This would usually be the post in which I handed out various laurels to the best of the past year's Opera Australia season. The problem is that this year, all of those laurels would just have to go to Peter Grimes, wouldn't they? It was truly the best of everything. So I'm opting instead for a more inclusive (and, typically, more longwinded) approach.
Here are Fifty-Two Things I Loved at Opera Australia in 2009.
1. The chance to see Moffat Oxenbould's exquisite production of Madama Butterfly live in the theatre, and with the soprano for whom it was created in the title role. I could see those petals fall a hundred times and the magic wouldn't fade.
2. The palpable electricity of Cheryl Barker's final Butterfly of the season, a stunning and maybe paradoxical combination of utter abandon and gorgeous refinement.
3. Antoinette Halloran's short notice triumph in the same role when Cheryl cancelled what turned out to be the first of three performances. Her standing ovation came a little later in the run but she deserved it for that first performance.
4. The spontaneous (and unanimous) standing ovation for Cheryl's second Butterfly. Yes, it can probably be explained by the high proportion of tourists in the audience that night, but it was still a great thing to see.
5. The last of Cheryl's January Butterflies, before she adjourned to Paris and Antoinette officially took over. She had cancelled three times, my poor nerves were shattered; but at last, she was back, and with the considerable bonus of Jacqui Dark, filling in for Catherine Carby as Suzuki.
6. Jonathan Summers's two fabulous entrances in Cav/Pag, first as a Mafioso Alfio and then, even better, as a haunting and darkly comedic Tonio. I didn't exactly love this double bill, but I swear there's no production so dire it can't be immediately improved by the presence of Jonathan Summers.
7. José Carbo's beautiful (but of course, much too short) appearance as Pagliacci's Silvio. I tell you, if there's one thing this season needed, it was more José.
8. And again, from Pagliacci, Stephen Smith's strong cameo as Beppe, the first of his many bit parts in this season and an auspicious introduction.
9. Fine, one from Cavalleria Rusticana. Dominica Matthews's surprisingly convincing Lola. I wouldn't have picked Dominica for verismo repertoire and yet she absolutely made it work.
10. Emma Pearson's suitably ferocious Queen of the Night. I tried to see her a second time but (sigh) she was indisposed. So please, please, Opera Australia, bring her back soon.
11. Two lovely Paminas in Emma Matthews and Hye Seoung Kwon, each of whom brought her own brand of prettiness to the role. Objectively, I'd give Emma the victory; subjectively speaking, I preferred Hye Seoung's voice in the role.
12. Andrew Moran as a very funny Aussie Papageno. Warwick Fyfe did a fine job in the role but somehow Andrew was even more hilarious, and I'm more enamoured of his voice every time I hear it.
13. The privilege of a true dramatic soprano in our midst, in the form of Susan Bullock, a sensational Katerina in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
14. All the seedy and confronting glory of aforementioned Lady M and of Francesca Zambello's excellent production. I'm still kicking myself for not making it to a second performance.
15. Jacqui Dark's rather brave performance as Aksinya in the opera's infamous "barrel scene".
16. The overpowering sound of the AOBO as, under the leadership of Sir Richard Armstrong, it tore into Shostakovich's blazing score. Loudness of the best sort.
17. And, of course, the very successful company début of my compatriot, heldentenor Simon O'Neill as a thoroughly slapworthy (but magnificently sung) Sergei.
18. The opportunity to finally express admiration for Elke Neidhardt. She and I have not had the best history, but I thought her work as revival director of the Moshinsky production of Werther was just superb. Loved the costumes, too.
19. The eternally swoonworthy voice of Aldo Di Toro as the lovelorn Werther.
20. The delightful surprise of Sarah Crane's sparkling Sophie. I adored her (and her character, who should have annoyed me) and I'm rather upset at her absence from the 2010 season. I hope she's back in 2011.
21. In a rather, shall we say, uneven production of Acis and Galatea, Shane Lowrencev's towering, raging and hilariously insatiable Polyphemus. His "O ruddier than the cherry" was my favourite part of the opera.
22. Over the top though it may have been, Patrick Nolan's staging of Damon's "Shepherd, what art thou pursuing?" in said Acis, which piled in almost everything a director could do to outrage the easily outraged.
23. The virtuosic grotesquerie of Kanen Breen's Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas, one of the best (and downright weirdest) performances I've seen from him.
24. Yvonne Kenny's devastating final Dido, which far outdid the other three I saw and included the most moving rendition of "When I am laid in earth" I've ever experienced.
25. Tamara Wilson's sweet and finely wrought Aida, proof that you don't need to blast the roof off to be an idiomatic and effective Verdi soprano.
26. And speaking of idiomatic: Michael Lewis's excellent Amonasro. There's a man with Verdi in his blood.
27. Graeme Murphy's staging of the final act of Aida. I wasn't very taken with the first half of this production, but the clearer the stage became, the better it worked, and the tomb scene was really very striking.
28. David Parkin's return to the opera theatre stage, his first OA performance since he appeared as Sparafucile after winning Operatunity Oz. It's great to see that for once, the winner of a TV talent show has turned out to be absolutely the genuine article.
29. The night when Cheryl Barker altered the staging of Manon Lescaut's "Sola, perduta, abbandonata", and then every subsequent performance she gave of it. Flawed opera, very flawed heroine, but that final scene had a raw truth to it which was heart stopping.
30. The delectable misbehaviour of Cheryl's Manon in her gilded second act: her playful trills, the spitefully held high note, eight gorgeous renditions of "In quelle trine morbide", the fabulous frock, eight different ways of enunciating "E il busto?", the look on her face when caught in the act of fleeing with her lover and the jewels.
