Opera Philadelphia’s 2016-2017 Season: It’s Complicated

In a way, it’s not that complicated at first glance.  There are two sure fire money makers, Turandot and The Marriage of Figaro.  Fair enough.  And two headline sopranos, Stephanie Blythe and Christine Goerke, also money makers.  Then there is Tancredi, a tip of the hat to a highly-regarded, though less often produced, work of Rossini.  Now the real adventure begins: offered is a new take on Macbeth (tickets are already being reported as scarce).  Add a world premiere of a new opera based on the critically-acclaimed movie of the same name, Breaking the Waves, which contains some explicit language and sexual content that requires a warning label.  Aside from the operas themselves, there is the shell game: the opera venues shift.  And there is the odd scheduling – three of the operas sit on top of each other at the end of September.  It looks to get even odder, and maybe even more exciting, in 2017-2018; parents take note - a production of The Magic Flute is in the works.  We will sort this all out. 

Daniel Patrick Stearn, classical music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer has reviewed the upcoming season, recommended reading for the information about the collaborations involved in these productions.  Maybe I am wrong, but I think I detected slight consternation and only mild support for the addition of Breaking the Waves.

Here is the lineup for 2016-2017 :

  • Macbeth by Fabrizio Cassol, after Giuseppe Verde, Sep 24 – 25..…Prince Theater
  • Breaking the Waves by Missy Mazzoli, Sep 22 – Oct 1…..Perelman Theater
  • Turandot by Giocomo Puccini, Sep 23 – Oct 2…..Academy of Music
  • Tancredi by Gioacchino Rossini, Feb 10 – 19…..Academy of Music
  • The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Apr 28 – May 7….Academy of Music

Philly is a great city to visit and I get a really good feeling about Opera Philadelphia.  You might also want to refer to my earlier post about this company (“A Mini Opera Vacation to Philly and the Excitement of New Opera”).  I have by no means gotten my head around this or any other opera company as yet, but it seems a little crazy in a good way.  They also seem to have an active arts community that genuinely reaches out to its fans.  I get a feeling of excitement and vibrancy that bodes well for the future for the mid-Atlantic opera fan.  As evidence, they are planning to start the 2017-2018 season with a festival they are calling O17, six operas in 12 days and many other events.  They say this year’s scheduling of three operas at the end of September is a practice run.  Their website also justifiably boasts that Opera Philadelphia is the only American opera company to be nominated in the Best Opera Company category for the International Opera Awards for 2016.  For us fans, the next couple of years are going to be a fun ride.

Macbeth is a joint venture with The FringeArts of Philadelphia, which is making this production part of their own festival; Opera Philadelphia’s supply of tickets for this is limited, so buy early.  My first reaction to this Macbeth is this: who does Mr. Fabrizio Cassol think he is putting his name ahead of Verdi’s?  I think he is at least a dozen great operas behind to be doing that.  Beyond that overreaction which probably isn’t his fault anyway, this version of Macbeth is actually a touring production since 2014 of the Third World Bun organization, whose founder, Brett Bailey, is the director and creative force behind the concept for this theatrical production of Macbeth.  Opera Philadelphia says this is the American world premiere of the production, though the tour’s website lists Fairfield University as a venue just before.  The website states that Verdi’s score has been reworked by Mr. Cassol and adapted for 12 onstage musicians and it is performed by 10 South African opera singers; I’m feeling kinder towards Mr. Cassol, a little.  The story is gripping and important, set in the Congo amid the wars and political upheavals there.  A group of people find a trunk of costumes and use it to tell their story.  The London Telegraph gave the performance there five stars. The setting gives this production potentially powerful dramatic appeal dealing with the very human and inhuman mayhem in portions of today’s Africa.

