Thursday 5 May 2016

Much to admire - ENO 2016-17 Season Launch

Daniel Kramer - photo Tristram Kenton
Daniel Kramer - photo Tristram Kenton
To say that English National Opera's press launch of its 2016-17 season was eagerly anticipated is very much an understatement. After all the turmoil of the last year, it was some achievement to present such a coherent, interestingly cast season rounded off with a promisingly inspiring speech from the incoming artistic director, Daniel Kramer (who took time out of rehearsals from Tristan and Isolde to appear. The season has been put together by ENO's senior artistic team, led by programming director Bob Holland, and it has all the hallmarks of age and experience. 

There are just four new productions (Richard Jones directing Mozart's Don Giovanni, William Kentridge directing the Berg/Cerha Lulu, Rory Kinnear directing the premiere of Ryan Wigglesworth's The Winter's Tale, and Ron Daniels' production of Daniel Schnyder's Charlie Parker's YARDBIRD), six revivals (Catherine Malfitano's production of Puccini's Tosca, Penny Woolcock's production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, Jonathan Miller's production of Verdi's Rigoletto, Mike Leigh's production of The Pirates of Penzance, Christopher Alden's production of Handel's Partenope, and Jonathan Miller's production of The Mikado) and a concert staging (of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius) with three of these taking place outside the Coliseum as part of an itinerant Summer season whilst the Coliseum is let (for 15 weeks as opposed to the usual eight or nine).

Kramer seems to be coming into things with his eyes open, he will be very much around in the company for the next two years before the first season he programmes (2018-19). In his speech he talked about the transformative power of opera and his keenness to develop new artists, new British talent not just singers, but directors and technical crew. He spoke of his own journey into opera, growing up as a gay man in a Christian household in rural Ohio, and how it is difficult for a theatre director to really make the journey into opera. His own past ENO work, Punch and Judy at the Young Vic and Bluebeard's Castle has not been without controversy but the work has led to new collaborations and he feels he has changed from a theatre director who does some opera, to an opera director who does some theatre.

He clearly has an interest in how the company functions, and was at some pains to emphasise how his ideas build in what is needed following the trauma of recent years.
Andrew Shore - ENO The Pirates Of Penzance (c) Tristram Kenton
Andrew Shore - The Pirates Of Penzance
(c) Tristram Kenton
He feels opera can magnetise new audiences, both in and outside the Coliseum, and wants to do one or two operettas per season, along with a musical; such performances helping to get people into the theatre and helping emphasise what effect a full orchestra in this repertoire can do. Support for young directors seems an integral part of Kramer's programme, and hand in hand with the company's plans for performances outside the Coliseum will be the idea of giving young directors the chance to work with the company in smaller spaces, just as John Berry gave Kramer his first chance at the Young Vic.

The 2016-17 season will have 16 roles sung by current or former ENO Harewood Young Artists, along with three sung by artists from the ENO Opera Works programme. The two Mackerras conducting fellows, Toby Purser and Matthew Waldren will also be working with the company, and as a pilot the company will be supporting director Daisy Evans (a former ENO staff director) and her Silent Opera company. The ENO Baylis programme is being expanded, and in the past season the programme engaged over 13, 0000 people;the Balcony for Baylis programme, which gives dress rehearsal seats in the balcony to schools and community groups, released 3,800 tickets.

There are 500 tickets at £20 at each performance, including the Opera Undressed evenings when the £20 gets you pre- and post-performance events, and this latter scheme is seeing a 35% re-booking rate. Cressida Pollock was bullish about the company's pricing, saying that the upper parts of the house were having ticket prices reduced with the very top prices being pinned. The company view being that reducing prices can not only increase audience, but is capable of increasing revenue also.

Tosca - ENO - photo Robert Workman
Tosca - photo Robert Workman
The expansion of the letting period for Summer is part of the financial plan, as the theatre is commercially let during this period, as opposed to the Easter season when the company collaborates with Michael Grade on a musical (The run of Sunset Boulevard is coming to an end, and there will be a musical next year).

And what of the season itself? Well the balance of new productions to old seems to be sensibly conservative, and it is fascinating that they have chosen to bring back Jonathan Miller's Rigoletto rather than the recent Christopher Alden production. Miller himself will be celebrated with a gala in November; of the company's last 38 seasons, only two have been without a revival of one of Miller's productions.

Casting is full of good things with many interesting UK-based singers taking part. My only real gripe is that the casting department has not, yet, lost its fascination with American dramatic sopranos, for the 2016-17 season Donna Anna, Tosca, Lulu and Gilda are all American (in fact all three principals in Rigoletto are).  But at least we balance this with casting which reverts to using a wide range of UK based singers in the smaller roles.

The season opens with Richard Jones' new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni with Christopher Purves in the title role, with Clive Bayley (who made his company debut as Masetto), Caitlin Lynch, Allan Clayton (singing Don Ottavio for the first time), Christine Rice (singing Elvira for the first time), James Creswell, Mary Bevan, and Nicholas Crawley, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth.

The Berg/Cerha Lula is seen in William Kentridge's production which has already appeared in Amsterdam and New York. Conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, Brenda Rae sings the title role, with a strong cast which includes Sarah Connolly, Michael Colvin, Nicky Spence, Willard White and James Morris (the two latter both known for their performances as Wotan!).

Ryan Wigglesworth - photo Benjamin Ealovega
Ryan Wigglesworth - photo Benjamin Ealovega
Ryan Wigglesworth will be conducting the premiere of his opera The Winter's Tale, with actor Rory Kinnear making his directorial debut and a cast (four former and two current young artists) including Iain Paterson, Sophie Bevan, Samantha Price, Leigh Melrose, Anthony Gregory, Susan Bickley, Neal Davies and Timothy Robinson. Wigglesworth was very much involved in the casting process and there seems to be a strong sense of the opera being shaped specifically for this cast.

The final new production is the European premiere of Daniel Schnyder's jazz-infused opera Charlie Parker's YARDBIRD directed by Ron Daniels, which is being performed at the Hackney Empire in the first of what is hoped to be an ongoing outside relationship. Another outside relationship being built is with the South Bank Centre, and Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius will be given in a concert staging there. Other outside venues and new partnerships are being developed and Cressida Pollock said that in five years time they want to be in a position where the company can choose where it performs.

Catherine Malfitano's production of Tosca returns with Keri Alkema, Gwyn Hughes Jones and Craig Colclough, conducted by Oleg Caetani, and Penny Woolcock's production of The Pearl Fishers has Claudia Boyle, Robert McPherson and Jacques Imbrailo (in his ENO debut!), conducted by Roland Boer. The Miller Rigoletto, the company's oldest surviving production, will be conducted by Richard Armstrong, very much known for his Verdi performances, with Nicholas Pallesen, Joshua Guerrero and Sydney Mancasola. A welcome revival is Mark Leigh's The Pirates of Penzance. Andrew Shore reprises the Major General, with Ashley Riches as the Pirate King, young artists Soraya Mafi and David Webb as Mabel and Frederick. Smaller roles include one John Tomlinson playing the Sergeant of Police, all conducted by Gareth Jones. Handel's Partenope makes a welcome return in Christopher Alden's production with Sarah Tynan (making her debut in the title role), Patricia Bardon, James Laing and Robert Murray, conducted by Christopher Curnyn.

Jonathan Miller's production of The Mikado is being taken on holiday to Blackpool with full ENO orchestra and chorus appearing in 10 performances at the Opera House at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool.

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