PREVIEW: Opera Philadelphia Unveils Ambitious, Eclectic 2020-2021 Season

Academy during Festival O18

The Academy of Music, Opera Philadelphia home venue, during Festival O18. (Photo courtesy of Opera Philadelphia)

Cameron Kelsall: Opera Philadelphia announced its 2020-2021 season this morning, and the line-up offers something for everyone. There’s Puccini and Verdi for the folks who prefer their music drama a little more traditional, Stravinsky and Hans Werner Henze for those whose taste runs a little more toward the outré. Jennifer Higdon returns with a world-premiere, and Philly’s own Bearded Ladies Cabaret returns once again to curate the Late Night Snacks series that blends classical music, performance art and everything in between. The roster of soloists includes Sondra Radvanovsky, Ana María Martínez, Quinn Kelsey, Sir Willard White and Lawrence Brownlee, among others — not too shabby a group, I’d say. 

David Fox: It’s really an extraordinary mix, isn’t it? Over the last three seasons, it’s been interesting to see how Opera Philadelphia continues to explore how to best build a season — how many works, what blend of old and new, and especially how to shape the signature Festival O that kicks off the season. The first year was absolutely thrilling, but really almost too much. Years two and three seemed to be scaled down. What I notice about this season is what strikes me as a nearly ideal balance, including a level of star power that — let’s face it — is always part of opera’s great thrills. But there’s also a continued emphasis on innovation. Anyway, read on for more details!

Lawrence Brownlee by Shervin Lainez

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee appears in recital. (Photo: Shervin Lainez)

Lawrence Brownlee in Recital With Michael Spyres (Sept. 16, Barnes Foundation)

Last month, the Houston Grand Opera faced a momentary crisis. After singing Fernand in the company premiere of Donizetti’s La Favorite, the bel canto tenor Lawrence Brownlee took ill and needed to be replaced. Fernands don’t exactly grow on trees, so the French specialist Michael Spyres was flown in from New York — where he was rehearsing for his Metropolitan Opera debut in La Damnation de Faust — for the second performances. Hopefully, the only drama surrounding a joint recital by these two virtuosic American musicians during Festival O20 will happen onstage! Both artists have taken part in some of the most memorable Opera Philadelphia events in recent seasons: Brownlee as soloist in the world premiere of Tyshawn Corey’s astonishing songspiel Cycles of My Being, and Spyres as a near-ideal Edgardo in the Festival O18 production of Lucia di Lammermoor. (C.K.)

Woman With Eyes Closed (Sept. 17-26, Perelman Theater)

This Festival O20 world premiere has distinctly local connections. The score is by Jennifer Higdon, the Pulitzer Prize–winning chair of composition at Curtis. The star is Meredith Arwady, a Curtis alumna with a rich, distinctive contralto voice. Higdon and librettist Jerre Dye were inspired by a curious story that roiled the art world: a 2012 heist that resulted in seven priceless paintings disappearing from the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam. (The opera takes its title from a Lucian Freud painting that was among the stolen.) As often happens, what came after the theft proved even more interesting and confounding than the act itself. After being disappointed by Cold Mountain, Higdon’s operatic debut — which felt like a meandering behemoth in its 2016 Opera Philadelphia premiere — I’m intrigued by the prospect of her delivering a more small-scale work. Over the past few festivals, the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater has proved a superb venue for chamber opera. (C.K.)

