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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

The best of British to Covent Garden

By Norman Lebrecht / November 29, 2006

Rubbing my eyes red, I read the cast list a third time in disbelief. In March next year, the Royal Opera House will present a French opera with an all-but-one British cast, seemingly the first time in half a century that it has relied so heavily on native talent.

The opera is Ravel’s L’heure Espagnole and the singers are the ascendant mezzo Christine Rice as the clockmaker’s wife, the English-born tenor Bonaventura Bottone as her husband and the baritone Christopher Maltman as the extra-marital nudge and wink. The production team, also British, is the one behind the blazing success of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk – director Richard Jones, set designer John Macfarlane, costumes Nicky Gillibrand and lighting Mimi Jordan Sherrin. Music director Tony Pappano, born and raised in Marylebone, will conduct.

Inauspicious as it may seem – for history will never revolve on a Ravel one-acter and L’heure itself is merely an amuse-bouche to the evening’s main event, Bryn Terfel in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi – the casting represents a quiet revolution in the state of British opera, a sign of something stirring in the backstage teashop.

To read the leaves, you have to know the antecedents. Covent Garden was founded on a Maynard Keynes vision that England, the Land Without Music, could make itself lyrically self-sufficient. A company of singers was formed and it performed valiantly for some years but London grew more sophisticated and by the mid-1950s it wanted to hear more Callas and Gobbi and less Jimmy Jones.

The Royal Opera changed to fly-by-night international casts, ceding its training role to English-spoken Sadler’s Wells, later English National Opera. By 1990 there was no company of singers at Covent Garden, no commitment to local talent, and that loss of founding mission was one cause of the collapse in public confidence that almost capsized the house during its £200 million refit.

As part of its regeneration, the ROH started an Alberto Vilar Young Artists programme in which ten likely prospects – not just singers but conductors, directors and designers – were taken from small beginnings to stage readiness. There was a hitch when financier Vilar failed to pay his pledges and was arrested at Newark airport on charges of theft and deception, but a lady called Jette Parker, wife of a duty-free entrepreneur, stepped in and has stumped for the students ever since.

While candidates are chosen on merit, not nationality, most are local and many have greatly prospered. Tenor Alfred Boe has a record contract, soprano Sally Matthews is a fixture on the concert circuit and others continue to pick up roles after their two-year stint is up. ‘Once artists have been on our programme,’ says Elaine Padmore, director of the Royal Opera, ‘we know them and include them in our casting.’

The result is a surge of British singers in lesser roles throughout the Covent Garden season. L’heure espagnole apart, half of the singers in Schicchi are British and if you manage to overlook Angelika Kirschlager letting down her hair as Melisande, the bulk of Simon Rattle’s Debussy blockbuster has Made in England stamped on it.

‘Casting British,’ says Padmore cautiously, ‘is not a policy as such. It happens when it happens. We’re auditioning huge numbers of British singers for our programme – another 80 candidates next week – and that is bound to bear fruit.’

L’heure espagnole was cast chiefly by its director, Richard Jones, who prefers to work with compatriots. A lone French tenor, Yann Beuron, was included at Pappano’s insistence, on the grounds that ‘if we’re singing in French, we ought to have one native speaker.’ The archives were unable to ascertain the last time a new production of non-English opera was locally cast but my hunch is that it was some while before Georg Solti’s arrival as music director in 1960. One way or other, we will see much more of this in the coming years as the outstanding Jetta Parker singers reach maturity and that, in turn, will prove the ultimate realisation of Keynes’s dream – a British company performing at world standard.

The consequences of this transition are considerable. As Covent Garden becomes increasingly a British house, a nursery of native talent, what role remains for English National Opera? Singing in English is no raison d’etre when the words are so blurry that surtitles have to be used, and if the ROH is route one to international class, why would any but the also-rans make a stop at the motorway café?

The gulf is now so great that there is no overt rivalry between the two houses and few at Covent Garden want to be caught stealing ENO’s clothes. Nevertheless, the ROH’s undeclared buy-British policy will add greatly to the miseries of its near-neighbour and in no small way jeopardise its survival.

In former times, the Arts Council would have stepped in with a set of demarcations to protect and nurture the two companies in distinct, non-competitive roles. Now that the Council has lost its last shreds of authority along with most of is staff and the Culture Department is out for lunch, the future of opera in London is up for grabs. A strategy is urgently needed for the first half of the 21st century. The National Campaign for the Arts should convene a panel of experts to assess the tide of talent and plan for an embarrassment of home-grown assets.

Monteverdi: Combattimento Le Concert d’Astrée/Haim (Virgin) ****

Even with unclothed nymphs and acrobats, Monteverdi on stage requires suspension of disbelief and on record a good deal of patience. Recitatives stretch like the Gobi between arias of occasional beauty and bouts of courtly dance. Highlights are usually as much as I can take; this disc, though, had me nailed to the seat. Rolando Villazon, more familiar in Verdi roles, gives vivid narration to the armed bout between Tancredi (Topi Lehtipuu) and Clorinda (Patrizia Cofi), Christian boy and Muslim girl across a Crusade battlefield. Both lovers are neatly cast and Villazon is simply thrilling in his closing lament. The French harpsichordist and conductor Emannuelle Haim drives her ten-piece ensemble with an unerring feel for dramatic realism.

> Buy this CD at

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



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