Béla Bartók, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle / Giacomo Puccini, Gianni Schicchi [CTD at DCist]
Nicholas Maw, Sophie's Choice [CTD on the second cast and at DCist]
Giacomo Puccini, Madama Butterfly [CTD at DCist]
Richard Wagner, Die Walküre [CTD at DCist]
Gaetano Donizetti, La Fille du Régiment
Leoš Janáček, Jenůfa
Giuseppe Verdi, Macbeth
It was a season with three operas from the 20th century (Jenůfa, Bluebeard, Gianni Schicchi) and one from the 21st (the American premiere of Sophie's Choice from 2002), exactly the sort of production that WNO needs to be doing if it wants to be thought of as a serious company. The company continued its interesting new American Ring cycle, directed by Francesca Zambello, and it is always exciting to see an operatic monument reinterpreted in a new light. Finally, it brought back a lesser Verdi opera that it had not staged in over 20 years (Macbeth). The only two tired choices on the docket were the Butterfly, in a revival of a recent production, and La Fille du Régiment, in an interesting new staging, albeit something of a stretch. Unfortunately, what can make a chestnut doubly unbearable is lackluster casting.
On Monday night, at the end of the penultimate performance of Jenůfa, something became apparent at the sight of the dead baby's clothes and red cap, which are left at the edge of the stage during the curtain call of David Alden's production. If the WNO's season had a unifying theme, it was the loss of children. It is unlikely that this was actually planned rather than coincidental, since such a theme is not going to help sell tickets. Still, who could forget the anguish of the beautiful Angelika Kirchschlager in Sophie's Choice, as she recounted the loss of her children in a concentration camp? Later in the fall, another mother, Butterfly, took her own life rather than face life without her child. Then, to open the spring part of the season, at the end of Die Walküre, a father condemned his disobedient child, placing her asleep in a ring of fire. Even in the parallel comic world of La Fille du Régiment, Marie is reunited with her mother, who lost her when she was a baby.
The Macbeths do not have children, and that is an issue that hangs heavily, if silently, over the entire story, as they threaten and sometimes kill first Banquo's progeny and then Macduff's. Does my analysis break down with the first production of the season? Well, in Bartók's Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, we see the loss of a child from the perspective of the child and her kidnapper. As the couple arrives at his castle, the dialogue makes clear that Bluebeard has taken Judith away from her parents against their will. Bluebeard sings to Judith, whom he addresses persistently and disturbingly as child, "Do you hear the bells a-jangling? / Child, thy mother sits in sorrow; / Sword and shield thy father seizeth; / Swift thy brother leaps to saddle."
Actually, operas that touch in some way or another on the death of a child are more common than you might think, perhaps because it is an instantly understandable emotional situation. The only opera presented in this season that does not directly deal with a child's death, Gianni Schicchi, does have one of the most moving illustrations of how much power children have over their parents. In the famous aria "O mio babbino caro," Lauretta pleads with her father to let her marry Rinuccio. She does win over her father's heart, not only because Puccini wrote such a moving melody but because of what she threatens to do if Schicchi does not yield: she sings that she will go to the Ponte Vecchio and throw herself in the Arno. It is the fear of losing his daughter that changes Schicchi's mind.
Most of the formula of this season remains in place for the choices of the 2007-08 season. There is just one major work of the 20th century, a very welcome Strauss Elektra (with Susan Bullock and Christine Goerke and Heinz Fricke at the podium), and a Washington premiere from the 21st century, William Bolcom's A View From the Bridge (with Catherine Malfitano, back after her unforgettable performance in Jenůfa, and Christine Brandes).
One of the modern opera slots has been given over to the category missing from the company's dance card, Baroque opera, with a production of Handel's Tamerlano, with Plácido Domingo and countertenor David Daniels in the lead roles. Some long-time subscribers will remember the company's flirtation with Handel operas in the 1980s and 90s (Semele in 1980, 1983, and 1994; Agrippina in 1991; Julius Caesar in 1999). The opposition of some to those productions is probably due to the style of singer and especially the orchestral component. The trend in European opera houses in recent years is to invite a historically informed performance ensemble into the pit for Baroque opera. WNO may have missed an opportunity to bring this innovation to American audiences, by collaborating with an American HIP ensemble like Washington's own Opera Lafayette or Apollo's Fire from Cleveland. Still, for a baroqueux nut like me, Handel gets no complaints.
It is too bad that the American Ring cycle has been delayed for a year, but the chance to hear Alan Held's first Der fliegende Holländer, with Heinz Fricke conducting, is some consolation. Three slots have been given to chestnuts, with mixed results. A new production of Don Giovanni (last mounted in 2003) and a revival of a previous Rigoletto (last mounted in 1999) feature mostly younger singers, although Lyubov Petrova's Gilda sounds like a good idea. Most disappointing is the season opener, La Bohème (most recently mounted by WNO in 2002) in a new production by Polish film director Mariusz Treliński (of Andrea Chénier and Madama Butterfly). The staging will be gorgeous, reportedly updated to the present day, but the prospect of having to listen to "crossover tenor" Vittorio Grigolo getting "a chance to demonstrate his serious opera chops in the role of Rodolfo" is disheartening. Will he be miked? Who is next, Andrea Bocelli? Il Divo?
By arranging to have this opera's matinee performance (September 23) simulcast onto a large high-definition screen on the National Mall, WNO is angling shamelessly for that elusive young audience. Taking a cue from Peter Gelb at the Met, the WNO will simulcast the same performance into two local cinemas (the AFI Silver and the Old Town) and onto the campuses of universities and high schools around the country. PBS, this is your conscience calling you! We need more opera on public television.
Photos by Karin Cooper, Washington National Opera (1-3), and VittorioGrigolo.com (4)