With Nicholas Payne at the helm, the English National Opera surges forward with an eclectic and optimistic season. Even though Sir Richard Eyre s report for the future of lyrical theatre in London has yet to be published (it s due 1 May 1998), it looks likely that the company will remain at the Coliseum for the foreseeable future and at the vanguard of opera for a long time more.

Payne joins ENO as General Director, from his previous post as Opera Director at ROH. At the ROH, he achieved miracles with the repertory which had stagnated in the years prior to his appointment. He brought in new directors and gave London s Wagnerianites one of the most significant Ring productions of the last decade, directed by Richard Jones. Although, given the recentness of Payne s appointment, ENO s forthcoming season will not have been planned by him, the knowledge that an utterly theatrical musician is at the helm of such a great opera ensemble is, to put it mildly, encouraging.

Also encouraging is the tally on the current season, now drawing to a close. The company has announced 77% paid attendances for the 1997-98 season through to the end of March. This sets ENO in good stead for the coming exciting programme.

So what s the plan at the Coliseum? Seven new productions and eight revivals. New productions include: Otello (directed by David Freeman, conducted by Paul Daniel and with David Rendall in the title role), Boris Godunov (Francesca Zambello returning to direct after her award-winning Khovanshina a few seasons ago, with John Tomlinson in the title role), Mefistofele (by Boito - not staged in the UK since the 1940s), Parsifal (directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, conducted by Mark Elder and with a cast including Kim Begley, Gwynne Howell and Kathryn Harries - unmissable!), and Mary Stuart (with Ann Murray in the title role, costumed by Jasper Conran). And finally, what for me will be the highlight of the London musical calendar, Phylidda Lloyd s production of Poulenc s The Dialogues of the Carmelites, the first staging in this country since the 1950s. The cast is one of dreams, including Josephine Barstow, Joan Rodgers and Elizabeth Vaughan, conducted by Paul Daniel.

This season s revivals include Rusalka (in David Pountney s now classic staging), Madam Butterfly, Rigoletto, Hansel and Gretel and Salome (with Vivian Tierney debuting in the title role after her unforgettable Tatyana this season).

An artistically exciting line-up then. The only downside is that ENO s Arts Council grant has been frozen for the third year running, receiving just under £12m of public subsidy. What must our French, Dutch and Belgium counterparts be thinking of the desultory way the arts are treated over here? New Labour, New Blandness; in Cool Britannia where blandness now rules and aspiration is towards the lowest common denominator.

Keith McDonnell, Opera Reviewer