On Thursday June 18th, The Royal Opera begins its “Italian Season” in fabulous style. La Traviata is cast from an opera-lover’s dream Rene Fleming, Joseph Calleja and Thomas Hampson in the leading roles, and conducted by Antonio Pappano. I spoke to Elaine Padmore, the Director of Opera, about the thinking behind the season, and the house’s future plans.
“This is picnic on the lawn season, and some of what we might call our ‘regular’ audience is starting to drift away. We have to compete with not only Glyndebourne but a whole set of newer Summer venues such as Garsington. We are very much aware that we have to be attractive to many regular opera goers and many tourists, who would be attracted to the famous titles we have and the stars of course. If you come to any, or indeed all of these, you will really see some of the finest in the world in some of the best productions.”
Her enthusiasm for the season is infectious, and it’s easy to see why. Summer or not, there must be few, if any, other houses which can boast a line-up of stars such as Rene Fleming, Joseph Calleja, Thomas Hampson, Ramn Vargas, Simon Keenlyside, Joyce DiDonato, Juan Diego Flrez, Deborah Voigt, Bryn Terfel… and all onstage over an incredibly short period, from June 18th to July 18th.
Elaine Padmore says “You have to be sensitive to the needs of singers in terms of how they divide up their time. Rene Fleming spends a significant amount of time in the States, and much as she loves coming here she does pace herself carefully. I think what lured here back for Violetta, which is a role she hasn’t been singing for long, was that Richard Eyre will be coming to direct his production. It’s a classic on which I know they’re really looking forward to collaborating.”
Most of the performances are, as you’d expect, virtually sold out, but she is anxious to remind opera lovers enticed by this fabulous casting and notable productions but who haven’t quite organized their Summer opera-going, that there are always a large number of day and standby seats for every performance, as well as the inevitable returns from patrons who have booked months ahead and then have a change of plan.
Thousands who can’t make it to the ROH will be able to see this production of La Traviata when it is shown as part of the BP ‘Summer Big Screens’ programme on June 30th, in various locations all over the UK, from Aberdeen to Swansea, as well as screens in London. The production will also be relayed live to over 175 cinemas across the UK and mainland Europe. You can also see the Barbiere relayed to Big Screens across the country on July 15th.
La Traviata will be followed by a revival of the stunning production of Un Ballo in Maschera, with Ramn Vargas and Chilean soprano Angela Marambio making her Covent Garden debut, and this is followed by my top choice, Barbiere which boasts surely today’s leading exponents of their respective roles – Simon Keenlyside, Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flrez. It will be the first revival of this production, and the role of Almaviva is shared between Juan Diego Flrez and the wonderful South African singer Colin Lee. Audiences were bowled over by him, on his last appearance at Covent Garden, when he shared the role of Tonio in ‘La Fille du Rgiment’ with Flrez.
The eagerly anticipated Tosca brings the Italian season to a close, with another starry line-up in its cast of Deborah Voigt, Bryn Terfel and Marcello Giordani.
The ROH will also be at the forefront of a new three part series on BBC 4 next year. Pappano is recording it at the moment, in tandem with Traviata rehearsals, and it will chart the history of Italian opera from Monteverdi to Puccini. “We’re very excited about this, not least because, with the demise of the ‘South Bank Show,’ it’s important that there is still a place for high art on TV.” I mentioned the fact that the emotional reactions of audiences and judges to opera singing on such ‘low art’ programmes as Britain’s Got Talent have always seemed to me to demonstrate a need for something deeper, and she agreed. “Opera is entertainment, but it’s also a life-enhancing experience which can change you utterly. All people have to do is to get over that ‘It’s not for me’ barrier, get in the door and they will see that the ROH is an accessible, friendly house with a place for everyone.”
Has the ROH been affected by the credit crunch, or do they find that people still want to retain the most special and precious things, even if others have to go? “Well, I think you’ve just said it there is a great need not only for ‘the big night out’ but for an experience which goes beyond the everyday. That’s partly why we have to be so careful not to touch the budgeting for the productions people do like spectacle, perhaps even more so in a recession.”
Spectacle certainly won’t be in short supply next season, which feels like a continuation of the Italian one, with a Don Carlo starring Jonas Kaufmann and featuring John Tomlinson as the Grand Inquisitor, and including such gems as a new Aida directed by David McVicar and a revival of the Moshinsky Simon Boccanegra which will surely be the big draw for Plcido Domingo’s debut in a baritone role.
Domingo will also feature in a major tenor role, his 26th for the house, when he takes on Bajazet in Handel’s Tamerlano in a Graham Vick production which will be new to the ROH. The Handel purist in me wants to scoff, but I’m sure I will be first in line for a ticket.
Other big draws include a new production of Arne’s Artaxerxes in the Linbury Studio Theatre, featuring a mostly young British cast and conducted by Ian Page just the sort of thing the house should be doing, since one might say it ‘owns’ the work, which was first performed at a theatre on the site in 1762. More traditional delights are to be found with a new Tristan featuring, as Padmore says, “The” Tristan and Isolde in Ben Heppner and Nina Stemme.
Elaine Padmore and Antonio Pappano seem to have brought a new enthusiasm to Covent Garden this season, and it’s safe to assume that audiences are in for an exceptional Summer of grand opera, followed by a new season which manages to achieve that difficult balance between the established, “expected” operas and the new or revived from distant times.