It's hard for me to resist a list at the best of times, and as New Year's Eve approaches, and half the blogosphere is posting them – while the other half rolls its eyes, no doubt, at yet another list – well, what am I to do but add my own year-in-review to the teetering pile.
Here, then, in no particular order and with a tip of the hat to Lucy, whose format I didn't entirely mean to steal, are some of my top people, places and performances of 2012.
It was a privilege, pure and simple, to behold the almighty Bryn as the even almighter Wotan. Last year I only saw him in Walküre and only on the green room TV screen; this year I was in the theatre for both Rheingold and Walküre and he was scintillating, occasionally hilarious and thoroughly heartbreaking. In more flippant moments I might claim not to care about Walküre after Siegmund's demise (sob) but Bryn made me care and then some.
Pamela Helen Stephen
Pamela was an Opera Australia regular, and a darn good one, until the unexpected and incredibly sad passing of her husband, Richard Hickox, the company's music director at the time. I'd not heard her since, until we managed to squeeze in a matinée of the ENO's Madama Butterfly, in Anthony Minghella's dreamlike production. Usually I'm all about Cio-Cio San – pretty much inevitable since she hardly leave the stage – but Pamela's Suzuki was sung so gorgeously that I found she kept dragging my focus her way. She's even better now than she was in Australia, and I can't wait to hear her again soon.
Nobody sings Mrs Sedley like Dame Felicity. I didn't see David Alden's Grimes in its premiere season at the ENO in 2009, but when it came to Oviedo, with much of the same cast but no Felicity, they were still talking about her. I finally had my chance at the Proms and she was every bit as biting and as brilliantly grotesque as I had hoped – a sting in every word – and in fantastic voice to boot. You don't really need to make beautiful sounds as Sedley, but every now and then, she did, and was all the more striking for it.
Everyone I know who's seen it seems to adore David Alden's Peter Grimes, and rightly so, but nobody warned me that Willy Decker's production – long a mainstay of the Royal Opera – would knock me so completely sideways. Stark, abstract and oh-so-grey, it is one of the most devastating and memorable stagings I've ever seen of anything – right up there with my own favourite Grimes, Neil Armfield's OA production. With a simple gesture, a row of chairs or a precisely arranged crowd, Willy managed to articulate these characters' murky emotional depths as eloquently as any line in the libretto, and his silences spoke volumes. The final image of this show – Ellen crushed at last into miserable conformity – will stick with me for a long time yet.
If you don't know him by name, you might know him by his Twitter handle: Harry is the redoubtable @OperaTeen. I did a double take when I realised just how young this passionate fan was; I assumed he was at least seventeen, maybe older and nearing the necessity of a name change. But no. He has plenty of high school to go, and is already one of the most infectiously enthusiastic – and determinedly opinionated – voices out there in the opera blog/Twitter universe. When I was 19 or 20, and this blog was in its infancy, people thought I was pretty young for an operagoer, but Harry leaves me for dust. And even better, he's part of a hearteningly large and vocal online community of young opera devotees, whose tweets and Tumblr posts explode with pop culture references, internet memes, fangirl/boi excitement and a genuine and knowledgeable love of the art form. It truly ain't dead yet.
The food, the wine, the people, the beautiful theatre, the mild, sunshiney winter and did I mention the food? So plentiful, so cheap and so deliciously dependent on pork products. Oviedo might have won my heart on culinary merit alone but it was in every way a great experience. When the head of the opera board takes you to watch club rugby, because he also founded the local rugby club, you know you're in the right place, and that was just the start of it. It was the perfect city to sit back and relax in or to explore, and amid those endlessly unfolding cobblestone streets I expected Count Almaviva to appear at any moment. Cannot wait to go back.
Top of my Surreal Experiences of 2012 List has to be the two days we spent in Los Angeles while Stuart recorded his contribution to the as-yet unreleased Great Voices Sing John Denver, a pretty neat project in which Thomas Hampson, Rod Gilfry and many other familiar names are also involved. It happened at Capitol Records in Studio A, where Sinatra himself recorded. We were there for a few hours but believe me, it wasn't long enough to wrap our brains around that sort of history. Throw in the previous night's dinner out, where half the table seemed to have worked with Frank, and I shared my dessert with Henry Mancini's daughter, and, well, my head might just have been spinning.
I've already written at some length here about Tokyo, so I'll try not to repeat myself too much. But it was one of the biggest surprises of my 2012 – despite my reservations and my total inability to speak the language, this mad, heaving metropolis won me over even as it confused the hell out of me. I seemed to spend two months constantly removing my sunglasses, because no matter how bright the glare, the colours of this place just scream out to be seen in their full glory.
