The reconfiguration of Opera Philadelphia begins with the newly announced 2016-17 season that features mainstream opera stars Christine Goerke and Stephanie Blythe, plus Missy Mazzoli's
Breaking the Waves
, a new piece generating particular curiosity in the larger opera world.
The season has its usual three Academy of Music productions: Puccini's Turandot, Rossini's Tancredi, and The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. There will also be a three-production cluster in September. "I'm calling the fall of 2016 a festivalette," said general director David Devan, "so that our team can get its footing for the big kahuna that's going to happen in September 2017." (He's referring to O17, a festival with six productions in 12 days, for which the Opera Philadelphia budget will rise from $13.5 million to $15 million.)
The 2016 cluster will be headed by Turandot starring Goerke (Sept. 23-Oct. 2), with the sixth annual HD transmission at Independence Mall on Oct. 1. Breaking the Waves (Sept. 22-Oct. 1) will be at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater, and Verdi's Macbeth (Sept. 24-25) plays at the Prince Theater in a co-presentation with FringeArts.
The Fringe involvement features a highly politicized resetting of the opera in Congo. Nick Stuccio, president of FringeArts, describes the production as having "minimal sets, lots of video, and a narrative that involves a paramilitary militia that stumbles upon a campsite where there's a trunk . . . that has the basis for a theatrical production of Macbeth." The production is part of the Fringe's continuing dedication to provocative directors from abroad, this one being Brett Bailey of South Africa.
"There are a lot of mutual benefits in working together" with Opera Philadelphia, says Stuccio. Devan "is as open to experimentation as anybody I know. I think this is the beginning of a long, beautiful friendship."
All three of the Academy of Music productions are collaborations with other companies. The choice of Turandot and Tancredi started with singers. Since Goerke was first heard in Philadelphia, singing Rameau with Tempesta di Mare, she has developed into a more stentorian singer, and she specifically asked for Turandot with music director Corrado Rovaris. The rest of the cast includes tenor Marco Berti and Joyce El-Khoury. Financed by a six-company consortium, the lavish production, directed by Renaud Doucet, explores the symbolism behind the fairy tale plot.
No stranger to Philadelphia (from recitals as well as L'italiana in Algeri early in her career), Blythe wanted Tancredi (Feb. 10-19, 2017), a highly regarded opera seria by Rossini. It will be bucking a trend: Devan admits that operas by composers such as Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini seem to have declining box office appeal. But in addition to the Blythe drawing card, the cast is filled out by well-regarded soprano Brenda Rae and tenor Michele Angelini. The Marriage of Figaro (April 28-May 7, 2017) features Cecelia Hall, recently seen in the role of Ruby in Cold Mountain.
The Curtis Institute appears to have been lost in the shuffle, though that collaboration will resume in future seasons. Opera Philadelphia has moved away from the spring/summer Perelman Theater slot where the Curtis collaboration often took place. Instead, the Perelman Theater presence will be in the fall with the world premiere of Breaking the Waves, the most tangible product of Opera Philadelphia's composer-in-residence program in which composer Mazzoli conceived the piece.
Media materials come with warnings of "explicit language and sexual content." The original 1996 film portrayed sexual obsession that escalates into violence and death in provincial Scotland. Born in Lansdale and now based in Brooklyn, Mazzoli has long discussed deeper possibilities beyond the plot. "It's a psychological exploration . . . about the true nature of loyalty and faith and what happens when those things conflict with each other," she says. "Opera is a place for big ideas. These are things that opera can do that film can't do, such as providing a subtext and saying four different things at the same time."
Is Philadelphia ready for it? "I'm not nervous," says Devan. "I don't think Philadelphia is the conservative place that it once was. We've done a lot of challenging musical work. . . . and people have come along for the ride."