Booking for Covent Garden's Winter Season (December to March) starts today for Friends, and 20 October for all you other people.
Not much is massively tempting, though the first of Plácido Domingo's appearances this season is a must-see. He's already sung in Madrid - and been immortalised on DVD - in this striking Graham Vick production of Handel's Tamerlano, conducted for the Royal Opera House by Handel specialist Ivor Bolton.
Also worth catching - if there are any tickets left - is Plácido 'In Conversation' in the Linbury Studio on 26 February.
Kirill Petrenko is the conductor for Der Rosenkavalier, a dust down for the 1984 John Schlesinger production. A promising cast is headed by Soile Isokoski, Sophie Koch, Lucy Crowe and Thomas Allen.
Andris Nelsons makes his Royal Opera House debut in December conducting an even more ancient production, John Copley's 1974 La bohème, with Maurizio Benini and Paul Wynne Griffiths substituting in January. Though once should be enough for anyone. Mix'n'match casting includes Piotr Beczala, Hibla Gerzmava and Christopher Maltman. Yards of curtain fabric, acres of creaking boards, smocks akimbo, and even a spot of artistic nudity not mentioned on the ticket (in case you're taking granny).
Last year's disappointing Robert Lepage production ofThe Rake's Progress makes a swift and brilliantly-cast return. Toby Spence (the best Tom Rakewell in town - he was made for this role) is joined by Kate Royal, Kyle Ketelsen, and Stephanie Blythe as Baba the Turk. Lovely Ingo Metzmacher conducts and tickets are a bit cheaper than usual, with a top price of £110.
Even cheaper, with a top price of £50, is Prokofiev's The Gambler. Covent Garden take a step into ENO territory with a new English language production by Richard Jones. The cast includes Roberto Sacca, Angela Denoke, John Tomlinson, Jurgita Adamonyte and Kurt Streit, and Pappano conducts. No doubt intended to draw in a new audience, as is a half day education event An Introduction to Opera on 20 February.
It's hard to make Mozart dull, but Jonathan Miller's painfully misguided assault on Così Fan Tutte does the trick. Not half as happening as it thinks it is, and it's doubtful if Charles Castronovo, Troy Cook, Sally Matthews and Nino Surgaladze can salvage it. Julia Jones waves the baton for female conductors.
Here first! - a full list of all the Royal Opera House's main stage productions for the 2009/10 season.
The 2009/10 Covent Garden season opens with neither bang nor whimper but with a credit-crunching concert performance on 7 September (repeated on 14 September). Makes a change from last year's Sun readers' special I suppose.
The opera in question is Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix, and the conductor is bel canto genius Mark Elder. The cast includes potential Next Big Things Stephen Costello, Eglise Gutierrez and Luciano Botelho, plus the incomparable Alessandro Corbelli, the first of several welcome appearances this season.
The first staged opera of the season is Nicholas Hytner's lego-loving Don Carlo, with - OMG!- Jonas Kaufmann !!! in the title role. John Tomlinson joins him as the Grand Inquisitor, and the rest of the cast is lifted straight from the first run - Marina Poplavskaya, Simon Keenlyside, fans' favourite Ferruccio Furlanetto, Sonia Ganassi and Pumeza Matshikiza.The conductor is Semyon Bychkov.
This season's contribution to the 2013 Wagnerversary is a new Christof Loy production of Tristan und Isolde. Antonio Pappano conducts Ben Heppner, Nina Stemme, Matti Salminen, Michael Volle and Sophie Koch.
Neigh! Francesco Zambello's ghastly Carmen returns in October, with the latest Covent Garden favourite Elina Garanca back for the title role, fighting off Roberto Alagna, Ildebrando d'Arcangelo, and a farmyard full of furry friends. Bertrand de Billy conducts. It's resuscitated again in June 2010 with a distinctly 'B' cast.
