Western Mail [Cardiff]
By Karen Price

CARDIFF, 28 May ó He is seen as one of the most precocious talents in opera, but the recently appointed music director of Welsh National Opera has dramatically pulled out of the company's latest production because of cast sickness at rehearsals.
Tugan Sokhiev (photo courtesy of Askonas Holt) Tugan Sokhiev, who was just 25 when he took up the post a year ago, has decided not to conduct any more performances of La traviata.
And it is unclear whether he will lead the world-renowned opera company when it makes its debut at the prestigious new Wales Millennium Centre next year by staging Verdi's famous opera.
The Russian musician says his decision to pull out after conducting just two performances of La traviata follows a difficult rehearsal period for the production, which opened at the New Theatre in Cardiff earlier this month.
"It goes without saying that La traviata is a great masterpiece and I believe that this outstanding production by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser will continue to delight our audiences," said Sokhiev. "However, it is my first Verdi, and the rehearsal period was significantly disrupted by cast illnesses. I do not feel, in the circumstances, that I can deliver my musical vision of the piece."
The company's head of music, Julian Smith, will take the baton for the remaining 13 performances. Anthony Freud, WNO's general director, has pledged his full support to Sokhiev following "his difficult and courageous decision."
He said, "This repertoire is ideal for him, but the interruptions to the rehearsal process caused by cast illness have resulted in a situation with which he feels deeply uncomfortable.
"It is typical of his acute self-awareness and clarity of understanding that he has reached the conclusion which he considers to be in the interests of the remainder of the performances."
The announcement has come as a shock to opera fans and industry insiders. The Western Mail's opera critic Mike Smith said Sokhiev would need to act fast in a bid not to get a reputation as a "prima donna."
He said, "While no doubt Tugan has very genuine artistic reasons for pulling out of the rest of the run, both WNO and their music director will want to avoid gaining any hint of a reputation for there being a prima donna in the pit.
"Anthony [Freud] has moved speedily to back his music director but there were certainly a few eyebrows raised within the WNO's ranks when the announcement was made.
"It was pointed out to me that there have been other new productions that have been beset with cast changes, illnesses and all manner of problems, but the conductor has worked through it. Fortunately Julian Smith will do a first-rate job."
When Sokhiev moved from his native Russia to take up the post in January last year he was full of confidence that he had what it takes to lead the Cardiff-based company despite his young age.
He commented at the time, "Many people say, 'You are so young ó how do you cope?' Of course, for a conductor age is important and, I am not as experienced as someone who is 20 years older, but the important thing I can bring to the company is that I can help it move on and take it to another professional musical level and artistic level."
He made his debut as music director when he conducted the opera double bill Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci during WNO's spring season. That performance was described by critics as "robust and full-bodied'.
Welsh National Opera will move into its new home at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay later this year. The company will make its stage debut at the venue on February 18 with La traviata but it has not yet been decided whether music director Tugan Sokhiev will take the baton.
Opera critic Mike Smith described the situation and the doubts it left over such a major performance as "mystifying".
So far it's expected to be a sell-out as opera fans rush to buy tickets to see the WNO perform in their new home, which is set to be one of the world's finest arts venues. A WNO spokesman said, "A decision regarding whether Tugan Sokhiev will conduct next year's performances of La traviata will be made in due course."

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