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DAVID SHENGOLD raises the curtain on the best of 2004-05.

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Netrebko, set to sizzle
as Los Angeles Opera's
Juliette

© Johannes Ifkovits 2004
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Graves, who will take on Margaret Garner in Detroit
© Robert Millard 2004, courtesy Los Angeles Opera
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Heppner, the Met's Énée in 2003, will sing his first New York Otello
© Beatriz Schiller 2004
The last two years have been tough ones for the arts, but the prospects for the new opera season seem quite upbeat, with lots of innovative repertory planned. Although the schedules kicking off at the world's opera companies promise no shortage of Aida, Bohème, Carmen and other standard works, much of the coming year's buzz surrounds the new and rarely produced operas on the docket. Twenty years ago, who would have believed that Met stage premieres might include Handel's Rodelinda and Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac? The world's stages are full of such novelties, new and old.

Houston Grand Opera has long been a leader in nurturing new works and composers, and the company celebrates its fiftieth-anniversary season with two world premieres, starting with Daniel Catán'sSalsipuedes, a Tale of Love, War and Anchovies (Oct. 29). In 1996, Catán provided HGO with the popular Florencia en el Amazonas. His new work is infused with Caribbean rhythms that reflect his Cuban-Mexican heritage. Salsipuedes concerns two couples whose lives are dramatically altered on their wedding day when their tiny island country declares war on Nazi Germany. "As Eliseo Alberto and I developed the libretto, we realized that this crazy premise captured the essence of much of the twentieth century," Catán writes in a press statement. "Political ideologies and corruption have caused more displacements, more misery and more pain than ever before. Ordinary citizens, however, whose wedding plans and honeymoons get interrupted, pay the enormous bill. We wanted to tell this from the point of view of the man who has nothing to do with the corrupt politician's decision, but whose life nevertheless gets mangled as a result. This was a complicated story to tell, simultaneously tragic and ridiculous. We wanted to keep those two qualities in the opera, drawing a smile from the listener and delivering a serious message." Ana Maria Martinez leads a cast directed by James Robinson and conducted by Guido Maria Guida.

Mark Adamo's Lysistrata, or the Nude Goddess
(March 4) will bring HGO's world-premiere total to thirty-three. Adamo's 1998 Little Women has garnered huge popular success in Houston and elsewhere; here he turns to a different group of women: Aristophanes's rebellious Athenians and Spartans, who withhold sex from their husbands to bring an end to war. Michael Kahn will direct a trio of firebrands all new to Houston (soprano Emily Pulley and mezzos Myrna Paris and Jennifer Dudley) in this bawdy comedy, with Stefan Lano (also a company newcomer) conducting.

Another intriguing opera prospect dealing with the interface of global - even extra-global - forces and personal happiness is Peter Eötvös's Angels in America (Nov. 23, at Paris's Théâtre du Châtelet.) Eötvös's wife, Mari Mezei, has condensed Tony Kushner's award-winning two-evening epic into a libretto, with the multiple roles shuffled differently than on Broadway or in the recent Mike Nichols HBO presentation. Angels will unite a fascinating assemblage of idiosyncratic opera personalities: Barbara Hendricks (The Angel), Julia Migenes (Harper Pitt, Ethel Rosenberg), countertenor Derek Lee Ragin (Belize, Mr. Lies), Donald Maxwell (Roy Cohn), Omar Ebrahim (Joe), Daniel Belcher (Prior) and Topi Lehtipuu (Louis). Eötvös himself leads a chamber ensemble. Eötvös's much-hailed earlier opera, 1998's Three Sisters, alternates lyricism, Sprechstimme and speech, on a chamber-music background cushioned by a backstage orchestra - an extraordinarily effective mix for rendering Chekhov's play operatic.

Soprano Roberta Alexander, veteran of several world premieres, calls Three Sisters "mind-bogglingly beautiful" and is honored that the composer wrote parts for her in Angels: "I am so excited! I read the libretto last summer for him and the director [Philippe Calvario], so they could hear my speech patterns. I have the Rabbi, the Doctor, Hannah Pitt and the Asiatic Angel. You know that 'singing actress' part in my bio? Well, I'm going with the flow." At the ever-questing Châtelet, the season also encompasses operas by Gualtiero Dazzi (Le Luthier de Venise, another world premiere), Takemitsu and Henze.

