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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

A fright at the opera

By Norman Lebrecht / December 7, 2005

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For the first time, La Scala will be opened tonight by a British conductor. Daniel Harding, 30, is the youngest season inaugurator in 227 years and the first non-Italian in memory. Records are being rewritten in the turmoil that has beset Milan since a misfired boardroom putsch last winter removed the theatre's general manager Carlo Fontana, followed by the two-decade music director, Riccardo Muti.

'We are ready to begin a new chapter,' said the new general director, Stephane Lissner, who comes from the Aix-en-Provence festival where he gave Harding an early break. Finding him free at short notice, he booked the rising baton for Mozart's Idomeneo in a moderately modern production by Luc Bondy, light years ahead of the last regime's deadhand conservatism.

Muti, who is in Vienna this week rehearsing the Marriage of Figaro, has told the press he's over it ö 'I don't want to bother them and ruin the party they're preparing so carefully at La Scala' ö but Harding will count himself lucky if he escapes booing from chauvinists and a strike before Christmas. There are jitters at the opera.

Silvio Berlusconi's tottering government is threatening to cut subsidies by 30 percent in a rage of scorched-earth legislation ahead of next year's election. This could be La Scala's last glamour night for a while and the designer-suit claques won't let it pass without ructions. No pressure, but our boy - who posed beneath gleaming chandeliers in a Manchester United shirt for Gazzetto della Sport ö will need to play a blinder if he is to avoid backlash from off-pitch dramas.

Many think he shouldn't be there at all. Why, they ask, is Daniel in the Italian den when the house is burning back home. A protégé of Simon Rattle's, Harding is one of half a dozen British conductors who was solicited to head English National Opera and refused to take the call. A meddlesome chairman, Martin Smith, and a spectacularly inadequate artistic director, Sean Doran, were a double deterrent to conducting talent.

Despite Doran's summary departure, it has been confirmed that his contentious choice of music director - 'the only one we spoke to' - will take up the reins next month. Fifty years old, as untested at this level as Doran was, Oleg Caetani will spend half his time on the other side of the world conducting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. ENO's musicians are crying out for a leader who can restore morale and esprit from within, resisting the deskbound busybodies who brought the Coliseum into disrepute. Caetani will fly in and out, to his home in Florence, his half-job in Australia. What kind of leader is that?

The new executive pair, Loretta Tomasi and John Berry, can expect a measure of support for keeping things running in recent months. Berry, I gather, nursed a visibly nervous Anthony Minghella through his first opera, the bankrolling Madam Butterfly, while Tomasi produced a strikingly improved set of accounts. But their fingerprints are, nonetheless, all over their predecessor's errors. Take the baroque plot of Orfeo.

Doran, for reasons unknown, announced he was engaging the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for Monteverdi's masterpiece. 'Don't you mean the Gabrieli Consort?' prompted a colleague, naming a group that specialises in the 17th century rather than the OAE's defining 18th. Doran blanched and dug in, ignoring further warnings that he would be saddled with a bill for two orchestras, since the ENO house band would continue to draw its salary.

Berry last week told the company he was trying to get out of the OAE deal for Orfeo. The OAE insist he has not been in touch. There is a lack of transparency at ENO, and sometimes a lack of truthfulness, that lie at the heart of its crisis. Not one word of the slippery statement that announced Doran's departure was written by the man whose name appeared at the foot of the page; it was fashioned by a City PR form working on behalf of the chairman. No true account has been given of the reasons for Doran's dismissal, a decision that was taken in principle during a board retreat last summer and confirmed a fortnight ago when the deputy chairman, Vernon Ellis, discovered slackness in the daily running of the company.

A full and frank account might have secured a smooth transition but the pusillanimous handling of current affairs has put public credibility in ENO is at an all-time low. It will not be raised again without further sacrifice.

The arts world has been dismayed at the clandestine way in which Tomasi and Berry were installed. Smith maintains they were given the job by the board to avoid 'an extended period of uncertainty and speculation'. But the appointment contravenes the rules for public office as well as specific guidelines from the Arts Council, which 'advised strongly in relation to best practice.' That advice will now have to be followed by action of some sort, or the Council will appear toothless at the political high table.

Board members, in private conversations, are unanimous in their support for Tomasi and Berry, but split on the subject of Smith. The chairman has told them he intends to 'tough it out' but when the board meets next week he will face pressure to end the enduring fragility. Members of staff are formulating a motion of no confidence in Smith that they will put to a company vote if the board does not act first.

And that will not be the end of the matter. Despite Berry's backing for Caetani, several board members are having second thoughts about hiring a part-timer for a firefighting job. If Caetani fails to bring the house down in Vaughan Williams' Sir John in Love, hardly a barnstorming curtain-raiser for a new MD, he will be encouraged to devote more time to his new wife and baby in Italy and make way for a credible contender - like Harding, for instance, fresh from his Scala baptism.

There are demands, too, to put a pair of senior company members on the board as is the case in most well-run businesses. Reform is in the air. For the first time in almost three years there is a chance that ENO can rise from a cycle of despair orchestrated by a handful of moneyed supporters who mistook patronage for power.

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(c) La Scena Musicale 2001