Regular readers of this blog, or people who follow me on Twitter @heresfinn will know I have been strongly critical of the current artistic leadership of English National Opera. Recently, though, my frustration has intensified in the light of what has seemed to me to be a wilful determination on the part of many professional critics and arts journalists simply not to ask obvious questions about, or to ignore obvious explanations for, the state of affairs at the company (not least concerning possible reasons for its over £2 million losses in 2011-12 – which the company was bullish on today interpreted variously here and here and see further note at end of post). I have also been annoyed by the praise which has been directed at the company for being allegedly experimental and for its embrace of technology. There appears to be an idea, so far as I can judge, that opera is in deep trouble as an art form and that English National Opera's allegedly adventurous programming (such as the recent unimpressive Sunken Garden) is the path to a better future. I do not propose to go into a detailed analysis here of why I don't think the company should be regarded as especially adventurous, or presenting the future of opera. What I will suggest is that while we might debate some of this with regards to previous offerings under John Berry's leadership such adjectives certainly cannot be applied to a 2013-14 programme dominated by All the Old Familiar Faces and Approaches.
Let us start with the positives. The most exciting work on the agenda is unquestionably the world premiere production of Julian Anderson's The Thebans. I don't know Anderson's work at all, but I'm a big fan of anything related to Greek mythology. It's also great to see Roland Wood return following his superb performance in Vaughan Williams's Pilgrim's Progress last year. I'm also intrigued to see Pierre Audi in action whose work I don't think I have previously managed to catch. All that said, my brother heard an orchestral work of Anderson's at a concert last year and was not grabbed. [Editor's note. The piece was The Discovery of Heaven which I found dull and which did not to me evoke any of the things it was intended to, according to the programme. That said, I'm all for new opera and will certainly give this a try if I'm in the area at the right time.]
Also promising is the return of Terry Gilliam to direct Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini. Corinne Winters (the outstanding element of this season's La Traviata) returns, as does Nicky Spence. In general casting seems to be on more solid foundations across the season than has sometimes been the case in recent years which is certainly cause for a cheer or two.
The third promising new production (though the choice of work raises questions) is Simon McBurney's The Magic Flute. McBurney's staging of A Dog's Life a few seasons back was excellent but let down by the weak quality of the work itself, so it's good to see his talents being applied to a genuine operatic masterpiece. One has to ask whether this was the best choice of work since ENO did have a revivable Magic Flute in its repertoire (albeit a pretty venerable one). Given the company's shortage of revivable classics, might it not have been a good idea to commission McBurney to do something else? There's some interesting casting here too. Roland Wood sings Papageno, Ben Johnson follows his Alfredo with Tamino and it will be interesting to see if the voice stands up better to the lighter role. It bears noting that the Queen of the Night is as yet uncast. Gergeley Madaras, the Mackerras Fellow, conducts. He is unknown to me.
After these three, however, I'm afraid in terms of new productions it all goes rather downhill...or rather into the Land of All the Old Familiar (Awful) Faces. Top of the list, heaven help us, are two more productions from Christopher Alden (my most recent experiences of his work was the indifferent, in staging terms, Norma at Opera North and his lousy Makropulos Case at ENO). We begin in September with his take on Die Fledermaus. The best I suppose that can be said for this is that the work hasn't been seen in London for some time and in theory it's bankable which may help the company finances, but whether it can be the solidly revivable production of such a work that the company badly needs more of is highly open to question given the choice of director. Reviews from the production's original outing in Toronto raise doubts (see here and here - and a fairly complete unpacking which frankly makes my heart sink).
This is followed in the spring with C. Alden's take on Rigoletto which is open to the very same question (and also the one I previously asked about the new Flute). Indeed it seems to me highly likely that ENO will have discarded a venerable but revivable Rigoletto for another production of an in theory bankable opera which has to go straight on to the scrap heap. The casting of Anna Christy as Gilda also does not fill me excitement. Reviews of the production's original outing in Toronto raise further very considerable doubts - see here, here and here (and also alert one to the fact that this looks suspiciously like a production he originally staged in 2000 in Chicago – a whole new definition of the word “new”).
