2011 Fall Opera Preview

Patricia Racette as Tosca. Photo by Scott Suchman
Washington National Opera's Tosca
Patricia Racette as Tosca. Photo by Scott Suchman

Washington experienced a wrenching and rare one-two weather punch in one week — an unprecedented earthquake followed by a hurricane. The Washington National Opera Company had a year that was almost as momentous and earthshaking, but with much more salutatory results. In 2011, the company saw the resignation of its long-time maestro, Artistic Director Placido Domingo. This was followed this summer by the announcement of an Affiliation Plan by the WNO with the Kennedy Center, a far-reaching development that brings a great deal of stability, while adding the musical jewel that is the WNO to the Center. In addition it was announced that Francesca Zambello, a renowned director familiar to Washington audiences, was appointed the WNO’s artistic Advisor. No replacement has yet been named for Domingo. That’s a lot of change and upheaval for any artistic institution, yet the WNO is preparing to start the 2011-2012 season with its production of Puccini’s “Tosca” Sept. 10 in an upbeat, high-energy mood.
“Obviously, the affiliation is a win-win for everyone,” said Christina Scheppelman, director of artistic operations for the WNO. “It’s been in the works and talked about for a long time and that makes it an exciting time for us. But the 2010-2011 season has been planned four to five years in advance and was in place already before all of this came about.”
With “Tosca” to be followed by Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” in November, the WNO starts its season with two operas that are more operatic than most. “They’re very dramatic operas, they’re full of the kinds of devices and characters with over-the-top situations with grand, familiar, classic music and singing and arias,” Scheppelman said. In other words, they’re full of murder, tragedy, great passion and sacrifice and larger-than-life heroines and villains, not to mention suicide, madness and other sundry deeds on wind-swept battlements. It’s familiar stuff, to be sure, and familiarity and popularity sometimes grates on critics who want to see more cutting edge stuff. “Our first responsibility,” Scheppelman said, “is to our audiences, and to make sure that we deliver artistic productions of the highest quality. So, yes, you’re going to see a ‘Madame Butterfly,’ but people forget that we’ve also, successfully I might add, done terrific productions of ‘A View from the Bridge’ and ‘Billy Budd’ among other more contemporary operas.” Michael Mael, the newly appointed executive director, hailed WNO’s new affiliation. “It gives us all the resources which the Kennedy Center can bring to bear, plus we have the center’s president, Michael Kaiser, who has run an opera company, who has a great passion for opera, who is an exceptional representative and leader for the arts world-wide.” “My responsibility is to make sure we have a world-class company and that we never sacrifice artistic excellence,” Mael said. “I came to opera relatively late, but when it happened, I fell in love with it” Many of the programs put in place by Domingo remain including the Celebrity Artist series, which won’t begin until March with soprano Angela Gheorghiu. Domingo himself has not disappeared—he returns to conduct “Tosca” which will be directed by Dzvid Kneuss. “Tosca” will also be part of the WNO’s hugely popular “Opera in the Outfield” series, in which a live performance of the opera will be simulcast to audiences at the Washington Nationals Park for free on Sept. 22. “Tosca” is why Puccini, as a composer of classic opera, is the king, all Wagner devotees aside. Puccini has the three most popular, most enduring and tear-stained, high-drama operas ever written. And the music that goes with them lives outside them in familiar forms. Giacomo Puccini, as the composer of “La Boheme,” “Madama Butterfly” and “Tosca,” made an achievement something on the order of hitting 60 home runs three season in a row without the aid of steroids. The promos call “Tosca” an “irresistible combination of passion, pathos and despair,” the trifecta of tragic opera. It includes the classic arias “Vissi d’arte” and “E lucevan le stele.” It stars the country’s top singing actors in soprano Patricai Racette as Floria Tosca, a hot-blooded singer placed in impossible situations trying to save her lover from the double-crossing, impassioned and lust-struck Baron Scarpio, performed by bass-baritone Alan Held. (Natalia Ushakova will sing Tosca Sept. 23). There are nine performances on Sept. 10, 12, 14, 16, 20, 22, 23 and 24 and one matinee Sept. 18. Donizetti may not have had as many super-legendary hits as Puccini (who has?), but he came up with one of opera’s most hysterical, hugely dramatic, over-the-top and, well, operatic, operas in “Lucia di Lammemoor.” Famous for its mad scene (see the late Joan Sutherland), a challenge to any living, high-note soprano in the world willing to take on the role. It’s directed by David Alden and double-cast with Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova and Sarah Coburn as the Lucias. There are eight performances Nov. 10 through 19. Let the season begin.

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