31. Just surrending to Cheryl's unparalleled ability to make me fall hopelessly in love with a character I thought I didn't like.
32. For good measure, two very fine tenors. Stephen Smith's Harlequin-esque Edmondo, and Jorge Lopez-Yanez's ardent Des Grieux.
33. The total revelation that was Fidelio. Not that I was expecting to dislike it; but I never expected to love it so much. Opening night was one of the best nights I had in the opera theatre all year.
34. Speaking of revelations and Fidelio, Peter Coleman-Wright's magnificently villainous Don Pizarro. I never knew he could be so evil, but he absolutely was, from his terrifying "Ha, welch' ein Augenblick" to the fabulous swirl of his cape when he took his final bow.
35. Best of all, though, Lorina Gore's perfect (there's no other word!) Marzelline. I knew I liked Lorina, but it was this performance which turned me into a bona fide fan and raised my hopes for her future sky high.
36. Still with Fidelio, Cathy Dadd's direction of this revival. It's a pretty traditional, straightforward production; a lesser talent might have fallen asleep at the wheel, but Dadd kept the show as vivid and compelling as could be.
37. My Emma Matthews epiphany, which was sparked by her new CD but consolidated by her exquisite Giulietta in I Capuleti e i Montecchi. It turned out she'd been ill and apparently not at her best on opening night, but I must have had my diva goggles (or auditory equivalent) on because I loved her.
38. Aldo Di Toro's return as Tebaldo, after missing opening night. A surprisingly three-dimensional characterisation and, of course, sublimely sung. Can't wait for his Elvino in Sonnambula.
39. And yes, believe it or not, Orpha Phelan's rather bleak and jagged production of Capuleti. I might be in the minority but I liked it a lot. It might not have been visually beautiful, but in its own jagged way, it seemed to highlight the beauty of the score.
40. Anthony Warlow's Ko-Ko in The Mikado. Despite all my arms-folded resistance to the supposed charms of Gilbert and Sullivan, I couldn't help but warm to him. I know others thought much less of him, but ever contrary, I finally began to understand his appeal.
41. Warwick Fyfe's revelatory Poo-Bah. Hands down the most impressive thing I've seen him do, and I don't mean that as faint praise. He was completely ideal for the role, both vocally and temperamentally. I was terribly impressed.
42. The high camp of Kanen Breen's Nanki-Poo. It's always fun seeing Kanen in a role where he gets to show off his gift for physical comedy.
43. Jim Sharman's delightful framing device for his production of Cosi fan tutte, the Japanese wedding. I especially liked the immaculately pair of wedding planners; having the newlyweds dance during "Soave sia il vento" was also a lovely touch.
44. And, of course, the colour co-ordinated confetti.
45. Rachelle Durkin's simple, sincere and very touching "Per pietà".
46. Tiffany Speight's show stealing striptease for Despina's "Una donna". I'm still keen to hear Tiffany in a less soubrettish role, but in the meantime, she's a pretty amazing maid.
47. Neil Armfield's and Peter Carroll's extraordinary conception and expansion of the role of Dr Crabbe in Peter Grimes.
48. David Corcoran's fantastically well sung Bob Boles. Another burgeoning star for whom I have very high hopes.
49. The succession of jaw-dropping moments which was opening night of Grimes.
50. The unique spirit which developed among the audiences for Grimes, a sort of solidarity and fraternal feeling borne of an extraordinary shared experience. I've never felt anything like it and for all I know, I may never feel it again.
51. Similarly, the way in which we all responded to that experience, both in conversation and in writing; the speechlessness which turned into an inability to stop talking about it. Very few productions, after all, could produce a collective response quite like this.
52. The darkened pit.
And now that that's all done and dusted, here are the Peter Grimes laurels.
My soprano of the year is Susan Gritton. I've heard Susan in various repertoire over the years and generally quite liked her, but her Ellen Orford flicked a switch. She was shattering and sublime in that role, and now with every single piece of music I hear her sing, I fall in love all over again. There's no question that we have the late Richard Hickox to thank for her presence in Grimes, and she's truly one of the most precious gifts he left us. I hope and pray we'll see her back here one day.
My baritone of the year is of course Peter Coleman-Wright, and I also want to name him as my revelation of the year. Maybe that's a strange thing to say about a singer I've been listening to on a daily basis for a couple of years, but this was the year in which he won my devotion in his own right, and not just by association. Plus, his Balstrode was just astonishingly beautiful. I'll never forget the way he fidgeted with suppressed rage as the villagers closed in on Ellen, or the look he threw her as he joined the mob on their way to the hut, or the sublime way he sang in that third act scene. And so many more moments, but I should stop.
Naturally Mark Wigglesworth, Neil Armfield, Ralph Myers and Damien Cooper all take out their respective categories. I've never witnessed such a powerful and triumphant creative collaboration, and people who have been attending OA performances for decades longer than I have have said the same thing. Every facet of Grimes was just so right, from the pit to the stage to the morning sun coming through the skylights. I wish I could say more but, well, see #51 above — it's either astonished silence or endless praise.
So I come to my tenor of the year and, more importantly, my singer of the year. Who else could it be but Stuart Skelton? I had started anticipating his Grimes before it was even announced. Then he sang it in London and the critics (and audiences) went crazy. And finally, here he was in Sydney and he exceeded every expectations. I've been over this before, and since there are only so many ways to put it, I won't repeat myself too much now. But Stuart's Grimes was a treasure, a terror and, I think, a life-altering experience. I shan't ever forget it, and I know for a fact I'm far from alone in that.