The second face (wearily familiar to Brian McMaster Edinburgh Festival regulars and threatening to become so in London) is Calixto Bieto, who follows last season's indifferent Carmen with a new production of Fidelio previously seen in Munich. Only one Bieto production of the many I have sat through has worked for me – his much derided A Masked Ball for ENO under Nicholas Payne. Reading this review suggests this one is unlikely to add to his tally. I remain fascinated by the reversal of London critical opinion which has occurred with respect to Bieto who was denounced for his productions for Payne (which seemed to contribute to Payne's subsequent firing) but who is now deployed as part of the narrative of the company's alleged upwards trajectory. I see little reason to think that this can provide the company with a bankable revival of a classic. Musically at least it is promising, with Gardner on the podium and Stuart Skelton singing Florestan (though not, it appears from the small print, in all performances which given there are only 7 is a little surprising). [Editor's note. From a purely musical perspective this is a highly attractive proposition to me. It will be interesting to see how it compares with the interesting directorial take we seem set to get in Edinburgh this summer.]
Finally, on the return roster is Richard Jones, another director beloved by some but whose misses for me have been far more numerous than his hits (the last time he had one of the latter as far as I'm concerned was the Royal Opera's Lady Macbeth). He brings us Handel's Rodelinda. I'll have another go with Christian Curnyn on the podium (who was far better in the Charpentier this season than on previous occasions). Among the cast it's great to see the return of Iestyn Davies, I'm less cheered at the prospect of John Mark Ainsley who did not impress me in the Glyndebourne Billy Budd nor my brother in a recent Edinburgh recital. [Editor's note. In fairness, he did appear to have a cold.] Production wise the company has had an abysmal Handel record in recent times so on statistical terms alone they are due for one to finally work out (the last being Agrippina in 2006-7).
Not a single one of these four strikes me as unmissable. The directorial choices are frankly foolhardy given last year's losses, the thinness of the company's base of revivable repertoire, and the general habits of the gentlemen in question. The repertoire choices are a long way from adventurous. Fidelio is the most justified in my view. Fledermaus is a second rank work. Rigoletto has been seen far too often in London of late.
The final new production is another which bears witness to the failures of the Berry regime (will anybody else comment on this?). It is the second new Cosi Fan Tutte he's commissioned (and apparently the last was the third in six years) and it's not as if we don't see the work pretty often in both London houses. Berry's first was from the Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami in 2008-9 which I didn't see, but I recall being indifferently reviewed and I can only assume was yet another Berry commission of classic repertoire which did too poorly to be revived. As with other new productions this season one might think that it would be sensible to commission somebody who could be relied upon to produce something revivable for all the reasons previously rehearsed. Instead Berry has selected Katie Mitchell.
And so we come to the revivals. I've commented quite a bit in this post already about the company's desperate need to deepen its roster of revivable productions. The revivals problem at ENO is indeed another aspect of the current situation which nobody seems to want to engage with. It is a product of the facts that little pre-Berry seems to get revived (again something that doesn't seem to get any debate) and that so few of Berry's commissions (particularly of core repertoire) have been revivable. This year is not quite as bad for old faithfuls as the last couple of seasons, but it's not much of an improvement, and some of the choices reveal how sadly bare the cupboard is.
There will doubtless be many rejoicing at the return of David Alden's production of Peter Grimes, and I am perfectly prepared to concede that at least among critics we are in a minority on this, but we absolutely detested it and will not be going anywhere near it again. [Editor's note. It seems only fair to mention that Donald Runnicles himself appears to be among those who don't agree with us, as he brought this to Berlin not too long ago.] I do also wonder whether we really need another run of Grimes which is everywhere at present. If you liked the production or can put up with an evening at the opera where you simply close your eyes to the insanities on stage then it should be musically of a high standard with Gardner on the podium and Stuart Skelton singing the lead. Were it not for the fact that I really loathed the production I would also have been curious to hear Iain Paterson as Balstrode.
