Aside from a typically eclectic range of operas (all in new productions), the best news about Opera Holland Park's Summer 2006 season is the return of the City of London Sinfonia in all six productions for the third successive year.
Their sensitive and spirited accompaniment has been one of the backbones of recent seasons, proving flexible in repertoire from Mozart to Puccini.
The latter two composers feature highly in 2006, with Puccini's Manon Lescaut and Mozart's Così fan tutte making welcome appearances.
Manon Lescaut is one of Puccini's most underrated operas, yet it was one of the best-received in his lifetime. Full of characteristically memorable tunes, the opera is both gripping and romantic. Holland Park favourite John Gibbons is the conductor, whilst Tim Carroll makes his debut with the company. Amanda Echalaz will play Manon to Sean Ruane's Des Grieux.
At the other end of the scale is Mozart's great comedy Così fan tutte. It is by far the most relevant of the composer's operas to a modern audience, with the observations of human behaviour still savagely perceptive. I hope OHP can improve upon the Royal Opera's most recent revival of the work, which was musically dismal.
The company is fortunate to have secured the services of Lillian Watson in the role of the manipulative Despina, luxury international casting that makes this the must-see production. Sarah-Jane Davies plays Fiordiligi and Doreen Curran is Dorabella. Annilese Miskimmon returns as director; Leo Hussain is the conductor.
One of the more intriguing choices is Giordano's Fedora, following on from the same composer's Andrea Chénier last year. Fedora is opera's very own spy story, and for my money it has far more novelty than the musically clichéd Chénier.
The plot has all kinds of interesting twists and turns; there's a familiar aria in 'Amor ti vieta'; and in the Paris soirée scene, an onstage pianist plays a nocturne in the style of Chopin whilst the two main characters converse in the foreground (a technique obviously inspired by the ball scene in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera). Brad Cohen conducts this rare staging of perhaps the most realistic of verismo operas.
"One of the more intriguing choices is Giordano's Fedora, following on from the same composer's Andrea Chénier last year...Fedora is opera's very own spy story"
The conductor John Owen Edwards usually has a light touch in operetta, so it's good to see him returning for Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow (helpfully sung in English) in 2006. Hopefully this will serve the piece better than Welsh National Opera's recent poorly-received new production. Tom Hawkes directs the Widow in new designs by Peter Rice. Rebecca Caine plays the heroine Hanna Glawari.
Also on the more familiar end of things, Verdi's Rigoletto takes to the stage in mid-July. Peter Robinson conducts, and the director is John La Bouchardière, working with the company for the first time. They will find it difficult to live up to the Royal Opera's June 2005 revival, which was near-ideal, but the Holland Park setting may add some of the required spark. After two appearances last summer, Olafur Sigurdarson returns to play the hunch-backed jester.
2005 saw an excellent new production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at OHP, and 2006 sees a return to the same composer with The Queen of Spades. Stuart Stratford did a sterling job with Onegin, and is returning to conduct Queen of Spades with his superb Onegin, Mark Stone, playing Yeletsky. Orla Boylan returns to play Lisa. Martin Lloyd Evans directs this huge undertaking of an opera too seldom performed, considering its high quality and influence on later operas such as Pfitzner's Palestrina.
Opera Holland Park has grown in stature in recent years, with a high-profile exploration of verismo operas of the late nineteenth-century particularly invigorating. Nearly every production has something to recommend it, either in terms of the unusual repertoire choices or interesting casting.
All the works except The Merry Widow are sung in the original language with surtitles, and a scheme which started in 2005 offers free tickets to young people in the area, showing the company's attempts to increase accessibility in an artform which still retains its image of exclusivity.
This year, 800 free opera tickets will be offered to young people aged between 9 and 18, with the support of John Lyon's Charity, Opera Holland Park Friends, Martin and Wendy Kramer, Beaumont Cornish Limited and Carntyne Scholarships. I'm also pleased to see that the company is starting a Late Tickets List, whereby students will be able to buy tickets for seats that remain unoccupied at the last minute, at the greatly reduced prices of £10 and £15.
Perhaps the best news of all is that 2006 is the last year in the old canopy - 2007 promises a new improved model!