The 2017-18 Royal Opera House season bears strong marks of departing artistic director Kasper Holten. If his farewell production, a dismal Die Meistersinger, saw him, as some suggested and I'm inclined to agree, shaking his fist at an under appreciative London public, this season reminds us of the broader legacy he leaves behind. It is, overall, not an encouraging one.
Starting first with the pick of the new productions which for me only arrives in March with Krzysztok Warlikowski's take on Janacek's From the House of the Dead. As a director he will be new to me, and I am slightly uneasy about someone who thinks the director's task is "to inject life into the structures imposed by the score and ossified conventions" (quoted in a fuller profile here) which suggests a distrust of the form which makes me uneasy. This new staging will also be up against stiff competition in Opera North's recent fine production, but it's great news that Janacek finally returns to the House after too long an absence, and Warlikowski's operatic work has been well received elsewhere, so I hope for the best. The conductor, Teodor Currentzis will also be new to me, but there are some fine singers in the ensemble – most notably Johan Reuter and Nicky Spence.
Next we have the latest in the series of replacements for revivable productions which have got too long in the tooth. In this case the beloved Copley La Boheme which gives way to a new production by Richard Jones with runs at the start and end of the season. I do feel London (and indeed the country) has been pretty replete with Bohemes lately – Edinburgh will see two in the space of a couple of months this summer, ENO has had two productions in fairly close proximity, and the Glyndebourne production was revived not long ago. Richard Jones has had a mix of hits and misses as far as I'm concerned but his recent form is strong, the Royal Opera can't be blamed for seeking to refresh classics like this – they are at least more moderate in this process than John Berry's ENO was – and there are, as with the Janacek, some fine singers in the line-up.
I'm sure the flagship of the season, for some, will be the world premiere of George Benjamin's Lessons in Love and Violence. It is of course good to see the Royal Opera staging new work – one of the few areas where Holten's artistic direction was clearly positive. I also realise that I am in a minority in not having been bowled over by Benjamin's Written on Skin. But I'm afraid I wasn't, and therefore I confess that I cannot get too excited about this new work. I also remain unconvinced of the merits of Katie Mitchell as a director. All that said, as elsewhere in the season, there are fine singers in the cast – and I will always go to new work. Personally, I'm much more excited by the prospect of the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's new opera Coraline based on the Neil Gaiman novel at the Barbican in late March – though the cast is yet to be announced. As an aside I'd love to see the Royal Opera stage Turnage's The Silver Tassie which I missed at ENO and which there's clearly no chance of the latter reviving.
We now come to the new production which, in principle, should have been one of the season highlights – Rossini's Semiramide. As regular readers will know I'm a huge Rossini fan and the cast, including Joyce DiDonato, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo and Lawrence Brownlee looks outstanding. The trouble is that David Alden has been hired to direct. This production has already premiered in Munich with many of the same singers and I've been able to find two reviews on the web - united in praise of the singers, more at variance on the production (see here and here). I will also concede that I found his ENO Jenufa enormously powerful. But then there are the duds. Though others praised (and Awarded) his Peter Grimes at ENO I strongly disliked it (as did my brother - you can read his take here). See also his ENO Radamisto and Billy Budd - the latter by far the weakest of the half dozen or so productions of that great work I've seen. Overall, I find it difficult to be optimistic about his translation from Coliseum to Covent Garden. And he is not restricted to one work. For, having given us Semiramide in October, Alden returns with a new Lohengrin in June. Once again the casting is strong with Andris Nelsons on the podium and Christine Goerke and Klaus Florian Vogt among the soloists, but all the same reservations still apply.
Finally, on the main stage new production front, we have a new Carmen directed by Barrie Kosky. Once again I can get excited neither about the work, nor about the director. Again, while I accept that a company has to have a Carmen in the repertoire and many people love it, it's not a work that does much for me and London has hardly been short of occasions to see it staged in recent years. As for Kosky, I didn't see his production of Handel's Saul of which I have heard high praise from family members, but I was not impressed by my various encounters with his work in Edinburgh.
Away from the main stage, in addition to the Turnage already noted there are two other new, and one very recent, works which I shall hope to catch, but the most eye-catching offering is a new production of Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in patria directed by John Fulljames, presented at the Roundhouse in January. Perhaps this will finally be the production which realises Fulljames's promise. When he was originally appointed Associate Director of Opera I had high hopes following his marvellous production of Jonathan Dove's The Enchanted Pig (one of several things the Linbury, when reopened, would be well advised to revive). Sadly, his main stage productions since then have not lived up to that promise. The casting is also very strong for this led by Roderick Williams (recently a powerfully moving Billy Budd for Opera North) and Christine Rice.
