Wednesday 11 March 2020

Oh Goodie! Celebrating English Touring Opera's 40th anniversary.

Handel: Giulio Cesare - Christopher Ainslie - English Touring Opera 2017 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Giulio Cesare - Christopher Ainslie - English Touring Opera 2017 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Not for the first time, I have opened the leaflet about English Touring Opera's (ETO) forthcoming season and thought 'Oh, goodie'. This year ETO celebrates 40 years  and whilst the company is busy touring its current programme, Handel's Giulio Cesare [see my review], Bach's St John Passion [see my review], Mozart's Cosi fan tutte and the children's opera The Extraordinary Adventures of You and Me, it has announced plans for its Autumn 2020 tour, which will include Sir Michael Tippett's The Knot Garden, Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw and Mark-Anthony Turnage's Greek.

I don't think that Tippett's The Knot Garden has been staged in London since the 1980s when Nicholas Hyntner directed it at the Royal Opera, though Scottish Opera did a centenary production in 2005. This is the second Tippett opera that ETO has staged having given us King Priam in 2014, thus providing a valuable service at a time when these major 20th century operas are generally ignored by larger companies.

During Tippett's lifetime, the relationship between himself and Britten was generally friendly, and each seems to have held a positive attitude to the other's work, so it will be interesting to see two major operas side by side: The Knot Garden which premiered in 1970 and The Turn of the Screw which premiered in 1954.

For The Knot Garden, director David Freeman will be revisiting his 1984 Opera Factory production which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre (dear reader, I was there) with Richard Baker conducting [we last saw him conducting Philip Venables' 4:48 Psychosis, see my review]. For The Turn of the Screw, Amy Lane, artistic director of the Copenhagen Opera Festival, will direct and Dane Lam will conduct [we last saw him conducting Opera Holland Park's production of Cilea's L'Arlesiana in 2019, see my review].

The third work is Mark-Anthony Turnage's Greek, his operatic version of Stephen Berkoff's powerful contemporary re-working of the Oedipus myth. It will be directed by Jonathan Moore, who directed the premiere of the opera in 1988 and co-adapted the text, and conducted by Tim Anderson. Anderson recently conducted the UK premiere of Philip Venables' Denis and Katya with Music Theatre Wales, and conducted Jonathan Moore's production of Greek at the Grimeborn Festival in 2019.

ETO's Autumn tour starts at the Hackney Empire (7 October 2020) and visits Buxton, Durham, Snape, Saffron Hall, Exeter and Bath, ending on 10 November 2020.

Tippett: King Priam - English Touring Opera 2014 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Tippett: King Priam - English Touring Opera 2014 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
2020 is the company's 40th anniversary (it was started as Opera 80) and there is much to celebrate, the range of its work is remarkable (as is the ability to stretch a limited budget).  I first saw them many years ago, at the Theatre Royal Brighton in a production of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos (directed by Anthony Besch whose production of that opera I saw at Scottish Opera in the 1980s with Janet Baker), and was bowled over by a vivid account of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda at the Cambridge Arts Theatre in 2005. Other 'Oh Goody' moments since then have included Tippett's King Priam, Rossini's Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra, Kurt Weill's Der Silbersee, Gilbert & Sullivan's Patience, Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride, Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse, the world premiere of Alexander Goehr's Promised End and a whole series of fine Handel stagings.

And of course, we should not forget that alongside the main stage operas there are a series of operas for children including Russell Hepplewhite's award-winning Laika the Spacedog.

What is remarkable is not so much that the company dares to go where many UK companies do not, but that it takes the productions on long UK tours (19 different venues for the current Spring tour). So that alongside small-scale versions of established classics it encourages audiences to open eyes and ears whether it be  Baroque opera, Italian 19th century opera seria or challenging 20th century classics.

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