Astute readers of the major cultural blogs will have noticed that the supposed ROH 2011-12 season reveal last week was preceded by a reveal a few weeks earlier to high ranking doners and pretty completely run down by intermezzo. As the information was not formally in the public domain we have held off writing it up till now.
Top billing in what is a bit of a mixed season for me, is the new production of Berlioz's still criminally neglected masterpiece Les Troyens. David McVicar is generally reliable (though his big test for me will be the upcoming Glyndebourne Meistersingers) so we should be spared a production too at odds with the music and text. Musically the line-up is exceptional with Jonas Kaufmann as Enee, the wonderful Anna Caterina Antonacci in the key role of Cassandre (who I last saw in Charles Mackerras's blazing concert performance of Maria Stuarda in Edinburgh), Eva-Maria Westbroek as Didon (who I last saw at Christmas in the Royal Opera's magnificent new Tannhauser). There is every hope then of a production and performance which will do this wonderful work true justice.
The premier of Judith Weir's new opera, Miss Fortune, also looks exciting. I regret that I have never seen any of Weir's operas live (a mark of how bad British companies are at sustaining new work in the repertoire), so I'm looking forward to rectifying this. Paul Daniel has been a bit variable of late (unlike others I didn't particularly rate his direction of the ENO's diabolical Lucrezia) but he is perfectly capable of directing a commanding performance. The pick of the singers is unquestionably Jacques Imbrailo, who was an outstanding Billy Budd in last summer's Glyndebourne production.
I debated whether to catch Rusalka which I have also never seen live at Glyndebourne this summer, but heard the production was iffy and decided on Rinaldo instead, so I'll probably try to catch this new production, apparently the first time it has ever been fully staged at the Royal Opera, even though this production is described as “a radical interpretation” - rarely a promising sign. It is being conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin who I don't believe I've ever heard live with the lead being taken by Camilla Nylund who I'm sure I have heard live but can't for the life of me recall in what!
A new production of Falstaff is always welcome (though I have a soft spot in my heart for the venerable long since retired ENO production complete with last-act flourescent tree), and I haven't seen this staged for far too long. I'm not aware of having seen any of the cast which includes singers from Canada, Puerto Rico and Slovakia, or having heard Daniele Gatti conduct but it's a sufficiently marvellous score that again I'll probably chance it. There are few other passages in Verdi that I love as much as Nanetta and Fenton's duet (which is another of those things I tend to hear in an old ENO translation - “Kisses may fade, but the memory lingers...”) and there is something very moving about the final chorus “Life is a burst of laughter.”
Completing the line-up of new productions we have Puccini's Il Trittico. This should be natural territory for Pappano, and again Eva-Maria Westbroek and Anja Harteros are strong casting (I don't know either of the men). My one niggle about this is it is being directed by Richard Jones. Apparently his Gianni Schicchi in 2007 was wonderful. I didn't see it, but the list of his failures has been much longer than the list of his successes for me. Having just seen the excellent productions of two of the three by English Touring Opera though, I'm now slightly more curious to see another take on them.
One final note on new productions. We have commented here before about the brilliance of John Fulljames. It is depressing to see yet another season pass by without the Royal Opera giving him an opportunity on the main stage. He does at least appear in a revival of an Opera Group production in the Linbury, but frankly this is not good enough. Great opera directors are in short supply and the Royal Opera House should be making use of them. I sincerely hope steps are being taken to rectify this.
Turning to revivals we have a similar mixed bag. A big chunk of the season is being taken up with a so-called cycle of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas. Granted the Figaro has a very exciting cast including Simon Keenlyside, Aleksandra Kurzak (whose recent Rossini heroines have been superb), Kate Royal and Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, and it would be interesting to see and hear Gerald Finley as the Don, but these pieces are being pretty endlessly done by everybody, and indeed Figaro and Cosi have both been very recently revived at the House. Is it too much to ask the Royal Opera to finally get around to reviving Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail? I remember a beautiful production from the early 90s and the piece hasn't been staged by one of the UK companies for years that I can recall.
