As a reader, my experience of annual arts round-ups is one of envy and self-recrimination. Invariably, I'll have missed the heart-warming Korean comedy filmed on Super 8, the touring exhibition of satirical embroidery from Estonia, the all-male production of Top Girls, and the all-female adaptation of Moby Dick. So it is a rare pleasure to begin this year's retrospective with something that anyone with access to a television can see tonight: Natalie Dessay's incendiary performance as the potato-peeling, long-john-ironing, military mascot of Laurent Pelly's Royal Opera House production of La fille du rgiment (BBC4, 7.30pm).
The French soprano launched a fabulous year for Donizetti, whose L'elisir d'amore was staged with subtle charm by Annabel Arden for Glyndebourne on Tour and hyperactive cuteness by Pelly back at Covent Garden. Conducted with sour-sweet intensity by Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones's deliciously sweaty double bill of L'heure espagnole and Gianni Schicchi was a further comedic delight, though that, alas, was the last we saw of Bryn Terfel. His abrupt exit from Keith Warner's Ring Cycle left a cast with only one truly beautiful voice (Eva-Maria Westbroek), but a cast that, with John Tomlinson as Wotan, knitted into a formidable theatrical ensemble. Had the number of performances met the demand for tickets, they'd still be there.
On the picnic circuit, Daniel Slater's crafty Falstaff (Grange Park) and Richard Jones's viciously funny Macbeth (Glyndebourne) sparkled indoors, while Orla Boylan's sublime Ariadne endured the Garsington rain. On the fringe, Second Movement's unlikely triple bill of Offenbach, Fleischmann and Martinu seduced, as did The Opera Group's latest Rushton-Gioulami collaboration, The Shops, while the London Handel Festival treated the lovely Poro to sound stagecraft and judicious cuts. Opera Holland Park restored Montemezzi's forgotten masterpiece L'amore die tre re, the Barbican offered beguiling premieres from Adams (A Flowering Tree) and Saariaho (La passion de Simone), and, in an otherwise so-so year for Opera North, Anne Sophie Duprels was a heart-searing Madama Butterfly.
Relieved only by David McVicar's shadowy Turn of the Screw, Deborah Warner's immaculate Death in Venice, and some scintillating orchestral performances, English National Opera's Biblical plague of unrevivable horrors confirmed that the company's chief misfortune is its management. Scottish Opera imported Tobias Hoheisel's intelligent production of Die Entfhrung aus dem Serail from the Netherlands, but failed to import a conductor to match. They should have engaged Ian Page, whose reading of Le nozze di Figaro in Jo Davies's Classical Opera Company staging gave pure pleasure. In Cardiff, Welsh National Opera fielded a strong cast for James MacMillan's epic, The Sacrifice, though if one felt one had seen it all before, it was because we had. Grey and gold were the colours of Katie Mitchell's production, as they were for her troubling school-massacre staging of the St Matthew Passion at Glyndebourne.
Orchestrally, it was a year of new conductors and new acoustics, not all ideal. The Royal Festival Hall reopened, leaving Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia with a fresh set of sonic idiosyncracies to interrogate. In Liverpool, Vassily Petrenko revitalised the Philharmonic, while Valery Gergiev thrilled the London Symphony Orchestra, if not the audience, with his strange, semi-wonderful Mahler. At the Proms, Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra lent a touch of suavity to a season in which the highlights were mostly smaller-scale: Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's Webern, Buskaid Soweto Strings' Rameau, and Les Musiciens du Louvre's Berlioz and Bizet, which boasted the finest period woodwind I have heard, and, courtesy of Anne Sofie von Otter, the finest singing. As to the finest string-playing, that came from Stephen Isserlis in his breathtaking Beethoven survey at the Wigmore Hall, while this year's golden keyboard award goes to Patrick Russill for his intimate recital of pre-Reformation devotional music on the sweetly wheezing Wetheringsett and Wingfield Organs.