Monday, 31 December 2012

2012 - a very partial review of the year

Perhaps the biggest classical music event in 2012 was the one that didn't happen. We had London 2012, with the associated Cultural Olympiad, but you can't help feeling that in terms of classical music, a trick or two was missed. 2013 is the Britten centenary and the plans for the Britten 100 celebrations show what can be achieved by cooperation. But for London 2012 there was plenty of activity, though many of the commissions seemed to go into events which were rather more combined arts. Despite the cultural remit of London 2012 there wasn't the feeling a great single classical cultural event. We did get a few goes at L'Olympiade including a staging of Vivaldi's setting, and a composite performance based on a number of settings, but I can't say the opera really stood out for me.

In the theatre we got things like the performances of Shakespeare's plays from all over the world. I don't think we had the musical equivalent. The PRS for Music Foundation's 20x12 came closest with 20 twelve minute new commissions, premiered all over the UK and brought together in one amazing weekend on London's South Bank.

The Royal Opera used London 2012 as an excuse to give us two major icons of the operatic repertoire, Les Troyens and The Ring. And whatever your views on the actual performances, they represented a strong example of the best of British opera performance. I didn't see The Ring but received remarkably conflicting views with people who had seen it and whose judgement I trust, commending performances which were less than favourably received in the press. But then criticism was ever thus. With Les Troyens, which we saw and enjoyed, it seemed remarkable how few commentators could place Berlioz's opera within the genre of French Grand Opera as practiced at the Paris Opera.

Rather than complementing this, ENO seems to have given up and present Damon Albarn's Dr Dee, a modern masque which divided critics and, given the commercial fame and success of its composer, would seem to have sat just as well in the commercial theatre. Instead, ENO showed us what might have been when they performed RVW's Pilgrim's Progress in November. The first fully professional production since the 1950's, it was a striking new interpretation by Japanese director Yoshi Oida. Surely this, perhaps surrounded by concerts of other operas commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britten (See my article) would have made a strong London 2012 contender.

Elsewhere, ENO showed admirable commitment to European contemporary opera with the presentations of the first UK stagings of works by Wolfgang Rihm and Detlev Glaenert, whilst ignoring contemporary UK opera. Highlight of the ENO year included a strong revival of Der Rosenkavalier with a first Marschallin from Amanda Roocroft. Richard Jones's Tales of Hoffmann wasn't perfect but included a strong performance in the title role from Barry Banks and was highly theatrical.David Alden's Billy Budd was a noteable achievement, but I liked it less than some. Similarly, Martinu's Julietta,  which seemed a bit lost on the huge Coliseum stage.  My highlight (RVW apart) has to be the sympathetic new staging of John Adams's Death of Klinghoffer, proving that the piece does really work on stage. The new production of Julius Caesar directed by the choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan rather divided people, but we were surprised to find that much of the non-realistic staging highly evocative.

Over at the Royal Opera, we started with a rather skewed view of Dvorak's Rusalka which was salvaged by a finely musical performance. Judith Weir's Miss Fortune was another opera which seemed rather lost in the venue and was crying out for performance in a smaller auditorium. The new production of Robert le Diable was something that we'd been looking forward to, alas Laurent Pelly's production just didn't seem to have the faith in the work and sent it up mercilessly. (Whereas in the Opera Comique had shown, with their production of Auber's La Muette de Portici that it was possible to do justice to such works, without being slavishly historicist).



It was often the festivals and smaller events which impressed, with the imagination and diversity of their planning. Colin Davis conducting Berlioz's Grande Messe de Morts in St Paul's Cathedral for the City of London Festival must surely be one of the great events of the year, if not the decade. The City of London Festival brought a bewildering array of events to the City's venue's, bringing them to life in lively fashion. At another COLF event, JAM celebrated Judith Bingham's birthday with a concert combining her music with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The work premiered at that event, The Hythe, reappeared at Music@Malling the enterprising festival in West Kent at which Bingham was composer in residence.

In Wimbledon, some fine artists such as Christine Brewer, Mark Padmore and the Cardinall's Musick were brought to local audiences at affordable prices. And a new chamber music festival in Hatfield gave us fine music making in some stunning historic venues including the Marble Hall of Hatfield House.

Opera Holland Park bravely struggled with this year's weather, with their usual mix of familiar and unfamiliar, thought frankly I am not certain that Mascagni's Zanetto warrants another outing.

Out of London, the Buxton Festival was on strong form with a production of Intermezzo of which any international company could be proud and a remarkable double bill of rarities by Rimsky-Korsakov and Sibelius. The Brighton Early Music Festival showed what could be done on a small budget. Despite missing out on Arts Council funding, they created a remarkable group of events including a staging of the 1589 Florentine Intermedi. Claire Rutter made a remarkable role debut in Madame Butterfly at Grange Park Opera, another festival beset by this summer's terrible weather.

In concert we had a fine account of Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette from Mark Elder and the OAE. Alice Coote was on strong form as Sesto in Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito in concert at the Barbican. However, The Dream of Gerontius at the Barbican led me to wonder about the real viability of doing these large scale choral works there, especially ones that need an organ. Laurence Brownlee opened the new season of Rosenblatt Recitals in their new home at Wigmore Hall. But perhaps one of the most memorable concerts was the Stockwell Childrens' Orchestra's Christmas concert, watching the primary school children from In Harmony Lambeth was simply amazing.

We managed to miss most of the really big Proms occasions, but the festival did manage to create the real feel of something special happening, showing the benefit of large scale thinking. I enjoyed Bach's Mass in B Minor but was less than convinced by Glyndebourne's semi-staged 1960's period Marriage of Figaro. Emily Howard had a work premiered, rather bizarrely in a programme of Russian music and I Fagiolini brought their wonderful poly-choral Italian vespers.

And we finished the year with the Spitalfields Winter Festival, with an enterprising collaboration between the Early Opera Company and Women sing East, performing Vivaldi's Gloria with an all female choir from Spitalfields Music's Learning and Participation programme. Just the sort of thing that our festival do best, intelligent, enlivening, enlightening and anchored to the local community.

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