The sixty-one staged or concert performances of operas reviewed in these pages since the creation of MusicalCriticism.com in March 2007 are a salutary reminder of the breadth of productions staged every year in the UK.
It never fails to astound me that Opera North, English Touring Opera and Welsh National Opera manage to create such high-quality performances on the shoestring budgets afforded them by the government, while even the much-derided Scottish Opera looks set to improve with an increased touring schedule in 2008-09. All these companies are to be commended particularly for their investment in new works - whether WNO's The Sacrifice, Scottish Opera's Five:15 or Opera North's Pinocchio - and Glyndebourne will join the queue next summer with the world premiere of Peter Eötvös' new opera, Love and Other Demons. A strong autumn season by Opera North, the LSO's concert performance of Benvenuto Cellini under Sir Colin Davis and contrasting performances of Monteverdi's Orfeo at St John's Smith Square and the Queen Elizabeth Hall were amongst the year's highpoints, proving that opera doesn't have to be staged at a London opera house to be worthwhile.
Nevertheless, English National Opera and The Royal Opera are inevitably the focus of the country's operatic activities, though neither has been anywhere near consistent in 2007. For me, the reports in the national press about the demise of ENO and the consistency of the ROH have been unfounded because they have both delivered strong and weak productions. Contrary to most of the population I found Laurent Pelly's much-lauded new production of La fille du régiment at the ROH in January utterly banal and musically inconsistent, and it didn't surprise me when the new L'elisir d'amore turned out to be more of the same; it amazed me that the critics only finally latched on to the emptiness of Pelly's approach to bel canto opera when the latter production came along. It also astonished me that when the young conductor Nicola Luisotti did such an extraordinary job in Il trovatore and Madama Butterfly in January/February, the reaction was fairly muted. Charles Mackerras proved himself to be as wonderful as ever in Katya Kabanova and especially in the dazzling revival of Orlando, and Colin Davis put in a solid Cosi fan tutte in July. But otherwise, much of what The Royal Opera has put on this year has been so-so rather than great: the opening nights of Stiffelio, Iphigénie, Rigoletto, Fidelio and now La Cenerentola were musically flawed and I felt that Pappano's reading of the Ring Cycle only came into its own in isolated stretches such as the third act of Siegfried and the second of Götterdämmerung; nor did I admire his heavy, slow rendition of Gianni Schicchi. Welcome returns of Rattle and Haitink in the pit were undermined by poor productions; I do hope the coming months are more consistent, though the vocally strong Katya and Parsifal prove to me that operas usually have more impact when they are cast with reliable singers (such as Sir John Tomlinson, who stepped into the Royal Opera Ring and made it his own) rather than some of the celebrities who make regular Covent Garden appearances.
In light of the fact that so many ROH productions have been good rather than great in 2007, I cannot understand the cruel treatment of ENO, which has been more daring and often more stimulating. The weak revival of Bohčme early in the year was surpassed by brilliant productions of Agrippina, On the Town, La clemenza di Tito and Death in Venice. And if nobody wants Kismet, The Coronation of Poppea or the worst Aida in living memory to be revived, The Turn of the Screw and The Magic Flute were enough proof that ENO can still deliver the goods.
By far the most interesting, if not always successful production I've seen all autumn was Sally Potter's cliché-busting version of Carmen, which challenged received perceptions of one of the most hackneyed operas in the repertoire and reached thousands of people nationwide through its online broadcast on the BBC website. While the Evening Standard awarded the production only one star (an incredibly sweeping denunciation of the generally high musical standards on show), a recent article in The Times indicates that only a third of the audience hated the production, while a third truly loved it and a third was indifferent; the box office was extremely high, too, showing that there is a demand for unusual productions of this sort. In my view, Potter's Carmen was a symbol for what ENO is all about, namely questioning the nature of music theatre and bringing in new audiences. It's events like this and The Royal Opera's commendable student production of Das Rheingold which will guarantee the future of opera in this country, not constant revivals of thirty-year-old productions of warhorses, so it's to be hoped that neither is condemned for their attempts to help bring people to opera in the future. At the end of a year in which Luciano Pavarotti and Beverley Sills - two of opera's greatest communicators - died, let's remember that the art form will only thrive through inclusivity rather than exclusivity and hope that our national opera companies and the critics keep their eyes on that task in 2008.
