Opera and ballet directors unite to take risks during the Royal Opera House's 2012/13 season
It’s not every day that members of the press get up close and personal to Covent Garden’s biggest opera and ballet stars in action. But that's exactly what happened at the official season launch in the intimate Clore Studio last night. In a now tried-and-tested format, the evening began with a demonstration of what exactly the Royal Opera House can do, in repertoire that will dominate the forthcoming season. It’s a formula that works: our appetites are whetted sufficiently to be open and receptive to the more conventional aspects – speeches by chief executive Tony Hall et al – that intersperse the musical interludes.
Last night’s programme was unusual, though, in that it opened with a ballet rehearsal: Liam Scarlett, who, while a member of the Royal Ballet, is also enjoying a burgeoning career as an up-and-coming choreographer, took principals Laura Morera and Federico Bonelli through a 10-minute pas de deux sequence as part of his new work Viscera, which he created for Miami City Ballet. It was fascinating to observe at such close quarters the intricate embraces, intertwinings and grapplings involved in complex choreography such as this. It was also interesting to see what a key role the repetiteur – in this case, Rob Clark – has to play; his instantaneous ability to adapt to new tempi, to be able to pick up where the dancers left off, at the merest nod from Scarlett, was impressive to say the least.
Kasper Holten, in his first season as director of the Royal Opera, then introduced the superb Royal Opera House Chorus who, under chorus master Renato Balsadonna and with accompaniment from Stephen Westrop, performed the 'Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves' from Verdi’s Nabucco. In particular, their mastery of dynamics was exemplary, as was their total commitment to the performance. But they let their hair down when Bryn Terfel made a guest appearance. After a snarling, improvisatory ‘It ain’t necessarily so’, in which the chorus mirrored Terfel phrase by phrase to sometimes comedic effect, a simply beautiful performance of ‘Ar Hyd y Nos’ (‘All through the night’) reminded us of Terfel’s chameleon-like quality to embrace a vast amount of repertoire across different genres with an equal dedication and ability to enthrall.
It was interesting to hear from Kevin O’Hare, who this season succeeded Monica Mason as the Royal Ballet’s new director. He was perhaps the least ‘starry’ choice to take on the role – previously the Royal Ballet’s administrative director, O’Hare was said to be up against bigger names from the ballet world, including prima ballerina Tamara Rojo, and Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, aka the Ballet Boyz – but last night he appeared confident and optimistic, despite being obviously desperate to join his company backstage for the opening night of Swan Lake. He spoke of honouring the anniversaries of Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan during the coming season, but his emphasis was on promoting new work. ‘Choreographers are like buses’, he joked. ‘They all come along at once.’ He was referring to Scarlett, of course, but also to Wayne MacGregor and Christopher Wheeldon, whose work together comprises an exciting triple bill in November. Wheeldon is also working closely with Audrey Niffinegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Gabriel Yared, composer of The English Patient soundtrack, on a piece called Raven Girl, a modern-day fairytale.
Kasper Holten’s speech stressed the Royal Opera’s commitment to taking risks, an attitude, he said, that was exemplified with Anna Nicole last season and continues this season with the British premiere of Written on Skin by George Benjamin, along with new productions of Britten’s Gloriana and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (marking Holten’s directorial debut). He stressed that by integrating the ROH2 strand into the main opera and ballet programmes, this sense of risk-taking would be taken even further. At the same time, he conceded an ongoing respect for the classics, hence the productions this coming season of Bohème, Tosca and Nabucco. ‘We have affordable tickets!’ he enthused. 'Opera is for everyone!'
There followed a spectacular pas de deux from Swan Lake with Royal Ballet principals Zenaida Yanowsky (married to Simon Keenlyside, with whom she has two young children) and Nehemiah Kish; this was a fully costumed performance and breathtakingly beautiful.
All that remained was for Tony Hall to round up proceedings with some impressive statistics, concentrating on the live cinema broadcasts, which reached 300,000 people last year. The forthcoming season includes live relays of Swan Lake, Les troyens, The Nutcracker and Gloriana.
There seemed to be a genuine buzz at the reception afterwards that wasn’t entirely down to the champagne (or the presence of Darcey Bussell); there was a genuine excitement about what the new season will bring that was no doubt heightened by the wealth of talent we had just witnessed.
And just when we thought we couldn’t take anymore, some of us were afforded a glimpse of the new Solti exhibition on our way out. This overview of the maestro’s work (he was the Royal Opera’s musical director from 1961-71) features costumes designs, photographs and paintings, including a stunning portrait of Solti by Maggi Hambling. What’s more, the exhibition is free. Kasper Holten would be pleased…