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LEADERS OF THE PACK / Die Meister of the universe: Opera Of The Year

IF Jonathan Miller's semi-staging of the St Matthew Passion at Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, counted as opera, it would go to the top of my list, because nothing else has matched the intensity Miller achieved from this understated presentation - done in the round with a tight focus on the action and an electrifying closeness between singers, instruments and audience. But it doesn't count; and neither does Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd at the National Theatre or Steve Reich's The Cave at the Festival Hall, two brutally impactful pieces, memorably staged.

That leaves a catalogue of extremes, determined by some good new work (Michael Berkeley's Baa Baa Black Sheep at Opera North) and some bad (Michael Finnissey's excruciating Therese Raquin on a Garden Venture tour). It was a promising year for rare Verdi (Stiffelio at Covent Garden) and Tchaikovsky (Cherevichki at Wexford and, in concert, at the QEH); a fascinating one for Debussy's Pelleas (at the Garden and in Peter Brook's reduced version at the Glasgow Tramway). Above all it has been a year for Wagner, with Welsh National's superb Tristan providing a long-deserved platform for Anne Evans's Isolde, and a Covent Garden Meistersinger introducing Thomas Allen (Beckmesser) and John Tomlinson (Sachs) to roles that were out of their normal orbit but magnificently done. Also new to the piece were Graham Vick, who directed, and Bernard Haitink, who conducted; and the fundamental quality of their collective work was an invigorating freshness - buoyant and clean, it came unburdened by the dead weight of designer concepts. So this Meistersinger is my opera of 1993; and it bears witness to the fact that, after some rough years artistically, Covent Garden has regained its confidence and style. The arrival of Nicholas Payne (late of Opera North) as Opera Director has been no bad thing: at last there's someone at the helm who really knows the repertory.

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