Haitink bows out after 15 years at the Royal Opera

After 15 turbulent years, Sir Bernard Haitink will hang up his baton tonight as music director of the Royal Opera House, ending a tenure that has been acclaimed and attacked in equal measure.

A farewell concert by some of his favourite performers will mark the end of an era for the small, prickly Dutchman who has seen the highs of some celebrated productions and the lows of closure and a £214m redevelopment during his time at Covent Garden.

After extracts are performed from Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Carlo and The Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the baritone Sir Thomas Allen will present a goodbye gift.

Sir Bernard, 73, who is known for being introverted, almost taciturn, surprised everyone at his penultimate concert on Thursday by taking the stage to speak movingly of his time at the Opera House.

He expanded on the words offered in the programme to thank the artists, saying their willingness to appear was "both very touching and a great honour to me". He also paid tribute to the chorus and orchestra which are considered to have improved dramatically during his reign.

"Their professionalism and loyalty has been unbounded over the years, and I am thrilled that their achievements have been so widely recognised, " he said. "They are the heart of the Royal Opera, and I thank them from mine." Finally, he thanked the audiences for their support "in good times and bad".

He has had a few of both. He faced criticism early on for what was seen as an inadequate response to key parts of the operatic repertoire, notably Italian composers such as Verdi.

His detractors also argue that the dramatic quality of his productions has not always matched the standard of the music. But fans of Wagner and Strauss have adored his symphonic approach and highlights of his tenure have included productions of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, which won him an Olivier award for outstanding achievement in 1996.

But, as a man unsuited to the political machinations of Covent Garden, he is widely regarded as having failed to provide the leadership which the venue required. Many opera-lovers hope that Antonio Pappano, his amiable and enthusiastic young successor, will step in to breach and be more vocal in championing opera's cause.

However, Haitink was not averse to making his opinions clear, most famously when he tendered his resignation after the Opera House management decided to close for redevelopment without having first consulted him.

Only after a major row threatened to engulf all parties did talks take place. Haitink agreed to renew his contract beyond his original period to this year ­ and is also expected to make appearances even after his retirement.

John Allison, editor of Opera magazine, said Haitink was undoubtedly one of the world's great opera conductors and it was sad he was going.

"Listen to the orchestra and the standards of music performances and you realise what he did for that house. He certainly has raised musical standards," he said.

Tony Hall, the Royal Opera House's chief executive, paid warm tribute. "He has made a huge contribution ... to the Royal Opera House and the musical life of this country," Mr Hall said. "Bernard Haitink is an icon to our audiences, to artists and musicians."

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