The essential guide to the new season

Cezanne at the Tate, Pulp on tour - and Jane Austen everywhere: David Benedict on the shows you can't afford to miss
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The Independent Culture
The Midsummer Marriage, Sir Michael Tippett's first opera, is a magnificent work, but, with the notable exception of Tim Albery's revival, it has had more than its fair share of poor productions. A new version opens at Covent Garden on 16 January by Graham Vick, with Bernard Haitink conducting. Their last production together, Die Meistersinger, was a knockout.

Art '96 (17th) is London's leading Contemporary Art Fair and this year's exhibition at the Business Design Centre in Islington will showcase work from more than 80 commercial galleries, as well as promoting the new Wingate Young Artists awards.

Without a doubt, the film of the month is Mike Figgis's Leaving Las Vegas (19th), which has already romped home with critics' prizes for Best Film, Best Actor (Nicholas Cage) and Best Actress (Elisabeth Shue) in New York and LA, and has put British director Mike Figgis back on the "A" list. It will, however, have a fight on its hands in the hype stakes as the following week sees Harrison Ford going where Bogart went before in Sabrina Fair, in its suitably foreshortened Nineties title, Sabrina. A beautifully tailored Julia Ormond attempts the impossible by stepping into Audrey Hepburn's shoes. There's more Americana on display in Leeds where Opera North have unearthed Kurt Weill's forgotten Broadway musical, Love Life (see picture), which he wrote with Alan Jay Lerner, more famous for having penned Paint Your Wagon and My Fair Lady. Doubtless, the company hope to repeat the sell-out business oftheir revival of Show Boat a few years back.

Bjork is undoubtedly Iceland's biggest export since the supermarket chain, and if proof were needed that she is now an echt superstar, she is impersonated by Dawn French in the new French and Saunders BBC TV series, which continues this month. The elfin starlet, meanwhile, plays her biggest British dates yet, beginning in Sheffield (19th).

Hot on the heels of her success with One Flea Spare at the Bush Theatre, Naomi Wallace is a notable addition to the RSC's rather shaky stable of new writers. Her latest play, Slaughter City, opens on the 23rd, while Simon Callow's version of Les Enfants du Paradis, previewing at the end of the month, looks set to be to the exception to a pretty dismal RSC season - apart from David Fielding's bold staging of The Park and Adrian Noble's The Cherry Orchard, which happily transfers to London later in the year.

A hot month for theatre openings with Antony Sher returning to the National as painter Stanley Spencer in Pam Gems's new biographical play (1st), which also stars the ludicrously underrated Deborah Findlay. Norwich pulls off something of a coup on the same day with the premiere of Blood Libel, a new play by Arnold Wesker - who himself hasn't exactly been flooded with offers for new work, despite being one of the angriest of young men back in the Fifties and Sixties.

The hyperactive Patrick Marber caused a big noise with his production of his first play, Dealer's Choice, a poker-playing comedy which transferred from the National to the West End and is set for a national tour. He now moves to the Almeida with 1953 (8th), Craig Raine's rewrite of Racine's Phaedra with young Olivier Award-winner Emma Fielding and Jason Isaacs, who was so impressive in Angels in America.

It's also a good month for dance, with Crime Fictions (2nd), a new piece based on film noir by Kim Brandstrup for Arc Dance Theatre; and a mixed programme from the Royal Ballet (7th) comprising new pieces by William Hart and Ashley Page, plus Kenneth MacMillan's intensely dramatic The Invitation, once one of the jewels in the company's crown as danced by Lynn Seymour. The Birmingham Royal Ballet, meanwhile, has what is probably a first: a ballet based on a Thomas Hardy novel. David Bintley's Far From the Madding Crowd (no Julie Christie, alas) is at the Birmingham Hippodrome from the 21st.

The art show of the year will be the Tate's Cezanne show (8th), which has been packing them in during its stay in Paris. If you want to compare what was going on in more traditional circles back in England, nip up to Piccadilly for the Royal Academy show devoted to the work of Lord Leighton (from 16th). The National Gallery also has something of a treat with a collection from the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome (22nd), including important works by Caravaggio, Raphael, Lotto, Titian and Velasquez's masterly portrait of Pope Innocent X.

The much-missed Mark Elder returns to spread joy to the beleaguered English National Opera conducting Tristan and Isolde, which opens on the 10th - an unmissable event staged by David Alden, whose passionate interpretation of Ariodante (starring Ann Murray) returns later in the year. Welsh National Opera have a terrific trio lined up with wunderkinds Mark Wigglesworth conducting and Matthew Warchus producing Bryn Terfel in The Rake's Progress (17th). A treat.

British cinema makes headway this month with the simultaneous release on the 23rd of Trainspotting, from the team that created Shallow Grave, and Emma Thompson writing the script for and starring in Sense and Sensibility (above) and pulling tremendous reviews for both jobs in the US.

Jarvis Cocker (main picture) launches himself and Pulp on a 10-date national tour beginning in Brighton on the 20th.

