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Massenet’s Manon at the Royal Opera House, London

16 January 2014, London, UK

Riveting: Ermonela Jaho as Manon
Riveting: Ermonela Jaho as Manon(Photo: Bill Cooper)

Review by Francis Muzzu

Ingénue, coquette, Grande Horizontale – whichever stage of Manon’s life Ermonela Jaho depicts, whether vertical or indeed horizontal, she conveys the vivacity and allure of Massenet’s great creation. Her soprano is at times too cloudy to be the ideal French instrument, and her diction is decidedly occluded, but she spins an elegant line, shades her tone exquisitely and certainly doesn’t shirk any high alternatives.
When Jaho first runs onto the stage she really does look fifteen years old, and in this revival of Laurent Pelly’s belle époque production she charts her social ascent from Gigi to Nana (and corresponding fall) with a riveting performance. Matthew Polenzani’s Des Grieux is not as dramatic, but Jaho seems to inspire him, and of his plangent tenor there is no doubt – this is a fine instrument used with taste, and his voice blends beautifully with hers.

Pelly’s production is a mixture of the observant and the crass, but provides a simple and sometimes soignée showcase for its singers: the costumes threaten to upstage their wearers at times.  The supporting cast is good, though often linguistically impenetrable. Emmanuel Villaume’s conducting is passionate at the expense of delicacy, and some soupy textures deny the score its finesse.

Manon runs at Covent Garden until 4 February.

New music director confirmed at La Scala

11 December 2013, Milan, Italy

Riccardo Chailly
Riccardo Chailly(Photo: Gert Mothes)

In an announcement made by Giuliano Pisapia, Mayor of Milan, the trustees of Teatro alla Scala have confirmed the appointment of Riccardo Chailly as the opera house’s new music director from 2017.

Chailly’s name was originally put forward by Alexander Pereira, newly appointed general director of La Scala, who takes up his post at the end of 2014. Confirmation of the appointment has ended months of speculation over who might take over as the head of Italy’s most prestigious and controversial performing arts institution.

The news comes as the European opera world embarks on a round of musical chairs, with La Scala’s current general director, Stephan Lissner, becoming boss of Paris Opera at the end of this season. Meanwhile Pereira is leaving the Salzburg Festival in Austria to take up his role in Milan.  La Scala’s current music director, Daniel Barenboim, quits Milan at the end of the 2014 opera season after conducting Beethoven’s Fidelio at La Scala next December. Barenboim will be focusing on his extensive international conducting and performing commitments as well as continuing in his role as music director at the Berlin State Opera.

Currently music director of the renowned Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, 60-year-old Chailly will become La Scala’s principal guest conductor from next year until his full-time appointment in 2017.  His arrival in Milan should allay fears that La Scala’s regime change could plunge the theatre into another period of instability. Indeed, his appointment signals continuity, since he once worked under Claudio Abbado during one of the most glittering eras in La Scala’s history, and made his opera-conducting debut at the house in 1978.

Benjamin wins British Composer Award

4 December 2013, London, UK

George Benjamin
George Benjamin(Photo: Robert Millard)

George Benjamin has won the Stage Works category of this year’s British Composer Awards for his opera Written on Skin. The jury praised Benjamin’s ‘translucent original score’ and described it as ‘a completely satisfying piece of music’.

A tale of love, murder and cannibalism based on a medieval legend by the Languedocien troubadour Guillem de Cabastany, Written on Skin received its world premiere at the 2012 Aix-en-Provence Festival. It has since gone on to be staged at London’s Royal Opera House, the Opéra-Comique in Paris, Munich Opera Festival, Netherlands Opera, the Maggio Musicale festival in Florence, and Toulouse’s Théâtre du Capitole.

An audio recording of Benjamin’s score is already available from Nimbus Records, and a DVD of the Covent Garden staging will be released next month on the Opus Arte label. Benjamin himself conducted most of the live performances and both recordings.

The British Composer Awards take place every year in December and are an initiative of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA). This year’s shortlist for the Stage Works Award also included The Firework-Maker's Daughter by David Bruce and Orlando Gough’s community opera Imago.

