Bernard Haitink's partinggift from the Royal Opera came rather late in the evening. A prize song, penned by Wagner, gift-wrapped by the tenor, Ben Heppner, the 11th-hour number from one of the maestro's biggest triumphs during his tenure as Music Director: Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. It might have been sung just for him, and Heppner, whose recent vocal crisis has laid him low for a while, was in radiant voice.
The Prelude, Quintet and Final Scene of Meistersinger's last act was a great way, maybe the only way, for Haitink to go out. Consider the elements: first the music, "prized" above all else; then the "community", one big (occasionally happy) family; and last, pride, civic pride such as this Dutchman in London will often have felt. He was certainly feeling it as the flowers rained down at his curtain-call. "Overwhelmed" was the word he used in his short speech – itself a hugely magnanimous gesture from one so shy and private. The public side of being the Royal Opera's Music Director has not suited him. He doesn't like the fuss and bother, he definitely doesn't like the politics which, of course, is now so big a part of the job. That's been the downside of his tenure.
But the music... The house embraces great Wagnerians. Sir Georg Solti made Covent Garden the envy of the world beyond Bayreuth. Haitink carried that torch over the turn of the century, the debris of the redevelopment and the outrage surrounding the Richard Jones Ring . In Wagner he has excelled. It's the longer line, the bigger picture, the reach and majesty of it that fits him so well. He has a sure grasp, a feeling for the epic that is not given to all. You know exactly where you are going. Verdi, too, has brought out the best in Haitink. Don Carlos – that epic among Verdi epics – simply had to be part of his farewell bash.
So how was it? Well, "occasions" such as this are rarely satisfying artistically but at least Haitink insisted on context over aimless "turns". Prime cuts as opposed to bleeding chunks. That said, act two of Le Nozze di Figaro bled profusely. The shabby remains of Johannes Schaaf's tired production have no business on the stage of any international house. And whoever was responsible for the "quick fix" staging had signally failed to apply quickness to the action. We could have taken refreshments during the recitatives. What was interesting was that the casting – spanning a considerable generation gap – spoke volumes about the changing face of opera during the Haitink years. While old faces like Felicity Lott and Thomas Allen may be past their vocal prime, they're still here, still exuding a well-worn style. But where will a talented singer like Alice Coote be when she is their age? Her Cherubino was disarmingly laddish but dodgy intonation and an inability to make the voice speak in pianissimo were already suggesting wear and tear.
Then again, was the grotesquely pushed mezzo of Nadja Michael's Eboli in the Don Carlos scene a sign of the times? Not so much a voice, more an advance-warning system. No matter. Haitink was in his element here among old friends like Robert Lloyd (Philip II) and the now wavering but blackly Hagen-like tones of Kurt Rydl's Grand Inquisitor, so threatening in the wake of his lugubrious string-bass and contra-bassoon-led music.
Glorious creations like our own John Tomlinson's Hans Sachs and, again, Thomas Allen's inspirationally funny Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger will always serve to remind us of the Haitink era. His parting words were these: "Never forget what you have here." We'll try not to.