Opera + Classical Music Features

Classical Review of 2008

Our regular reviewers give their personal opinions of the highs and lows of 2008.

We’d love to hear your views. Send an email to classical@musicomh.com with your choices of the best and worst of the year and we’ll publish all sensible comments.LAURA BATTLE

Where else to start than with the Creation? In Seven Days, Thomas Ads’ video ballet, which debuted at the RFH, was whole-hearted and thrillingly dramatic and far less pretentious than the title suggests. Its pairing with Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians was inspired. I believe David McVicar’s new Salome at Royal Opera showed the director at his absolute best, with incisive psychology and squalid opulence wrapped up in a brilliant conceit. Nadja Michael may have brought more ice than spice to the title role but her performance was compelling nonetheless. At the Coliseum David Alden offered another witty new staging with his production of Partenope, though it will perhaps be remembered more for its stellar cast Christine Rice and Iestyn Davies in particularly fine-voice than its surrealist silliness. Glyndebourne, too, had its stars, and I want to hereby nominate Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as operatic drag artist of the year for his hilarious turn as Poppea’s no-nonsense nurse and as the bubble-gum pink witch in Hnsel und Gretel. As autumn approached there was no escaping the excitement surrounding Kings Place. Noble in conception and elegant in design (though I dispute its lack of apostrophe) the hall was flattered by Exaudi’s excellent Aldeburgh Highlights concert.


In the year commemorating the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ death, it was fitting that the two finest concerts I saw were of his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, performed by Paul Daniel and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Cadogan Hall. It was also Messiaen’s centenary year, and I was particularly impressed with the performance of La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jsus-Christ that Thierry Fischer presented at the Proms. Although the Proms were bereft of Bruckner this year, Marek Janowski brought a stirring and incisive account of the Fifth Symphony to the Barbican while Christoph von Dohnnyi did the same for the Fourth Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall. The biggest disappointment of the year was the Mahler cycle conducted by Valery Gergiev. Rarely has a conductor seemed so mismatched to a composer, and for me the Seventh Symphony represented a particular nadir. Gergiev was, however, back on form with an elemental account of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony during the autumn season. Finally, a commendation to the Philharmonia Orchestra for providing the most refined playing I heard all year, in Brahms’s First and Second Symphonies under Lorin Maazel.


For me the undisputed highlight of the year was the premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s new opera, The Minotaur at the Royal Opera. Music, playing, singing and staging were all of a piece and Christine Rice gave the performance of her career as Ariadne. In fact it was a good year for the company all round and, out of the 25 performances I attended, many stand out. I was thrilled by Elektra, beguiled by La Calisto, and bowled over by Jonas Kaufmann’s sensational role debut as Cavaradossi. No less auspicious was the stunning house debut of German soprano Anja Harteros as Amelia Grimaldi. Sir Charles Mackerras shows no signs of letting-up and I heard him on numerous occasions with a variety of orchestras and in the opera house with two peerless performances of Don Giovanni and Figaro but his reading of Handel’s Belshazzar at the Proms was flawless, pure magic. Other highlights include Sarah Connolly’s Shehrzade at the Proms, and Sea Pictures with the LSO, and Alice Coote’s unbearably poignant Wintereisse at the Wigmore Hall. For me the biggest turkey of the year was Don Carlo at the Royal Opera. Sung in translation, undercast, limply directed with vulgar designs, this remains for me the singularly most depressing evening of the year.


Inspiration sometimes comes in the unlikeliest of places, and this year I was twice enthused at concerts where I had least expected to be. When I attended a concert performance of The Sleeping Beauty at the Proms, it was purely to witness Valery Gergiev conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, as I wasn’t interested in a ballet without the dancing. In the absence of ballerinas, however, the music flourished in its own right, not least because we heard those sections of the score that are usually cut from performances. Similarly, whilst you’re unlikely to be hearing the Orion Symphony Orchestra at the Proms (yet!), the first concert in this new orchestra’s season turned out to be captivating. Focusing on English music, their performances of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis were exquisite, and more than proved that this is an orchestra worth following. The most memorable night for me, however, was Nigel Kennedy’s double bill of concerts at the Proms, following a twenty-one year absence from the festival. Hearing him play Elgar’s Violin Concerto before jamming it up’ with his own Nigel Kennedy Quintet made for the ultimate evening of colour and contrasts.


I’ve had a pretty good year, with no real turkeys and plenty of really good stuff. I particularly enjoyed Opera North’s revival of Peter Grimes and all the Birtwistle that came to London in a flood (especially The Minotaur and ENO’s Punch and Judy). Not everyone loved Nicholas Hytner’s Don Carlo at Covent Garden but I did. There were shows I didn’t like, including David McVicar’s Rosenkavalier and the RO’s Elektra (although I seem to be in a minority of one on those). Conversely, my two favourite operas were not universally well-received but I make no excuses for liking them: La Calisto at the ROH, with the divine Sally Matthews (who I also interviewed), and Boris Godunov at the Coliseum. I very much enjoyed meeting Angelika Kirchschlager. I had an enjoyable Proms season, with two more operas, Glyndebourne’s Coronation of Poppaea and Janacek’s Osud, standing out. A few days in Aldeburgh this Summer were well-spent, especially hearing the premiere of Birtwistle’s Tree of Strings. Seeing Keith Jarrett doing solo improvisations at the RFH was a thrill and I really enjoyed the Menier’s A Little Night Music. As a late entry, I must say John Eliot Gardiner’s residency at the Spitalfields Winter Festival is shaping up as something special. There was one turkey actually but it was a small company, so I’ll keep quiet on that one.

You can read reviews of most of the productions/interviews mentioned in our opera, concerts, and features archives


What about Zurich Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier at the Festival Hall? That was fantastic. D Pinder

I agree D – that should have been on my list as well. I’m glad Laura mentioned the opening of Kings Place. That was a significant event. Concert halls don’t open every day. (Ed.)

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