International opera stars Rebecca Evans, Dennis O'Neill, Ann Murray, Sally Burgess, Amanda Roocroft and Rosemary Joshua will all appear in Welsh National Opera's 2008-09 season, announced yesterday.
Sir Charles Mackerras will also return to conduct a one-off concert performance of Mozart's Mitridate, re di Ponto on 2 June 2009.
The season is characterised by strongly-cast revivals of popular works from the centre of the operatic canon, plus new productions of Verdi's Otello and Mozart's Figaro.
But an exciting contemporary chamber opera entitled Sweetness and Badness by British composer Will Todd is the only really challenging aspect of a safely-programmed season.
Opening the season in style is Paul Curran's new production of Otello, which is set against 'the sumptuous backdrop of Renaissance Venice' according to the press release. Formerly a dancer with Scottish Ballet, Curran is now General Manager of Norwegian Opera. Dennis O'Neill returns to the title role – in which he appeared to great acclaim at Covent Garden over a decade ago – while Amanda Roocroft plays Desdemona after having taken over from Renée Fleming in the part at the Royal Opera in 2005 when Fleming's mother was seriously ill. David Kempster is Iago and Carlo Rizzi, former Music Director of WNO, returns to conduct his beloved Verdi (performance dates: 19, 24, 27 September; 4 & 11 October 2008 at 7.15pm).
The other season highlight promises to be a new production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, in which internationally-acclaimed, Grammy-nominated Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans will make her role debut as Countess Almaviva. Speaking to me in a recent interview, Evans said she was looking forward to playing the Countess enormously, having already played Susanna and recorded Barbarina in the same opera; she has recently completed a critically acclaimed run at ENO as the Governess in The Turn of the Screw (read our recent interview with her here). The production is also notable for the WNO debut of Cardiff-born soprano Rosemary Joshua, who will play Susanna. Catalan director Lluis Pasqual will direct the opera, which is a co-production with the Gran Teatro del Liceu, Barcelona. Michael Hofstetter will conduct all performances (7, 11, 13, 21, 25 & 28 February 2009 at 7.00pm).
Rossini's The Barber of Seville, the other famous operatic product of Beaumarchais' Figaro trilogy, will return in September 2008. The best news about the revival of Giles Havergal's production is that Colin Lee will play the part of Count Almaviva. Lee recently won the only praise in an otherwise critically-slated new production of the same composer's La Cenerentola at WNO and will return to Covent Garden in July 2009 to play Almaviva. The South African-born British tenor is without doubt one of our greatest up-and-coming talents. Alongside him, Welsh soprano Laura Parfitt will make her role debut as Rosina and John Moore is Figaro. Gareth Jones conducts (26 & 28 September; 3 & 9 October 2008 at 7.15pm (except Sun 28 at 4pm).
Completing the autumn 2008 season is a revival of Katie Mitchell's production of Janácek's Jenufa. The versatile Italian soprano Nuccia Focile, who has previously excelled in the UK in roles as diverse as Despina, Violetta, Cio-Cio-San and Iolanta, returns to WNO to play the title part, while Susan Bickley is Kostelnicka and Peter Hoare is Laca. Former ENO Music Director Sian Edwards conducts all performances (8, 10 October 2008 at 7.15pm).
The spring 2009 season promises great things with a revival of Salome, directed by André Engel and conducted by Lothar Koenigs. Salome is sung by the soprano Erika Sunnegårdh, who made a huge splash at her Met debut as Leonore in Fidelio in 2006 and will play Helmwige in Simon Rattle's forthcoming performances of Die Walküre at the Salzburg Easter Festival. Excitingly, Sally Burgess will sing Herodias (read our recent interview with her here), while Matthew Best is Jokanaan and Peter Hoare is Herod. The conductor is Lothar Koenigs (24 & 26 February 2009 at 8pm).
Opera North's production of Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore comes to WNO in February 2009 with a young cast and conductor. Greek-American tenor Dimitri Pittas (currently the Met's Macduff) is Nemorino to Welsh soprano Camilla Roberts' Adina. Daniel Slater's 1950s production features Vespas and a hot air balloon and promises a lavish treat for WNO's audiences; former ROH Young Artist Rory Macdonald is the conductor (12, 14, 22 & 27 February 2009 at 7.15pm (except 22 at 4pm)).
Happy news for those of us who missed Rebecca Evans' rare foray into Puccini repertoire a couple of seasons ago: she'll be back in May and June 2009 to sing Mimi in La bohème alongside her 2006 Rodolfo, Gwyn Hughes Jones. Goran Jarvefelt's production makes another appearance; the conductor has yet to be announced (18, 20 May; 3, 5, 6 June 2009 at 7.15pm).
Just as hotly anticipated is a revival of Richard Jones's production of The Queen of Spades conducted by Alexander Polianichko. The main three roles haven't yet been cast, but it's thrilling to hear that Ann Murray will make her role debut as the Countess after a riveting account of Mrs Grose in ENO's recent Turn of the Screw (read an interview with her here). Hubert Francis (formerly of the ROH's Young Artist scheme) is Tchekalinsky and Count Tomsky will be played by Tomas Tomasson (13, 16, 19 May; 4 June 2009 at 7pm).
In his summary of 2007, The Daily Telegraph's opera critic Rupert Christiansen complained that Welsh National Opera 'is looking a bit tired', and in terms of their revival-heavy 2008-09 season one can sympathise with that view. WNO also still lacks a Music Director, following the resignation of Carlo Rizzi in 2007 after his second stint in the post. But with at least one exciting piece of casting in nearly every production, there's plenty to look forward to – and let's be grateful the company still exists at all, given the financial crisis in the arts at the moment.