendar: the marking of 40 years’ performing at Covent Garden by Placido Domingo. Chunks of Simon Boccanegra, Rigoletto and (less successfully) Otello brought a real ensemble feel to the celebrations. Some carped, which in a cold light might have been justified, but it seemed ungracious when applied to the earnest endeavours of so generous a performer.
My personal battle with Massenet continued: dreary Werther did nothing to improve my impression of the composer, despite Rolando Villazón’s best (and actually, quite impressive) endeavours. On the other hand, a sparkling and completely bonkers Cendrillon was wonderfully diverting, driven by a stellar group of mezzos led by Joyce DiDonato, Alice Coote and Ewa Podlés, with Église Gutierrez impressing as the Fairy. Which, unfortunately, I can’t say she did when she took the lead role in Bellini’s La Sonnambula. I had eagerly anticipated my first encounter with this work, but it was a production of such dreary proportions that there was no life in the work. Gutierrez’s voice remains a baffling enigma to me.
Of other first encounters, Puccini stands out: 2011 was the year of my first Madama Butterfly and Il Trittico and they made a powerful impression. Suor Angelica was the outstanding element of the Trittico, with Ermonela Jaho a stand-in for Anja Harteros, delivering a vivid and painful performance as Angelica. The Butterfly was also a replacement, this time for Patricia Racette: Kristine Opolais brought vocal steel and strength to the performance, led in high-melodrama style by her husband, Andris Nelsons. Puccini was the driver behind the summer’s big event, a two-night Tosca of Gheorghiu/Kaufmann/Terfel, for which the ROH cocked up the ticket allocations, leaving a select band of four-ticket holders for the main event, and many others (me included) forced to pay the same exorbitant prices for one of eight altogether more routine performances from Serafin/Giordani/Uusitalo. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and they seem to have learned: 2012’s big-cast (Gheorghiu/Alagna) Bohème has differential pricing and a two-ticket limit, although this time the other casts (one led by Anja Harteros) also promise almost as much.
The Tsar’s Bride appeared and will doubtless be a long time reappearing, vaguely engaging though it was. Although Lucrezia Borgia has not languished so far from our stages as has the Tsar’s Bride, ENO’s crack at it was as dramatically disastrous as it was vocally rewarding, with Clare Rutter delivering her all whilst trying to make something of a setting that looked like the last dregs of a furniture shop closing-down sale. The insertion of preposterous, tedious ‘films’ between acts was a risible cherry on the top of this particular sunken cake – I have fond memories of two thousand people groaning slightly when the screen swished down for the fourth time. ENO’s flirtation with opera novice film directors did, however, bring us more impressive fayre in the form of The Damnation of Faust, where Terry Gilliam’s Nazi setting worked surprisingly well, with Christine Rice pouring forth velvet as the destroyed heroine and Christopher Purves giving a suave and dangerous Mephistopheles.
ENO was on controversial form for Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which foregrounded unsavoury power games in a secondary school and brought some moody, dynamic interest to what is probably reigning at the top of my league of least favourite operas. It’ll be a while before I give it another go, irrespective of what any director does with it. Their foray, initially much welcomed, into French Baroque opera, with Rameau’s Castor et Pollux, again wasted the considerable singing talents on display by saddling them with a dull production that fitted the theatre badly and made the most flaccid use of on-stage nudity in recent memory.
Speaking of matters outré, there was of course that Anna Nicole, about which it would almost certainly be better to say nothing. I will, however, allow myself mention of the almost inconceivable waste of tremendous operatic resources, not to mention the stellar efforts of the marketing department, on something so trivial and unilluminating it had no business being on the stage of the Linbury, let alone the main stage of the Royal Opera House. Maybe some of the smaller venues could have made this little lollipop work…
In those smaller venues around town, interesting things were happening with varying success. Wilton’s Music Hall triumphed with an all-male Iolanthe, a remarkably faithful interpretation of one of the greatest G&S’s emerging freshly from beneath the camp. The King’s Head, gave an interesting ‘Barber of Salisbury’, but the combination of big trained voices and a small space led to quite a bit of ‘operatic convention’ in place of genuine acting and, ultimately, a slight headache. The same feeling persisted in the energetic but not tremendously successful Hänsel und Gretel that drew my year to a close. Covent Garden and St Martin’s Lane appear to be safe from the challenge posed by London’s Little Opera House for the time being.
So, all-in-all, despite only moderate enthusiasm at the start of the year, this was quite a rewarding – and frequently surprising – year. Next year has a Ring Cycle, Kaufmann in Les Troyens, more Mozart/da Ponte than you can shake a baton at, a liberal dose of the usual Verdis and Puccinis, more Meistersinger, the hangover of that mammoth Traviata run, a Salome, and I’m sure a lot more. I can’t imagine it providing the same number of personal discoveries and surprises as 2011, but then again, you never can tell…