Plums and turkeys: a musical voyage around 2016

Most people I know cannot wait to see the back of 2016. But in the year in which Brexit, Trump and the Grim Reaper were the big winners, I admit to having had a terrific twelve months. A whirl of the abacus reveals that I reviewed just shy of 100 events, the vast majority for Bachtrack plus a handful for Opera magazine. I realise my ton is a bit lightweight for some seasoned professionals, but it’s not bad considering they’re done on top of (and written outside of) my full-time editorial post at Bachtrack Towers. In total, I’ve clocked up 162 events attended, meaning I must have paid my way for a fair few of them. Either I’ve been way too generous dishing out the stars or I made judicious selections of things to review, as it’s been a year containing plenty of plums and only a handful of turkeys.

Despite – or perhaps because of – the best efforts of the Brexiteers, I’ve never felt more European, with visits to Amsterdam, Paris (twice), Düsseldorf and Verbier, before an Italian autumn which found me in Florence, Rome, Milan and Venice. The plunging pound has meant foreign travel doesn’t come cheap (only two of these jaunts were press trips) although forward planning helped reduce costs. In most instances, I travelled with specific performances/productions in mind and was rarely disappointed. Indeed, my absolute highlight of the year anywhere was Stefan Herheim’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame for Dutch National Opera, which placed the composer squarely at the centre of his own opera. Vladimir Stoyanov gave a tour de force as Yeletsky who, costumed as Tchaikovsky, was on stage almost throughout. With Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw in the pit, it was a musically distinguished evening too.

Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) and Chorus
© Monika Forster | Dutch National Opera

Paris offered some remarkable performances to savour, not least Anna Netrebko’s Leonora, Elīna Garanča’s Charlotte and a heart-breaking Iolanta from Sonya Yoncheva in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s striking new staging. Unfortunately, the latter was paired with lame choreography for a post-apocalyptic Nutcracker – a meteorite gate-crashing Marie’s birthday party. Due to strike action, the intended Iolanta/Nutcracker première was cancelled, allowing me to fortuitously catch a tremendous Shostakovich 5 from Jaap van Zweden and the Orchestre de Paris at the shiny new Philharmonie. The Rimsky-Korsakov fanatic in me couldn’t miss a new Golden Cockerel – Deutsche Oper am Rhein duly delivered with political satire updated to the Brezhnev era.

Antonina Vesenina (Queen of Shemakha), Boris Statsenko (Tsar Dodon) and dancers
© Hans Jörg Michel | Deutsche Oper am Rhein

The highlight of my trip to Verbier Festival was a staggering recital by Grigory Sokolov held, appropriately enough, in a church where pianists such as Daniil Trifonov and Marc-André Hamelin were among the worshippers. Sokolov never betrayed a flicker of emotion – he is the Ivan Lendl of the piano world – but it was nevertheless a remarkable concert. 

My Italian jaunt included Rossini’s Semiramide in Florence (booked immediately after experiencing the Opera Rara Proms performance) and a lively Attila at La Fenice, Venice’s jewel of an opera house, easily the prettiest I’ve seen. However, nothing quite prepares you for the media circus that is the prima at La Scala, a frenzy of paparazzi and glitterati. Thankfully, Alvis Hermanis’ staging of Madama Butterfly – a return to the original 1904 version – more than lived up to the hype and with Riccardo Chailly drawing superb playing from the orchestra, it was a truly memorable evening.

Maria José Siri (Cio-Cio San)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

At home, the Royal Opera’s year was most memorable for a quintet of outstanding soprano performances: Ermonela Jaho repeated her devastating Suor Angelica, ramping up the anguish even further this time; Aleksandra Kurzak sang a magnificently gripping Lucia; Sonya Yoncheva – riding to the rescue when Trebs pulled out – gave an astonishing debut as Norma; Sondra Radvanovsky was a knockout Manon Lescaut and the year ended with Renée Fleming saying farewell to the operatic stage with a poignant, poised Marschallin.

Aleksandra Kurzak (Lucia) and Rachael Lloyd (Alisa)
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

Production-wise, it was a bit mixed. Katie Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor was flawed, its split-screen “let’s focus on Lucia and Alisa” an irritant. Chabrier’s L’Étoile fell flat in Mariame Clément’s hands and I didn’t much care for Richard Jones’ Boris Godunov. Barrie Kosky did a great Nose job on a not-so-great opera. The opening tableau in Enescu’s Oedipe was a spectacular coup, though the rest of it was less riveting. Jan Philipp Gloger’s Così fan tutte tried too hard to be clever, but the ROH turkey of the year belly-flopped onto the stage in the form of David Bösch’s abysmal Il trovatore – a clumsy, teenage strip cartoon. All three casts thus far have been woefully uneven. I’m not sure I can bring myself to suffer it a fourth time.

