Without the 'Ring' Cycle, WNO Turns to 'Figaro'

Diana Damrau will make her WNO debut in
Diana Damrau will make her WNO debut in "Hamlet" in May. (By Tanja Niemann)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Lend me a Figaro. It could be the rallying cry of the Washington National Opera's 2009-10 season, announced yesterday.

Without its long-planned centerpiece of Wagner's complete "Ring" cycle -- which, the company emphasizes, is not canceled but simply postponed -- the WNO had to scramble to cobble together a season that features only six staged productions, rather than the seven that were offered in 2008-09. Because of the relatively short notice affecting some of the planning -- the "Ring" postponement was announced in November -- not all of the puzzle pieces are in place yet. Hence the need for a Figaro, or rather a "Marriage of Figaro." The opera will be performed in April with Teddy Tahu Rhodes singing the Count, though the production's director and designer are still listed as TBD (to be determined).

Nor is there yet a Falstaff for Stephen Lawless's production of Verdi's final opera, which comes courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera, the other company of WNO General Director Plácido Domingo.

Without the "Ring" though, the season displays the hallmarks of a money-saving year: a number of less-known singers, revivals and productions from other companies, without a single wholly new production in the bunch.

New to D.C., to be sure, is Ambroise Thomas's "Hamlet" in a production from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and a revival of "Porgy and Bess" will be welcome news to audiences who made this production such a success in 2005. The company will also revive "Barber of Seville" and offer "Ariadne auf Naxos" in addition to "Figaro and "Falstaff."

Those productions will be supplemented, of course, by two concert performances of Wagner's "Götterdämmerung," the final opera in the "Ring" tetralogy, and other special events, such as an off-season gala concert in which Domingo will offer a performance of Spanish-language songs and zarzuela excerpts titled "From My Latin Soul" (May 1, 2009).

A nod to operatic glamour is a concert by star mezzo Olga Borodina and her husband, the bass Ildar Abdrazakov, in October (Abdrazakov is singing the title role in "Figaro"). A nod to the current economic crisis is pricing modifications for season subscribers, including a wider range of prices for orchestra seating and discounts to those who purchase a three-concert package. "Washington National Opera is sensitive to the fact that this is a difficult economic time, both for arts organizations and for some patrons," said Mark Weinstein, the company's executive director.

WNO is certainly not the only company to engage in belt-tightening in the current financial climate (the Metropolitan Opera has also canceled at least one planned production for next season, and presents a raft of co-productions every year). At the same time, it is not only in troubled financial times that WNO gives the impression of simply offering a bunch of operas rather than some kind of unified program. While it is wonderful that Washington can continue to field an opera company at all (as denizens of Baltimore, where the company has suspended operations, can attest), this is the time to step up and demonstrate an artistic vision that this organization, even in better financial times, has yet fully to manifest.

The artistic highlight of the upcoming season is, by default, "Hamlet," a production by Thaddeus Strassberger from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City that opens here on May 19. This melodious 19th-century piece calls for a coloratura soprano of remarkable gifts, and the WNO has secured one: Diana Damrau, the German singer who's made waves (and increasingly frequent appearances) at the Met, will make her WNO debut as Ophelia, opposite the Hamlet of Carlos Álvarez, with the venerable Samuel Ramey as Claudius.

As for "Porgy," the company is banking on a repeat of the earlier success of this production by Francesca Zambello, offering 12 performances of the work in March and April. Jermaine Smith (Sportin' Life) and Indira Mahajan (alternating with Morenike Fadayomi as Bess) will return from the original production. The show, which also features Eric Owens as Porgy, offers the company debut of Lisa Daltirus, a noteworthy soprano, as Serena, and marks the return of John Mauceri, the versatile (not to say "crossover") American conductor, after more than 20 years.

As for "Barber": Its focus is the company debut of the tenor Lawrence Brownlee, already familiar in Washington, thanks to the Vocal Arts Society (which will present him for the second time in two seasons on Jan. 31). Also debuting are Silvia Tro Santafé as Rosina, and Marco Caria, alternating with Simone Alberghini as Figaro. Both are alumni of Domingo's Operalia, as is Owens, who will sing Basilio in this production.

The sixth opera, "Ariadne auf Naxos," picks up the talents and the contracts of two singers originally slated for the "Ring," who will make their WNO debuts in "Siegfried" this May: Iréne Theorin, a dramatic soprano, and Pär Lindskog, a tenor. The production, by Chris Alexander, comes from the Seattle Opera, and the company's music director, Heinz Fricke, will conduct.

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