October also sees one of Richard Jones's more subtle and effective efforts back on stage - and attractively cast. The shouldn't-work-but-it-does double bill of Ravel's L'Heure Espagnole (Christine Rice, Yann Beuron, Christopher Maltman, Andrew Shore and Bonaventura Bottone) and Puccini's Gianni Schicchi (Thomas Allen, Maria Bengtsson and Stephen Costello) is conducted by Pappano.
Francesco Zambello steps into Tchaikovsky's The Slippers in November. The new production will be conducted by Alexander Polianichko and features some serious talent fresh from the Mariinsky - Olga Guryakova, Vsevolod Grivnov, Larissa Diadkova, Vladimir Matorin and Maxim Mikhailov.
John Schlesinger's elderly Der Rosenkavalier is dusted off in December. Kirill Petrenko conducts and the cast includes Soile Isokoski, Sophie Koch, Thomas Allen and Lucy Crowe.
Littering the December and January schedules is the inevitable La Bohème. This time Andris Nelsons conducts most of the double-cast performances, which begin with Piotr Beczala and Hibla Gerzmava and end with not a few tbc's.
Robert Lepage's intermittently effective Rake's Progress returns in January 2010. Ingo Metzmacher, Toby Spence (a Tom Rakewell tdf), Kate Royal, Kyle Ketelsen and Stephanie Blythe promise much on the musical side.
Female conductor alert! Top Lisboan Julia Jones wields the baton over Jonathan Miller's Cosi fan Tutte in January. The cast includes Charles Castronovo and Sally Matthews.
A new Richard Jones production of Prokofiev's The Gambler in February is conducted by Pappano, with a cast including Roberto Sacca, Angela Denoke, John Tomlinson and Jurgita Adamonyte.
Plácido Domingo's first appearance of the season is as a tenor. Graham Vick's acclaimed production of Handel's Tamerlano(recorded in Madrid and availableon DVD con Plácido) makes its first visit to Covent Garden in March with Christianne Stoijn, Sara Mingardo and Christine Schäfer. Baroque specialist Ivor Bolton conducts.
Bill Bryden's family-friendly The Cunning Little Vixen returns in March with Emma Matthews, Christopher Maltman and Emma Bell, though the presence of Charles Mackerras on the podium has to be the main draw.
Caurier and Leiser's lovely Il Turco in Italia is back in April, with Maurizio Benini conducting, and Aleksandra Kursak, Colin Lee, Alessandro Corbelli, Thomas Allen and Ildebrando d'Arcangelo in the cast.
Aida is subjected to the David McVicar magic in April. His new production is conducted by Nicola Luisotti and features Micaela Carosi, Marcelo Alvarez and Luciana D'Intino. Bare naked elephants?
The last of the Big Three, Richard Eyre's subtly intelligent La Traviata, makes its annual appearance in May and July. This time her name's in the programme - Our first Lady of the Camellias is the fabulous former Netrebko sub Ermonela Jaho. Joining her in her long-awaited return to Covent Garden in May are Saimir Pirgu and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. July's 'B' Violetta is Angela Gheorghiu, who makes do with James Valenti and Zeljko Lucic. Yves Abel conducts.
Laurent Pelly's now-legendary La Fille du Régiment returns in May with the unbeatable original cast of Juan Diego Flórez, Natalie Dessay, Alessandro Corbelli and Felicity Palmer back in place. Bruno Campanella conducts.
What would tempt Sir Colin Davis back into the pit? How about David McVicar's Le Nozze di Figaro? Erwin Schrott, Camilla Tilling, Maruisz Kwiecen. Annette Dasch, Soile Isokoski and Christine Schäfer head the strong cast.
Antonio Pappano conducts Laurent Pelly's new Manon, coming to Covent Garden in June with the announced cast including Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón. Anyone fancy a bet?
In one of those rare operatic fairy stories, June sees a baritone with less than a year's experience thrust into a leading role at Covent Garden. Yes, it's Plácido Domingo again, and this time he's Simon Boccanegra. Antonio Pappano conducts a strong cast including Marina Poplavskaya, Ferruccio Furlanetto and Joseph Calleja. It's the 1991 Elijah Moshinsky production by the way, not the Ian Judge one seen last year.
