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Tough job: ‘Kasper Holten’s legacy at Covent Garden is about more than the shows he has staged’

Andrew Mellor

London hasn’t seen the best of Kasper Holten, and possibly never will

9:00, 6th April 2017

By the time this article is in your hands or on your screen, you may well have seen Kasper Holten’s final production as director of opera at Covent Garden. There are a good number of critics and opera devotees who weren’t holding out much hope for Holten’s staging of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. You can hardly blame them. Holten would have done well to heed Rupert Christiansen’s advice in a Daily Telegraph article published before he arrived in Britain warning ‘he would be wise not to direct anything himself until he is well settled in’. As it is, the Dane went at it almost straight away, presiding over a messy Eugene Onegin and a lousy Don Giovanni. He was immediately labelled ‘overrated’.

In a recent pre-departure interview with Christiansen, Holten admitted he was leaving Covent Garden just as he was beginning to feel at home in the theatre and in the city. According to early exit polls, his production of Die Meistersinger didn’t show many signs of that, semaphoring instead the eager-to-impress nervousness that appeared to saturate his Onegin. At the time of writing, Holten’s one assured on-stage success at Covent Garden has been his tackling of Szymanowski’s Krol Roger.

Holten’s legacy at Covent Garden should be about more than the shows he’s staged, even those he has commissioned. It may be of far more significance for those outside the opera world that there was a passionate and communicative person in charge of the country’s biggest classical music institution who was determined to open it up creatively and literally. But it takes more than five years to change the culture of an institution so big. As such, Holten’s reputation within the opera industry and with London audiences will, like it or not, hang on what was seen on stage.

That audience was supposed to get a final chance to sample Holten’s wares in December 2017 with the arrival of his Der Freischütz, a co-production with the Royal Danish Opera (Holten’s old employer) where it opened in 2015. But the production has inexplicably disappeared from the schedule. Opera magazine’s editor John Allison speculated that the cancellation ‘could be interpreted as an attempt to undermine Holten’s legacy.’ But there are mutterings in Copenhagen that Holten pulled the London run because he didn’t want his creative presence looming over that of his successor.

Disappearing show: Der Freischütz
Disappearing show: Der Freischütz

Whatever the reasons, it’s a shame for Holten’s reputation. His Der Freischütz was a goodun, full of the confidence and insight that marked-out his work before he got to Covent Garden. The production wore its concept clearly but lightly and solved a good number of the opera’s dramatic problems. It was up there with some of the best Holten shows I’ve seen: Wagner’s Ring, Nielsen’s Maskarade, Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten and Korngold’s Die tote Stadt – works that tend to suggest he was at his best in operas that have proved bogeymen for others.

In none of those productions did Holten look like a director with something to prove. Perhaps the status of the Royal Opera flustered Holten with the relentless glare of its sizeable press corps, its bigger budgets and more high-profile artists. If he settled down with Krol Roger, Der Freischütz would have demonstrated, finally, that he does have a theatrical mind to be reckoned with.

But the disappearing Der Freischütz poses deeper questions. All of the artist contracts, including those for would-be ROH debutants Stuart Skelton and Edward Gardner, will have to be honoured financially in part or in full. But the production itself, the price tag for which a conservative estimate would put at somewhere around the £250,000 mark, was paid for back in 2015. The Royal Danish Opera confirmed the cancellation and assured me that Covent Garden ‘have honoured their financial commitment in full’, which presumably means it coughed up half that amount (Covent Garden declined to comment). So while Copenhageners might be miffed at London for having pinched their galvanizing artistic director, they at least got one morsel of compensation: a new production with striking machinery and designs by Es Devlin, half of which was paid for by taxpayers and patrons in Britain who didn’t get to see it. Tak!

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