The Royal Ballet opens new season with MacMillan’s ‘Manon’

From the trailer of The Royal Ballet’s 2018 screening of ‘Manon’

The Royal Ballet opens its 2019-2020 season with one of the Company’s showpiece works – Kenneth MacMillan’s gorgeous ballet Manon – the passionate and ultimately tragic story of a young girl who was as much in love with romance as with the trappings of wealth.

Everything about this production is sheer enchantment – the brilliant choreography of Kenneth MacMillan, the stylish and elegant design by Nicholas Georgiadis, and the beautiful score by Jules Massenet.

The story of Manon is based on the 1731 novel L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost. Set in 18th century Paris, it reflects a time when decadence, corruption and depravity were rife in the city.

Trailer for the 2018 cinema screening of The Royal Ballet’s ‘Manon’

Manon, a beautiful but desperately poor young girl, is adored by the student Des Grieux. Having eloped with him to Paris, their love is confirmed in what must surely be one of the most exquisite pas de deux in the repertoire – one is reminded of MacMillan’s equally beautiful pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet. Manon and Des Grieux’s idyll is interrupted by the intrusion of Manon’s brother, Lescaut, and Monsieur GM, a wealthy older man to whom Lescaut has sold her. Attracted by the lure of the luxury on offer, Manon deserts Des Grieux.

Manon and Des Grieux meet up again at a night of revelry in the establishment of a local Madame, and they escape together after he’s caught cheating at cards. Manon is later arrested for prostitution, and – followed by Des Grieux – finds herself being deported to the penal colony of New Orleans. She escapes from gaol and the two lovers flee to the swamps of Louisiana, where Manon collapses in Des Grieux’s arms and dies.

Kenneth MacMillan was the first British choreographer to be produced entirely by the then Sadler’s Wells Ballet – now Royal Ballet – where he trained as a dancer from the age of 15. He enjoyed a very successful career as a dancer, but stopped dancing at the age of 23, mainly because of the terrible stage-fright which he experienced. He was responsible for the creation of a vast repertoire of works for The Royal Ballet, which included his best known three-act ballets, Romeo and Juliet, Manon and Mayerling.

Marianela Nuñez as Manon and Federico Bonelli as Des Grieux
in the 2018 cinema screening of ‘Manon’

Manon, the second of these ballets, was written in 1974, during MacMillan’s seven-year tenure as Artistic Director for The Royal Ballet. Following scathing criticism of the subject of his previous work, Anastasia, he opted for a less controversial story, and one which had already been used for an opera by both Massenet and Puccini.

Jules Massenet was regarded as the leading French operatic composer of his day – he lived from 1842 to 1912. His music is lyrical, melodic and appealing, displaying his particular gift for portraying the intimacies of human relations. It was in the early 1870s that Massenet started writing operas, his first success being Le Roi de Lahore at the Paris Opéra in 1877. The following year he was invited to become a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. The opera Manon – considered by many to be his masterpiece – was written in 1884, and an orchestral arrangement of the music from this opera forms the score for the ballet.

The Royal Ballet presents Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from 2nd October to 6th November. For more information and tickets, visit The Royal Opera House website.

Information sourced from:

Royal Opera House programme notes

Kenneth MacMillan

Jules Massenet: Encyclopaedia Britannica and All Music

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San Francisco Opera presents Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’

San Francisco Opera’s production of Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The new San Francisco Opera season continues this weekend with Benjamin Britten’s powerful and turbulent work, Billy Budd. Written for an all-male cast of 75 artists, this production of Herman Melville’s dramatic sea-faring tale features tenor William Burden, baritone John Chest and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn. Dutch-Maltese conductor Lawrence Renes leads the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, 44 male members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus (directed by Ian Robertson) and eight members of the Ragazzi Boys Chorus. The director is Tony Award-winning Michael Grandage.

Christian Van Horn as John Claggart in Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Billy Budd is the second of Benjamin Britten’s ‘grand operas’ (the first having been Peter Grimes) and once again was no doubt inspired by the North Sea – of which he had a fine view from his home in Aldeburgh, on the East Anglian coast. Britten based Billy Budd on the unfinished novella by American novelist, short story writer and poet Herman Melville, well known for his novels about the sea, Moby Dick in particular. These performances at San Francisco Opera coincide with the Melville bicentennial and the 100th anniversary of the discovery of his manuscript of Billy Budd. The book was written in 1891, posthumously published in 1924, and the definitive version issued in 1962.