The season ends in July 2010 with the first revival of David McVicar's controversial Salome. Angela Denoke takes the central role, with Johan Reuter as Jokanaan. Hartmut Haenchen conducts.
Idomeneo - Europa Galante/Biondi - Barbican, 14 May 2008
Technical excellence isn't everything. Musically, this concert performance of Idomeneo was rough as a badger's behind. Fabio Biondi, conducting a breakneck pace with violin in hand, failed on several occasions to bring his small band in on time, or to hold them together. Intonation was frequently doubtful in the string section; near-criminal in the brass. But enthusiasm goes a long way, and Mozart in any case demonstrated his usual resistance to the assaults of imperfect execution. The sheer verve of the performance gave it a warmth and charm that more polished approaches often lack (and awww just look at the harpsichordist's score, above).
Ian Bostridge was the motor behind the show, part of his Homeward Bound series running throughout the Barbican season. He's not a singer who melts readily into whatever character he's playing, and the role of Idomeneo would have benefited from more poise and warmth. But however dramatically questionable, his singing was often deeply affecting, and his (very difficult) second act aria Fuor del mar was perfectly judged and exquisitely sung.
Kate Royal provided some Grecian flavour to her part as Ilia in a draped cream goddess gown (marks deducted for visible bra straps). Her intonation was secure and her tone serenely radiant, notes cautiously but elegantly laid in place. The problem for me was her offputting habit of inflecting by gasping and panting in between notes, something that eventually became far more noticeable than the line it was disrupting.
Emma Bell, the fiery Electra, looked fabulous with her new short-fringed bob and red strapless gown. She made the most of her dramatically redundant but musically riveting role with a thrilling and well-received high-drama, mega-vibrato performance, more in the style of late Verdi than early Mozart. It may have been an anachronism, but it made perfect musical sense. Anyway it slotted in neatly with the various vocal idiosyncracies on display elsewhere.
The most conventionally Mozartean singing came from Jurgita Adamonyte as Idamante, poised, focussed and pure of tone. Despite being a late replacement for the advertised Christine Rice, she gave every evidence of thorough and intelligent study of the role, all her expressive choices seemingly the perfect ones.
The tenor Benjamin Hulett completed the list of principals as Arbace. He reminded me of Toby Spence in his straightforward and versatile vocal quality - also in the fact that he looks about half his age.
The weakest link was the chorus, who I understand were pulled together just for this performance. On the plus side, their enunciation was exceptionally clear and their ensemble near-perfect. But there was scarcely any sign of life from them until the last act, in dramatic contrast to the vigour of Europa Galante.
It was a strange and quirk-packed evening, far from immaculate technically, but for the most part entirely riveting. Proof perhaps that not everything needs to be perfect to be great.
Ian Bostridge sings Fuor del Mar with Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra:
Kate Royal / Roger Vignoles - Wigmore Hall, 16 February 2008
Brahms - Vier Gesänge Op 70 Debussy - Cinq Poèmes de Charles Baudelaire Poulenc - Fiançailles pour rire Strauss - Mädchenblumen, Ich wollt ein Straüßlein binden, Als mir dein Leid erklang
What has happened to Kate Royal's bewbs? Modestly corseted for her current role in Die Zauberflöte, it's hard to tell. Unfettered tonight in a stunning dove grey halter neck grecian gown they jostled for attention like a couple of genetically modified grapefruit. Even in the Wigmore Hall, temple of song, it was enough to arouse interval remarks about 'shapeliness' from elderly gentlemen. I don't recall anything particularly eye popping in previous appearances. Industrial-grade bra padding, or has she been shopping in the same place as Katherine Jenkins?
