The Critics' Awards 1998: Opera - The mighty fall at Royal Opera. And rise again at Wexford

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
This will be remembered as the year the Royal Opera hit rock bottom, but the fact is, things will probably get worse in 1999. And the quiet pleasure of watching the mighty fall has brightened not a few lives in Britain, where the company's woes have been a gift for anyone hostile to the public funding of serious art. The truth is that if Covent Garden had ever been properly funded it might not be in this mess. But then it's hard to demand more money for an organisation that, apart from being broke, is also mismanaged. Over the past two years, the board-room farce played out by sadly comic characters like Mary Allen and Lord Chadlington has hammered nails into the coffin, one after another. Company morale is at an all-time low. And it shows, badly, in the under-powered Bartered Bride currently playing at Sadler's Wells.

But that said, the remarkable thing about the Royal Opera's artists is that they have managed, in the midst of everything, to deliver shows like the immaculate revival of Jonathan Miller's Cosi fan tutte. And they've made a virtue of the semi-stagings forced on them by necessity. The South Bank Parsifal and the Albert Hall's Ring cycle were, in their way, superb. And the Aegyptische Helena was magnificent - especially when it repeated in the rich acoustic of the new theatre at Baden-Baden, which was opened with the Royal Opera in triumphant residence. That the Baden-Baden house went bust a few weeks later was unfortunate, but not their fault.

ENO, meanwhile, has been working hard to fill the gap in London opera, and though its efforts haven't always paid off - with dodgy stagings like Graham Vick's The Tales of Hofmann - the new team of Paul Daniel and Nicholas Payne is strong and encouraging. Mary Stuart was a striking vehicle for Ann Murray. And there have been some good revivals, notably of David Pountney's Hansel and Gretel.

Outside London, WNO had a strong, spare Billy Budd that tore into the soul as fiercely as a cat-o'-nine-tails. Opera North's Bartered Bride beat the Royal Opera production hands down. And while Glyndebourne had an equivocal season, it hit the target with the revival of its stunning children's opera, Misper. It also commissioned a new work for the 1998 tour, Flight, which was appropriately featherweight, and a commercial (though not critical) success.

In fact there was a lot of new, or new-ish, opera around this year - most of it pretty poor, like Philip Glass's Monsters of Grace at the Barbican, Gavin Bryars's Dr Ox's Experiment at ENO, and Simon Holt's The Nightingale's to Blame at Huddersfield. But Tan Dun's Marco Polo had a spectacular, if baffling, UK premiere at Huddersfield. Deirdre Gribben's Hey, Persephone made a promising impression at the Almeida. The QEH staging of Mark Antony Turnage's Greek was the best yet. And the Guildhall student production of Dominick Argento's Aspern Papers brought the piece to British audiences - belatedly - with style. But it was another new-ish piece that was, for me, the opera of the year: the joyous Sarlatan, written in 1938 by Pavel Haas before he perished in a concentration camp. His opera more or less died with him, only to be rediscovered recently. This autumn it was staged at Wexford, in a rough-and-tumble way that earned it mixed reviews. I loved it, as I've never loved a Wexford rarity before. It seems to me a work of genius that must be helped to live again.

t Opera of 1998: Haas's `Sarlatan' at Wexford