Six complete cycles of Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen provides the coming season with a major landmark in the history of Opera North, their contribution to the world of music recently rewarded by one of the very few increases from the Arts Council of Great Britain in their funding review.
“It wasn’t massive, but in the present economic climate, it was a pleasing thought that we were getting our activities right with a touring schedule that each year takes world-class singers to provincial venues,” comments Richard Mantle, the company’s General Director.
“We have also doubled our sponsorship income over the past four years, and that has helped us to offer a carefully constructed new season with a wide spectrum of works opening with Cole Porter’s musical, Kiss Me, Kate, and ending next July with Wagner.
“Between those two we have decided to bring back some of our most popular productions, beginning with Giles Havergal’s period staging of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. It has certainly been in our repertoire over twenty years, and I suppose most people will remember it from the very funny Doctor Bartilo of Eric Roberts, who will be back with us again this year.
“Then we have a return of Tom Cairns who is taking a fresh look as his original company staging of Janacek’s Janufa, and he will have some changed and refurbished sets. The soprano, Ylva Kihlberg, who we have seen a few years back in Janacek’s The Makropulos Case, takes the leading role, and we are giving a very exciting young Serbian conductor, Aleksander Markovic, his UK opera debut.
“It is very strange that somehow Giordano’s Andrea Chenier has slipped through our net and has never been staged by the company before. It is one of those works where the audience will listen to many of the arias and say ‘that’s where it comes from’. Annabel Arden will be doing a completely new production for us, and we have a very welcome return of the conductor, Oliver von Dohnanyi.”
The story, set in revolutionary France, has attracted every world famous tenor to the part of Andrea, the Mexican-born, Rafael Rojas, whose roles for Opera North have include Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, is now staking his claim. Annemarie Kremer, takes the wealthy Maddalena de Coigny, trying to avoid the guillotine, and Robert Hayward is the jealous Carlo Gerard.
Mutterings have been going around the musical media following the recent rediscovery and American staging of Francoise-Andre Philador’s opera, Les Femmes Vengees. Mozart most probably saw the work in Paris, and could well have purloined the plot for his famous Cosi fan tutte. The difference came with Mozart’s ability to create an unending flow of beautiful music, Opera North’s winter season returning to Tim Albery’s classic production with Helen Sherman in the leading role of Dorabella.
“We are particularly pleased that Nicholas Watts is stepping up from the ranks of the company’s chorus to sing Ferrando, as it comes as part of our ongoing training programme,” continues Mantle. “And we are equally pleased to be giving the young Mark Simpson his first opera commission with a world premiere of Pleasure. That features Lesley Garrett in the role of Val, the toilet attendant at a gay club, the story appearing as a comedy but with a serious message.”
Being staged in the Howard Assembly Room, it comes at the end of the winter season that will also have included a rerun of Daniel Slater’s bright and breezy version of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore set in the mini-skirted era of the swinging 1960s. Two of last year’s cast from the company’s highly acclaimed performances of Puccini’s La Boheme, Gabriela Istoc and Duncan Rock, take the leading roles, with Tobias Ringborg conducting.
Slotted between the Ring cycles Opera North move into the West Yorkshire Playhouse to share in a co-production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Characters from well-known fairy tales get mixed up as the story digs deep into the relationship and wishful thinking that exists between parents and children.
The season ends with Richard Farners’s final months as the company’s Music Director, devoting four months to the twenty-four performances of Wagner, two complete Ring cycles taking place in Leeds, before it tours to Nottingham, Salford, London and Gateshead.
“When we set out with Das Rheingold five years ago, we never really intended going any further than that,” Mantle relates, “but the critical and audience response, and the acclaim of Richard’s conducting, took us forward until it almost became inevitable that we should complete the cycle. It has given the much enlarged orchestra a chance to shine, and those coming to Wagner for the first time have found that the type of staging and design concept from Peter Mumford made the story clear without the usual stage props.
“We have most of the international cast we originally brought together as we staged each segment, who are returning for the whole tour of the cycle, the young Jeni Bern, who opens the season as the leading lady in Kiss Me, Kate, ending it with roles in three of the Wagner operas.”
And what news of the new Music Director? “Well for a start we shall be seeing Richard in future with us in the concert hall,” he proffers, but it was a question that Mantle would not be drawn further. “You have either seen him conducting opera last season or he will be with the company this season”, he says with a glint of mischief.