Anna Picard: The merging of sound and vision

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The Independent Culture

Put me on a couch in a darkened room and ask me about the last year in music, and this is what would come to mind: the expression on Stuart Skelton's face in the last bars of David Alden's English National Opera production of Jenufa, as poor, unloved Laca is frozen in fear of finally being loved in return; the wry speech inflections of the cello in Steve Reich's docu-opera The Cave; the blaze of intelligence and pity and outrage in London Sinfonietta's Proms performance of Hans Werner Henze's Voices; Peter Quint calmly lifting Miles from the bath in Jonathan Kent's meticulously disturbing Glyndebourne production of The Turn of the Screw; the absurd thrill of watching the themes of Act III of Siegfried ripple through the Hallé Orchestra like a Mexican wave; and the beautiful rhetoric of Penelope's aria "Torna il tranquillo al mare" in Welsh National Opera's production of Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria sua.

You'll have noticed that the memories above are of visual or literary details. As someone employed to pepper my copy with words like pizzicato, perhaps I should be ashamed of this. As a human being, I'm not. With the exception of Mark Elder's magnificent concert performance of Siegfried, which offered a chance to appreciate the physicality of a score normally played out of sight, the visual memories all spring from the work of directors whose job it is to realise music in movement and imagery.

Furthermore, one of the greatest pleasures of hearing so much live music is discovering the texts that inspired its composers. (The words set by Henze, Monteverdi and Reich alone would make a fascinating anthology.) And it is difficult to communicate the effect of a truly great performance of instrumental music without sounding borderline psychotic.

In fact, of all 111 performances I've attended this year, the one that moved me most profoundly was Douglas Boyd's performance of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Along with Franz Bruggen's revelatory account of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony and Schubert's Unfinished Symphony with the Orchestra of the 18th Century several years ago, this is music that I can still feel, taste and breathe when I remember it today. (See what I mean about borderline psychotic?)

And Boyd's Berlioz - so daring in its delicacy and drama, so bravely and expressively played, so heavy with roses and rage, and so immediate in the modest acoustics of the Queen Elizabeth Hall - is not dissimilar from the very best opera productions. For what makes a performance great is the electricity that comes when each participant is committed to one vision.

You could argue that this is easier to achieve when fewer people are involved. Certainly, not many large-scale productions I've seen have had the unanimity of the Gould Piano Trio's searing Shostakovich or the intense focus of Sally Burgess's Pierrot lunaire. And I can think of plenty of exceptional individual performances in productions that did not otherwise convince me: John Mark Ainsley's exquisite interpretation of "Possente spirto" in ENO's East-West Orfeo, Joyce di Donato's heart-breaking jealousy in Les Arts Florissants' Hercules, the character-defining subtleties of Jonas Kaufmann's Don José in Francesca Zambello's Carmen. Collective brilliance is elusive, sometimes turning up in the least expected places. Jenufa may be the obvious highlight of ENO's year, but who could have anticipated how warm and generous an entertainment Sir John in Love would be?

I suppose that what one hopes for in productions of core repertoire is to be transported, perhaps shocked, and to leave with a new perspective. Graham Vick did this in He Had It Coming, Birmingham Opera Company's audacious staging of Don Giovanni, where the hell-fire of Mozart's overture was unleashed in sudden darkness.

In a subtler way, Ivan Fischer made Così fan tutte newly unnerving through his carefully detailed conducting, leaving those in the Glyndebourne audience as disoriented as the cruelly deceived and deceiving lovers of Nicholas Hytner's production. Phyllida Lloyd's terrifying Peter Grimes for Opera North broke every rule in the book, using the passacaglia to propel the action and refusing to clear or convict its unknowable anti-hero, yet had absolute integrity.

Of course there have been frustrations too. Angela Gheorghiu's lazy Tosca fatally undermined the new Royal Opera House production. Bryn Terfel, the Scarpia she barely glanced at, was utterly wasted on David Pountney's daft Flying Dutchman for WNO. Peter Sellars brought some terrific new singers to London for Zaide, but used Mozart's singspiel as a protest against economic slavery. Stuart McRae, a fine orchestral composer, lost the plot in his first opera The Assassin Tree (premiered at the Edinburgh Festival), while Gaddafi: A Living Myth (ENO) was a living nightmare of moral relativism and clunking couplets. Then there were the "forgotten gems" that should have stayed forgotten: Prokofiev's Betrothal in a Monastery (Glyndebourne) and Weill's Arms and the Cow (Opera North).

But as of tonight, it's time to look forward. On my wish-list is a good production of Der Machinist Hopkins, an end to Iraq references in baroque opera, more Bach from Daniel Hope, and a new appreciation of Edward Elgar, whose music will dominate the 2007 Proms. Meantime, I have memories of Berlioz to keep me warm.