Thursday, 2 May 2013

ENO 2013/14 season - Theatrical Milestones

Terry Gilliam with the score of Benvenuto Cellini (c) Richard Hubert Smith
Terry Gilliam (c) Richard Hubert Smith
English National Opera launched its 2013/14 in bullish mood yesterday (1/5). Chief Executive Loretta Tomasi was determindely up-beat about the way the company had made a significant surplus for 2012/13 (financial year ending March 2013) and reduced its deficit. Without the benefit of details accounts this may be smoke and mirrors, but there is no denying that ENO has put together a strong season with ten new production and four revivals. All the new productions are co-productions and only three or four are completely new creations, the others have already been seen at the co-producers. But that is to be nit-picking, it is a strong season with a good depth to both repertoire and casting.

The new productions are Calixto Bieito's Fidelio (from Munich), Christopher Alden's Die Fledermaus (from Canada), Simon McBurney's The Magic Flute (from the Netherlands), Christopher Alden's Rigoletto (from Canada), Richard Jones's production of Handel's Rodelinda, Joe Hill-Gibbins' production of Thomas Ades' Powder her Face, Pierre Audi's production of Julian Anderson's Thebans, Katie Mitchell's Cosi fan tutte (a co-production with the Met), Terry Gilliam's production of Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini and Mathew Barney's film opera, River of Fundament.

Revivals are Penny Woolcock's production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers (which is being seen in  re-worked version), Anthony Minghella's Madama Butterfly, David Alden's Peter Grimes and Phelim McDonald's production of Philip Glass's Satygraha.


The repertoire is perhaps a little less up-front than previous seasons with the 21st century repertoire being restricted to Thomas Ades' sure fire hit, Powder her Face (the one with the fellatio aria) and Julian Anderson's much ancipated first opera Thebans with a libretto by Frank McGuinness based on Euripedes Theban Trilogy.


But there are other novelties. Handel opera is not that common on main stages and a new Rodelinda is to be looked forward to even if we have the worry that Richard Jones will perpetrate something like the dinosaur (with Ann Murray in a kilt) in his famous Munich Giulio Cesare. ENO are lucky that Terry Gilliam has got the Berlioz bit between his teeth. Benvenuto Cellini would be a difficult sell but Gilliam's name ensures both public interest and theatricality. And it is around 40 years since the opera was last given a full staging in London so ENO are definitely refreshing the repertoire. During the presentation Edward Gardner referred to the work's complicated textual history and talked about how he and Gilliam have come up with their own edition (Berlioz nerds, watch this space).

Remarkably, only one production comes into the unnecessary replacement category (we've had new Fledermaus relatively recently at the Coliseum). Both the Magic Flute and Rigoletto  replace popular long-running productions (now in much needed retirement) and have difficult shoes to fill. But Simon McBurney's highly theatrical Magic Flute and Christopher Alden's 19th century set Rigoletto seem set to replace them.

The Alden brothers are something of a feature of the season with Christopher Alden's Die Fledermaus and Rigoletto and a revival of David Alden's dystopic Peter Grimes. Other directors cover quite a wide range with Richard Jones doing his first Handel at ENO, Calixto Bieito following upon his well-travelled Carmen with a labyrinth based Fidelio. Simon McBurney doing Magic Flute is a particular coup as McBurney is notoriously shy of opera. Theatre director Joe Hill-Gibbins makes his opera directing debut christening a new space, Ambika P3 in Marylebone, a concrete bunker which is the former construction hall of the University of Westminster's School of Engineering. Julian Anderson's Thebans is not only a musical highlight, it represents Pierre Audi's first work in London for a long, long time. It will be interesting to see what Katie Mitchell's distinctive style of direction will make of Cosi fan tutte, especially as the English version is being done by the playwright Martin Crimp.

Visual artist Matthew Barney is producing a film with composer Jonathan Bepler. The River of Fundament is based on a Norman Mailer novel, Ancient Evenings, and the film receives three showings at the London Coliseum.

As I have in the past chided ENO for their rather consumerist, disposable attitude to productions, it is heartening that Penny Woolcock's Les Pecheurs de Perles will be returning in a re-worked form. And it is great to see a director returning to a production and being able to take a fresh look.

The casting shows a similar depth. Stuart Skelton repeats his heroic Peter Grimes and adds Florestan (Fidelio). In Peter Grimes he is joined by Elza Van de Heever as Ellen and Iain Paterson doing his first stage Bulstrode. In Fidelio, Emma Bell plays the title role with Sarah Tynan as Marzelline.

Ben Johnson, who played Alfredo in La Traviata, returns as Tamino in Magic Flute with a cast of young singers including Devon Guthrie, Roland Wood and Mary Bevan. Barry Banks follows up his first Hoffmann with his first Duke in Rigoletto, with Anna Christie as Gilda. Guin Kelsey, who sang the title role in the Christopher Alden production in Canada, travels to London with the production. Diana Montague is rather luxury casting as Giovana.

Richard Jones is being supported in Rodelinda with a truly admirable cast with Rebecca Evans in the title rol, counter tenors Iestyn Davies and Christopher Ainslie, and John Mark Ainsley as the villain Grimoaldo (one of Handel's major tenor roles), with Susan Bickley as Eduige. Bickley also plays Jocasta in Julian Anderson's Thebans, with Peter Hoar as Creon and Roland Wood as Oedipus.

Amanda Roocroft makes a welcome return as Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, in Powder her Face and another favourite, Christine Rice sings Dorabella with Kate Valentine as Fiordiligi and Mary Bevan as Despina. Both these last two are Harewood Young Artists. In fact, the way the casting mixes experience with young singers is admirable. Nicky Spence pops up as Francesco in Benvenuto Cellini, and Sophie Bevan sings Leila in Les Pecheurs de Perles, Die Fledermaus has Julia Sporsen as Rosalinde  and Jennifer Holloway as Adele.

The Magic Flute is being conducted by Gergely Madaras, in the second year of  his Mackerras Fellowship at ENO. Ed Gardener is conducting four operas, Fidelio, Peter Grimes, Thebans and Benvenuto Cellini. Graeme Jenkins returns to ENO to conducto Rigoletto and Christian Curnyn continues his relationship with ENO conducting Rodelinda.

They are also  inaugurating a scheme of house composers. Alastair Putt, Richard Causton, Helen Grimes, and Edmund Finnis will learn about opera houses and be mentored by Edward Gardner and Ryan Wigglesworth.

The new season certainly shows ENO responding to their financial climate and there is a popular streak to the repertoire. But there is still an admirable avoidance of playing safe and with works like Thebans, Rodelina and Benvenuto Cellini we have the prospect of theatrical milsestones.

Further information from the ENO website.


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