Sony to record new Mozart Da Ponte trilogy

23 November 2013, London, UK

Teodor Currentzis
Teodor Currentzis(Photo: Robert Kittel)

Sony Classical has embarked on a major new project to record the Mozart Da Ponte trilogy with Russia’s Perm State Opera and their maverick, Greek-born artistic director Teodor Currentzis. Le nozze di Figaro will be released first in February 2014, followed by Così fan tutte in autumn 2014 and Don Giovanni in autumn 2015.

Currentzis, explaining the artistic rationale behind this daring venture, believes audiences are used to hearing Mozart interpretations ‘rooted in the opera traditions of the 20th century’. That tradition, he says, ‘was all about simplifying the material’, whereas ‘the radicality’ of his own new recordings for Sony will be their ‘precision’.

Speaking specifically about the forthcoming release of Figaro, Currentzis adds: ‘I made this recording because I wanted to show what can be achieved if you avoid the factory approach of the classical music mainstream. My credo is that every performance you give has to be like a pregnancy. You have to dream and wait until the time comes when you will see the miracle happening.’

Opera & Music Theatre Forum maps out the future of opera

15 November 2013, London, UK

Keynote speaker: Mark Ravenhill
Keynote speaker: Mark Ravenhill

A crowd of the UK’s most enterprising opera producers attended the 2013 Opera and Music Theatre Forum (OMTF) Conference at the Royal Opera House, London last November. The question tabled for the day was ‘Future Tense: What will the world be like in 2030?’ They had assembled to discuss the challenges of an uncertain future, shaped by funding cuts and shifting demographics.

Kasper Holten, head of opera at the ROH, introduced the event as a visitor from 2030, posing as the new boss of the Intergalactic Opera House on Mars. He gave us a rosy vision of a perfect future, with unlimited funding and universal support for opera, before bringing us back to reality with a bump, while reminding us that whatever innovations and upheavals lie in store, opera will always be, fundamentally, about life’s big emotions: love, jealousy, revenge, forgiveness, death, etc. Hence its enduring appeal.

Both Bill Renshaw, a former banker and government business adviser, and Phillida Cheetham, of Which? magazine, gave us a gloomy statistical prognosis, citing an aging population with 1.5 retired people to every working individual; low incomes with high borrowing; and a massive squeeze on resources – especially water and energy. On the up side, Cheetham offered, opera tends to appeal to an older population with more leisure time and disposable income, so perhaps this would play in opera’s favour?

Technology, too, was high on the list of factors that would influence our engagement with the arts in future. The internet and home entertainment were both challenges to the live performing arts, but also opportunities to hook in a new, broader audience.

Solutions to the knotty problems were not entirely obvious. Keynote speaker Mark Ravenhill urged that opera should look at the National Theatre as a role model for progress. The opera house should see itself as a cultural multiplex and a ‘living library’ of talent, presenting a range of work that isn’t compartmentalised into ‘new’ and ‘traditional’. ‘If we think of Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre,' Ravenhill said, ‘we see an organisation presenting new work not as something special, but just part of the offer. Thankfully, we’re at the end of a phase where an opera house’s job has been the preservation of a legacy, when you had to be a Sir to write a new opera for Covent Garden, when they cost at least £1m to stage.’

He added that opera needed to have a new pact with audiences to ensure that it doesn’t become a closed shop: ‘There’s no drying up of young talent in the making of the arts. But today’s composers need to understand the workings of the stage and value showbiz.’

Ravenhill also gave this piece of advice about the aging population: ‘Don’t stigmatise old people. They have more time, maybe more disposable income than the rest of us, and they want to keep their minds alive – and keep learning. They represent a broad range of political and cultural tastes and we as a sector should be interested in that and enjoy it.’

Bill Bankes-Jones, OMTF’s chair, summed up by saying, ‘The future may be scary, but also full of opportunity. There will be lots more old people wanting entertaining and lots more young people wanting to make things.’ How we square up these two sides of the equation is the key to success and survival.

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