Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue – Dutch National Opera wore all four at a gala celebrating its 50th season. In the presence of HRH Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands, Robert Carsen directed a slick parade of solos, ensembles and video souvenirs toasting the company’s past and present achievements. As is almost inevitable with galas, some performers had to cancel, including house favourites Luca Pisaroni and Charlotte Margiono. Their solo spots were taken by Thomas Oliemans in the Count’s rant from Le nozze di Figaro and Adrianne Pieczonka, borrowed from the revival of Mr Carsen’s Dialogues des Carmélites, which opened the following day. Mr Oliemans, a beloved DNO Papageno, sang "Hai già vinta la causa" with such an incredulous, almost naïve, sense of entitlement, that one almost felt sorry for the lecherous goat. Ms Pieczonka’s introspective Morgen by Richard Strauss was one of the few blue moments, the saddest being a video fragment from Louis Andriessen’s La Commedia featuring Dutch actor/singer Jeroen Willems, who died suddenly at age 50 in 2012.

Els van der Plas, HRH Princess Beatrix and Pierre Audi © Hans van den Bogaard
Els van der Plas, HRH Princess Beatrix and Pierre Audi
© Hans van den Bogaard

DNO’s commitment to new operas was represented by composer Tan Dun conducting the European première of his Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds. The piece, which was received with great enthusiasm, alternates bird song recorded on smartphones with variations on an initial prankish theme for brass. Atmospheric lulls are broken by festive bursts of Latin rhythms. The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra seemed to be having oodles of fun, waving their susurrating phones, using a wide range of instruments percussively, and even singing. Marc Albrecht, chief conductor at DNO, the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, conducted the rest of the time, bounding between the pit, for Wagner and Verdi with the larger ensemble, and the stage, for earlier fare with its smaller sister, including a sparkling, well-sung Figaro Act II finale with a predominantly Dutch cast. The two-hour programme demonstrated what an asset these versatile musicians are to many DNO performances. Taking the cue from the well-oiled direction, Mr Albrecht favoured brisk tempi and encouraged loud playing when not accompanying the singers, as in a clamorous Ride of the Valkyries scoring a chronological trailer of the Audi Ring. If someone subtitled the video with a synopsis, this would make a stunning Ring plot summary.

Sabine Devieilhe © Hans van den Bogaard
Sabine Devieilhe
© Hans van den Bogaard

Artistic Director Pierre Audi, who is largely responsible for DNO’s current international allure, gave the only speech of the evening, a cogent case for opera in a culture grounded in Calvinism, where it can be suspect. He deftly worked in the necessary thanks to authorities and sponsors, as well as overflowing gratitude for everyone who contributes to the company’s often trailblazing productions. To commemorate DNO’s recent merger with Dutch National Ballet, étoile Igone de Jongh danced with fragile fluidity to Puccini’s elegy for string quartet Crisantemi, a Manon Lescaut in lace and ballroom heels circled and lifted by male dancers.

Eva-Maria Westbroek © Hans van den Bogaard
Eva-Maria Westbroek
© Hans van den Bogaard
The first-rate Dutch National Opera Chorus was given a starring role, with a live camera projecting individual close-ups onto a screen. They responded with starry performances of the Entry of the Guests from Tannhäuser and the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor. The chorus also appeared in a sun-drenched clip of the entrance of the toreadors from the 2009 Carmen, directed by Mr Carsen. This was also a tribute to the participation of children’s choirs and extras. Comic relief was brilliantly provided by soprano Sabine Devieilhe in a pinpoint rendition of “Aux langueurs d'Apollon” from Rameau’s Platée, and by Peter Rose hamming it up as Bottom the Weaver in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A boyishly ardent Paolo Fanale partnered a creamy-voiced Eleonora Buratto’s in “Parigi, o cara” from La traviata. He seemed to believe the terminally ill Violetta would get well; she did not.

Eva-Maria Westbroek and Violeta Urmana swept in to sprinkle old-fashioned diva dust. Ms Urmana sang a flame-throwing “O don fatale”, recalling her 2004 success in Willy Decker’s Don Carlo. Ms Westbroek gave us a taste of two recent roles she sang at the Metropolitan Opera. Her first solo, radiant in demeanour and tone, though with a marked vibrato in the top notes, was Elisabeth’s “Dich, teure Halle” from Tannhäuser. Dramatic intensity is hard to achieve on such occasions, but Ms Westbroek succeeded, deploying her rich middle voice to conjure up Santuzza’s choking jealousy in a no-holds-barred “Voi lo sapete, o mamma” from Cavalleria rusticana. The singer-studded “Tutto nel mondo è burla” is a standard gala finale, but with the canon-voiced Peter Rose in the house and Falstaff (Robert Carsen again!) being another recent DNO triumph, the choice was more than justified.