The landmark revival ought to have been Graham Vick's marvellous production of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, but there are some caveats. The main one is the Hans Sachs which is being sung by Wolfgang Koch a singer I have never previously heard of, and web scuttle-bucket certaintly suggests is unlikely to erase memories of John Tomlinson's unforgettable performance the last time this was revived. It seems a shame that the Royal Opera didn't take this opportunity to give a chance to British bass-baritone James Rutherford who has recently sung the part to great acclaim at Bayreuth and I believe elsewhere. On the other hand I look forward to hearing Toby Spence as David again. Of the rest I feel sure I've heard Peter Coleman-Wright but can't think what in, and again it is difficult to imagine the Beckmesser of Thomas Allen being surpassed. Emma Bell sings Eva but has not impressed me in other repertoire and I have my doubts as to whether she has the necessary vocal heft. The Walther is unknown to me. Antonio Pappano conducts and I have not yet heard him lead a Wagner performance which completely convinced me.
The other Wagner is a revival of Der Fliegende Hollander in Tim Albery's recent new production which family members who saw the original run rated very highly. I hope to catch it this time round. The cast is largely unknown to me and Jeffrey Tate seems an odd choice to conduct, given his recent Wagner performances at the House, Bychkov would have been an obvious choice. The web does suggest that Tate has Wagnerian pedigree but never having heard him I can't say how justified this is. The stand out among the remaining revivals for me is Verdi's Otello which I have never seen, a piece which again should suit Pappano admirably and which looks strongly cast.
Around the other revivials there is a sense of deja vu. McVicar's Rigoletto is again revived which is a little rapid considering we had it last season, and the choice of Eliot Gardiner to direct struck me as a little surprising. The ROH's Salome gets what I calculate is its third outing with Angela Denoke who was apparently disappointing in the first revival. I don't like the production at all, think it's a pity that the Royal Opera don't give us more rarer Strauss, and again this seems a rather rapid return for a production that was already revived in 2009-10, although Andris Nelsons might liven things up in the pit. Coming under the heading of “Why don't the planners of our opera houses talk to each other” (a heading one might also put the Meistersinger revival under – you wait years for something and three productions come along at once!) is the revival of Faust. I made my views on this second rate work clear in reviewing the dull ENO production earlier this season, and while there is some luxury casting here of Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Rene Pape, the ROH are placing an opera in which the diva is again key in the hands of the notoriously unreliable Angela Gheorghiu. Come to think of it this could be worth catching for the spectacle of audience abuse likely to result if she fails once again to turn up! The Richard Eyre Traviata returns for three blocks of performances, with a couple of promising castings (if only Keenlyside and Netrebko were in the same run) and is well worth a look if you haven't seen it.
That leaves us with Bellini's La sonnambula about both work and singers I am utterly ignorant; another revival of Donizetti's La Fille du regiment (which again I think was done in 2009-10) but I believe is good fun and might be worth catching for Patrizia Ciofi who was a very good Gilda in last season's Rigoletto revival; and La Boheme which has the attractions of Barbara Frittoli (who I again last heard in the EIF Mackerras Maria Stuarda) and the conducting of Semyon Bychkov.
As with directors there are two conspicuous omissions from the roster of conductors which I hope future Royal Opera seasons are going to rectify. You will obviously expect me to complain once again at the failure to try to lure Donald Runnicles to Covent Garden, but it may be that with his existing commitments it just isn't at present possible. Far more baffling is the failure to give a return match to Dan Ettinger who made a blazing debut with last season's Rigoletto revival.
So how does this season measure up as a whole? I have to agree with other commentators who have suggested a slight lack of excitement about it – though I think this has a lot to do with the apparent inability of our opera houses to discuss repertoire with one another – one doesn't necessarily want to see three performances of even so great a work as Meistersinger in quick succession – some joint planning would be no bad thing. Staging Les Troyens is a bold decision, and new commissions are always to be welcomed, but there are some big absences (no Janacek, no Britten, no Handel, still nothing from the major Russians – does the Royal Opera even have in rep productions of Khovanschina, War and Peace or The Love for Three Oranges or any intention of putting them on), and a repetitive quality overall to the revivals. It will be interesting to see if the arrival of a new head of opera can begin to remedy some of these gaps.