As the year draws to a close, it’s time to reflect on a few personal highlights – and the occasional nadir – of 2019 in opera, music and dance. Editing well over a thousand Bachtrack reviews each year places me in the privileged position of having a finger on the classical music pulse around the globe, so this selection allows me to share some of the things I most enjoyed during the year – or sorely wished I had been able to experience “in the flesh” for myself. Click on the links in the text to read the full reviews.

Leo Dixon (Tadzio) in <i>Death in Venice</i> © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Leo Dixon (Tadzio) in Death in Venice
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

In the UK, it’s been heartening to see three excellent new productions of Britten operas. Deborah Warner’s Billy Budd had already been hailed in Madrid and Rome, so expectations were high for its Covent Garden bow. No disappointment here. The moment when Captain Vere fails to save Billy was truly choking. Last month, The Royal Opera also presented a new production of Britten’s final opera, Death in Venice – a typically stylish David McVicar staging with astonishing singing from Mark Padmore as Aschenbach. Perhaps these productions mark a turn in the composer’s fortunes in a house that hasn’t always paid him his fair dues. Louisa Muller’s ghostly Turn of the Screw was outstanding at Garsington – the finest production I’ve seen at this festival. Although wonderfully sung and acted, it was the staging itself which chilled, especially Malcolm Rippeth’s cunning lighting, not easy to manage in a venue flooded with natural light as performances begin.

<i>The Turn of the Screw</i> at Garsington © Johan Persson
The Turn of the Screw at Garsington
© Johan Persson

Elsewhere at Covent Garden, the highlight was the new Forza del destino, less for Christof Loy’s production than for a lip-smacking cast the likes of which any opera house worth its salt would salivate over: Anna Netrebko, Jonas Kaufmann, Ludovic Tézier, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Alessandro Corbelli… Tézier was a particularly wonderful interviewee back in March, suave, elegant in his turn of phrase, musing on his love for Wagner. Aigul Akhmetshina, Forza’s “B cast” Preziosilla, was another joy, bubbling with infectious enthusiasm about life as a young singer, owning the stage as Carmen.

Operatic life down the road sputters on in fits and starts, although English National Opera’s best work recently has taken place away from its Coliseum home: Noye’s Fludde in East Stratford; Paul Bunyan in the newly refurbished Alexandra Palace; and a joyous Hansel and Gretel in the Open Air Theatre at Regent’s Park. Back at the company’s home base, I was once again hypnotised by Phelim McDermott’s staging of Akhnaten and was delighted that Bob Levine was equally entranced as Philip Glass’ opera made its bow at the Metropolitan Opera a few weeks ago, with Anthony Roth Costanzo once again mesmerising in the title role.

J'Nai Bridges, Anthony Roth Costanzo and Dísella Lárusdóttir in <i>Akhnaten</i> © Karen Almond | Met Opera
J'Nai Bridges, Anthony Roth Costanzo and Dísella Lárusdóttir in Akhnaten
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

It was encouraging to see three UK productions of Katya Kabanova opening within a few weeks of each other in the spring, perhaps laying to rest the fear that Janáček equates to box office death. On the debit side, did the country really need six stagings of The Magic Flute by the major companies or festivals? Glyndebourne’s was widely seen as the low point of the summer season, an under-baked Konzept set in Hotel Sacher. Of the regional companies, Scottish Opera scored contemporary hits with Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves (at the Edinburgh Festival) and Stuart MacRae’s polar chiller-thriller Anthropocene.

Jennifer France in <i>Anthropocene</i> © James Glossop
Jennifer France in Anthropocene
© James Glossop

Filed under “Productions I wish I’d seen” comes the first staging for over fifty years of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Wiener Staatsoper, “one of the best productions to come out of the Haus am Ring for a good long time”. Finnish National Opera launched a new Ring cycle with a fabulous-looking Rheingold in September. Franc Aleu’s new Turandot for the Liceu was bursting with video wizardry, while Tobias Kratzer’s production of Der Zwerg for Deutsche Oper was terrific, drawing out parallels with Zemlinsky’s own biography. This talented young director makes his Royal Opera debut in the new year, tackling Fidelio – no easy task. The highlight of Offenbach’s bicentenary was Barrie Kosky’s Orpheus in the Underworld, which caused a stir at the Salzburg Festival, although it’s worth reflecting on the director’s own words – in a brilliant interview by Nadja Dobesch-Warlick – that Offenbach’s music brings joy. “In this day and age, joy is something that is viewed by a lot of people very cynically. But I think that joy has a place in the theatre.” How true.

