Well, that all went off painlessly. Alex Beard, the ROH’s admirably unaffected and decent Chief Executive, welcomed us (to the loweringly claustrophobic Clore Studio, alas) and spoke – both without notes or amplification – by way of introductory preamble. We were then treated to a rather counter-productively unconvincing demonstration of the latest technical marvel to engage someone in Bow Street’s interest, 360º live video, showing us jerkily around the interior of Antonio Pappano’s office and giving us a revolving bird’s-eye view of performing in the orchestra pit, all of which is coming to a computer near you any moment now, and which I’m sure you can barely contain your excitement to sample. We then learnt of the House’s genuinely significant and serious efforts in educational outreach, which evidently goes from strength to strength.
Kevin O’Hare, the Director of the Royal Ballet, spoke engagingly for twenty minutes outlining their new season – finally a revival of MacMillan’s much-misunderstood and rather marvellous Anastasia – followed by a blazing-eyed Kasper Holten, who gave a bullish (and hectoringly over-amplified) account of forthcoming operatic attractions, all done and dusted in fifteen minutes flat. The final speaker was Pappano himself, who took the opportunity to thank the departing chorus master, Renato Balsadonna, for his close collaboration and to wish him luck in his new career as a conductor (“That’s just what we need”).whilst enthusing about the incoming William Spalding, an American via the Deutsche Oper Berlin. He also, profitably abandoning his notes and speaking simply from the heart, gave an oddly moving insight into his relationship with the House – where he has now signed up to continue as Music Director until 2020, to I expect everyone’s unalloyed delight and gratitude – and the extent to which the House, operating as his sort of surrogate family, is so supportive of its artists that the very greatest choose to make it the venue for their most significant debuts.
Thus, this new season will be bookended by the two most eminent and eagerly-anticipated debuts anywhere in the world: that of Netrebko’s first Norma, in a new production – the first in the House in nigh-on thirty years – by Alex Ollé (he of Fura dels Baus); and Kaufmann’s first Otello, in a new staging by Keith Warner, both of them conducted by Pappano, who will also be undertaking Holten’s new Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (with Terfel) and revivals of both Madama Butterfly (with Ermonela Jaho) and Jonathan Kent’s dismal, incoherent 2014 staging of Manon Lescaut (with Sondra Radvanovsky and Aleksandrs Antonenko, to whom I extend my sympathies).
There are four other new productions – seven in total – comprising Der Rosenkavalier (conducted by Andris Nelsons, with Fleming & Coote – and Willis-Sorensen & Stephany for three of the eight performances – given in a redesigned reworking of Robert Carsen’s 2004 Salzburg staging); Così fan tutte, directed by Jan Philipp Gloger (and apparently to be set, in a move of absolutely unprecedented originality for this address, in an opera house), with a very young cast indeed, and conducted by Semyon Bychkov (who it’s to be hoped spares Mozart the leaden, lumpen crawl to which he reduced Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten in 2014); The Nose, Shostakovich’s riotous setting of Gogol’s scabrous satire, directed by (house debutant) Barry Kosky; and the UK premiere of Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel, directed by Tom Cairns, which debuts at Salzburg this summer, and has a cast of thousands apparently (based as it is on Luis Bunuel’s surreal film of bourgeois manners gone-to-seed, I wonder how they’ll handle all the sheep at the end?).
The twelve other main house stagings are therefore all revivals, and – apart from the two Puccinis already mentioned above entrusted to Pappano – comprise: Il barbiere di Siviglia (notable mainly for its debutant Almaviva, Javier Camarena); farewell performances of the John Schlesinger staging of Les contes d’ Hoffmann, with a superb, last-outing, cast of Grigolo, Hampson, Kate Lindsay, and, as the three loves, Sofia Fomina, Sonya Yoncheva and Christine Rice, conducted by Pidò; this summer’s new Il trovatore back immediately in an extended, split-cast double run (there are seven of these this season, clearly a necessary evil in tough times) none of which arouse any enthusiasm on my part except for the two Di Lunas, Quinn Kelsey and Hvorostovsky; Written on Skin, which, though it profited enormously at the Barbican last month in a concert performance from being therefore spared Katie Mitchell’s typically distracting, extras-stuffed, slo-mo mumming, is so strong musically as to rise above it, particularly with the return of Christopher Purves and Barbara Hannigan; and Adriana Lecouvreur, if only to give Morticia (Angela Gheorghiu) something to sing that isn’t Puccini, sort of (though the real news here is the casting of Gerald Finley as Michonnet, which should make all the vocal difference in the world as to how the work comes across compared to poor old Corbelli’s attempts to sing the role last time out in 2010, though he’s inexplicably still down for two performances – of seven – even in this run).
Like death and taxes, there’s no avoiding La traviata year-in, year-out and this season’s no exception, with twelve performances, featuring three Violettas and two each of Germonts father-and-son, some still “TBA” and none of them of much interest except for Artur Rucinski; there’s Don Carlo, which I had thought was going to be a new staging in French with Ramon Vargas, but which turns out unfortunately to be the same tacky-looking Hytner red lego/mysteriously motoring tombs show as before, in Italian, with Bryan Hymel, but with an otherwise very classy cast of Stoyanova, Tèzier, Semenchuk and Abdrazakov. L’elisir d’amore returns in Pelly’s fun giant haystacks staging, reuniting the very couple it made a couple last time round, Alagna (who seems to be undergoing the most spectacular career renaissance since Lazarus) and his missus Aleksandra Kurzak, together with the promise of Villazón for four performances (which I’ll believe when I see); Mozart’s Mitridate, re di Ponto, in Graham Vick’s spectacular staging not seen in the house since 2005, conducted by Christophe Rousset and with Spyres, Shagimuratova, Crowe and Bejun Mehta rising to the challenge of some insanely difficult vocal writing; and finally Turandot, which, mirabile dictu, not only features a split cast of two women who can both actually sing the title role – Goerke and Lindstrom – but two tenors who can sing Calaf as well: Antonenko and Alagna. Throw in Kurzak as Liù for good measure and Dan Ettinger conducting and I’d say that the Kaufmann Otello shouldn’t be the only hot ticket at the end of the season next year.
In the ongoing absence of the Linbury, there’s activity elsewhere in the shape of Handel’s Oreste, staged by the other Richard Jones at Wilton’s Music Hall with Jette Parker singers, including the excellent Vlada Borovko; and A Man of Good Hope at the Young Vic, though I can’t work out from the available material who the actual composer is of this story of a Somali refugee. Frankly, I don’t see much point in laboriously typing out chronological dates and casts here when all you have to do yourselves is click on this : http://www.roh.org.uk/news/royal-opera-house-201617-season-announced in order to see full details of who and what’s on when. But I will just add that at a time when the provision of opera in London is getting very difficult indeed, this ROH season, though not without its disappointments (to me at least) – no DiDonato (though I believe there’s a Semiramide heading this way ere long), no Flórez, worst of all, still no Garanca – is remarkably strong, and manages to balance out the bums-on-seats box office earners with more adventurous fare in sensible fashion. They don’t need me to wish them well with it all, God knows, but I do anyway. Here’s to what has all the makings of an excellent 2016/17!
4* (mainly for the pain au chocolat)