Falling In Love Again (with Opera): A Preview of New York's Autumn Opera Events

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Following an unusually rich summer of opera in New York, we head into autumn with much to anticipate, both in mainstream and alternative venues. My colleagues Marion Lignana Rosenberg and Brian Wise have indicated some of their preferences in recent articles. I share Marion’s interest in a series of Benjamin Britten performances to coincide with the centennial of the composer’s birth. I am also eagerly anticipating Eric Owens as Boito's Mefistofele with Collegiate Chorale and the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall (Nov. 6). I share with Brian his recommendation of two operatic bundles from Britain: Marc-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, presented by New York City Opera at BAM (Sept. 17-28) and Nico Muhly's Two Boys at the Met (Oct. 21-Nov. 14).

But there is a lot more in my sights between now and the winter solstice. At the Metropolitan Opera, there are numerous enticements. First and foremost, the welcome return of music director James Levine to opera conducting when he leads Così fan tutte on Sept. 24, plus three more fall dates and five in the spring. He will also conduct the wonderful Robert Carsen production of Falstaff, coming to the Met stage on Dec. 6. The star is Ambrogio Maestri who, in this role, gave the best performance by a male singer I heard in 2012.

While the big-ticket, big-cast productions on the Met’s autumn calendar can speak for themselves, I want to call attention to some works in between that are of particular interest to me. Shostakovich's wonderfully irreverent The Nose has a pitch-perfect production by William Kentridge and was sold out in its first engagement. It deserves to be seen if you have not, and seen again if you have. The conductor for most of the performances will be Valery Gergiev, with the others having Pavel Smelkov. Who can resist an opera called The Nose led by someone named Smelkov?

Bellini’s Norma is always worth hearing. Along with just a few roles, such as Brunnhilde and Isolde, the title character is a Mount Everest for sopranos. Two of the best, Sondra Radvanovsky and Angela Meade, are slated to assume the part, with Kate Aldrich and Jamie Barton sharing Adalgisa. The latter just won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World prize, perhaps the single most prestigious award a singer can receive. The excellent Aleksandrs Antonenko sings Pollione, the venerable James Morris, a fixture at the Met since 1971, will sing some performances as Oroveso, and Riccardo Frizza conducts.

Richard Strauss is in the House

As the Wagner/Verdi bicentennial year winds down, some companies are shifting to Richard Strauss, whose 150th birthday comes in June 2014. The Met brings back Der Rosenkavalier (Nov. 22-Dec. 13), whose Octavian (Elina Garanca) recently withdrew from the cast because s/he is pregnant—only in opera! But there still is the attraction of Viennese soprano Martina Serafin as the Marschallin, Strauss’s gorgeous music and the Met’s beloved old Nathaniel Merrill production. 

What really draws me is the return, after a decade, of Herbert Wernicke’s thrilling production of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (Nov. 7-26). I have a couple of quibbles with this staging that I might write about at some point but, overall, it is quite something. The conducting of Vladimir Jurowski is also a big draw, as are the debuts of sopranos Anne Schwanewilms and Meagan Miller as the Empress. And, in the category of “be-there-or-be-square,” opera lovers will all want to say they heard Christine Goerke as the Dyer’s Wife. The Met’s season calendar describes Goerke as “the rising dramatic soprano star.” Indeed, her Elektra at the Lyric Opera of Chicago was the best performance by a female opera singer I heard in 2012. Readers in the UK should not miss Goerke as Elektra at Covent Garden, Sept. 23-Oct. 12.

Loft Opera is a new company whose Don Giovanni last spring (right) was one of the more engaging productions of this complex work I have attended in years. The youthful cast was superb and the stage direction remarkably effective. I loved how boundless ingenuity, rather than complicated scenery and production values, resulted in an incisive performance that also had immense charm. The troupe returns with Le Nozze di Figaro (Nov 7-9), an opera that poses even more staging challenges. They will again appear in a loft near Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. The audience will sit among the performers. What window will Cherubino jump out of?

The intrepid Gotham Chamber Opera will present "Baden-Baden 1927," recreating a legendary event from 1927 in which four composers—Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud and Ernst Toch—staged one-act operas in a single program. Presented at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater Oct. 23-29, the production is in first-class artistic hands and includes a rare appearance by the wonderful soprano Helen Donath.

Cultists of the operatic voice never miss the annual Richard Tucker gala, which takes place on Nov. 17 at Avery Fisher Hall. The event is particularly special this year because the centennial of the great American tenor’s birth was on August 28. Customarily, the finest singers who happen to be in town on the day of the gala make appearances. Among those scheduled so far are Stephanie Blythe, Joyce DiDonato, Renée Fleming, Angela Meade, Eric Owens, Matthew Polenzani and Patricia Racette, many of whom are former recipients of the prestigious Richard Tucker Award. This year’s winner, mezzo Isabel Leonard, will also sing.

Teatro Grattacielo is one of New York’s most valuable and distinctive small opera companies. Named for a cinema in a skyscraper in Genoa that served as that city's opera house after the Teatro Carlo Felice was badly damaged in World War II, the company’s mission is to present important Italian operas that are seldom seen outside their native country. Since 1994, the company does one performance each year that deserves to be as highly anticipated and celebrated as a meteor shower or a total eclipse.

On Nov. 19, at NYU’s Skirball Center, they will offer a fascinating rarity, the North American premiere of Franco Alfano’s Sakùntala—the second version, no less. It is a fable set in ancient India and is one of the first Italian operas to use a prose libretto by its own composer. Alfano (1875-1954) is, for most cognoscenti, a mere footnote in opera history, the man selected by Arturo Toscanini to use surviving sketches to complete Puccini’s Turandot after the composer’s death in 1924. 

New York audiences might recall Alfano’s 1936 opera, Cyrano de Bergerac, presented at the Met a few years ago with Plácido Domingo and Sondra Radvanovsky. But it was La Leggenda di Sakùntala, which premiered in Bologna in 1921, that made Toscanini choose Alfano. In 1952, a new production was planned for the Rome Opera. Alfano’s publisher, Ricordi, believed that the complete score had been destroyed in the bombings of Milan during World War II. Alfano, using his piano/vocal score, orchestrated the work anew and the opera was renamed Sakùntala. Just a few years ago, a copy of the 1921 score was found and it was performed in Rome in 2006. But Teatro Grattacielo will be using the 1952 score.

The Ring on Strings

I will soon do an article about the Salzburg Marionette Theater, which celebrates its centennial this year. Last week, in Austria, I attended their two-hour version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle (above) and it is nothing short of fabulous. For starters, the conductor is Sir Georg Solti and stars include Birgit Nilsson, Régine Crespin and Hans Hotter, all from the legendary 1965 Decca recording. Six puppeteers and two actors make the whole thing come alive by getting to the essence of the story. 

There are moments of humor—especially the “Ride of the Valkyries” in which they turn into the Rockettes but one of them just cannot grasp the choreography. Yet there are moments of immense tenderness and drama. One can admire the bravura of these artists but, ultimately, their work is in service to the story. It will be performed at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Dec. 13 and 15 and is not to miss. The company’s Alice in Wonderland, which I have not seen, will be presented on Dec. 14 and 15.