- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2008

The upcoming season offers a bewildering array of tempting choices for area fans of classical music and opera - and ticket prices remain surprisingly reasonable.

Heading up our highlights, the Washington National Opera is going out of its way to bring star power to the Kennedy Center this fall. This weekend, the company weighs in with Giuseppe Verdi’s ever-popular “La Traviata,” directed by Marta Domingo and starring a Washington favorite, soprano Elizabeth Futral, in the title role. Rumor has it that tickets to this one are as scarce as those legendary hens’ teeth.

Not to worry. Continuing its recent tradition of offering free outdoor opera to those who can’t squeeze into the Kennedy Center’s Opera House - including those who love a bargain - WNO will simulcast its opening-night performance this year in the friendly confines of Nationals Park in Southwest.

On Nov. 1, the company will mount Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia,” featuring Renee Fleming as the unpleasant title character. Hot young heartthrob tenor Vittorio Grigolo also stars as the unfortunate Gennaro.

A week later, Washington’s own Denyce Graves returns home to star in her signature role of “Carmen.” It’s the first time she has sung Georges Bizet’s classic for WNO since the mid-1990s, and if you want to see her, you had best get on the phone right now.

If you still can’t get enough Bizet, WNO also will present the composer’s “Pearl Fishers,” not often heard in these precincts. Opening night is Sept. 20.

Lest we forget, WNO will offer two concert performances (Nov. 21 and 22) of Gioachino Rossini’s late, sacred masterpiece “Petite Messe Solennelle” (roughly, “Brief Solemn Mass”) featuring popular tenor Andrea Bocelli, with the company’s general director, Placido Domingo, at the helm of the WNO orchestra.

After a winter hiatus, Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot” and the company’s delayed production of Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried” wrap up the spring stanza of the 2008-09 season. The latter serves as a prelude to WNO’s first-ever complete Ring Cycle, to be staged next fall.

Over in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the National Symphony Orchestra will perform this season without a permanent music director, following the recent departure of longtime maestro Leonard Slatkin, who is heading up the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Ivan Fischer is serving as the ensemble’s principal conductor, having turned down the full-time job himself. Maestro Fischer will have a great opportunity to showcase his considerable skills when he conducts an October performance of Gustav Mahler’s gigantic, world-encompassing Symphony No. 3. The performance also features the local talents of the University of Maryland Concert Choir and the Children’s Chorus of Washington.

At the end of October, Mr. Fischer and the NSO will warm up area Ring fans with an all-Wagner concert featuring music from the Ring Cycle as well as music from “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” and “Tristan und Isolde.”

Under the baton of Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) has increasingly become a major presence in Montgomery County’s beautiful Strathmore facility. Miss Alsop has been a champion of new and relatively new American music. She will emphasize that predilection as she revives Leonard Bernstein’s still controversial “Mass” on Oct. 26 at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, in the same building where it debuted some 37 years ago. (It also will be performed in Baltimore and at Carnegie Hall.) Commissioned as part of the Kennedy Center’s grand opening, “Mass” is an exuberant extravaganza featuring musicians, players, dancers and, frankly, anyone else Mr. Bernstein could think to include.

Based loosely on the Catholic Mass, Mr. Bernstein’s vision more closely resembles a production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar” as re-imagined by P.T. Barnum. While the work has its partisans, it was not a success in its debut, in part because of its peculiar liberation-theology message and the liberties it took with the Roman liturgy. It will be interesting to see a live performance of this work freed by the passage of time from its late-1960s social context.

Washington’s numerous smaller companies and ensembles also will be hard at work this fall, and it’s impossible to cover them all. Highlights: the In Series’ long-awaited return to the newly renovated Source this fall for an all-Mozart program Sept. 21 through 29, followed by “Fallen Angels,” its latest cabaret production. The latter debuts on Oct. 11 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Northeast and features the music of Brahms and Wagner, German cabaret, World War I love songs, and a guest appearance by the Washington Ballet.

Finally, back in action is the always exciting Washington Concert Opera, which opens its season Nov. 9 at Lisner Auditorium with Donizetti’s infrequently heard “Maria Padilla.” Spectacular singing in a concert setting is this ensemble’s reliable calling card, and “Maria Padilla” should prove no exception.

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