It has long been one of the strangest features of operatic life in Ireland that the country's most celebrated productions have been of second - or lower - rate works. That fact is both a compliment to the artistic achievement of the Wexford Festival and an expression of its major intrinsic limitation.

Things have begun to change. Nothing has been more significant for the long-term development of opera in Ireland than the bravery of Opera Ireland's artistic director, Dieter Kaegi, in bringing new repertoire - and thereby new audiences - to a company long hidebound by tradition. The results are clear. The company's great successes this year were Janacek's Katya Kabanova and Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk rather than Aida or Madama Butterfly. Opera Ireland, of course, doesn't yet have Wexford Festival Opera's consistency of track record, though the shift of axis seems all the more pronounced in a year that included Wexford's irredeemably dull production of Zandonai's probably irredeemable Conchita. Adam's Si J'etais Roi, a no-substance vehicle for singing, was memorable for the lyricism of the tenor Joseph Calleja. And Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orleans impressed as a work with more good music than one would like to see lost to modern audiences because of its patent operatic weaknesses.

Wexford is heading into a proposed £20 million redevelopment of the Theatre Royal - serious money for a deserving project. But even more deserving has to be the case for a proper opera house for the million-plus inhabitants of the greater Dublin area. Opera Theatre Company had an up-and-down year, beginning with a finely-detailed Marriage of Figaro, directed by Brian Brady. This was followed by a bold experiment, Donizetti's The Love Potion (L'Elisir d'Amore), unfunnily directed by James Conway in an arrangement involving accordion which simply failed to gel.

The first Anna Livia International Opera Festival at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre, brainchild of Bernadette Greevy, identified a niche in terms of repertoire (Massenet's Herodiade and Puccini's La rondine), timing (June), and casting (young Irish singers). However, considering the large amount of public money sunk into the venture (Exchequer funds rather than the Arts Council's), the results were extremely mixed. The spirited Magda of Alison Roddy in La Rondine was the major bonus provided by the festival.


Downer of the year was Castleward Opera's Madama Butterfly, about as unfeeling an evening of Puccinian orientalism as you could imagine.

Michael Dervan