Monday, December 5, 2005

In a press conference yesterday, Placido Domingo announced the Washington National Opera’s groundbreaking 2006-2007 season. In addition to the first North American performances of Nicholas Maw’s new opera “Sophie’s Choice,” the company will present its first-ever performances of Leos Janacek’s tragic opera, “Jenufa,” sung in the original Czech.

In an unusual double bill, Mr. Domingo has paired Puccini’s lighthearted one-act “Gianni Schicci” with Bela Bartok’s spooky mini-opera “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle,” both directed by William Friedkin, who won early fame as director of the film “The Exorcist.” An early Bartok masterpiece, “Bluebeard” weaves the musical tale of a legendary serial murderer who dispatches a series of wives for daring to look into a forbidden secret room.

The twinning of dark drama with light short opera is the “perfect combination” for Mr. Friedkin’s directorial style, according to Mr. Domingo. Renowned bass Samuel Ramey and Washington’s own mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, are featured in this double-bill along with young discovery, soprano Amanda Squitieri.

As part of its evolving “Ring” cycle, the company will reprise its smash “Die Walkure” pairing of Placido Domingo and a young, German phenom, soprano Anja Kampe, who rocketed to international renown after her 2003 Constitution Hall performances as Sieglinde, opposite Mr. Domingo’s Siegmund. This production will be directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by the company’s music director, Heinz Fricke. The first “Ring” opera, “Das Rheingold” (“The Rhine Gold”), is the prequel to “Walkure” and will be performed in the spring of 2006 as part of the current season.

For the first time ever, the company’s annual press conference was conducted in cyberspace, with audio-video via computer hookup and audio via teleconferencing. When asked about this unusual arrangement, Mr. Domingo, who was speaking from New York, said he regarded this as “a natural way of reaching the press” in the 21st century. “Sophie’s Choice” composer Nicholas Maw and “Jenufa” director David Alden were also able to participate in the conference from two locations in England.

The conference was part of the company’s continuing push into the technological arena, as evidenced by WNO’s recent, highly successful free Mall simulcast of “Porgy and Bess” last month, according to press conference host John Pohanka. Mr. Domingo agreed, stating that the company is “seriously considering” more simulcasts as “an important part of our future.”

Born in England in 1935, “Sophie’s Choice” composer Nicholas Maw has lived in Washington for years and teaches at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory. In his early days, he studied composition in Paris with Arnold Schoenberg’s pupil Max Deutsch, and was strongly influenced by Mr. Schoenberg’s ideas. But he soon developed his own compositional style, known among some critics as “post-modern romantic,” and his work has found favor both in the concert hall and on numerous CDs — rare for a contemporary classical composer. His music has frequently been championed by current NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin.

Mr. Maw said he’d been pushed by a friend many years ago to view a video of the screen adaptation of “Sophie’s Choice,” William Styron’s tragic novel. “I got a copy of the film and watched it on TV and was overwhelmed,” he said. “What a magnificent subject for an opera.” Working from Mr. Styron’s novel, Mr. Maw wrote the libretto and composed the opera over many years. It was premiered to great acclaim in London in 2002.

Along with the composer’s Washington connection, these WNO performances of Mr. Maw’s opera will have an additional area flavor, as incoming Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Marin Alsop will conduct. The production will feature original London cast members Angelika Kirchschlager (Sophie), Rod Gilfry (Nathan), Gordon Gietz (Stingo) and Dale Duesing (Narrator).

Additional operas in the upcoming season include a reprise of the company’s brilliant Teatr Wielki-National Opera (Warsaw) production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” alternating Chinese sopranos Hui He and Xiu Wei Sun in the title role, and maestro Domingo and Eugene Kohn at the podium; Donizetti’s delightful comic opera “La Fille du Regiment,” featuring soprano Stefania Bonfadelli as Marie with Riccardo Frizza conducting; and Verdi’s “Macbeth” conducted by Renato Palumbo with Lado Ataneli and Paoletta Marrocu as Shakespeare’s doomed pair of regicides.

Mr. Domingo also announced that on Aug. 5 and 6, 2006, the WNO will inaugurate its first-ever “Family Opera.” Planned to be an annual event, this summer’s leadoff event will be the East Coast premiere of Stephen Mager and Elkhanah Pulitzer’s “Dream of the Pacific,” a one-act opera based on the Lewis and Clark expedition which will help celebrate the bicentennial of that amazing transcontinental trek. The performances will be staged at Bethesda’s Round House Theater and will tie together the company’s various programs for young children and teenagers along with singers from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.

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