Covent Garden's Royal Opera garnered much interest and praise for its recent world premieres, Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice and Thomas Adès's The Tempest. May 3 will witness the birth of Lorin Maazel's new opera, 1984, with a libretto crafted by J. D. McClatchy and Thomas Meehan from George Orwell's famed novel, prophetic of societies bound in by surveillance and aggressively false rhetoric. After the Shakespearean grandeur of Prospero, Simon Keenlyside moves on to the more mundane (but timeless) world of Orwell's Winston, with soprano Nancy Gustafson as his beloved Julia and tenor Richard Margison in a rare villainous turn as the sinister O'Brien. Maazel, who has written several large-scale orchestral works, also appears in his more familiar role as conductor, with the spatially inventive Canadian director Robert Le Page taking on his first Covent Garden staging.

On May 7, at Detroit's Michigan Opera Theatre, dynamic mezzo Denyce Graves will see the fruition of a collaborative project that has been in the making for some time: Margaret Garner, with music by Richard Danielpour (his first opera) and libretto by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. The work draws on an 1856 event that Morrison unearthed while researching Beloved (1987): the Kentucky slave Garner's attempted flight to the free state of Ohio. When slave-hunters tracked down her family, she killed her baby daughter rather than have her remain in bondage. Found guilty of "destroying property," Garner was returned to slavery. The opera offers imposing roles to a powerhouse cast: Graves in the lead, Gregg Baker as her husband, Jessye Norman as her mother-in-law and Rodney Gilfry as the plantation owner. The director is Kenny Leon, fresh from Broadway's Raisin in the Sun. Cincinnati and Philadelphia will encounter Margaret Garner in future seasons.

When Ben Heppner opens the Metropolitan Opera season (September 20) with his initial company Otello, he'll become the first Met Tristan since Edward Sooter also to tackle Verdi's supreme challenge. James Levine conducts one of his signature pieces, with Barbara Frittoli (the Desdemona of the moment) and the imposing Carlo Guelfi, the Met's first Italian Iago since 1987.

Handel only "made the Met" with 1984's Rinaldo; on December 2, the powerful Rodelinda follows Giulio Cesare and Samson into the fold. The story of the noble Rodelinda, whose brother-in-law attempts to supplant his own brother (King Bertarido) in both throne room and bedroom, is no mere star vehicle, but needs three great singers, each to negotiate an ever-deepening sequence of wonderful arias. Who better to play the royal couple than two of the world's most acclaimed and accomplished vocalists, Renée Fleming and David Daniels? Nimble-voiced South African Kobie van Rensburg, an ascendant star in Europe and on disc, joins the company as the villain Grimoaldo, one of Handel's richest tenor roles. The Met will deploy stars in even the secondary roles, offering Stephanie Blythe (Eduige), Bejun Mehta (Unulfo) and John Relyea (Garibaldo). Acclaimed Handelian Harry Bicket bows as conductor. Director Stephen Wads-worth, in his Met debut, reassembles the brilliant team that has made his beautiful, much-traveled Xerxes such a hit: Thomas Lynch (sets), Martin Pakledinaz (costumes) and Peter Kaczorowski (lights).

On May 13, Met audiences make the acquaintance of Franco Alfano (1877-1954) as something more than the completer of Turandot's Act III. Francesca Zambello will stage his colorfully romantic Cyrano de Bergerac (in French, like Rostand's beloved play). Donning the noble, articulate hero's famous nose, the inextinguishably industrious Plácido Domingo will court the vibrant Sondra Radvanovsky (Roxane) using Raymond Very's Christian as a front. Marco Armiliato, increasingly a champion of lesser-known late verismo works, mans the pit.

In the past few years, American soprano Laura Aikin has become the toast of Europe and San Francisco in such high-flying roles as Zerbinetta, Lulu and Messiaen's Angel. Met audiences, having heard Aikin fleetingly as the Queen of the Night (1998) and Arabella's Fiakermilli (2001), soon will be seeing more of her. Aikin sings Sophie in Rosenkavalier on March 11, when German soprano Angela Denoke makes her Met debut as the Marschallin. Susan Graham bears Octavian's silver rose. And flag October 29's Aida, when the Met welcomes aboard Angela Brown, one of America's most promising Verdi sopranos.

