Thursday, 2 May 2013

Powerhouse ENO 2013/14 season analyzed

The Powerhouse fights back! ENO's 2013/14 season suggests we're back to the days when the ENO was London's edgiest opera house. Ten productions new to London next year- that's around one every three weeks. How can they manage that? By linking up with the liveliest houses in Europe, and bringing in the sharpest talent. This is the kind of creative vision that could kickstart a new Powerhouse era.

One huge coup - Pierre Audi! Audi returns at last to London  after 30 years. This is major news because Audi transformed British theatre in the 1980's with the Almeida Theatre. A whole generation has grown up not realizing how radical the Almeida years were, and how it sparked off the ENO's finest years. Peter Brook, David Hare, Harrison Birtwistle, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Steve Reich, the London Sinfonietta: everybody but everybody was part of the buzz. Audi went on to run De Nederlandse Oper,  and later The Holland Festival. His 1999 Amsterdam Wagner Ring is still one of the most striking productions ever. Amsterdam is one of the most exciting music places in Europe and admirably managed, too.

Audi is directing the world premiere of Julian Anderson's Thebans, a saga based on Greek tragedy with a libretto by Frank McGuiness. A brief piece from the Thebans, "Harmony" will be the first item on the First Night of the BBC Proms 2013. Anderson was himself a singer and writes music that's very visual. Anderson's a Proms regular, both on stage and in the Arena. In May 2007, Ed Gardner conducted Anderson's Symphony at the Barbican, in his first high profile concert after being appointed ENO Music Director. So expect good things from the ENO Thebans, and book tickets early though it doesn't start until May 2014.

Here are the other new productions :

Beethoven Fidelio, (from September) directed by Calixto Bieito. whose very name strikes terror into the hearts of those who think that only they know what the composer intended. Yet those who really engage with his work realize that it is quite reasonable. Bieito's Carmen, for example, in a watered down version for British audiences, was a big box office success at the ENO -- one of the big hits of the ENO last November, (reviewed  here and here) which proves ENO audiences are smarter than the reactionary crowd think. Bieito's Fidelio  was first done in Munich in 2010 with Jonas Kaufmann. We'll get Stuart Skelton, who's good and  the production is well worth seeing. Bieito's "prison" is a labyrinth of the mind - click photo to enlarge. Despite his reputation for bums, Bieito is a very deep thinker with a strong politcial conscience, ideal for an opera like Fidelio, which is not meant to be pretty.

Johann Strauss II Die Fledermaus (from September). This is a joint production with the Canadian Opera Company. Here's a link to the COC website with many photos. It looks off the wall! But lots of fun, which arguably is what Strauss II was on about. The director is Christopher Alden, who says "Fledermaus will be fun! It’s a famous, beloved piece and not just because of the totally brilliant and inspired music or that it’s a frivolous New Year’s Eve entertainment, but it’s a wonderful story with great characters and situations.......... It has a lot to say about society, relationships and marriage".

Mozart The Magic Flute, (November) directed by Simon McBurney, whose Complicité brought us A Dog's Heart (reviewed here) which was such theatre-of-genius that the music didn't matter. With Mozart, McBurney has much more to work on. You need magic in the Magic Flute, and Complicité does magic better than most.  This is a co-production with De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam, and the Aix-en-Provence Festival : excellent credentials.

Verdi Rigoletto (February 2014), also a Canadian Opera Company production directed by Christopher Alden. It's set in Verdi's time, not Renaissance Mantua, but those who rage that this isn't "historical" should remember that if contemporary stagings were good enough for Shakespeare, they should be good enough for anyone else. And the Met's Las Vegas Rigoletto didn't cause the skies to fall. Another big plus on this one is Quinn Kelsey, the best of all American imports the ENO has brought us. He sang in the original, so should be well settled by the time the show reaches London.

Handel Rodelinda (February). This is major news, because it's the first product of a new relationship between the ENO and the Bolshoi. London gets first dibs. This is the first ever Handel Opera for the Bolshoi, which is quite remarkable, but they'll be getting the best:  Christian Curmyn conducts, and the cast includes John Mark Ainsley, Iestyn Davies and Rebecca Evans. Director is Richard Jones.

Mozart Cosi fan tutte (May 2014) will be done in English because it's the ENO, but not in an ordinary translation. Instead, it's a new text by poet Martin Crimp (Into the Little Hill, Written on Skin). This will be moving on to the Met in NY, which has had a partnership with the ENO for several years (Eugene Onegin and less successfully Two Boys). Ryan Wigglesworth conducts, Katie Mitchell directs.

Berlioz Benvenuto Cellini (June 2014). The ENO is making a big splash with this because it's Terry Gilliam. Presumably the Monty Python crowds will lap this up and box office receipts will clear what's left of any deficit. His Damnation of Faust was entirely based on himself, rather than the opera, the music or composer, yet was wildly popular, proving that self indulgent "Regie" is loved by the masses as long as they don't have to think or listen. .

Bizet The Pearl Fishers (June 2014). Not, strictly speaking, entirely new, but revamped to make more of the breath-taking sequences where bodies "swim" bathed in undulating blues and greens. I loved this production (directed by Penny Woolcock) first time round and would be thrilled to see it again. This time, Sophie Bevan sings Leila, so even if we don't get Quinn Kelsey again, it will be worth hearing, too.

Thomas Adès Powder Her Face (April 2014). New production, new performance space. Joe Hill-Gibbons directs this modern chamber opera classic in AMBIKA P3, a space for contemporary art at the University of Westminster, "converted from the vast former subterranean concrete hall of the School of Engineering, Baker Street". Photos show exactly that, but I can well imagine the story set in that context. The Duchess did not do worse than the men around her yet the society around her was brutal and rigid. The ENO has been using alternative performance spaces outside the Coliseum for years, and for very good reasons: some operas are better suited to smaller scale. If only the Royal Opera House could find a middle sized external theatre and retire the Linbury for all but the smallest shows! 

Jonathan Belper composer/Matthew Barney director River of Fundament. This is based on Norman Mailer's novel Ancient Evenings, describing the journey of a soul after death, a subject which probably lends itself best to a film/music theatre project.

REVIVALS ! Back by popular demand, classic and much loved productions of Philip Glass's Satyagraha (which I want to see for the fourth time), Puccini Madame Butterfly (Minghella) and  ,  Britten Peter Grimes (the luminous David Alden production and the return of Stuart Skelton))

Statistics: the ENO announced financial figures that show the company to be in better shape than the doomsayers would have.  I hope so, because the ENO is critical to the cultural good health of this country. What it does is unique. It also links London to what's happening internationally, which is good long term.. Also good news is that schemes like Opera Undressed have brought in new audiences, a large number of whom planned to come back again.  This year's new scheme is a sort of "ticket lottery" where you're guaranteed a £20 ticket (in the gods) but might get lucky and be upgraded to somewhere in the orchestra stalls (usually £100 plus).  It's a much better business model than selling tickets off for a song at the last moment, and reminds us in the audience that we can't take cheap seats for granted.

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