Opera in 2009: Bars and parks outdo the big house shows

Small was beautiful at several top productions, and a single aria rescued one new arrival
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The Independent Culture

High Notes

It was late in coming, but Mariss Jansons's reading of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was the year's symphonic highlight. And while most visiting divas dashed off three arias, grabbed their cheques and ran, Cecilia Bartoli's infectious energy, high-wayman drag and musicological zeal made a history of castrati arias an unexpected delight. In new music, composer David Sawer bounced back from a dodgy January (Opera North's Skin Deep) to a triumphant November (Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's Rumpelstiltskin.)

Two very different readings of Bach's Cello Suites were among the best of the year's chamber music: Alison McGillivray's dance-informed interpretation at the Purcell Room and Jean-Guihen Queyras's introspective performance in the cool, white curves of Zaha Hadid's Manchester Art Gallery installation.

Radio 3's New Generation Artists Proms included an electrifying account of Haydn's D major quartet Opus 20, No 4 from the quirky Finnish quartet Meta4, and searing Mahler songs from Alice Coote and Steven Osborne. The Smith Quartet and percussionist Jonny Axelsson impressed at the Wigmore Hall's Kevin Volans Day, while Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen gave a heroic reading of Pavel Haas's Suite for Oboe and Piano at the Aldebugh Festival.

Director Katie Mitchell continued to infuriate and beguile in One Evening's extraordinary fusion of Schubert lieder, Beckett poetry and assorted sound-effects, and After Dido, an excursus on grief and the power of Purcell's lament, for ENO, at the Young Vic. Back at the Coliseum, David Alden's Otto Dix-meets-Ealing Comedy production of Peter Grimes saw a definitive ensemble of singing actors matched by a searing account of Britten's score under Edward Gardner. Gerald Finley's performance of "Batter my heart" in John Adams's Doctor Atomic was a moment of greatness in an awkward work, while La Fura dels Baus' designs for Ligeti's Le Grande Macabre gave opera a fat lady of spectacular proportions.

At Glyndebourne, Richard Jones's Falstaff made a star of Marie-Nicole Lemieux, while soprano Ana Maria Martinez, conductor Jiri Belohavek and the London Philharmonic made a middling staging of Rusalka musically enchanting. At Opera North, John Fulljames's witty updating of The Adventures of Mr Broucek putnew life into Janácek's problem opera. Comic Karen Cargill scintillated in Scottish Opera's tele-novela-style The Italian Girl in Algiers. At the Royal Opera House, Antonio Pappano's high-Romantic reading of Berg's Lulu supplied the colour missing from Christof Loy's production. But who could have predicted the furore at Tristan und Isolde with the radiant Nina Stemme?

Away from traditional venues, Anish Kapoor's violent installation was the counterpoint to Anna Grevelius's exquisite performance of Rossini's Giovanna d'Arco in Brighton's Old Municipal Market. Opera Up Close took La Bohème to a Kilburn pub, while Birmingham Opera Company's fierce Othello transformed a Digbeth factory into a mosque. Directed by John Fulljames, The Opera Group's Benjamin and Birtwistle double-bill was performed, thanks to a power-cut, in the bar of the Linbury Studio.

Among the hampers and picnic blankets of Garsington, Douglas Boyd conducted a Fidelio that balanced a sense of newness and permanence. But for the closest synthesis of intelligent direction, imaginative design, uninhibited performance, and a devastating realisation of the score, Olivia Fuchs's Opera Holland Park staging of Kat'a Kabanova was the triumph of 2009.

Shabby Little Shockers

Though gloriously sung by Michaela Martens (Judith), Daniel Kramer's Fritzl-inspired ENO staging of Duke Bluebeard's Castle was my nadir. It had tough competition. Even David Daniels, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and Harry Christophers couldn't save the Barbican's dreary Handel Remixed. Beyond the Wall wasn't much better, with works of repetitious vulgarity from Chinese composers. At Covent Garden, The Tsarina's Slippers proved that a big costume budget is no guarantee of success, while Rupert Goold's lavish ENO staging of Turandot in a Chinese resturant played with East-West stereotypes to fatuous effect.

Faces of the Year

As Kat'a, Anne-Sophie Duprels. In the Resurrection Symphony, Bernarda Fink. As Isolde, in a the performance of a lifetime, Nina Stemme.


Conductor Edward Downes; composers Lukas Foss, Leon Kirchner and Nicholas Maw; singers Hildegard Behrens, Elisabeth Söderström; pianists Alicia de Larrocha and Geoffrey Tozer.