These past two Met seasons, Karita Mattila has hit bull's-eyes in new productions of Jenufa and Salome. This year, she takes on another passionate Janácek heroine - one she recently aced in San Francisco: Káta Kabanová (starting Dec. 17). Judith Forst returns to lead a stellar supporting cast, including Magdalena Kozená, Chris Merritt and Vladimir Ognovenko. Mattila's countryman, versatile tenor Jorma Silvasti, and distinguished Czech conductor Jiri Belohlávek both make their company debuts.

Any appearance by Belgium's José van Dam qualifies as an event. His Met dates have been all too rare, but this season the company welcomes him back as Golaud in Pelléas et Mélisande (Jan. 29), surrounded by William Burden, Anne Sofie von Otter, Felicity Palmer and Roberto Scandiuzzi. In addition, Lincoln Center's "Art of the Song" series, in which van Dam triumphed in two searing 2002 recitals, presents him anew (with pianist Maciej Pikulski) in French mélodies (Feb. 13), as well as Schubert and Schumann lieder (Feb. 16) at Alice Tully Hall.

British mezzo Sarah Connolly has won cheers for her beautifully tapered vocalism (and "trouser" silhouette) in City Opera interpretations of Bellini's Romeo and Handel's Ariodante and Xerxes. Her Met bow as another ardent youth new to her repertory, La Clemenza di Tito's Annio, gives her several sublime Mozart arias and duets in which to shine. "Everything to do with my debut is exciting - the wonderful cast [Frank Lopardo, von Otter, Melanie Diener, Heidi Grant Murphy], James Levine and that fantastic orchestra and, of course, the Met acoustic, which I have heard so much about and really look forward to experiencing for myself." Clemenza (starting Apr. 29) boasts another promising debutant in the Publio of Luca Pisaroni, a dashing young Italian baritone who's been singing the role (as well as Masetto) at Salzburg and seems like a Don Giovanni in the making.

New York City Opera begins its fall lineup with the city's professional stage premiere (Sept. 8) of Richard Strauss's sublime 1938 Daphne. The composer had the remarkable music of the mythic heroine's final apotheosis by his bedside when he died. (One of Strauss's many sublime final scenes for soprano, Apollo's transformation of the bereaved Daphne into a tree, has served Beverly Sills, Carol Vaness and others as a treasured concert piece.) Director Stephen Lawless, returning to NYCO after a much-hailed Flying Dutchman in 2001, is fascinated by Strauss's having produced this piece on the eve of World War II. "How does a largely apolitical - even foolish - artist respond to what is happening around him? He writes Daphne, about the myth of regeneration. At the end of all destruction, new growth will occur. If she just turns into a tree, it's kind of clunky and undramatic. If it's a metaphor, it's much more interesting. Apollo, that most Aryan of gods, feels absolutely no remorse when he kills Leukippos - until he hears Daphne's lament. So it's not what we learn from the gods but what they learn from us. And in Daphne, that's what was most lacking in Germany in 1938 - compassion." Elizabeth Futral takes the title role, with tenors Robert Chafin (Apollo) and Roger Honeywell (Leukippos) as her two suitors and George Manahan at the helm.

Lyric Opera of Chicago
celebrates a half-century of flourishing activity. Since the company came into being (Feb. 5, 1954) with a "calling card" Don Giovanni featuring Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Eleanor Steber, Léopold Simoneau and Bidú Sayão under Nicola Rescigno, a new production of the Mozart-da Ponte masterpiece seemed in order for the season opener (Sept. 18), with another formidable artistic team: Bryn Terfel (in what is rumored to be his last series of appearances as the Don); conductor Christoph Eschenbach, in his long-awaited company debut; and legendary German stage director Peter Stein, creating his first production for any American company. "I am very picky about where and when I conduct opera," admits Eschenbach. "I don't become involved with a production unless the casting and the chemistry are exactly right. That is why I am so looking forward to Don Giovanni at Lyric. Everyone is a perfect fit for the opera and for one another." Other Lyric favorites joining Terfel's libertine include Mattila (Anna), Susan Graham (Elvira, a role debut), Isabel Bayrakdarian (Zerlina), Kurt Streit (Ottavio) and Ildebrando d'Arcangelo (Leporello).