© Richard Hubert Smith

Leaving aside the politics of English National Opera’s mismanagement, the company enjoyed few production successes on the Coliseum’s stage. The standout was Phelim McDermott’s mesmerising Akhnaten. Who’d have thought three hours of slow motion juggling could win new converts to Philip Glass?! Rena Harms’ Butterfly and Heidi Melton’s Isolde were frustrating examples of ENO’s erratic casting and I nearly left Norma at the interval, it was that poor. Until ENO redefines what it stands for – and that includes scrapping its English language only policy – then it’s going to struggle to win my affections.

Elsewhere, I thoroughly enjoyed Welsh National Opera’s spirited revival of Cav & Pag, and Stuart MacRae’s new opera The Devil Inside made a powerful first impression, as did David Bruce’s Nothing, a thrillingly dark work from Glyndebourne’s education department. Highlights of the country house opera season included a very decent Eugene Onegin at Garsington, the best use of Opera Holland Park’s awkwardly wide stage in Rodula Gaitanou’s spooky production of The Queen of Spades, and Glyndebourne’s magical revival of Sir Peter Hall’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was everything I had dared wish for. Grange Park Opera often bites off more than it can chew, but staged a creditable Don Carlo in its final Hampshire season, in which Ruxandra Donose’s Eboli was superb (Opera, August 2016 issue).

Ruxandra Donose (Eboli) and Clive Bayley (Filippo)
© Robert Workman

Opera had a splendid year on the concert platform, with Written on Skin and Karita Mattila’s (second) Kostelnička proving gripping. These paled into nothing though in the wake of Opera North’s Ring cycle, conceived on a shoestring budget but performed superbly under departing music director Richard Farnes. I’ve struggled with Wagner for decades, still scarred by Richard Jones’ ROH pantomime Ring of the 1990s. Opera North has helped me finally turn a corner. Of 2016’s operatic turkeys, I never need to see Haydn’s La canterina again, but that was nothing as to Sir Nicholas Jackson’s The Rose and the Ring, the worst opera I’ve ever had the misfortune to suffer… it wasn’t one I reviewed for Bachtrack, but you can scrabble through the July issue of Opera magazine if you dare read further.

New (or newish) works dominate my 2016 ballet highlights. At the very start of the year, I enjoyed Matthew Bourne’s vampire-gothic Sleeping Beauty for a second time and his brand new The Red Shoes – praised to the skies already – will be my final treat of the year. The Winter’s Tale at The Royal Ballet was very fine, allowing us to enjoy Zenaida Yanowsky’s eloquent Paulina – how we’ll miss her when she retires as a principal dancer next summer. I found Anastasia a disappointingly uneven work in its recent revival, although Natalia Osipova was compelling in Act 3.

Olga Smirnova (Bianca) and Artemy Belyakov (Baptista)
© Elena Fetisova | Bolshoi Theatre

The Bolshoi Ballet brought five works to London, none more invigorating than Jean-Christophe Maillot’s The Taming of the Shrew. But for me it was English National Ballet which grabbed the dance headlines. Tamara Rojo continues to build the company, which now boasts some excellent male dancers, none more so than the explosive Cesar Corrales who dazzled audiences in Le Corsaire. Akram Khan’s reworking of Giselle was the most exciting dance I’ve seen all year… a pulsating score, visceral choreography. It needs rethinking in places, but I cannot wait to see it again next September! However, perhaps it’s time though that Rojo ditched ENB’s current Nutcracker.

Akram Khan’s Giselle
© Laurent Liotardo

In the concert hall, there were several superb experiences. Alice Sara Ott‘s outstanding Tchaikovsky 1 breathed fire into an old warhorse, and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet – aided by the sexiest 1892 Pleyel – gave a wonderfully characterful Ravel Left-Hand Concerto with the period instruments of Les Siècles. Maurizio Pollini rediscovered the old magic in Schumann and Chopin at the Royal Festival Hall, while veteran conductors Charles Dutoit and Herbert Blomstedt impressed – Blomstedt’s Beethoven 7 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus was my pick of the BBC Proms. The most striking Shakespeare 400 celebration came from the BBCSO, which presented Florent Schmitt’s music for Antoine et Cléopâtre interspersed with excerpts from the play – vividly done. Daniel Barenboim’s arthritic Brahms – both concertos – was a massive disappointment though.

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Wigmore Hall continues to be the pearl of the London concert scene. My top three ‘Wiggygigs’ came late in the year: Roderick Williams singing Winterreise in English was a revelation (at least to this Liederphobe); Le Concert d’Astrée’s Gran Partita was a musical feast; while, for miraculous playing as well as superb programming, Philippe Cassard‘s further Debussy explorations had me enraptured.

If 2017 treats me as generously, I’ll be a lucky man.


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