Below are twelve of our favourite opera performances from 2007, followed by highs, lows and outstanding individual performers.
Agrippina (English National Opera) 'ENO fielded an excellent cast for this new production of Agrippina, indeed not one singer let the side down in Handel's early masterpiece. With such team work ENO can look forward to further great things to come. The most innovative part of the production is director David McVicar's daring take on Handel's tendency to repetition...'
Orfeo (New London Consort/Philip Pickett) 'Perhaps the most important feature of Philip Pickett's presentation of L'Orfeo is his thorough knowledge of the score and his unobtrusive direction of cast and instrumentalists. Pickett researched all aspects of Monteverdi's masterpiece in great detail and his painstaking work resulted in a historically authentic performance.'
On the Town (English National Opera) 'Two years after its initial sell-out run in 2005, English National Opera's production of Bernstein's On the Town has bounded back into the Coliseum with all the vitality and exuberance of Broadway at its best.'
Death in Venice (English National Opera) 'English National Opera's production of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice is a unique meeting of truly great minds that also provides an outstanding cast and a most sensitive and fascinating staging.'
Orfeo (St John's Smith Square) 'This year's Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music concluded with a ravishing performance of Monteverdi's Orfeo. Though according to the Festival's publicity booklet it was supposed to be semi-staged, the presentation was nowhere short of a full operatic experience.'
Katya Kabanova (Royal Opera House) 'Janácek's Katya Kabanova at the Royal Opera House is a memorable experience because of its extraordinary artistic excellence. But it is also deeply moving because of conductor Sir Charles Mackerras' connection to Janácek and, in particular, to Katya Kabanova.'
Benvenuto Cellini (London Symphony Orchestra) 'When Sir Colin Davis conducts Berlioz, the result is a carnival of vibrant lights, colours and sounds.He led a cast of distinguished soloists and the London Symphony Orchestra in a life-affirming performance of the first of Berlioz's three operas and, for me, the highlight of the classical music season in London since Christmas..'
L'amore dei tre re (Opera Holland Park) 'In what was both the most impressive production ever staged by Opera Holland Park and the highlight of July's opera season in London, an ideal team of soloists, chorus, orchestra, conductor, designer and director came together in perfect union for this highly anticipated presentation of L'amore dei tre Re by Montemezzi.'
Carmen (English National Opera) 'Thrilling, contemporary, thought-provoking: what more could be asked of an opera production? ENO have scored a major triumph with their season-opener, a new production of Bizet's Carmen by the film director Sally Potter. Far from seeming out of her depth in a medium unfamiliar to her, Potter brings considerable flair and cinematic deftness to her first opera production.'
Siegfried (The Royal Opera) 'With Siegfried, the temperature has really turned up on Keith Warner's production of the Ring for Covent Garden. The musical performance far surpassed that for the curiously muted Walküre, and the sheer emotional devastation of Warner's handling of the drama - especially in Act 3 - made for an increasingly compelling experience.'
La straniera (Opera Rara) 'Opera Rara has a reputation for bringing largely forgotten works back to the public's attention and they did it yet again with this performance of Bellini's La straniera. Indeed, the cumulative power of the piece is so great that this excellent performance made me wonder why it ever left the repertoire in the first place.'
Britten's The Turn of the Screw (English National Opera) 'Quite simply the most riveting thing I've seen in months, English National Opera's new production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw is a haunting, compelling experience which should be seen by all who appreciate intelligent theatre.'
The Turn of the Screw, Katya Kabanova, Benvenuto Cellini, the Student performance of Das Rheingold
Sir John Tomlinson in the Ring and Parsifal, Rosalind Plowright in the Ring, Rebecca Evans in Cosě fan tutte and The Turn of the Screw, Janice Watson as Katya Kabanova, Jacques Imbrailo as Owen Wingrave, Patrizia Ciofi in Rigoletto and La straniera, Paolo Gavanelli in L'elisir d'amore, Brad Cooper in Holland Park's Il barbiere di Siviglia
See also our Top Twenty Concerts and Classical Review of the Year here.