6 August 2010 at 5.12pm | Comment on this article
The Royal Opera’s new season opens in September in truly energetic style with three performances in three different cities on three consecutive nights: London (September 10), Tokyo (September 11) and Yokohama (September 12). Star names flying over to Japan include Anna Netrebko (Manon) and Angela Gheorghiu (La traviata ).
This extraordinary arrangement is the culmination of 10 years planning by Elaine Padmore, Director of Opera. The company used to tour in the 1980s but since then the cost has been a major factor, says Elaine:
“It’s much cheaper for the ballet to travel: they don’t need to take an orchestra as they’ll engage one locally and the dancers are all employees so it doesn’t cost any more to have them performing abroad. The opera company, however, needs guest artists and there is a chorus of 48, a large orchestra, and a vast amount of scenery. We’ve cracked it this time by performing here at the same time. We can’t afford to have the house dark.”
That’s the tricky bit. What do you do when much of your company, Chorus, Orchestra and some of your guest artists are 6,000 miles away flying the flag for Britain? You turn to Jonathan Miller, of course. His Così fan tutte and his Don Pasquale are audience favourites and they happen to be small productions. “They need only a small chorus and we can manage that because not all the chorus is going to Japan, nor is all the orchestra, so we can supplement this core with regulars who join us when required.”
Don Pasquale and Così fan tutte in Covent Garden
In the pit for Don Pasquale is Evelino Pidò and for Così fan tutte there is Thomas Hengelbrock, a German conductor making his Royal Opera House debut. Hengelbrock is not only a highly regarded conductor – he also has his own ensemble, the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, which towards the end of September will commandeer the pit for Steffani’s Niobe, regina di Tebe. This is the story of a Queen who irritated a Goddess by boasting about her huge number of off-spring – fourteen according to the Greek legend on which the work is based. The Goddess seeks revenge by killing them all! So, only two weeks into the season, we have a new conductor, a new band, and an unknown work.
Niobe – a forgotten Baroque gem
Elaine, who has been wedded to early music from her student days, says “Peter Katona [Casting Director] and I were both bowled over when we went to hear Niobe at the Schwetzingen Festival. It’s a terrific piece, a dramatic story with some dance and beautiful music. Yes, it is four hours long, but it goes by quickly because it is a good story and there are no da capo arias: we love da capo arias when they are good, but they can become tedious – and here we have a variety of structures to carry the drama along.”
The cast is led by Véronique Gens, who played the jealous Juno in La Calisto, and a male soprano, Jacek Laszczkowski as her husband. A male soprano? “He has a normal male speaking voice, but when singing it’s a falsetto voice with an extraordinary extension at the top. The voice is not remarkable in the lower register - he sounds like a countertenor, but then when he goes to the high notes you think: “I am not used to those sounds coming from a man!” There are also two more countertenors in the cast, Iestyn Davies and Tim Mead.
“Doing a 17th century work can be a little difficult for us because the more intimate pieces are not going to work in our large auditorium. Niobe was performed in a small German house so a fair amount of the set has been rebuilt to fit our larger stage and auditorium and luckily Lisbon and Luxemburg also wanted to do this fine opera that none of us had seen before which has helped reduce costs.”
Five unusual operas
Niobe is not the only unusual work to find its way onto the stage in the coming season. There is also Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride, and Massenet’s Cendrillon, plus a new work, Mark–Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole.
“It’s important to inject new things into our repertoire. It’s great to do the big classics and we are doing so, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Aida and Die Zauberflöte are all there in the coming season, but the audience also want to taste something different. Of course you don’t offer 13 performances of Niobe and the other new works, you do fewer, say seven or eight, and we reduce the ticket price. Once or twice a season we try to cap the top price to £75. But if you have a starry cast in a new work – and Adriana has Angela Gheorghiu - then this doesn’t apply.”
Five unusual operas does seem ambitious? “Yes, but it’s just the way it worked out. This is a house that is artist-led, so we have to work, first and foremost, with the availability of the singers we want. Tony Pappano, as music director, gets first choice of what we do. He tells us what works he wants and these are planned to give colour and shape to the season. He usually conducts five or six works, two or three new and the others would be revivals. But he doesn’t merely say I want to do a new Ring or a new Tosca. He says I want to do The Ring with Bryn Terfel and a new Tosca with Angela Gheorghiu so we then start to plan around the singers.
“Star singers then want to know what the production will be like, so we have conversations covering a number of directors and we try and get the right fit.”
“Generally the elite club of singers that every house wants have clear plans for what they want to sing when and don’t want to deviate, so we need to plan around them.”
Four French operas
Tony Pappano loves French music so it is no coincidence that there are four French operas on the horizon: Massenet’s Werther, Massenet’s Cendrillon, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and a concert performance of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles. “That’s reasonable, it’s not excessive. Tony loves Massenet, and so do I. I did a lot when I was running the Wexford Festival. Massenet is under-rated. If you like Puccini you will like Massenet. Tony and I have much the same taste which is why we work so well together!”
There will be a total of 19 productions in the new season and Elaine Padmore does not hesitate to list her personal highlights: two are rare works, The Tsar’s Bride, Cendrillon, and the third is a new commission, Anna Nicole, based on the story of a former Playmate of the Year who married a rich old man. When he died there were legal battles over the estate and she died in mysterious circumstances. It is billed as “A celebrity story of our times that includes profanity, drug abuse and sexual content.”
“We try to commission a new work every other year. Tony Pappano agreed he would conduct something by Mark-Anthony Turnage so we approached him for a new work and discussed everything from the beginning. We said, let’s have something of our times and let’s have something comic. Both Tony and he are keen on jazz so that became another influence. It has been four years since our first conversation, we have had a number of workshops and this amount of involvement obviously influences my level of excitement.”
From Steffani’s Niobe dating from 1688 to Turnage in 2011: in one season more than 300 years of opera is represented via all the distinct opera periods, baroque, classic, romantic, modern and contemporary. Now that sounds like excellent planning.