Washington National Opera announces 2011-12 season

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 12:07 AM

The Washington National Opera's impending affiliation with the Kennedy Center won't happen until July, and in the meantime, there are operas to put on - and a new season to announce.

The 2011-12 season, which the company announced Tuesday morning, was set long before most of the opera's discussions with the Kennedy Center had taken place. Opera companies do their bookings several years in advance. Still, the season will inevitably be seen in the light of the possibilities that the merger affords. Translation: No need to castigate the company for putting on only five operas yet again, since measures have been taken to advance the distant dreams of returning to a season with a few more productions.

The new season represents a carefully balanced diet of staple fare: "Tosca" (Sept. 10-24), "Lucia di Lammermoor" (Nov. 10-19), "Cosi fan tutte" (Feb. 25-March 15, 2012), "Nabucco" (April 28-May 21, 2012) and "Werther" (May 12-27, 2012). Concert appearances by divas Angela Gheorghiu (March 3, 2012) and Deborah Voigt (March 17, 2012) are thrown in for good measure. If you've got a friend who's new to opera and interested in learning more about its greatest hits, then this is a good season to bring him to.

There's no American work on the new calendar. "I do have 'Moby-Dick' on the schedule for a future season," Christina Scheppelmann, the company's director of artistic operations, said Monday, referring to Jake Heggie's successful opera that opened in Dallas in May. "But financial things have to be taken into consideration and evaluated before taking any steps that might turn out to be detrimental again."

The WNO is well aware that the Kennedy Center has just bailed it out. Without that rescue, announced last month, the long financially foundering opera company faced extinction.

Passing for a novelty, therefore, is Verdi's "Nabucco," new to the Washington National Opera, but written in 1842 and one of the most popular, and populist, operas in Europe. This patriotic political allegory - its showpiece, "Va pensiero," is a chorus of the Jews in exile - is also the season's sole new production. It is by Thaddeus Strassberger, who did last season's "Hamlet."

One reason "Nabucco" isn't done more is the difficulty of casting the soprano lead; the part requires vocal agility coupled with veritably Wagnerian heft. The lead will be sung by an unknown Hungarian soprano named Csilla Boros, whose audition, Scheppelmann said, elicited from her the question: "Where have you been hiding?" Franco Vassallo, an Italian baritone, will sing the title role of Nabucco, better known to Bible readers as King Nebuchadnezzar, and Philippe Auguin, in his second season as WNO's music director, will conduct.

The season opens as it closes: with Patricia Racette and Placido Domingo. The American soprano, who takes the title role in Gluck's "Iphigenie" this May, returns a few months later to open the season as "Tosca" in a David Kneuss production from the Dallas Opera. For "Tosca," Domingo will be opposite her not onstage but in the pit as conductor. Frank Porretta will sing Cavaradossi, and Alan Held will depart from Wagner roles to try a new one: his first outing as the archetypal villain Baron Scarpia.

Auguin is doing the lion's share of the conducting; he will lead both "Cosi" and "Lucia" (in the David Alden production from the English National Opera, which, given the regularity of its partnerships with the Metropolitan Opera, seems to be providing half the East Coast with productions these days).

"Cosi" shows again that rumors of Jonathan Miller's retirement were greatly exaggerated. The British director has made a few pronouncements that he was done with opera forever, but he seems happy to continue working when asked - in this case, to revive his own venerable production. "Cosi" features Elizabeth Futral and Teddy Tahu Rhodes, both popular stars at WNO, and William Shimell, the acclaimed British bass-baritone, making his company debut as Don Alfonso. "Lucia," which starred Futral in its last outing, will feature Sarah Coburn and Lybov Popova alternating in the lead role.

The production team for "Werther" has not been announced, but the conductor and cast are in place: Emmanuel Villaume, the talented French conductor, will lead Sonia Ganassi and Francesco Meli.

Opera in the Outfield, though not yet official, will be back. Scheppelmann could not reveal when the annual Nationals Stadium broadcast would take place, but she said it will be some time near the first performance, and in the evening - a welcome change for those who reluctantly sweated in the sun for this season's "Un Ballo in Maschera."

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