For overflowing vocal talent, few events this season will match Lyric's Gala Concert (Oct. 30). Olga Borodina, David Daniels, Jane Eaglen, Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, Ben Heppner, Catherine Malfitano, Karita Mattila, James Morris, Samuel Ramey, Bryn Terfel, Frederica von Stade and others will perform selections linked to Lyric's rich traditions. Company music director Andrew Davis and artistic director emeritus Bruno Bartoletti will conduct. The Gala Concert pays tribute to twenty-four "Jubilarians" - legendary performers who were instrumental in making Lyric a world-class company. Many of these outstanding international artists will be honored guests.

At San Francisco Opera, general director Pamela Rosenberg follows the spectacular success of last year's Saint François d'Assise (Messiaen) with another U.S. premiere. "Le Grand Macabre has been heard frequently in Europe," notes Rosenberg. "I'm anxious to bring this wildly imaginative opera to American audiences for the first time - a wonderfully bizarre and comic piece with an intriguing element of ambiguity: what if the end of the world turned out to be a non-event? What if the dreaded Apocalypse were a fake? Then all we could do is laugh along with [György] Ligeti and his extraordinary, uproarious music." [For more news on Rosenberg, see "Pamela, Interrupted," on p. 46.] Michael Boder leads Kasper Holten's vibrant Copenhagen staging, starring Willard White, Graham Clark and Sara Fulgoni (opens Oct. 29).

At Washington National Opera, general director Plácido Domingo continues to introduce audiences to the delights of Spanish zarzuela with Federico Moreno Torroba's swashbuckling, melodic Luisa Fernanda. Domingo plays Vidal Hernando, a romantic role his father often performed opposite his mother's Luisa. "To me, Luisa Fernanda means recovering a little bit of the memory of my parents," the tenor says. He and debuting Maria José Montiel, making her company debut, reprise their 2003 La Scala success in the leads, starting on November 6, in Emilio Sagi's staging.

Washington audiences will also be forcefully reminded (beginning on Mar. 26) that there's more to Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orleans than the famous aria known best by its French title, "Adieu, forêts"; this grand-opera account of Joan of Arc's victory and death has furnished the luminous Mirella Freni with her latest Italian triumphs. Washington imports Turin's celebrated production with its original team: conductor Stefano Ranzani, director Lamberto Puggelli and the miraculous Freni. A classy cast joins her: baritone Sergei Leiferkus, a brilliant stylist in Russian repertory, as Joan's beloved Lionel, plus two leading young Kirov singers, tenor Viktor Lutsiuk (Dauphin) and bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin as Joan's father, Thibaut, who unknowingly contributes to her downfall.

Anna Netrebko
and Rolando Villazón, two camera-ready Los Angeles Opera favorites rocketing toward world stardom, join as Verona's star-cross'd lovers in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, in a new production by Ian Judge (Jan. 29) under Frédéric Chaslin's baton. Netrebko has already sung Bellini's Juliet to stunning effect at Opera Company of Philadelphia; Villazón's sensitive musicianship, ardent stage presence and gleaming lyric tenor should provide her with a worthy partner.

Toronto's Canadian Opera Company, the North American troupe that has afforded the most opportunities to force-of-nature Polish contralto Ewa Podles, presents her in a thrilling signature role, Rossini's heroic Tancredi, opposite the splendid bel cantist Laura Claycomb and two fast-rising Canadian singers, tenor Michael Colvin and contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux (starting April 1). Wildly popular in New York, Podle´s headlines a concert Orphée et Eurydice (in Berlioz's edition) with the Oratorio Society at Carnegie Hall (May 2).

Apart from the Met's Rodelinda and the Chicago bash, Renée Fleming brings her artistry (and drawing power) to major fundraising galas for two opera companies that long have been closely linked to her burgeoning career. Since her 1991 San Francisco debut as Countess Almaviva, Fleming has created roles in Susa's Dangerous Liaisons and Previn's Streetcar Named Desire there, also trying out Hérodiade's Salomé and Charpentier's Louise for the first time. She'll open the SFO season (Sept. 10), joined by music director Donald Runnicles and full orchestra and chorus. Since her local 1988 debut, also as Mozart's Countess (her first "big-company" assumption), Houston has witnessed Fleming's initial Marschallin, Arabella and Violetta, among other portrayals. HGO's fiftieth-anniversary gala (Apr. 30) finds her supported by conductor Patrick Summers.

DAVID SHENGOLD has written for Musical America, Opera magazine, Playbill, Slavic Review and Time Out New York.

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