London Classical and Opera Preview: January-February

London Classical and Opera Preview: January-February

The Bartered Bride
The Bartered Bride
The turkey’s been eaten, the last guest has gone home, and you’ve taken down the decorations.

What do you do now (apart from auditioning for Strictly Dance Fever, of course)?

Well, the classical and opera scene in the capital offers a particularly ripe selection of events in the first two months of 2006. So why not beat those post-Christmas blues and buy yourself a ticket or three?

The Royal Opera seems determined to bring some winter sunshine into our lives, and their first offering is a new production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Brought to us by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, whose chic Il turco in Italia found the right mixture of savage wit and slapstick humour in May 2005, the cast includes the American mezzo Joyce DiDonato as Rosina, the fabulous British tenor Toby Spence as Count Almaviva, and the Romanian baritone George Petean in the title role. Mark Elder is the conductor, so it’s in safe hands.

Francesca Zambello‘s exuberant production of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride returns in January, with Czech specialist Sir Charles Mackerras continuing his 80th birthday celebrations after November’s Ballo. Sung in Kit Hesketh Harvey‘s witty English translation for utmost accessibility, a mixture of newcomers (Simon O’Neill) and established names (Donald Maxwell) come together for a comic treat. Richard Eyre‘s La traviata is also back, Philippe Auguin is in charge in the pit.

More operatic Figaro from 31 January, this time Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Antonio Pappano conducts a new production by David McVicar, the revivals of whose Magic Flute and Rigoletto were two of last year’s highlights. The cast is attractive, and includes Gerald Finley and Erwin Schrott as the Count and his servant, a team familiar from Don Giovanni in 2003.

As an avid Verdian, I’m inevitably looking forward to the return of Macbeth in February. Phyllida Lloyd‘s production is to be given in the revised version of 1865. Her striking and gripping take on the piece was one of the highlights of 2002, and could prove a winner once again for 2006. Thomas Hampson and Violeta Urmana play the murderous couple. The highlight of Antonio Pappano’s opening season at the ROH was his interpretation of Berg’s Wozzeck, and Keith Warner‘s production is revived for the first time on 27 February, this time under the baton of Daniel Harding. By far the best thing about the revival is the casting of Susan Bullock as Marie. Unbelievably, it’s her house debut; it’s a relief to see that the company has at last got around to employing the best home-grown Wagnerian soprano we have heard in years.

Down the road, English National Opera only returns from the Christmas break in February, with two weathered, if enduring Jonathan Miller productions. Gilbert and Sullivan‘s The Mikado returns on 3 February, conducted by Simon Lee (who led the memorable On the Town in early 2005). Richard Suart and Eric Roberts share the role of Ko-Ko, Keith Jameson is Nanki-Poo, and Sarah Tynan is Yum-Yum. The production is set in the 1930s, and remains the funniest version of the operetta of the last twenty years.

Miller’s Mafia version of Verdi’s Rigoletto returns to the Coliseum on 9 February. The murkiness of the score is wonderfully conveyed by the sinister designs, and who can ever forget such delightful inventions as the jukebox accompaniment for La donna mobile? The cast is a strong one, and includes Alan Opie‘s Rigoletto, Judith Howarth‘s Gilda and Leah-Marian Jones‘ Maddalena.

With this Rigoletto ENO makes the (apparently) monumental step of introducing surtitles above the stage, so that audiences can understand every word of the operas they attend. That this move, which will increase accessibility to newcomers to the world of opera, should be so vehemently opposed by a small minority of intellectually pretentious snobs, is indicative of the kind of elitism that the genre has to avoid in order to survive in the twenty-first century. How nice for the privileged few who have sufficient time to sit around and learn the texts to long works such as Tristan in advance of spending the night watching them in the theatre! They may not need to read the words as the action unfolds, but most people can only benefit from engaging more actively with opera libretti whilst experiencing the works in performance.

“Most people can only benefit from engaging more actively with opera libretti whilst experiencing the works in performance.”

Andrew Parrott and the London Mozart Players are doing their namesake proud with a whole weekend of events at St John’s Smith Square honouring the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. Exsultate, jubilate and Symphony No. 40 are the main items on 27 January; the wondrous Michael Collins plays the Clarinet Concerto the following night; and a particularly enticing concert on 29 January has Sir James Galway in the Flute Concerto K314 and Howard Shelley playing Piano Concerto No. 21, plus the Jupiter Symphony. Then on 31 January at the same venue, Paul Brough leads the Hanover Band in the Requiem.

The London Symphony Orchestra offers Maria Joao Pires (replacing Murray Perahia) in two of the Mozart piano concerti on 5 and 8 January, coupled with Shostakovich symphonies; Bernard Haitink conducts. Mikhail Pletnev leads the Philharmonia in an all-Mozart programme at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 26 and 31 January, whilst Robert Levin plays the C minor Concerto K491 there with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Roger Norrington on 7 February. Charles Mackerras was bound to make a contribution or two, and they come in the form of the C major Piano Concerto K503 on 22 February and the G major Concerto K453, both with the Philharmonia again at the QEH.

There’s plenty out there for people with Mozart fatigue, however. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Philippe Jordan play Beethoven and Chabrier at the QEH on 7 January; Anne Sofie von Otter is the soloist in Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. The musically adventurous will be flocking to the Barbican for the BBC Symphony Orchestra‘s weekend devoted to the music of the 97-year-old American composer Elliott Carter from 13-15 January. And Pascal Rog is performing the complete Debussy Preludes at the QEH on 23 January.

After a great start in October, Gergiev‘s Shostakovich continues at the Barbican on 5 February with the London Symphony Orchestra playing Symphony No 4. Later that month, the orchestra performs Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (19 and 21 Feb) and Mass in C (26 Feb), both under the great Sir Colin Davis. An especial nugget is the pairing of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the LSO under Myung-Whun Chung.

Other Barbican highlights include soprano Emma Bell in Handel’s Rodelinda on 1 February, which should be a treat; the reconstruction of Shostakovich’s score for the film classic Odna with the BBCSO on 10 February; and Osvaldo Golijov‘s eclectic La Pasin Segn San Marcos gets its UK premiere on 24 February.

And don’t forget Francesca Zambello’s fabulous in-the-round production of Puccini’s La bohme, which returns to the Royal Albert Hall in February.

So there’s something for everyone from novice to expert in the New Year line-up.

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