Ain’t it always the way? You wait forever for a revival of “Kismet” — the only Broadway musical set amid the fleshpots of downtown Baghdad to feature desert songs, a sex-bomb and a drowned evil wazir — and then two come along at once.
The 1953 tuner, a veritable essay in political incorrectness, just resurfaced at Gotham’s Encores! Now London will get a full staging in English National Opera’s 2006-07 season. Its attraction for an opera house is its reliance on a large chorus and the fact its hit songs were borrowed from Borodin, the Russian opera composer who died in 1887, making him the first — and probably only — dead research chemist to win the Tony for best musical.
The good news about the ENO staging is that it is by Gary Griffin, who won an Olivier award for his Donmar Warehouse production of “Pacific Overtures.” The better news is that the impossibly dated book will be rewritten by Kit Hesketh-Harvey, the cabaret performer and writer whose eye-widening CV includes everything from the Royal Opera’s recent English version of “The Bartered Bride” and the Merchant-Ivory movie “Maurice” to the lyrics of the truly unforgettable flop musical “Which Witch,” which came and went with indecent haste in 1992.
“Kismet” takes place over 24 hours, a time span shared by Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town,” which the company mounted last season, becoming the single most successful production in ENO’s history. It hit 95% attendance over 20 perfs with 45,000 ticket-buyers generating a £1.7 million ($3 million) gross.
Hoping that lightning will strike twice, “On the Town” returns for 22 performances next year, partly to continue the stabilization of the company’s finances, which have been, until lately, decidedly rocky. Not as rocky as its management, mind you, too many of whom have been spending more time in shrieking news headlines than in the office.
Following the unseemly departure of both the artistic director and the unpopular chairman of the board, this season is the first from new executive director Loretta Tomasi and a.d. John Berry, who are staving off flak about a perceived descent downmarket with impressive marriages of serious, proven talent.
David McVicar and Sarah Connolly — award-winning director and star of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” at Glyndebourne — are back with Handel’s “Agrippina.” Deborah Warner and Ian Bostridge — director and star of Benjamin Britten‘s “The Turn of the Screw” for the rival Royal Opera — continue their Britten journey with his operatic swansong “Death in Venice.”
None of which will soothe the savage breasts of die-hard traditionalists already working themselves into a lather over the season opener.
Originally scheduled but then not ready for the 2005-06 season, “Gaddafi” has a libretto by playwright Shan Khan and a score from first-time opera composer Steve Chandra Savale and his influential band Asian Dub Foundation, which combines traditional Indian music with drum ‘n’ bass, reggae and punk. With a cast not of opera singers but rap artists, this production will certainly test Tomasi and Berry’s nerve.