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Sondra Radvanovsky makes her role debut as Lady Macbeth. (Photo: Andre Eccles)

Macbeth (Sept. 18-27, Academy of Music)

Verdi’s first Shakespeare setting, from 1847, may not have the nuances of his last two (Otello and Falstaff), but it’s a thrilling work on its own. Also a hugely important work in the Maestro’s development, and indeed in the progression of Italian opera generally. Bel canto influences abound in the architectural structure of many individual numbers, as well as the kind of decorative vocal writing required — while at the same time, we can clearly hear the story-driven, less ornamental and more narrative style that will become the hallmark of Verdi’s middle-period operas. Most of all, it’s an extraordinarily exciting, impulsive work of its own, and one that puts great demands on two star performers. We should be in great hands here. One might say of Lady Macbeth that her music looks backward to Donizetti and forward to later Verdi, and Sondra Radvanovsky is at her considerable best in the music of both. What a coup to get her role debut here! Excellent Italian baritone Roberto Frontali, too! Bravi! (D.F.)

El Cimarrón (Sept. 19-24, Barnes Foundation)

Hans Werner Henze’s monodrama, the story of a Cuban slave and independence fighter, is now nearly 50 years old, but the vigorous work feels startlingly fresh and powerful. Full of the dramatic, angular writing that is a signature of the composer’s style, it also features a marvelously percussive score with a distinctly Latin musical color. Most of all, it’s a role for a powerhouse singing actor, and should ideally suit the great Sir Willard White. His towering, iconic presence is perhaps best known to London audiences — I vividly remember seeing him at the English National Opera, where he stopped the show with the tiny but formidable part of a workman in Bernstein’s On the Town. It’s a major coup to have him here, and the great hall of the Barnes Foundation is a fabulous venue. This feels like exactly the kind of event Festival O does best. (D.F.)

Oedipus Rex (Jan. 29-31, Academy of Music)

Another intriguingly out-of-the-box choice for Opera Philadelphia, and one that I’m eager to hear. Stravinsky’s marvelously rich setting of Sophocles via Jean Cocteau doesn’t get performed enough, perhaps in part because its generically somewhere between an oratorio and a theater work. This year, both the Metropolitan Opera (with Damnation de Faust) and our own Opera Philadelphia (in Verdi’s Requiem) programmed concert-style performances that successfully showed how well such works can be integrated into an opera season. (Frankly, for my taste, our Verdi Requiem was the better of those two, and in total the finest performance of this great work that I’ve ever experienced live.) All signs are positive for this one, with a remarkably fine cast here, including tenor William Burden as Oedipus and baritone Mark S. Doss as Creon. Mezzo-soprano Rehanna Thelwell is a new name to me, but I’m very taken with her commanding sound and presence as heard and seen here. (D.F.)

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Ana María Martínez sings her first Tosca. (Photo: Svetlana Pasedko)

Tosca (April 30-May 7, Academy of Music)

When it comes to the bread-and-butter repertory, few selections are as crustily familiar as Puccini’s “shabby little shocker.” Most opera lovers can hum the score in their sleep. Opera Philadelphia’s season-ending production, at least on paper, promises a higher level of excitement than usual. Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez — a ravishingly individual artist too rarely heard on the East Coast — makes her company and role debut as the title diva. (Those hoping for a preview of Martínez can check her out in recital at the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society on March 13.) Another debutant in Quinn Kelsey, taking on the evil Baron Scarpia for the first time. Many critics regard Kelsey as the leading American baritone for Puccini and Verdi of his generation — Philadelphians will get to find out if he lives up to the hype. Piero Pretti rounds out the principal cast as the ardent painter Cavaradossi, and verismo master Corrado Rovaris conducts. (C.K.)

DF: I just want to put in a final word for the Curtis and AVA collaborations (Sept. 18-26) that will also be part of Festival O20. How marvelous that Opera Philadelphia connects with and showcases the work of young singers who are polishing their craft in two of the world’s finest training programs. Two years ago, Siena Licht Miller and Ashley Robillard knocked me out with their imaginative joint recital; last year, it was Karen Slack and Martin Luther Clark. Who will it be this year? Let’s find out together!

CK: Indeed. See you at the opera!

1 reply »

  1. Thank you both! You really know opera and singers and I found this really useful for trying to decide how much money I want to put into the O20 season. You also did a lot of work on the research. Makes it easy for us armchair readers.

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