Unfortunately, they weren't quite spectacular enough to distract from some ropey singing in her first all-Brahms song group. Intonation and diction were accurate enough, but the higher notes elicited a sound like a fork being slowly drawn across a saucepan. She never looked or sounded comfortable. These lugubrious songs are not easy or immediately appealing. Though the group slotted well into the programme, billed as part of the Wigmore Hall's French season, Royal was simply unable to supply any real insight into their elliptical texts.
With her voice now warmed up, she produced a much more attractive sound for Debussy's five Baudelaire settings. But Baudelaire's perfumed eroticism eluded her. Imperfect French accentuated the effect of knee-clutching English reserve. Her approach to the Poulenc group was similarly buttoned-up, her only hint of abandon the occasional tiny gasp. Royal performed without a score and appeared to know the songs inside out, so it was disappointing that she felt unable to take the risks she has demonstrated in her operatic performances.
It was only in the closing Strauss group that she seemed to find the right balance between expression and control, that unexpected blend of ice and warmth in her shimmering silver tones finally ecstatic.
Her eagerly provided encore was Lia's aria from Debussy's L'Enfant Prodigue, an oddly long and doleful choice to send an audience home with. But it was delivered with all the insight and engagement her earlier Debussy group had lacked - a promise of what might have been and an indication that eventual success in this repertoire is not beyond Royal's grasp.
Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) - Royal Opera House, 31 January 2008 and 7 February 2008
As Die Zauberflöte is one of my all-time favourites, and as the Royal Opera House has seen fit to assemble a 'B' cast so strong it should more properly be called just an 'alternative' cast, I decided I just had to see this production twice.
Admittedly it's not the most coherent or stimulating of productions. David McVicar tries just a little too hard to appeal to all corners. There's a lot of olde-style set dressing and costumery for the traditionalists, but enough anachronistic modern touches to counter any accusations of stodginess. The spoken sections are faithfully retained in full, in all their tedium, but any racist overtones are swindled out by recreating the black Monostatos as an ageing white fop. Man-held creatures offer a half-hearted nod to 18th century theatrical practices that isn't followed through or even integrated properly . And there's plenty of cleavage and thigh boots for anyone who doesn't care about any of the above. It's the eclipse of enlightenment by popular entertainment. Give me Nicholas Hytner's beautiful, thoughtful and inexplicably-retired ENO production any day. But Mozart has survived worse, and while the production may be superficial, it is at least not irritating. And it thrilled plenty of Amazon reviewers on its first, DVDd for posterity, outing.
In the first cast, Simon Keenlyside's Papageno stood head and shoulders above the rest of the cast - as much down to weaknesses in their performances as strength in his. Rolling and tumbling like a trained acrobat, singing beautifully of course, his presence animated every scene he was in.
Christopher Maltman offered a different, and in many ways more touching Papageno in cast B. While there's something almost slick about Keenlyside's clowning, and something crafty about his evasions, Maltman offered a simpler, more vulnerable character, more of a witless fool buffeted about by life's complications. I admired the skill of Keenlyside's portrayal of Papageno, but I warmed more to Maltman.
When it came to the central couple of Tamino and Pamina, there was less of a contest. Cast A's Christoph Strehl and Genia Kühmeier would seem on this showing to be fine singers, and I look forward very much to Genia Kühmeier's debut recital at the Wigmore Hall in April . But neither had a great deal of presence, nor, it seemed, enough direction/rehearsal to get them much past the shuffling and hand-wringing stage. In Strehl's case, he took a very long time to get going vocally, with only his final aria really having the projection to reach my amphitheatre eyrie.
Cast B's Pavol Breslik and Kate Royal were in a different class. Tamino is a notoriously drippy role in the wrong hands. It takes real presence and charisma to make something of it, and Breslik asserted himself at once. The dashing charm and the big bright voice were perfect. Kate Royal's Pamina simply glowed. Aside from some intonation problems in her first aria, she gave a sparky, vital performance. These two were, properly, at the centre of the performance every time they were on stage.
