Review of 2012: Classical

Northern Ireland Opera toured with the unsettling adaptation of the Henry James ghost story, and Simon Rattle thrilled us again


High notes

Let's start with a segue – that pin-drop moment at the BBC Proms when the last filaments of Ligeti's Atmosphères dissolved into six bars of silence, and those became a prelude to the Prelude of Wagner's Lohengrin. Opening the year's review with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker is something of a tradition here, but this was a season to savour.

From Sir John Eliot Gardiner's revelatory period-instruments reading of Pelléas et Mélisande to Christine Schäfer's enigmatic Pierrot Lunaire, trombonist Byron Fulcher's feisty re-creation of Berio's Sequenza V, Harry Bickett and the English Concert's faultlessly paced B Minor Mass, Paul Curran's witty Nixon in China with the BBC SO, and Daniel Barenboim's monumental Beethoven cycle with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Proms rivalled the Olympics in ambition. Gold for London? Yes. But Birmingham Opera Company's immersive production of Stockhausen's Mittwoch aus Licht in a former factory in Digbeth was the most flamboyant event of the summer.

Burning bright

Mao in Nixon, Achilles in Britten Sinfonia's King Priam and a deliciously louche Basilio in Michael Grandage's Le Nozze di Figaro for Glyndebourne, tenor Alan Oke excelled. Conductor of the same Figaro, Robin Ticciati delivered a Siegfried Idyll of delectable transparency with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, while Leonidas Kavakos's Berg and Christian Tetzlaff's Szymanowski confirmed a golden age for violinists. Cellist Tim Gill and pianist John Constable mesmerised in Messaien's Louange à l'Eternité de Jésus. Antonio Pappano and the orchestra of the Royal Opera House made the marathon revival of Keith Warner's Ring Cycle a pleasure. Yannick Nezet-Séguin's conducting of Rusalka was divine, Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito's production less so. Opera North had a sensation in the form of Annemarie Kremer, fearless leading lady in Christopher Alden's production of Norma, while all eyes were on Anna Caterina Antonacci's Cassandra in David McVicar's otherwise blurry Les Troyens.

Never mind the venue

Young talent emerged in pubs, clubs and car parks. Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Oliver John Ruthven and the continuo section of Musica Poetica London outclassed the singers in Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. Laura Parfitt was a sassy Minnie as Puccini's West End Girl at the King's Head, while Igor Toronyi-Lalic and friends played Moondog, Howard Skempton and James Tenney in a south-London multi-storey, while Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest threw 40 plates and two megaphones at Wilde's masterpiece of triviality.

Opera hits

Northern Ireland Opera took Oliver Mears's unsettling production of The Turn of the Screw on tour, with Miles styled after the young Benjamin Britten. Anneliese Miskimmon's blackly comic Falstaff for Opera Holland Park was one summer highlight, Antony McDonald's dreamlike Queen of Spades for Grange Park Opera another. Jesus Leon's embittered Don Ottavio became the focus of Daniel Slater's topsy-turvy Don Giovanni at Garsington.

Festival fever

Wexford Festival honoured Delius with Stephen Medcalf's production of A Village Romeo and Juliet and Iford uncovered the terrible beauty of Handel's Susanna. In Aldeburgh and the Barbican, Claire Booth wore a wolf suit and Lucy Schaufer became a Sealyham terrier in Netia Jones's Oliver Knussen double bill. In Covent Garden, Marie-Nicole Lemieux and a horse called Rupert stole Robert Carsen's Falstaff.

Low notes

For excessive mutilation of animals, Michael Keegan Dolan's production of Julius Caesar. For misogyny and necrophilia, Frederick Wake Walker's Bow Down. For whimsy and hubris, Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach. For ignorance of kebab vans and urban dance, Judith Weir's Miss Fortune. For totally missing the point, Anna Meredith's body-popping National Youth Orchestra commission, Hands Free.

Closing chords

Composers Hans Werner Henze, Elliott Carter, Jonathan Harvey and Richard Rodney Bennett, pianist Charles Rosen, beloved baritone Robert Poulton and Lisa Della Casa, the sweetest soprano, and Russian star Galina Vishnevskaya.

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