Tuesday, 10 May 2016
ENO 2016-17: a half-good season
It came as a bit of a shock to see the full list of English National Opera productions for the coming season and realise, as one blogger put it, that the ones you'd heard promising rumours about amount to just about all there is. This is what the reduced schedule looks like in practice, and it's not right for a national opera company. Another commenter pointed out that it's chorus-lite: none for Lulu or Partenope, a big Te Deum in Tosca, the least good bits of The Pearl Fishers, very little in Don Giovanni, men only in Rigoletto. No Britten or Tippett. In fact no opera on the big scale for which ENO was made. The only familiar works offering much chorus presence are The Pirates of Penzance (photo of Mike Leigh's production below by Tristram Kenton) and The Mikado, the latter touring to Blackpool in what looks like a patronising gesture to The Regions (English Touring Opera serves there, of course). Of course if Miller's dazzling-white production turns more people on to opera, so much the better.
Only compare this with Opera North's far more enterprising season: much the best of the major companies from my perspective: plenty for the chorus to do in Billy Budd (men only plus boys, but what choruses), Suor Angelica (women only, but smaller roles, too), The Snow Maiden (oh, if only we got it down here!) and Turandot.
The unknown quantities at ENO are the new operas. Daniel Schnyder's Charlie Parker's YARDBIRD at the Hackney Empire gives us the promise of a very fine American tenor, Lawrence Brownlee - though as everyone is well aware it's time to balance transatlantic visitors with building up a UK-centric ensemble of soloists again. I wouldn't put much money on Ryan Wigglesworth's The Winter's Tale from the few full-scale works of his I've heard - and when I saw him conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra, he was the second worst non-maestro I've seen there or anywhere else (the worst has to be China-approved Long Yu). How ironic when he bears the same surname as Mighty Mark, one of the world's BEST conductors. I hope, of course, for better on both RW fronts.
The forthcoming Don Giovanni I had the huge pleasure of learning more about at Lilian Baylis House (pictured up top; it's in West Hampstead, a hell of a cycle from West Kensington) when I interviewed Richard Jones, our only visionary opera director (let's say it again in case the message hasn't sunk in), and the wholly delightful and natural Christine Rice (singing Donna Elvira, one of our great three homegrown mezzos - Sarah Connolly and Alice Coote being the other two). This was a selective event for patrons and would-be patrons, and I think we had fun. The period will be, if I remember Richard's words aright '1946-2007' (very specific!), a closed society, deeply religious like the original Spanish milieu.
Richard is giving DVDs to the cast at the first meeting - I forget some of the choices, but Clive Bayley, the Leporello, is getting Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy, which may well be referenced (a certain freeze-frame of Robert De Niro's character greeting Jerry Lewis in a car was mentioned - the two pictured below in another scene). Christopher Purves's protagonist will have no redeeming features about him. RJ recalled a narcissist he met on one ill-fated venture overseas - no naming of either here, for obvious reasons.
It will be Richard's first major Mozart - he took on a Cosi for Scottish Opera during his trainee years at Glasgow's Citizens Theatre, but recalls it with horror. Funny that both Christine and Richard think Cosi tougher than Don G to pull off (I've seen at least three good productions of the former, only one so far of the latter - Deborah Warner's at Glyndebourne). The problem with Don G, our director finds, is how to keep the flow, especially in the second act where you have to hear both Don Ottavio's 'Il mio tesoro' - Don O will not be a wimp, since he's being played by Allan Clayton - and Elvira's 'Mi tradi'.
I imagine Mark Wigglesworth, working with RJ for the first time, will not make that feel a problem, to judge from his pace-perfect Magic Flute. Heading off tonight to hear another who, I'm sure, will keep Flute lively in concert - the inspiring Ivan Fischer, whose Budapest Festival Orchestra has just had its municipal budget cut by three quarters. And we think we have problems with the philistines here in London...
In the meantime, one piece of good news for next season: Ivo van Hove, my new-found hero, is back for three Toneelgroep Amsterdam spectaculars at the Barbican next season, as well as Hedda Gabler at the National and an opera which I can't mention scheduled for a later Royal Opera season. I'm delighted that Toneelgroep's Roman Plays, which I didn't see first time round, will be back, and while I lament missing out on their Scenes from a Marriage, another Bergman-scripted double, of After the Rehearsal and Persona, looks very promising indeed.
Richard Jones had been to see Kings of War, not sure whether on my ardent recommendation or not, and loved it, especially the take on Henry VI (another image from designer Jan Versweyveld, von Hove's long-term partner, shows a bespectacled Eelco Smits surrounded by Janni Goslinga's Queen Margaret, Fred Goessens' Cardinal and Robert de Hoog's Suffolk). Why did they all seem so real, I asked? Because, he said, they've mostly worked with van Hove since they were 18, and because KoW had a six-month rehearsal period. Utopia in the theatre, if the talent and genius are right.