The composer for Breaking the Waves is Missy Mazzoli.  She is an American contemporary composer known for chamber, orchestral, and operatic work.  Her chamber opera, Song from the Uproar was performed last year by the LA Opera.  From 2012-2015, she was composer-in-residence at Opera Philadelphia.  She also has an electro-acoustic band, Victoire, that plays her music.  This will be interesting.  I’ve listened to some of her music on iTunes.  It is hard to envision this as opera.  I was intrigued by a statement she made in a promotional video that she could use music to say things that the words were not saying.  That sounds like opera.  If I can work it out, I will probably try to go, to feed my thirst for new opera.  “Breaking the Waves,” the movie, had strong sexual content involving loyalty and morality, hence the warning label for the opera.  (Hmmm.  Appomattox last year at the Kennedy Center had more than its share of foul language and I don’t remember a warning, but then, it didn’t have sex.)  I applaud Opera Philadelphia for giving young composers a chance.  Let’s support the venture and hope it works.

Tancredi was the great Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini’s first opera seria success. He is better known for his comedic operas, such as the Barber of Seville.  I knew his William Tell Overture from his opera, Guillaume Tell, as a child – it was the theme song for the Lone Ranger and we all quickly learned the scary story of a dad shooting the apple off his son’s head with a bow and arrow.  Tancredi is based on a play, "Tancrede," by Voltaire; it tells the story of star-crossed lovers caught in family and historical conflict between Syracuse (Sicily, not NY) and the Saracens.  Rossini actually wrote two endings, a happy one and a sad one.  The opera seria form of the day required a happy ending, but keeping true to Voltaire’s play required a tragic ending.  The tragic one seems to have survived the test of time.  Too bad, with what is going on in the world today, I think I’d prefer a happy ending.  A big draw for this performance is the major star, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, who according to Mr. Stearns requested this opera, and perhaps surprisingly, though not unusual for Rossini operas, plays our hero, Tancredi, in a pants role.

I have covered Turandot and The Marriage of Figaro previously, also being performed next season by the Virginia Opera and the Washington National Opera, respectively.  Interestingly, the Turandot production features well-known soprano Christine Goerke in the title role.  She starred in the performance I saw at the Met last October.  She was excellent.  Mr. Stearns said her voice was stentorian (I had to look it up).  That adjective certainly also applies to Ms. Blythe in Tancredi.  Turandot offers the chance for the soprano who plays Liu to steal the show; Joyce El-Khoury will play Liu; evidence of her chops is provided by the fact she will play Violetta in La Traviata in a Royal Opera House production next Jan/Feb.  The spectacular staging at the Met was nothing less than performance art.  I’m tempted to go just to see the staging by Opera Phildelphia. Figaro will feature Cecilia Hall as Cherubino, who I very much enjoyed as Ruby in Opera Philadelphia’s Cold Mountain.  If you haven’t seen Figaro lately, go please yourself again. 

Tickets:  First, an admission: I have never run across instructions that I didn’t misunderstand some part of or a form that I didn’t make a mistake filling out, usually signing below the line when I should have signed above, or vice versa.  So when I say I find Opera Philadelphia’s otherwise outstanding website difficult to decipher in regard to tickets, consider my admission.  After considerable effort, I think I have figured it out.  Right now they are only offering subscription packages.  There are two basic packages:  Fixed seat and flexible packages.  However, under the Fixed Seat package there are two series, the Academy Series and the Perelman Theater Series (they call this the Aurora Series), a little confusing to sell this as a package since the Aurora Series only has one opera, Breaking the Waves.  Fixed Seat package subscribers can buy separate tickets for Macbeth at the same time.  Now, for the flexible packages that they call the Select Series, you can choose a package of three or more operas from among the five operas being presented; they will also sell you a flexible package of just two operas.  All package prices are discounted over individual seat prices and offer ticket exchange, a pretty good deal.  Prices for the Opera at the Academy package of three operas range from $51 to $645.  The theater is not small in terms of number of seats, but is cozy and I suspect most seats are good.  If you require extra leg room, I recommend you buy box seats.  I didn’t see any discounts for students, but they are offering a free opera simulcast of Turandot on Independence Mall for the Oct 1 production; registration and tickets are required.  There is also a Gala Opening Celebration if you have the bucks.  Page 22-23 of the season brochure provides a most helpful overview; use full screen mode to read.  Tickets for individual performances go on sale August 1.  If you'd like a person to help with selecting/purchasing packages, call Guest Services at 215-732-8400.