The first Sarastro, Stephen Milling, is a singer I admire hugely, but I found him untypically subdued and unassertive in this role. Sarastro #2, Hans-Peter König, definitely shaded it in terms of dramatic presence, but neither really disappointed in any way.
Queens of the Night Erika Miklósa (in the A cast) and Anna Kristiina Kaappola (in the B) were both fabulous. Miklósa displayed greater ease with the coloratura (it was evident Kaappola was at top stretch), but Kaappola was a more vital and vengeful stage presence. The all-round greater dramatic prowess of the second cast made me wonder if they'd maybe benefitted from more rehearsal time than than the first set - certainly they all seemed to have a clearer idea of what they were supposed to be doing.
Kishani Jayasinghe (Papagena), the one constant in all casts, made the most of her brief part and suffered her '80's discowear bravely. Her acting skills weren't quite adequate compensation for the ineffective 'old lady' disguise of her closing scene, and as a result this was rather confusing, but she sang prettily and had terrific comic timing.
Other parts were very strongly cast all round in both performances, right down to the bisto-kid three boys, beautifully sung each time.
Roland Böer conducted both times, vibrantly and confidently. Co-ordination between stage and pit was perfect, and if the orchestra played a note wrong, then I didn't notice it. Why, I may even have to go back again.
Having steeled my puritan ears for the promised ecstasy, I was surprised at the graceful restraint of the scoring. More like being sprinkled with sugar than dunked in syrup.
And although it avoids the solemnity we associate with the oratorio form, it's not all froth either. Episodically ravishing, beautiful even, it is however fleshed out with too many orchestrate-by-numbers passages to deserve labelling as a masterpiece. The near-impenetrable libretto, a word thicket of typically Victorian density, doesn't help its case.
The simple story of the Peri (a Persian fairy) who must devise a gift in order to enter the gates of heaven was narrated by Mark Padmore with interventions from the Peri (Sally Matthews) and other characters, portrayed by Bernarda Fink, Kate Royal, Timothy Robinson and David Wilson Johnson.
The female soloists were thoughtfully co-ordinated in taffeta gowns (left) so it was a pity that only Sally Matthews and Mark Padmore sang from the front of the stage, the other soloists being tucked back with the choir.
I'd never thought of Schumann as a choral writer until now, but the Choir of the Enlightenment had some of the best music, and they made the most of it in a series of luminously coloured passages. The ethereal Nile Spirits chorus, beautifully executed, was exquisite in its detail, and the soaring Blessed Spirits chorus was a suitably ecstatic finale.
The lustrous, knife-sharp soprano of Sally Matthews brought an other-worldly radiance to the part of the Peri. It contrasted with Mark Padmore's grave demeanour, which sometimes seemed at odds with the music. He didn't seem to be on his best form tonight, losing some of the lower notes, and a bit shouty overall.
I've heard Bernarda Fink sing better too, but her second half was better than her rather wobbly first. David Wilson Johnson's rich baritone was a highlight, but unfortunately he didn't have a great deal to do.
Neither did Kate Royal, here on absolutely stunning form, but with only one aria to lend her shimmering silvery soprano to.
Simon Rattle drove things along with a characteristic enthusiasm, drawing a vigorous and committed performance from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Their raw-textured sound went some to countering any charges of excessive prettiness in the music, but ultimately the writing gripped only sporadically. When it did - there is some strange and wonderful harmonic exposition tucked away in there - it convinced that at least part of the work is worth further exploration.
It wasn't quite enough to persuade that Das Paradies und die Peri is a neglected masterpiece - and it certainly needs a top drawer cast like tonight's to give it any chance at all - but Simon Rattle deserves credit for organising this airing.
Kate Royal/Roger Vignoles - Wigmore Hall, 29 January 2007
The usual feeling Kate Royal inspires is the greenest of envy, but I couldn't help but feel sorry for her tonight. Faced with a full house of mild mannered Wigmore habitues gagging to hear her, she unaccountably bottled it, delivering her all-Schumann first half bathed in the cold sweat of terror, uncontrolled vibrato a mile wide and excruciatingly, yes, pitchy. Perhaps she's not totally well: her normally slim frame appeared even leaner, positively bony, swaddled in a clingy pearl grey satin frock.