It just so happened that two of the most gripping performances I saw this year happened her: the Peter Grimes Prom and Imelda May live in concert. Imelda came first, and a what a show it was. If the name's not ringing bells, that's OK – she's not an opera singer, but a throwback rockabilly goddess whose songs and singing I am completely nuts for, and whose stamina, technique and onstage charisma would be the envy of many a singer in any genre. When we saw her she was seven months pregnant, still wearing killer heels, and still singing like a woman possessed. And the next time we were there, I was in almost the same seat but Stuart, of course, was onstage with a dream cast for a concert Grimes which, in its own way, was just as thrilling and which elicited, among others, this rave review – which I swear I neither commissioned nor ghostwrote. Oh, and thanks to Ruth, I also had the chance to hang out with some proper Prommers, whose dedication to task (and picnics) is admirable.
For the first time since we've been travelling together, The Tenor In My Life actually had a gig in Sydney – his home town and my adopted home town – and what with one thing and another, publicity commitments and an outdoor concert in Canberra, we were there for about three weeks. It was pretty blissful; particularly for me, as I had no Russian operas to rehearse and thus plenty of time to catch up with everyone I'm so hopeless at emailing. The city turned on its best sunshine and water views for us – apart from the occasional deluge – and was, I admit, a bit of a wrench to say goodbye. Sydney, if you fancy kidnapping Melbourne's Ring Cycle next year – I won't hold it against you.
At the Met. Twice, as it turned out, and it's hard to say which was the bigger thrill. The first was the one for which Stuart was always the scheduled Siegmund, and while it wasn't actually his Met début, it sort of was: he was finally singing one of his signature roles on this incredibly famous stage, and he nailed it. The crowd went wild. The second was the one he stood in for, flying in between performances of Dutchman in London to cover Jonas Kaufmann and then living every cover's dream: with a few days' notice, he went on. This time the crowd was expecting somebody else – somebody with a tendency to inspire pretty fervent devotion – and wouldn't you know it? They still went wild. It was a huge, huge night. (I'm not ignoring the presence of a seriously stellar cast – Bryn, Eva Maria Westbroek, Stephanie Blythe et al were all outstanding – but you'll forgive me if it's the Siegmund who dominate this particular memory.)
If Michelle DeYoung and Alan Held sing a concert Bluebeard with MTT and the San Francisco Symphony, you go. If they sing it three times, you go three times. At least, that's the rationale we operated on, and we were more than vindicated. Alan is everything you could want in a creepy, murderous duke – I mean that in a good way – and Michelle, of course, owns the role of Judith. With them tearing up the stage, and on three consecutive nights no less, it seemed almost lazy just to sit back and watch. Michelle is singing Judith everywhere these days: if she passes through your town, or even comes vaguely close, You Must Go.
Véronique Gens at Wigmore Hall
There's plenty I could say but the reason this makes my list is simple: she sang Poulenc's "Les chemins de l'amour". Life ambition achieved.
Cheryl as Salome
At last, at last. Cheryl Barker in the role she's frequently said is one of her favourites, and the one I've wanted to hear her sing for as long as I've been her superfan. Worth the wait? You bet. I can't pretend objectivity when it comes to Cheryl – well, I could, but nobody would believe me – and that's just fine. She's my überdiva and I'm so happy I managed to be in the right place at the right time and catch this performance without flying halfway around the world. Her Salome was the magnetic, mercurial devilchild I knew she'd be – eyes flashing, limbs fluid – and her voice was electrifying yet girlishly silver, right till the bitter and bloody end. There were other laudable aspects of this show – Jacqui Dark's powerhouse Herodias chief among them – but I wasn't there to be balanced, I was there to be bowled over by Cheryl. And I was. I always am.
All over the place. Oviedo, Tokyo and the Proms. Always with excellent casts and of course always with the same guy in the title role. They've been praised widely elsewhere and naturally by me as well so I won't go over old ground now. But like Parsifal did last year, Peter Grimes has been the opera which loomed largest for me this year – and just like Parsifal, I never tired of it. It killed me every time, whether in concert or fully staged, and I kept discovering new reasons to love it. Imagine it: you're Benjamin Britten, you decide to write your first opera, and that's what you come up with – I'm not sure I'd bother writing another, although I'm certainly glad he did. It's a lucky coincidence – well, mostly a coincidence – that two of my favourite operas happen also to contain roles which The Tenor In My Life sings so exceedingly well. Looks like I'll never be short of opportunities to hear either of them.
There you have it, my personal highlights of the year that's ending – in Florida, at least – in about five and a half hours. As with any list, and especially lists on the internet, there are bound to be shocking omissions. In fact I've already thought of one: Anna Caterina Antonacci's amazing recital at Alice Tully Hall. How could I forget? But this is good: better too many highlights than too few, surely.
Chances are that as you read this, it's already 2013 where you are. So Happy New Year! And good luck with the resolutions. Mine are to see more, hear more and write more...we'll see about that.