Whether he was so great is matter for argument: the hectoring, staccato fierceness of his beat could be as irritating as it was exciting. But he will certainly be remembered for readings of magisterial strength that survive on disc as well as in collective memory. His Decca Ring cycle was a landmark in recording history; his 22 years with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra one of the most productive artistic marriages of modern times. And it was noticeable that of late the "screaming skull" (as he was known in the business) had softened. His musical mentality seemed less severe, his feeling for legato lines more obvious. And he was generous in his encouragement of younger talent, championing the likes of Angela Gheorghiu whose breakthrough came with the Covent Garden Traviata that he conducted in 1992.
It isn't always easy to encourage talent. Sometimes it resists. Occasionally it rebels. But if you're dedicated to the task you don't allow yourself to be deflected, and in the past fortnight I've been to two annual talent- nurturing projects whose dedication is unwavering. One is Opera Lab, which takes place on a farm near Sevenoaks, and is a cross between an adult playgroup and a residential courtship bureau. Run by the composer Robert Saxton with a team which, this year, included the stage director Annabel Arden, soprano Jane Manning and poet Ruth Fainlight, it gathers together would-be opera composers and would-be librettists who pair off and develop ideas that, in the course of a week, grow into performable fragments. Emphasising process rather than the end-product, it's an experiment in collaboration - something composers and librettists are assumed to know about instinctively, with the result that the 400-year history of their relationship is written in blood. But even the supportive environment of a Kent farmhouse doesn't prevent the odd drop of blood speckling the floor.
There were some tense moments this year as the mutually mistrustful disciplines of words and music met head-on, but it was ultimately a productive tension. Out of it came a broad range of work from composers with such different backgrounds as the American East Coast sophisticate Aaron Kernis, the English lyrical Gary Carpenter, and a promising, resourceful newcomer, straight from the Guildhall School, called Rachel Leach. At a time when so little new theatre music shows any sign of repertory potential, Opera Lab is the only venture of its kind with a sufficiently open attitude to return to base and consider the problems from scratch. In that sense, it's unique and worth every penny it gets from its sponsors.
Off the coast of Naples sits another oasis of experiment: The Walton Foundation masterclasses in stagecraft for young singers. They take place in the paradise retreat that William Walton built for himself on Ischia. The composer's widow, Susana, presides. And the whole venture is Anglo- Italian, drawing students, repertory and tutors from both countries. But the problem always is that, while British singers are happy to learn Italian opera, Italian singers aren't so keen to reciprocate. And so it was that this year's plan for scenes from Verdi's Falstaff to be mixed with scenes from Vaughan Williams's Falstaff opera Sir John in Love fell through, to be replaced with just the Verdi.
That was a shame, partly because the comparison would have been interesting (however invidious to Williams) but also because it fuelled the process by which these now- famous masterclasses seem to be losing all connection with Walton's work. Of course, his music-theatre scores were few, and there's a limit to the number of times Ischia can programme Troilus and Cressida, The Bear and Facade. But other British scores would be the next best thing. And if that's a problem for Italian voices, maybe the time has come to shift the focus toward instrumental music. Or young composers.
That said, what happened on Ischia last weekend was rewarding. Coarsely staged, I thought, by the resident director Lorenzo Mariani, but it had exuberant energy (absorbed, no doubt, from Lady Walton who, at 71, has more to spare than her sponsors Powergen) and a real discovery in Leigh Melrose, the Falstaff.
An ex-Cambridge choral scholar on the run from Dyson in G and penitential psalms, Melrose showed a brilliantly engaging sense of theatre, naturally animated, and a dark, fiercely focused, resonant baritone that more than filled the space. He sang his colleagues off the stage. I'd recommend listening out for him, but you won't need to. He looks set for a conspicuous career.
The English National Opera launched its new season last week with a revival of Keith Warner's extremely theatrical production of Puccini's Tosca which drew withering notices last time around. With reason. It's hard to deliver verismo depth in a show based on the postmodern conceit that the central characters are dramatic icons as opposed to flesh and blood. The piece ends up all symbol and no substance, quoted rather than delivered, and giving Rosalind Plowright a rough time as she tries to be not just Floria Tosca but Maria Callas being Floria Tosca. Act II leaves you with no sense of the desperation of the moment: only that this woman who has lived her life for art is so out of touch with reality as to be barking mad. Nor do you feel the tragic intensity of Act III when it seems to be taking place on an ill-lit stretch of the M25. No wonder she doesn't jump in this production, except by proxy. I'm surprised Keith Warner doesn't have her flung underneath a passing car.
The compensations are entirely musical. Plowright is, in fact, no Callas, but the voice is big and capable. Julian Gavin's Cavaradossi is forced and slightly raw but promising. Peter Sidhom's Scarpia could do with more flesh on its bones, but has a punchy strength. And Richard Hickox conducts with a bold, assured sense of dramatic pace that will disarm all those who catalogue his talents under English Idylls and Gerontius.
I don't know how you begin to catalogue the talents of Maxim Vengerov, who held a packed Albert Hall spellbound on Thursday with a performance of Shostakovich's 1st Violin Concerto. It has to count among the highlights of this year's Proms season. It was awesome: every inch the equal of the award-winning Teldec recording that a few years ago confirmed his stature among the elite corps of the world's violinists. As an extra, he threw in one of those grotesquely difficult display encores which have nothing much to do with music, everything to do with virtuosity; and it was enough to make the violinists of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, sharing the platform, tear the hair out of their bows in anguish.
In fact, it wasn't a particularly good night for the CBSO, let down in Mahler's 5th by runaway speeds that undervalued the weight of the symphony's Wagnerian climaxes, and solo entries that made the cracks in the image of this orchestra widen. With Simon Rattle on the rostrum I expected better; but for once the chemistry stayed cool, the vision wandered.
'Tosca': ENO, WC2 (0171 632 8300), Tues & Wed, and in rep to 5 Nov.Reuse content