Tommy, once an album, then a typically unrestrained Ken Russell film, is now a smash-hit musical thanks to a cracking Broadway production by Des McAnuff. The British production opens on the 5th. Theatre de Complicite unveil Foe on the 7th, an adaptation of the novel by Booker prizewinner JM Coetzee at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. March is, however, the (unnofficial) Jeremy Sams month. His translation of Schiller's engrossing Mary Stuart opens at the National on the 21st with a drop-dead cast including Anna Massey and Isabelle Huppert, who also features in the latest Chabrol movie, A Judgement in Stone, based on Ruth Rendell's crime classic filmed once before (badly). Five days later, Sams's production of Sondheim's Tony Award-winning musical Passion opens at the Queen's Theatre (26th).

Woody Allen is back, this time playing his clarinet (honest) in a one- off gig at the Festival Hall (18th). British acting talent has been busy in Hollywood - Anthony Hopkins plays the title role in the latest epic exercise in American navel-gazing: Oliver Stone's Nixon (15th). Considerably shorter (a mere 81 minutes), and with more laughs comes the extraordinary Toy Story (22nd), the world's first completely computer-generated animated movie from guess who? Yes, Disney.

Messrs Terfel and Elder turn up at Covent Garden in a revival of Strauss's Arabella, starring the great white hope of British opera singers, Amanda Roocroft, whose recordings have so far failed to hit the spot but whose dark, creamy voice is utterly luscious on stage.

In a somewhat tardy bid for artist of the year (he died in 1660), Velasquez looks like being a hero of this, the Year of Visual Art. His "Rokeby Venus" is the centrepiece of a show at the Bowes Museum which opens the year's festivities on the 30th. Two days earlier, the British obsession with Impressionism continues with the Royal Academy's Gustave Caillebotte show (see above). Visitors to the Musee d'Orsay in Paris should recognise his work.

Theatre director Phyllida Lloyd returns to Opera North, home of her considerable operatic successes with her regular design partner Anthony Ward for a new production of Cherubini's Medea (15th), with a classy cast led by Josephine Barstow.

Unless you've done jury service, your image of the workings of the judicial system are likely to be based on Sidney Lumet's classic film (and his debut) Twelve Angry Men, which turns up in the West End as a stage production (22nd) directed by Harold Pinter (right). Another British actor doing things American is Helena Bonham Carter, who stars as Woody Allen's wife in his latest comedy Mighty Aphrodite (12th).

The finest acting of the month is expected from the luminous Julianne Moore in Todd "Poison" Haynes's film Safe (19th). Moore was impressive in Short Cuts and simply mesmerising in Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street opposite Wallace Shawn, whose play The Designated Mourner appears at the National late this month, directed by David Hare.

British audiences starved of choreography by the great Mark Morris have the pleasure of seeing it danced by Les Grandes Ballets Canadiens, who tour Britain for the first time since changing direction under the new artistic directorship of Lawrence Rhodes (from 9th).

A selection of work by Mark Rothko (detail, right) turns up, a trifle unexpectedly, at the Tate St Ives gallery in an exhibition recalling the great abstract expressionist's stay there during the Fifties.

Glyndebourne opens its season on the 17th with the first ever UK staging of Handel's Theodora, directed by enfant terrible Peter Sellars, with William Christie conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Trisha Brown Dance Company, unseen in this country for far too long, is the highlight of this year's Dance Umbrella (21st), with a programme including the first British performances of the acclaimed Set and Reset, danced to a score by Laurie Anderson.

American movies range from Sergeant Bilko (yet another TV transfer) to the exquisitely titled surprise hit What to Do in Denver When You're Dead.

Leon Kossoff, who caused such a noise at the 1995 Venice biennale, has his first retrospective at the Tate Gallery from the 6th. Director Declan Donnellan (right) joins the money-makers directing Sir Cameron Mackintosh's production of the latest musical from Boublil and Schonberg, who created Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. This time it's Martin Guerre, better known as the Richard Gere/ Jodie Foster film Somersby (11th).

The singing continues on the 13th with the world's hottest tenor in the title role of Verdi's Don Carlos at Covent Garden, conducted by Haitink.

How to Make an American Quilt was a surprise best-selling novel in the States and arrives on-screen (14th) with Anne Bancroft and Winona Ryder; it's very much part of the attempt to move away from pictures that focus on men blowing each other's heads off.

And the best of the rest of the year...

Twyla Tharp (right) returns to the Royal Ballet after her sensational Mr Worldly-Wise last year, this time with a new one-act work (30th July), while Northern Ballet Theatre premieres an equally untraditional work: Dracula (16th Sept). Prior to that comes this year's Edinburgh Festival (opens 11th Aug), which once again looks like providing most jewels in the official festival, including Martha Graham Dance Company, Houston Grand Opera and world-class theatre. The Tate Gallery in Liverpool shows new sculptural works by Rachel Whiteread in September, and in November the V&A has a huge exhibition of American Photography from 1890-1960, taken from the impressive collection at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Queens of comedy Victoria Wood and Julian Clary hit the road (separately) again in the autumn (dates to be confirmed). Opera Factory return to the South Bank in September with David Freeman's new production of The Magic Flute, and Andrew Lloyd Webber (left) revives one of his greatest hits, Jesus Christ Superstar, 25 years since the show's first production. The best news on the musicals front, however, is that outgoing National Theatre director Richard Eyre (left) is reviving Guys and Dolls for Christmas. Anyone who considers that the form is beneath them should see this intoxicating, magnificently directed show, which ranks alongside the David Hare trilogy as Eyre's finest achievement. Hardly new, but likely to be one of the year's greatest hits.