Tuesday 4 February 2020

New operas, a new team - Welsh National Opera approaches its 75th anniversary

Olivia Fuchs' production of Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier - Lucia Cervoni, Margaret Baiton, Louise Alder - WNO 2017 (photo Bill Cooper)
Olivia Fuchs' production of Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier - Lucia Cervoni, Margaret Baiton, Louise Alder
WNO 2017 (photo Bill Cooper)
Welsh National Opera turns 75 in 2021 and its recently announced 2020/21 season sees the company approaching that milestone with a new team firmly in place; general director Aidan Lang [previously in charge of Seattle Opera, New Zealand Opera and the Buxton Festival] has been in post since July 2019 and music director Tomáš Hanus has renewed his contract to 2026, a position he took over in 2016. But that does not mean that the companies previous artistic director, Sir David Pountney, is completely out of the picture as Pountney is heavily involved in a new work being premiered in Autumn 2020, Will Todd's Migrations which forms part of the Mayflower 2020 celebrations. The opera will continue WNO's work with refugees, which began last year, and the company is also extending its outreach and engagement works.

For the other new production for 2020/21, Gounod's Faust sees the company launch its 75th birthday celebrations with one of the first operas it performed. Music director Tomáš Hanus conducts two operas, Janáček's Jenůfa and Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, as well as giving concerts with the WNO Orchestra. The WNO Youth Opera will be taking to the main stage with Shostakovich's Cheryomushki.

Autumn 2020 sees the company continuing its exploration of Janáček with the return of Katie Mitchell's production of Jenůfa [originally seen in 1998 and last seen in 2008, see the review in The Guardian] with Amanda Majeski making her role debut in the title role. Majeski made a big impression in the title role of Janáček's Kat'a Kabanova at Covent Garden last year [see my review], so we will be keen to see what she makes of another troubled Janáček heroine. The key role of the Kostelnička is taken by Helena Zubanovich with Ed Lyon as Števa. Tomáš Hanus conducts.

The other major opera in the Autumn is Migrations, this will have a libretto which weaves six different stories of migration written by Shreya Sen Handley, Edson Burton, Miles Chambers, Eric Ngalle Charles and Sarah Woods working with David Pountney to create the libretto influenced by their own personal experiences of migration and working with refugees. David Pountney directs and Matthew Kofi Waldren conducts, with a cast of 100 performers including Lester Lynch, Marion Newman, Simon Bailey, Tom Randle, Musa Ngqungwana and Meeta Raval, along with a gospel choir, Bollywood dancers and a children’s chorus. The piece will continue WNO's work with refugees which started last year, and for the next three years WNO will work with refugee community groups in Cardiff, Birmingham and Southampton through composition, music and performance projects.

The Autumn season is completed by a further revival of Rossini's The Barber of Seville conducted by WNO Associate Conductor Kerem Hasan.

Tomáš Hanus made his debut as music director of the company in 2017 with Olivia Fuch's new production of Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, [see my review] and he returns to the production in Spring 2021, with Rebecca Evans and Lucia Cervoni returning as the Marschallin and Octavian, plus Soraya Mafi and Julie Martin Du Theil as Sophie, and Andrea Silvestrelli as Baron Ochs.

Fuchs is on duty again for Spring 2021's new production, Gounod's Faust, which is one of the first works to be performed by the fledgling WNO and marks the beginning of the 75 birthday celebrations. Alexander Joel conducts and the cast includes Jung Soo Yun as Faust, Wojtek Gierlach as Méphistophélès, Natalya Pavlova as Marguérite, Gareth Brynmor John as Valentin and Katie Bray as Siébel. There is no word yet of which version of the opera is being used grand opera/opera comique, recitative/spoken dialogue, ballet/no ballet, but it is a production with Teater Magdeburg (as was Fuchs' Der Rosenkavalier) so we can expect something rather interesting.

The Spring season is completed with a revival of Peter Watson's production of Verdi's Il Trovatore conducted by Pietro Rizzi with Mary Elizabeth Williams as Leonore. Williams has made a big impression in the two recent David Pountney Verdi productions, Un ballo in maschera [see my review] and La forza del destino [see my review], and we also caught her on form in Verdi's Don Carlos (in French) in Flanders [see my review] so we await her Leonore with keen interest.

As well as the opera, Tomáš Hanus will be conducting three concerts with the WNO Orchestra as part of the International Concert Series at Cardiff's St David's Hall, including the closing of the Cardiff Beethoven 250 celebrations with Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 with soloists Mary Elizabeth Williams, Madeleine Shaw, Peter Berger and James Platt.

In Summer 2021 a mid-scale production will feature a new opera by David Hackbridge Johnson with a libretto by Emma Jenkins, directed by Caroline Clegg [Clegg and Jenkins collaborated on 2018's Rhonda Rips It Up]. Blaze of Glory! follows the fortunes of a group of miners in a small mining village who embark upon a musical odyssey by forming a male voice choir as a means of uniting the community after a mining disaster, and WNO will be working with male voice choirs and community singing groups, particularly in the South Wales Valleys and across the tour, who will perform in the opera. Alongside the tour the opera will be the starting point for a composition project with young people around gender identity and exploring their views of cultural and social roles.

The company has extended its engagement work by setting up Hubs in North Wales and Birmingham/West Midlands, and is in the process of setting up a further Hub for the South-West (from Southampton to Plymouth). Activity in Cardiff and at the Hubs is intended to create meaningful routes into opera and classical music for new and younger audiences across the region. Areas of focus over the next three years will include talent development, health and well-being (working with those in long-term care, and people with dementia), Family and intergenerational activity, and international understanding and working with those who are socially excluded or isolated, including work with refugees and asylum seekers.

Later in 2020 the company will be announcing the first two recipients of its new Associate Artists programme. These full-time, year-long traineeship for young singers will provide structured learning and professional development programme alongside the opportunity to perform small roles and cover roles within WNO. Rebecca Evans will mentor both singers throughout the year.

For the company’s 75th year, the WNO Youth Opera will take to the main stage of Wales Millennium Centre in September 2021 for a new production of Shostakovich’s Cheryomushki, directed by Daisy Evans and conducted by Alice Farnham. As well as singers from WNO’s Youth Opera and Youth Opera alumni, the production will include assisting roles, technical placements and student instrumentalists, providing a unique training experience for young people interested in a professional career within opera and theatre, working alongside top industry professionals and mentored by WNO experts.

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