How will Haitink be remembered? As the cautious, reliable – and unexciting – safe pair of hands? As the warhorse who held the Royal Opera back 15 years (arriving there from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, having produced some of the most memorable Mahler and Bruckner performances in any orchestra's history bar the New York Philharmonic)? The man with dozens of operatic successes no one quite remembers : Haitink's Peter Grimes, Haitink's Meistersinger, Haitink's Ring (with or without Richard Jones's staging), Haitink's Parsifal?
Some say he can't do Italian (ignoring Don Carlo); or the Russians (how about Prince Igor, or last month's Queen of Spades? Or the Czechs (but look at Katya Kabanova, The Vixen, or last month's insightful Jenufa); or (pace Grimes and The Midsummer Marriage) that he – and the board he over-defers to – have championed too little English opera (some truth); or that he should have stuck his head over the parapet (why not oversee Mathis der Maler or Palestrina himself? Why not put his neck on the rack with a Sancta Susanna, Die Soldaten or even that cancelled Salonen Le Grand Macabre? In short, why not branch out and take us with him?
Horses for courses, maybe. The advent of his successor, Antonio Pappano, fresh from Brussels armed with an Italianate passion people don't associate Haitink with, is certainly looked forward to with relief-cum-excitement, if not glee.
Yet to know the man, best ask those who have worked with him, like Sir Thomas Allen.
Allen says:"We should relish our 15 years of one of the world's greatest conductors, both symphonic and operatic. He's not a natural operatic animal. But what you get from Haitink is a fiery temperament underneath, which comes across, whether in Don Giovanni or Figaro, Don Carlo or Peter Grimes.''
"Doing Grimes with him was a fantastic experience – he gets right into the opera's bones.''