<< -- 4 -- Robert Hugill WHAT IS THE ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA FOR?
Opera companies do not develop reputations by staying still, risks must be taken and new talent discovered. Doran's new season will see four very different directors making their UK opera début.
Film director Anthony Minghella will be directing Madam Butterfly (with Mary Plazas, Gwyn Hughes Jones, Christopher Purves and Jean Rigby). Amazingly, this is a co-production with Lithuanian National Opera. Throwing film/TV directors at opera is not always a success, but when it does work the results can be stunning (eg Tarkovsky's Boris Goudonov at the Royal Opera House), so it is worth the risk. This project, of course, is not actually Seán Doran's. Such things take far longer to develop and it was initiated by the previous regime.
As has already been mentioned, Antonia Bird will be directing Gaddaffi. Chinese born director and performer Chen Shi-Zheng will be making his UK début with Monteverdi's Orfeo (John Mark Ainsley will be singing the title role). This represents a considerable investment as Shi-Zheng will be directing all the operas in the Monteverdi canon along with the Vespers. This latter production of the Vespers has already appeared in the USA where it made quite a stir and I look forward to seeing it when it finally appears. Shi-Zeng integrates East Asian dance into his staging and it will be interesting to see how this works for Monteverdi's narrative operas (as opposed to the non-narrative Vespers). Monteverdi's operas are difficult to bring off in such a large space as the Coliseum and in the past the ENO has been a little patchy with the casting of them, but Orfeo with its small-ish cast and ensemble based numbers, is probably the best place to start.
The fourth new director is Laurent Pelly, the French theatre and opera director who is finally making his UK début with the importing of his Châtelet Theatre production of Offenbach's La Belle Helene. This has been strongly cast with Dame Felicity Lott, Toby Spence and Bonaventura Bottone. It will be a pleasure to see some of Pelly's stylish work in London, but I am still waiting for him to be asked to direct a brand new production for one of our London companies.
In the end, opera planning is about renewal of the repertoire. Besides the new production of Madam Butterfly, there will also be a new production of Janácek's The Makropulos Case, directed by Christopher Alden with Sir Charles Mackerras as musical director. I was rather surprised at the choosing of this opera for a new production, I am sure that there are other operas in the Janácek canon which are more in need of replenishment. But the opera is being supported by Peter Moores Foundation and will be recorded for Chandos. Whilst this is very welcome, I do still worry at the way repertoire is decided by such circumstances. (Chandos already have much of the Janácek canon in English recordings and this will fill a much needed gap.)
Interesting revivals include a strongly cast production of Poulenc's 'The Carmelites' with Giselle Allen, Josephine Barstow, Orla Boylan and Felicity Palmer in a welcome return of Phyllida Lloyd's production. This will also be recorded for Chandos, and I can't wait! Finally a revival of David Levaux's 1996 production of Strauss's 'Salome' marks the UK debut of Canadian born conductor Kwame Ryan, with Cheryl Barker in the title role. Barker will also be singing Emilia Marty in 'The Makropoulos Case'. She is a fine artist and has been much featured by ENO recently, but I wish that they could find a way of sharing these meaty dramatic roles between a number of singers.
Finally of course, there is the list of what is not being performed. Any opera season is liable to criticism for what is omitted. Often these omissions are not the fault of the director, external circumstances and budgetary requirements can often mean that the major pieces of a new season collapse and evaporate, leaving the poor artistic director to fill in as best they can. So we should not read too much into the fact that the new season at ENO has no Wagner, no Richard Strauss, only one Puccini opera (Madam Butterfly), only one Verdi opera (the Jonathan Miller Rigoletto) and only one Mozart opera (the Nicholas Hyntner Magic Flute) and there is not a single pre-Verdi Italian opera. So whilst I look forward to the new season immensely, I will be very curious to see how future seasons develop.