OPERA OF THE YEAR : Highlights - as not seen on television

The most popular film-maker in history got into history, and stayed popular. Glyndebourne rose again, handsomely. Pop ate itself, but survived. Steve Coogan was everywhere, and so was Hugh Grant; only one of them is praised here. The theatre had a thin time, but television drama serials made up for it. People defined themselves on Mondays at 9pm: were you for `Cracker' or `Chuzzlewit'? And again on Saturdays at 8pm: did you really believe that a 14m-1 shot would win?(Or did you do it for love of the arts?) It wasn't the best of years, but it had its moments. And here they are, in the fourth annual `IoS' Awards
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The Independent Culture
TO START on a note of suspense, the operatic mystery of the year has to be the BBC's bizarre snap decision to overturn its schedules and televise the new Covent Garden Traviata production with a fine Violetta in Angela Gheorghiu but otherwise an unremarkable job by names (Georg Solti, Richard Eyre) whose lustre seems to have blinded the BBC's judgement. No way is it the great event the Beeb would like you to believe.

Nor, alas, did greatness visit the first instalments of the Covent Garden Ring cycle, Benedict Mason's Playing Away at Leeds, or the new Elena Firsova piece at the Almeida which all featured prominently on the year's Don't Bother list. But there were some viable new scores around to prove that opera isn't wholly a dead art. Judith Weir's Blond Eckbert at the Coliseum was as stylishly inscrutable, and slyly dangerous, as you'd expect from a composer who I always think would be in Broadmoor if she wasn't one of Britain's most engaging and articulate creative personalities. The musical equivalent of arsenic tea, Blond Eckbert charmed and poisoned. And Tim Hopkins' staging (sets by Nigel Lowery) had a certifiably disturbing genius to match.

The revival of Harrison Birtwistle's Gawain was a triumph in every department - not least the box office, thanks to the efforts of the "Hecklers", two failed composers who attracted an absurd amount of media attention and now spend their time vilifying each other in letters to newspapers. Birtwistle's new piece The Second Mrs Kong was a success as well, which surprised those of us who had read Russell Hoban's off-the-wall libretto beforehand and decided it would never work. Kong was a commission for Glyndebourne where the new theatre opened this year: on time, within budget and to almost universal approval, even though the boxes look as though they were designed to house celebrities on TV game-shows. Maybe they were, and do. In any event, it puts Glyndebourne on an altogether different footing as an international opera centre; and its first season housed one of the very best new productions of the year in Graham Vick's clean- cut, fresh but beautifully meticulous Eugene Onegin. When it went on tour during the autumn it was still outstanding, with a young soprano, Susan Chilcot, whose Tatyana was a joy and easily the best performance by a newcomer I've seen this year.

But overall, my best operatic experience during 1994 wasn't in an opera house but in the Glasgow Tramway, where the gaping emptiness of raw space and the sharp eye of director David Levaux made for the most atmospherically chilling Turn of the Screw I'veever seen on stage. Paced out in steps as measured as a Hitchcock classic, it was theatre where each line, each gesture had a causal place within the scheme of things, edging the narrative toward its final crisis. In the music too, you felt that screw turn with unnerving certainty. And although there were no obvious stars in the cast - it was an extra-mural Scottish Opera project - they collectively made a superb, tight, strong ensemble team. In fairness I should add that it was televised (the BBC don't always take the wrong things) but surrendered all its atmosphere in the translation to the small screen. David Levaux's work was a response to place: the sort of thing that TV cameras document but don't interpret.

Previous winners: 1991 `King Priam' (Opera North, director Tom Cairns, musical director Paul Daniel); 1992 `The Duenna' (Opera North, director Helena Kaut-Howson, musical director Antoni Ros-Marba); 1993 `Die Meistersinger' (Covent Garden, director Nicholas Payne, musical director Bernard Haitink).

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