Thursday, April 16, 2015

Royal Opera House 2015-16: JDCMB's top choices



Yesterday the Royal Opera House held its big press conference to announce the new season. And it's a goodie. There was so much to announce that chief executive Alex Beard gently told Antonio Pappano he had to wind up his speech so they could move on. "I'm a Sir, and don't you forget it!" laughed the irrepressible music director.

During the question session an American journalist asked about attendance figures. Some houses in the US have problems, he suggested, with actually getting people to go and see things. How are sales doing here? Kasper Holten, head of opera, told him that for the past season the operas have averaged around 94 per cent. Kevin O'Hare, artistic director of the Royal Ballet, modestly added that for ballet it's been more like 98-99%.

I get the feeling they are doing something right. A mixture of balancing old and new repertoire and productions, scheduling the right number of performances of each piece, setting the ticket prices at levels which - if still steep to many - still do a rather healthy trade. In the new season there are some ambitious and radical treats alongside a fair few war-horses with exciting singers. Eight new productions. A new full-scale opera commission from Georg Friedrich Haas. New ballets with new scores to be written for our top choreographers by Lowell Liebermann, for Liam Scarlett's first full-length ballet, Frankenstein, Mark-Anthony Turnage, for a new Christopher Wheeldon ballet; and Esa-Pekka Salonen for a new work by Wayne McGregor. An eagerness on Tony Pappano's part to get the orchestra out of the pit and playing in its own right on the stage - which would, of course, also give us the chance to hear the maestro exploring non-operatic repertoire, a treat that we don't hear often enough in London.

One name, amongst the very many being trumpeted, was missing. Oh dear, what is this - a Kaufmann-free season? A brand-new Cav'n'Pag starring...Aleksandrs Antonenko. Tosca starring...ooh, the excellent Franceso Meli, which is great in itself, but...? On the way out to the coffee and pastries, rumblings were going on: WHERE'S JONAS?

Well, I found him. Buried deep in the pages of the brochure, there he is, singing...two performances of what is tipped to be the last revival of Francesca Zambello's production of Carmen. Kaufmaniacs might like to put 14 and 16 November in their diaries.

Aside from that, here are my personal must-sees of the opera season.

1. The aforementioned new Cav'n'Pag - Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, conducted by Pappano, directed by the exciting young Italian, Damiano Michieletto, and starring Eva-Maria Westbroek, Carmen Giannattassio and, in both tenor roles, Aleksandrs Antonenko. "There is another tenor besides Jonas Kaufmann," declared Pappano. "He's a great singer." Holten told us that the production will be set in southern Italy in the 1980s - "but it hasn't changed much since then." Pappano's presence in the pit would alone be enough to get me running to this.

2. A revival of Holten's Eugene Onegin. Yes, really. It got largely hideous reviews, but I rather loved it. It's apparently having something of an overhaul and there's a thrilling cast: as Tatyana, the young Australian soprano Nicole Car, with Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin, Michael Fabiano as Lensky, Ferruccio Furlanetto as Prince Gremin and Semyon Bychkov conducting.

3. An actual staging of an opera by Chabrier. L'Etoile, a rare opéra bouffe by the sparkling French master, to be staged by Mariame Clément and conducted by Mark Elder. I can feel the fresh air zipping in already.

4. Rare repertoire, top that? Yes: here comes my pin-up hero Enescu (honest, guv, I've a big poster of him above my piano, brought from Bucharest), and his opera Oedipe, the latest in the ROH's splendid focus on early 20th-century operas that can use some attention. Fabulous cast includes Johan Reuter, John Tomlinson, Sophie Bevan, Sarah Connolly, Claudia Huckle, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Alan Oke and more. Conductor: Leo Hussain, director Alex Ollé.

5. Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest is back, this time being performed at the Barbican. I couldn't get in last time and it sounds like a seriously hilarious must-see.

6. New commission, Morgen und Abend, from the composer Georg Friedrich Haas and librettist Jon Fosse, based on the latter's novel. Graham Vick directs. Apparently it begins with a huge monologue for the great German actor Klaus-Maria Brandauer. It's a co-commission with the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

7. At the ballet, besides all those brilliant pieces with brand-new scores, The Winter's Tale is being revived, as is Raven Girl, they're going to do Ashton's The Two Pigeons for the first time in 30 years, and there's a new Carmen (to Shchedrin's version) from Carlos Acosta. (See my interview with him in the latest edition of About the House Magazine. He is even more lovely than you think.)

That's just the very tip of a warm sort of iceberg that includes a new Lucia di Lammermoor, a Tannhauser revival complete with Gerhaher as Wolfram, an ambitious project based around Orpheus and featuring a new staging of Gluck's eponymous opera with John Eliot Gardiner bringing in his own orchestra (though many of us are sure the ROH's own orchestra would have done it just as splendidly) and being directed by both John Fulljames and the choreographer Hofesh Schechter, an all-dancing as well as all-singing job, and with no less than Juan Diego Flórez in the lead, with Lucy Crowe as his Eurydice. Other stars aplenty: Karita Mattila in Ariadne auf Naxos, Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca, Venera Gimadieva and Rolando Villazón in Traviata, Bryn Terfel singing Boris Godunov for the first time in a new production by Richard Jones.

The new website of Opera Europa will soon be making it easier for us all to see live-streamings from 15 different European opera houses in one website, the ROH included, and an increasing capacity for co-productions is beginning to feed Covent Garden's plans as it does ENO.