It is preceded by the Minghella production of Madame Butterfly receiving what I calculate to be its fourth revival and last seen in 2011-12. I haven't actually yet managed to see this so will probably try to tick it off. Most of the cast ring no bells with me in terms of past performances, and I think the conductor will be new to me as well, but I'm pleased to see George van Bergan back who was excellent in the last revival of the Miller Boheme.
I had been cherishing the fond hope that the company might continue its championing of John Adams's operas by reviving Nixon in China (the only one I have not yet managed to see). Instead, in the American line and considerably less appealing we get a revival of Glass's Satyagraha. This I also missed first time round and hope to catch this time, although I have to say that Einstein on the Beach did not wholly convince me of Glass's talents as an operatic composer. Both this and the Butterfly should be well calculated though to bring in an audience.
And finally the season ends in June 2014 with a revival of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. About this one can only say: Really? Are you quite serious? I can think of few more dreary third rate works in the repertoire than this and quite why it keeps getting dredged up is frankly beyond me. I heard the work once in concert at the Edinburgh Festival some years ago and it went firmly down on my list of things I didn't need to hear again, hence my missing the original run of Penny Woolcock's production. A cursory survey of the reviews from that original run suggest a mixed critical reaction. The casting of Sophie Bevan and George van Bergan is attractive, but I'm not even sure they can convince me to sit through Bizet's score a second time. [Editor's note. At this time, they appear not to have found a conductor who fancies it as the job is still listed as TBA.]
Beyond main stage productions two other dubious enterprises were also announced this morning. The company is to stage a site-specific production of Thomas Ades's weak first opera Powder Her Face. Given that this has recently had two runs in the Linbury it seems rather doubtful that London needs to see it again so soon – surely there are other contemporary works more urgently in need of revival. [Editor's note. As opposed to all the other productions staged across multiple sites.... I too am puzzled by this choice. I saw the first of those two Linbury runs ans was not overly impressed. Though I'm generally a fan of Ades, and it does contain some fine musical writing, I didn't find the story engaging.]
Finally, there is to be a screening of something called River of Fundament. Apparently this is another film-opera. It's hard to see from what a google search turns up quite where the opera comes in (see for example here and here) but doubtless this won't bother those who choose to see ENO's ongoing flirtation with film as proof of its adventurous agenda.
Already the critical chorus and the twitter fan club have been vociferous in their declarations of what an exciting season this is. I on the other hand look down the road at a Royal Opera who will be bringing us Die Frau ohne Schatten, Elektra, Moses und Aron, Dialogues des Carmelites and rare Verdi, not to mention visiting companies with Britten's Paul Bunyan, Tippett's King Priam and Turnage's Greek. There is frankly no competition. ENO – adventurous? Experimental? File under: Don't be ridiculous.
Financial Note: I wasn't able to be at the Season Launch, and I have not had time (and doubt I have the financial acumen) to examine such of the company's accounts which are in the public domain to properly understand the current financial position. The company states that the deficit has now been reduced to £800, 000 (still a sizeable sum) and that box office takings were up £1.3 million in 2012-13 on 2011-12. I have not seen a figure for how this looks in terms of percentage of tickets sold. This is good news, but I don't think it removes the problems with the way the original loss was debated in the media. An issue which I didn't comment on in the original post but which others have discussed is the question of the company's pricing structure. It would be very interesting (if they exist) to know what percentage of tickets are sold at full price and what percentage via the many varied discounts.
[Editor's note. I too find this overall a rather unexciting announcement. Certainly it does not have me reaching for my calendar and train timetable that I may frantically begin planning trips south. For me the likes of Paul Bunyan, which ENO despite its championing of more bankable Britten refuses to touch, is a far more exciting a prospect than anything on offer here. Finally, I note mention of the Peter Moores Foundation’s Swansong Project 2013–2015. This is presumably a reference to Moores' stated intention to wind up his foundation. Given he has been one of opera in English's most valuable champions, one hopes they have a solid plan in place to fill the hole.]