So, a goal down at half time, but fortunately for Kate and ticket holders alike, it was to be a game of two halves. Whatever she did/drank/smoked in the interval transformed her for the Brahms/Wolf section which followed.
Brahms's Die Mainacht was floated out with a silvery ease, every note assured and in its place. The exuberance of Das Mädchen spricht and other more upbeat songs was a little forced, the gestures scaled more for a mighty opera house than the intimacy of the Wigmore Hall. She was much more effective in the reflective quietude of Unbewegte laue Luft and Wolf's Das verlassene Mägdlein, sinking back into the music and allowing just the dusky warmth of her voice to do the work. Kate Royal has a rare gift for communicating her personal resonance with texts, and the less that's hidden behind the trappings of an oversized 'performance', the more penetrating and affecting she becomes.
Roger Vignoles was more than just a solid support - he steered, he cajoled, and subtly applied the brakes where necessary. His unflashy virtuosity in the Wolf counterbalanced Kate Royal perfectly.
Called back twice for encores, they impressed again with the contrasts of Schumann's dreamy Nachtlied and (after a little scrabbling to find the music) Wolf's lively Ich habe in Penna from the Italienisches Liederbuch.
The splashy cartoon colour, the twirling Indonesian dancers, the PVC costumery are all familiar from Chen's ENO Orfeo last year. Does he see the two as some sort of 17th century Ring Cycle, or is he simply out of ideas? His fairytale approach fitted Orfeo's mythical world more readily than Poppea's prosaic wife/mistress conflict. More fundamentally, he simply didn't tell the story. The acid test of any production is whether you'd understand roughly what was going on if you didn't have the words - for this one it would be some feat.
Using only the simplest of elements on stage - back projected images and a raised ship's prow for the first act that tipped over to become a staircase in the second, the production relied heavily on its sweetie-wrapper costumes and spectacular dancers for visual effect.
At least Chen is a SpongeBob SquarePants fan -- the glamour of gleaming PVC and shimmering haberdashery was comically compromised by Empress Ottavia's mobile sea urchin throne and a completely inexplicable radio controlled neon snail -- and more elegantly interrupted by a sort of seafood ballet.
Laurence Cummings' musical direction, best in the vibrant multi-harpsichord continuo, was sensibly boosted to fill the cavernous Coliseum, but retained a respect for Monteverdi's timbres with gut strings and period bows and trumpets. That it lacked much light and shade was largely down to the need to keep it audible in a space this size.
Robert Lloyd's grave and resonant Seneca (right), by some distance the most fully realised portrayal on stage, stood apart from the froth and spectacle in his sober suit -- his suicide was the only point at which I came close to caring about any of the characters.
Kate Royal, in the central role of Poppea, had some great frocks, and like most of the female cast, some gratuitous underwear displays too. But I was never certain who she was supposed to be -- an ambitious schemer, a lovelorn mistress, or just eyecandy. And their position way above the stage in the first act lost both Royal and Nerone (Anna Grevelius) too much vocal resonance.
Baby Spice lookalike Lucy Crowe (left) proved a comic gem as neglected but faithful girlfriend Drusilla. Gamely clad in American Apparel undercrackers and a cellophane dress, her lush soprano journeyed from sparkling wit to touching pathos with equal brilliance.
The smaller parts were unusually well filled in this production. Brad Cooper, credited in the programme but not on the ENO website for some reason, displayed a sensational high tenor in the tiny role of Seneca's friend -- I hope ENO can find him something more substantial to do in the future.
In the end though, Christopher Gillett in his cross dressed and brilliantly camped up portrayal of Poppea's nurse Arnalta (below right) may be the lingering image of this unfocussed production.