Thursday 30 April 2015

ENO new season

Benedict Andrews' production of La Boheme at Dutch National Opera. Photo Monica Rittershaus
Benedict Andrews' production of La Boheme at Dutch National Opera.
Photo Monica Rittershaus
English National Opera has announced a 2015/2016 season which is remarkably confident and shows that artistic director John Berry is intending to stick to his guns and develop the company's distinctive brand. There are new (to London) productions from Dmitri Tcherniakov, Benedict Andrews, Calixto Bieito, Christopher Alden, Phelim McDermott and Daniel Kramer with Tristan and Isolde, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, The Force of Destiny, and Akhnaten, four operas which have strong historical resonance for the company, all making a welcome return to the Coliseum stage and Norma coming to ENO for the first time.

It is possible detect hints of ENO simply going shopping for suitable productions in this selection of co-productions, which may be a result of ENO's current economics, and can be seen as a canny way of getting greater leverage. Tcherniakov's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk for instance is much travelled, having been created for Deutsche Oper am Rhein, this outing is a co-production between ENO and Opera de Lyon. Norma is borrowed from Opera North for whom it was created (with Die Theater Chemnitz). Calizto Bieito's new Force of Destiny is a co-production with the Met in New York, and we wonder what that house will make of Bieito's particularly potent blend of Euro-trash?

All this has to be paid for, of course.

There are five revivals of what ENO presumably hopes are popular productions, The Barber of Seville, The Mikado, The Magic Flute, Madam Butterfly and Jenufa. ENO has cleverly sweetened this pill by putting in some strong casts Morgan Pearse, Kathryn Rudge, Andrew Shaw and Katherine Broderick in The Barber of Seville, Anthony Gregory, Mary Bevan and Yvonne Howard in The Mikado, Allan Clayton, Lucy Crowe, Peter Coleman-Wright, John Graham-Hall, James Creswell and Soraya Mafi in The Magic Flute. One of ENO's problems is that the past few seasons have not quite created the new productions to replace the old favourites, during the 2014/15 season it has been noticeable that some of the big name popular operas have not been quite such a draw as you might have expected. A bigger question is the company's apparent policy of disposable opera, creating many new productions in co-productions and then never bringing them back. Only relatively rarely does a promising production seem to get brought back for re-working, though I have to confess this is based on a general impression and guess-work rather than securely based on figures.

New Music Director Mark Wigglesworth conducts four operas, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, The Force of Destiny, The Magic Flute and Jenufa, Xian Zhang making a welcome return to conduct La Boheme, Karen Kamenesek making her ENO debut with Akhnaten, Edward Gardner conducting Tristan and Isolde and Richard Armstrong conducting Jenufa.

The new productions are a somewhat mixed bunch. Tcherniakov did not really achieve lift-off with his Simon Boccanegra so ENO must be hoping that he can do it this time, in an opera which brings back strong memories of David Pountney's production. Bieito has been on somewhat varied form lately so the rather diverse elements of The Force of Destiny may come together or not! And I can't wait for Christopher Alden's Norma. The fact that Anish Kapoor is designing Tristan and Isolde is intriguing, but director Daniel Kramer works in opera, theatre and dance and you hope that he will be directing the music and not the libretto. A little voice inside me keeps asking, do we need another Philip Glass new production at ENO, but then Phelim McDermott's productions are always wonderful and ENO knows that the name Philip Glass will be box office draw when other equally worthy names are not.

The press release for the new season proudly announces that 88% of the singers and conductors are British, British-trained or resident. This means that there are quite a lot of incomers in the castings, but there are lots of good things; David Butt Philip as Pinkerton, Stuart Skelton as Tristan, John Daszak as Sergei, Kathryn Rudge as Rosina, Corinne Winters as Mimi, Duncan Rock as Marcello, James Creswell as Padre Guardiano, Anthony Michaels-Moore as Don Carlo, and Andrew Shore as Melitone (I can still remember Derek Hammond Stroud in the role!), and Peter Auty as Pollione. The entire cast of The Magic Flute is delectable.

Perhaps most worrying is the sense that ENO has given up on British spinto and dramatic sopranos. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk will be Patricia Racette, Donna Leonora di Vargas will be Tamara Wilson, Norma will be Marjorie Owens and Heidi Melton will be Isolde. Now I am sure that all of these are thrilling artists and look forward to hearing them, but what happened to British sopranos? Can't we think of a few people that we'd all like to hear as Leonora or Isolde?

The casting for the summer operas in 2016 has not been fully announced yet, and there is also no word about future musicals. The season will also see the start of the opening up of the Coliseum itself, a welcome development. Even though the main impulse is commercial, the building is too big and too special to be simply shut for so much time during the day. And there is a new collaboration with Streetwise Opera, which cannot be a bad thing at all.

I am pretty sure that I have managed to miss someone or something out, but there is a lot to digest. You can read the full ENO season announcement at their website.
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