Turning to revivals I find the line up similarly mixed at best. The most exciting for me is the revival of one of Richard Jones's best productions - Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Especially as I missed what I gather was a very fine ENO run of performances lately, I'm looking forward to catching this. I look forward to hearing Eva-Marie Westbroek in the title role, and I'm pleased to see John Daszak in the line-up who sang in some memorable productions in times past at the Coliseum.
Owing to personal reasons I only managed to see Cavalleria rusticana during the first run of Damiano Michieletto's productions of Cav and Pag, but I found it a powerful piece of theatre, and so am hoping to catch both halves this time round – though I could wish that the undistinguished Daniel Oren was not once again (why?) on the podium. Among the singers I particularly look forward to hearing Bryan Hymel as Turiddu.
David McVicar's much revived Die Zauberflote opens the season alongside the new Boheme with a strong pair of casts. I'm not sure I need to see another performance of the work at present, but if you haven't previously seen it this is an excellent production and social media chatter suggests a cast, many of whom would be new to me, worth hearing. Again, for me, after that Billy Budd, Roderick Williams (who plays Papageno in the September performances) stands out. McVicar's Rigoletto, returning over Christmas, is also a solid revival (you can read my thoughts on the 2010 revival here) – though again I don't know that I need to see it again. Finally, on the solid revival front, we have the perennial return of Jonathan Kent's Tosca – the prospect of a Gerald Finley Scarpia almost tempts me to a return visit.
Normally I'd be excited at the prospect of hearing Richard Strauss's Salome – one of my favourites of his works, but this was a rare case when a McVicar production did not work for me. I expect I'll end up there anyway as Salome doesn't come round that often, but I could wish it was the last Scottish Opera production which was on the menu. I wasn't quite as wowed by the original run of Robert Carsen's production of Verdi's Falstaff as some but it works perfectly well, is strongly cast and the work is a gem.
A revival of Verdi's Macbeth is another work I just can't get excited about (and which also seems to get more outings than I think it warrants - including a new staging at the Edinburgh Festival this summer). I didn't see any of its previous runs so I can make no comment on Phyllida Lloyd's production – but I have not been impressed on my recent encounters with her work. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo's Banquo is to me the pick of the casting. With Pappano on the podium this should at least be musically dramatic.
And now we move towards the weakest end of the season. Personally, seeing Verdi's Les Vepres siciliennes once was sufficient and I must confess to being a little surprised that it's being revived. There's some strong casting, Bryan Hymel again stands out, but really it strikes me as the sort of work that might be revived every ten years or so at best (if you're going to revive a comparatively recent production of an epic I'd far rather see Les Troyens again, but I suspect it's too expensive and not considered reliable box office - though I shall be interested to see how this sells).
Katie Mitchell's production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor was not well received on its debut. I wasn't well the night I saw it, so have only seen the first act, but I can't say it struck me as a show I desperately regretted missing the rest of.
Finally, and this one really puzzles me, there's yet another outing for Kasper Holten's undistinguished Don Giovanni (my thoughts on the first here). Since there were significant discounts on offer for the last run I am really quite surprised the House has brought it back so quickly (I'd have frankly thought they'd have been better advised to return to the McVicar Figaro, or even last season's Cosi about which I heard good reports from family members). As with many other shows in the 2017-18 season it's very well cast (although I'm less convinced, after some uninspiring Schubert symphonies in Edinburgh a couple of years back about Marc Minkowski on the podium), but I'm afraid I just do not have any desire to sit through Holten's production a second time.
Overall, it seems to me that this is a season which extends Holten's legacy of new productions from directors who are too often of questionable talent, and which exposes the limitations of the legacy of existing productions which he leaves behind. And there remains one big gap and two absent conductors. As I said, it's good to see the return of Janacek, but the criminal neglect of the big Russians continues. Frankly I'd have taken War and Peace, or Khovanschina, or Love for Three Oranges before another Lohengrin, or a Vepres revival. After many successful performances in recent years it's disappointing to see Semyon Bychkov absent, and it will come as no surprise (given our name) that the Royal Opera's continuing failure to employ Donald Runnicles remains a source of bafflement.