Brenton Ryan as a Novice and John Chest as the title role in Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

With a libretto by E M Forster and Eric Crozier, Britten’s opera – related in a series of flashbacks – tells of a naïve young sailor, Billy Budd, on board the 18th century warship HMS Indomitable, who accidentally kills the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart. The captain of the vessel, Captain Vere, is faced with the decision of sparing Billy’s life or abiding by naval law which decreed that he should be hanged. Vere ultimately gives in to the law, but he is haunted by his decision for the rest of his life.

Britten himself conducted the premiere of Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on December 1st 1951.

Christian Van Horn as John Claggart and William Burden as Captain Vere in Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’ © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

William Burden, a graduate of the Merola Opera Program, has appeared in a number of San Francisco Opera productions, the most recent of which was Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life, in which he sang the role of George Bailey. According to the New York Times, “Subdued emotional intensity permeates every line of Mr. Burden’s elegant singing”.

John Chest, in the title role, makes his Company debut in this production. Another graduate of the Merola Opera Program, he was the 2010 winner of the Stella Maris International Vocal Competition, a finalist in the 2017 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, and has recently been awarded a Richard Tucker Music Foundation Career Grant. He first sang the role of Billy Budd as a member of the ensemble at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Gramophone describes his voice as “…. both beautiful and immediately engaging, virile but distinguished by an appealing vulnerability and urgent catch in the timbre”.

John Chest as Billy Budd and Edward Nelson as Bosun in Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn – who sings the role of the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart – is a frequent guest at San Francisco Opera, his most recent appearance having been in the role of Zoroastro in Handel’s Orlando this past summer. The 2018 Richard Tucker Award is one of the many awards Mr Van Horn has received, he has performed in most of the major opera houses in the world, and he also recently appeared in the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast of Falstaff. Opera News refers to his “… firm, elegantly deployed bass-baritone ….”, and his “… intelligent, self-possessed performing style …”.

Michael Grandage’s production of Billy Budd was first performed at the 2010 Glyndebourne Festival, and revived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014. “Britten has this brilliant capacity to conjure up the huge, surging sound of the sea through the orchestra,” he says. “Therefore, I wanted to leave the sea to the orchestra and focus on creating the claustrophobic, violent, capricious shipboard world that these characters inhabit.”

John Chest in the title role in Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Lawrence Renes, formerly Music Director of the Royal Swedish Opera, is an enthusiastic champion of the contemporary repertoire, and is particularly associated with the music of John Adams. He led productions of Nixon in China at San Francisco Opera, and Doctor Atomic at both English National Opera and De Nederlandse Opera. Among other companies with whom he has appeared are the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and the Stockholm and Hong Kong philharmonic orchestras.

San Francisco Opera’s Billy Budd is sung in English with English supertitles, and runs at the War Memorial Opera House for six performances, until September 22nd. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Opera website.

Tomorrow, the stars of San Francisco Opera’s 2019 Fall Season, in concert with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, will appear in the San Francisco Chronicle Opera in the Park. This annual al fresco event, held at Robin Williams Meadow in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, is free and open to the public. For more information, visit

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Opera program notes

Britten-Pears Foundation

William Burden

John Chest

Christian Van Horn

Lawrence Renes

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San Francisco Opera opens new season with Gounod’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Pene Pati and Nadine Sierra as Romeo and Juliet © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

It’s a busy week in San Francisco. With the opening of the new season there’s a lot going on, and San Francisco Opera is there in the midst of it all, with a wonderful weekend of performances ahead.

Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet opens the season this evening, Britten’s Billy Budd follows tomorrow, and Sunday sees the traditional Opera in the Park free concert, featuring a line-up of superb operatic stars.

This San Francisco Opera production of Romeo and Juliet stars tenor Pene Pati and soprano Nadine Sierra in the title roles. Staging is by Jean-Louis Grinda – Director of Opéra de Monte-Carlo, in his American debut – and French-Canadian conductor Yves Abel leads the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus (Director Ian Robertson)

Nadine Sierra as Juliet © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Shakespeare’s tale of the tragic young couple from 14th century Verona has for hundreds of years been the inspiration for so many creative artists in producing some of the most enduring and popular works in both the visual and performing arts, and this particular opera has French composer Charles Gounod to thank for its existence. He created his interpretation of Romeo and Juliet for the Lyric Theatre in Paris in 1867, and commissioned Jules Barbier and Michel Carré to write the libretto – having enjoyed great success with his opera based on Goethe’s Faust, on which he had collaborated with these librettists.

Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet was originally staged by San Francisco Opera during the Company’s inaugural season of 1923, in a performance conducted by Gaetano Merola, starring tenor Benjamin Gigli and soprano Queena Mario, and although it has featured in subsequent seasons since then, it is 32 years since the Company’s last production in 1987.

Pene Pati as Romeo and Daniel Montenegro as Tybalt © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Pene Pati and Nadine Sierra – both making a role debut in this production – are well known to San Francisco Opera and its audiences, both having graduated from the Merola Opera Program and the Company’s Adler Fellowship Program.

New Zealand-born Mr Pati – described by Opera Online as “the most exceptional tenor discovery of the last decade” – was most recently seen at the War Memorial Opera House as the Duke of Mantua in San Francisco Opera’s production of Rigoletto in 2017 (while he was still an Adler Fellow), and since then has appeared with New Zealand’s Festival Opera in Madama Butterfly, at Opera San José as Alfredo in La Traviata – which he also sang at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow – with New Zealand Opera as Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore, and with Opéra National de Bordeaux as Percy in Anna Bolena. Future plans include house debuts for Washington National Opera, Berliner Staatsoper and Wiener Staatsoper. He is also a member of Sol3 Mio, a trio formed together with his tenor brother and baritone cousin, who appeared in concert for San Francisco Opera in 2017.

The ball scene from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Nadine Sierra – winner of the 2017 Richard Tucker Award and the Metropolitan Opera’s Beverly Sills Award in 2018 – has previously appeared for San Francisco Opera as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte and in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor. Last season’s appearances included the role of Nannetta in Falstaff at the Staatsoper Berlin, Gilda in Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera, a role debut as Manon at the Opéra national de Bordeaux, Gilda in Staatsoper Berlin’s new production of Rigoletto with conductor Daniel Barenboim, and Maria in a concert-version of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story with Antonio Pappano at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Stereophile describes her voice as “…. alive, gorgeous, and positively thrilling higher in the range”

Pene Pati (Romeo), James Cresswell (Friar Lawrence) and Nadine Sierra (Juliet)
© Cory Weaver /San Francisco Opera

On October 1st, Juliet will be sung by the Egyptian-born New Zealand soprano, Amina Edris, in a role debut. Ms Edris – also a graduate of the Merola Opera Program and an Adler Fellow – and Pene Pati will appear as a husband and wife duo.

This production also features baritone Lucas Meachem as Mercutio – a role he has previously performed with the Metropolitan Opera – and tenor Daniel Montenegro, another former Adler Fellow, as Tybalt. The cast includes bass James Creswell as Friar Lawrence, baritone Timothy Mix as Capulet, bass-baritone Philip Skinner as the Duke of Verona and, in their Company debuts, mezzo-sopranos Stephanie Lauricella as Stéphano and Eve Gigliotti as Gertude.

San Francisco Opera’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

This staging of Romeo and Juliet premiered in 2012 – a co-production of Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice and Opéra de Monte-Carlo. Director Jean-Louis Grinda – who has directed over 50 operas and musicals – has been the Director of Opéra Monte Carlo since 2009, the Director of Chorégies d’Orange since 2016, and is Co-Founder of Les Musiciens du Prince with Cecilia Bartoli. He says: “To ensure this drama of absolute love touches every spectator, we respect its original setting and gracefully simplify its scenographic presentation. Without being minimalistic, we suggest Renaissance splendor and leave the imagination to work, focusing the attention on the stage artists.” Sets are by Eric Chevalier, costumes by Carola Volles, and lighting by Roberto Venturini.

Yves Abel is currently Chief Conductor of the NordwestDeutsche Philarmonie, and held the position of Principal Guest Conductor of the Deutsche Oper Berlin from 2005 to 2011. He regularly appears at opera houses such as the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera Covent Garden, La Scala, Milan, Vienna Staatsoper, Opera National de Paris and Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona.  

San Francisco Opera’s seven performances of Romeo and Juliet – sung in French with English subtitles – take place at the War Memorial Opera House between September 6th and October 1st. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Opera website

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Opera program notes


Pene Pati

Nadine Sierra

Jean-Louis Grinda

Yves Abel

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