Review of 2005: London Opera and Classical Concerts

Review of 2005: London Opera and Classical Concerts

Simon Keenlyside
2005 highlight: Simon Keenlyside
From lesbian operas to Bollywood-style Handel, Broadway musicals to two completely different Ring cycles, the opera scene in London covered everything you could want (and some things you probably didn’t) in 2005.

Meanwhile, classical music ranged from innovative chamber recitals to the launch of two big symphony cycles at the Barbican, not forgetting a moving opening to the BBC Proms in the wake of the July bombings.

Revivals of two David McVicar productions at the Royal Opera House were surprise highlights earlier in the year, both of them proving ten times more gripping than on their first outings. His Magic Flute had wonderful shades of light and dark, helped not least by the sprightly conducting of Sir Charles Mackerras and Rebecca Evans‘ dreamy Pamina; and the raw energy of Sir Edward Downes in the pit on the opening night of Rigoletto matched McVicar’s gripping direction.

The climax of the summer season was the teaming of Plcido Domingo, Waltraud Meier, Bryn Terfel, Rosalind Plowright and Lisa Gasteen in Die Walkre. Keith Warner‘s new production came in for a lot of stick; I thought it foregrounded the characters’ plights and emotions in a particularly accessible and often exciting way, even if Siegfried was more confused visually.

Keith Warner‘s new production came in for a lot of stick; I thought it foregrounded the characters’ plights and emotions in a particularly accessible and often exciting way…”

Meanwhile, the high-profile new production of Un ballo in maschera was underwhelming in April. But in the recent revival the musical performances were so outstanding, with Charles Mackerras again excelling in the opera house, that it was far from the disaster it first seemed. I returned to hear a further performance on 7 December, and both the soloists and even the production had grown in stature.

It’s been a rollercoaster over at ENO, with the departure of the Chief Executive and Artistic Director Sen Doran on 30 November being followed by calls in the press for the Chairman Martin Smith to resign. At the same time, the company has had some notable successes all year. Broadway infiltrated into the opera house with On the Town, a huge financial success which resulted in additional performances. After a rocky start with The Rhinegold back in 2004, Phyllida Lloyd’s new Ring cycle came up trumps with a startling climax to Twilight of the Gods.

The Carmelites was both a visual and a musical treat, and Simon Keenlyside’s performance in Billy Budd was a triumphant end to an outstanding year of performances from him, even if the unnecessary new’ production (in fact an old one borrowed from WNO) marred the experience.

Welsh National Opera celebrated its sixtieth anniversary with a new production of an almost complete French version of Verdi’s Don Carlos, a visual disappointment despite some interesting musical performances. Lesley Garrett was superb in The Merry Widow, which is to be shown on BBC television over the New Year, though again the production was a disaster. Their Tchaikovsky cycle continued with a concert performance of Iolanta at the Proms; thankfully, this showed the company on top form.

Would that the same could be said of the Kirov Opera‘s woeful visit to the ROH in the summer. Musically, Boris Godunov was good stuff, though the designs were horrendous. Of the turgid Khovanshchina, the less said the better. They did, however, have a successful visit to the Barbican in February, with stunningly sung and played concert performances of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Shostakovich’s The Nose.

Opera Holland Park consolidated their growing reputation with an engaging production of Eugene Onegin and a welcome opportunity to hear the rarely performed Andrea Chnier by Giordano. Bampton Classical Opera brought Haydn’s sparkling comedy L’infedelt delusa to St John’s Smith Square, and it was a delight. Opera Rara’s atmospheric concert performance of Donizetti’s Il diluvio universale was marred by the sad news of the death of Patric Schmid, the company’s founder, just before the curtain went up. His contribution to the revival of bel canto operas brought a number of forgotten or lost masterpieces back to life, and when the recordings of Il diluvio and Dom Sbastien (seen at the Royal Opera in September) are released, they will be a fitting memorial to his lifelong achievements.

The Barbican has brought an outstanding selection of international artists to the capital this year. Back in January, Angelika Kirschlager and Barbara Bonney gave a charming concert of duets by a range of Classical and early Romantic composers, and the Kirov Opera gave us a memorable performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s epic Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh in February. More recently, the Budapest Festival Orchestra put more famous ensembles to shame with a barnstorming series of works by Beethoven and Bartk. The St Petersburg Philharmonic was superb in Prokofiev and Rachmaninov; and the solo recital of the year was given by Rene Fleming, in sumptuous, creamy voice.

The London Symphony Orchestra is riding the crest of a wave. After a year at the top with Sir Colin Davis at the helm, they have now engaged the great Valery Gergiev as their Principal Conductor starting in January 2007, when Davis becomes their President – a dream team. Gergiev knocked our socks off with Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony in October, and Davis gave the most interesting reading of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony I have heard in years, at the Proms in the summer. Andr Previn celebrated his 75th birthday with the LSO in June, giving us the chance to hear Rene Fleming sing Strauss’ Four Last Songs.

At the Wigmore Hall, the Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey gave a mammoth recital of the complete Bach cello suites; the BBCSO gave an inventive weekend of works by Xanakis in October; and the English Chamber Orchestra celebrated their 45th birthday at the shining new Cadogan Hall with Colin Davis.

Highlights of the Proms included the London Sinfonietta in Berio’s Coro; Mark Elder‘s Dream of Gerontius was a powerful experience, showing his magnificent leadership of the underrated Halle Orchestra; the premiere of Dutilleux’s Correspondences was strikingly inventive; Glyndebourne Opera‘s Bollywood-style Julius Caesar was riveting (and not to be missed when it returns next year); and the BBC SO was on surprisingly good form in Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony. Conversely, Kurt Masur slaughtered Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which was the low point of the season.

So 2005 has been up and down. But one thing is clear: we are lucky to have the opportunity to hear so many world-class opera singers and classical artists in this country. Make the most of it.

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