<i>Orphée aux enfers</i> at the Salzburg Festival © Salzburg Festival | Monika Rittershaus
Orphée aux enfers at the Salzburg Festival
© Salzburg Festival | Monika Rittershaus

One of the best productions to play at Opera Australia was Greg Eldridge’s staging of Reimann’s Ghost Sonata, “a thoroughly compelling evening”. We cover a lively opera scene in Boston, where the Lyric Opera presented a “harrowing, gripping production” of Poul Ruder’s The Handmaid’s Tale in May, “where even body language speaks volumes and the audience is a not only a spectator but a complicit participant”. In Philadelphia, Robert Carsen’s magical, bed-hopping Midsummer Night’s Dream finally received its American premiere… 28 years after its debut at Festival d’Aix-en-Provence!

Highlight of the season in Munich thus far has been Jonas Kaufmann starring in Simon Stone’s absorbing production of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. French readers may want to read about Stone’s emoji-filled new staging of La traviata at the Palais Garnier – a neat concept which didn’t completely work for me. Which brings us to Dmitri Tchernaikov, whose reduction of Les Troyens to a group therapy session got the year off to a dismal start in Paris, but whose Tale of Tsar Saltan for La Monnaie was the best thing I saw all year. Tcherniakov is often at his finest acting as advocate for rare Russian operas, here turning the Russian fairy tale into an autism parable to tremendously moving effect.

<i>The Tale of Tsar Saltan</i> at La Monnaie © Forster
The Tale of Tsar Saltan at La Monnaie
© Forster

The Staatsoper Berlin continues its run of flops since returning to Unter den Linden, the latest being Damián Szifron’s outdated, Cecil B de Mille approach to Samson et Dalila [Headline of the Year courtesy of Hugo Shirley]. Let’s hope the Staatsoper picks itself up for new productions of Idomeneo, Così and Rosenkavalier in the spring. The biggest drama to emerge from La Scala were the backstage shenanigans around Alexander Pereira’s impending departure as sovrintendente, causing Cecilia Bartoli to withdraw from the new production of Giulio Cesare in solidarity.

San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's Chamber Symphony © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's Chamber Symphony
© Erik Tomasson

The world of dance saw some significant anniversaries: Sydney Dance Company turned 50; Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater turned 60; Merce Cunningham’s centenary was widely celebrated, not least with the Night of 100 Solos; and tribute was paid to Dame Margot Fonteyn on the centenary of her birth by The Royal Ballet. Elsewhere, San Francisco Ballet’s London residency was a highlight of the UK season, especially a rare chance to see the work of Alexei Ratmansky.

Dame Darcey Bussell and Gary Avis in <i>Façade</i> © ROH | Andrej Uspenski
Dame Darcey Bussell and Gary Avis in Façade
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

The next round of musical conductor chairs continued. Maxim Emelyanychev has hit the ground sprinting rather than running at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (plus some very impressive Handel at Glyndebourne) while the London Philharmonic and Philharmonia announced new Principal Conductors Designate, respectively Edward Gardner and Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Esa-Pekka Salonen leaves the Philharmonia for West Coast pastures, succeeding Michael Tilson Thomas at San Francisco Symphony. Elsewhere, Yannick Nézet-Séguin continues to turn just about everything he touches to gold. It's rather moving that he remains faithful to his first love, the Orchestre Métropolitain, which has just repaid his loyalty with a lifetime contract.

Berlioz's Requiem at St Paul's Cathedral © Martin Kendrick
Berlioz's Requiem at St Paul's Cathedral
© Martin Kendrick

Berlioz 150 saw a number of excellent performances, not least a terrific Requiem in St Paul's Cathedral on very anniversary of the composer's death. Berlin saw an excellent Roméo et Juliette, while Aurora Orchestra dazzled the BBC Proms with a Symphonie fantastique played from memory. It is lamentable that none of the UK's major opera companies could manage a single Berlioz opera between them. All we had was an underwhelming Damnation de Faust at Glyndebourne. Faust fared better on the concert platform, with knockout performances in Strasbourg, Manchester and Birmingham to relish.

Mariss Jansonsc conducts the Bavarian RSO in rehearsals © Astrid Ackmann
Mariss Jansonsc conducts the Bavarian RSO in rehearsals
© Astrid Ackmann

Among the year’s departures, we lost our dear friend and contributor John Johnston. And last month, the great conductor Mariss Jansons died. Frail but still active in recent years, we reviewed one of his final concerts, a revelatory Brahms 4 at the Musikverein.

2019 saw a few significant retirements. Operatically, the Met bade a fond farewell to Sonja Frisell’s epic production of Aida, while Pierre Audi’s Walküre took its final curtain call in Amsterdam. Teariest farewell, though, came with the retirement of Bernard Haitink, conducting glowing performances of Bruckner 7 with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Proms and at the Lucerne Festival. It was truly the year’s “I was there” moment.

Bernard Haitink leaves the Royal Albert Hall stage for the final time © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Bernard Haitink leaves the Royal Albert Hall stage for the final time
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou