One intriguing opera in a new venue plus three warhorses equals Cincinnati Opera’s summer season. Factor in casts featuring many of opera’s most exciting and acclaimed young singers, along with young directors and acclaimed conductors, and the formula may come up a winner.
The season kicks off with Mozart’s bad boy, Don Giovanni (June 13 and 15, Music Hall), the equal opportunity seducer who manages to fill his last day on earth with murder, rape, assault and bigamy, while coming on to three women. The Don is also a perverse life force whose magnetism remains irresistible to contemporary audiences. When he’s finally dragged down under, most of us would rather be wherever he is.
Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte called Don Giovanni a “comic drama,” and CO’s production plays out on a game board, complete with trap doors. Director Tomer Zvulun returns after his acclaimed 2011 staging of The Magic Flute. The score is pure genius; Mozart’s brilliance conveys wit, wisdom and ambiguity, under the direction of Brazilian maestro Roberto Minczuk.
The stellar cast includes baritone Lucas Meacham, making his CO debut as Giovanni, a role he’s performed in Santa Fe, N.M., San Francisco and Glyndebourne, England. Judging from his website, he’ll be compelling and captivating. Angela Meade sings Donna Anna, obsessed with avenging her father’s murder by the Don. Since winning the 2007 Met Auditions (she’s featured in the documentary The Audition), Meade has appeared in leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera, garnering raves for her gleaming, dramatic soprano. Returning artists include soprano Nicole Cabell as the manic Donna Elvira and Burak Bilgili as the Don’s long-suffering servant, Leporello.
Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (June 27 and 29, Music Hall) is a bittersweet comedy about the thirtysomething Marschallin whose young lover, Octavian, falls for the adolescent Sophie. Aging has never been more poignantly rendered, and librettist Hugo von Hoffmansthal threw in jabs at class consciousness and slapstick. Strauss adored the female voice, and the final trio for two sopranos and a mezzo-soprano is one of the most sublime ensembles ever written. The entire score revels in sensuality and eroticism: Strauss was justifiably proud that the orgasmic opening prelude got past Viennese censors.
Soprano Twyla Robinson takes on the sympathetic and self-aware Marschallin, a role she’s performed in San Diego.
Robinson’s rich, velvety tone and expressive range impressed me earlier this spring when she was here for a run-through of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Morning Star. Ruxandra Donose returns to sing Octavian, the impetuous, lovestruck boy who will undoubtedly grow up to become Count Almaviva from The Marriage of Figaro. Sarah Coburn’s delicate lyric soprano and her demure stage presence are ideally suited for Sophie. Conductor Christof Perick makes his company debut, and Chris Alexander, who masterfully staged the forces for Die Meistersinger, directs.
The next offering moves one block down the street and a century forward, musically. Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei (July 11, 14, 17, 19 and 21, The School for Creative & Performing Arts) inaugurates CO2, an initiative “to explore new repertoire in smaller venues and engage audiences with innovative productions,” according to CEO Patricia Beggs. CO officials refer to the Opera Campus, which includes SCPA and Memorial Hall. These sites are welcome alternatives for works like Galileo, which runs for five performances at SCPA’s Corbett Theater, one of the area’s best venues, featuring superb acoustics, the latest lighting and audio technology and seating for 750.
Galileo is a meditation on genius, the collision of scientific inquiry and religious dogma, and the power of faith. Moving backward in time, the aged Galileo reflects on his discoveries and the Church’s relentless persecution, naming him a heretic for proposing that the earth revolves around the sun. First performed in 2002, the score is one of Glass’s most accessible, far from the repetitive minimalism of his first opera, Einstein on the Beach. Glass created the libretto with innovative director Mary Zimmerman, using letters from Galileo and period documents.
Tenor Richard Troxell sings Old Galileo, a role he performed last year for Oregon Opera. Baritone Andrew Garland appears as Young Galileo; the CCM alum has a busy career in opera and as a recitalist. Conductor Kelly Kuo makes his CO debut, but he’s no stranger to Cincinnati — he was formerly the Chamber Orchestra’s assistant conductor. Ted Huffman also makes his debut as stage director. A graduate of Yale and San Francisco Opera’s Merola program, Huffman has staged opera (including world premieres) across the U.S. and Europe.
This is the bicentennial year for Italian grand maestro Giuseppe Verdi, so what better opera to close out CO’s season than Aida (July 18, 20, 26 and 28, Music Hall), the work that embodies Grand Opera with its outsized crowd scene, massed choruses and some of opera’s most famous music. Despite the Grand Opera tag, Aida is more of a chamber piece: most scenes have only two or three singers onstage. The exceptions are certainly major ones and the Triumphal March scene will have the requisite spear-carriers and animals.
Latonia Moore makes a highly anticipated debut as the doomed Ethiopian princess. I’ve been waiting to hear her live since her Metropolitan Opera debut in March 2012, when she filled in for an indisposed soprano and triumphed as Aida. Her voice was a revelation: creamy, expressive and thrilling. Formidable mezzo Michelle DeYoung is the Egyptian princess Amneris, Aida’s rival for the ardent, general Radames, sung by Antonello Palombi; Gordon Hawkins is Aida’s vengeful father, Amonasro. CO revives the 2007 production, staged by Bliss Herbert. Carlo Rizzi conducts.
Local color alert: Cincinnati native Alexandra Schoeny is the season’s artist-in-residence and sings supporting roles in all four productions.
The season’s remarkable talent is matched by CO’s commitment to the community, with free concerts at the Cincinnati Zoo and Washington Park prior to the season’s opening and an additional venue for the popular Opera Goes to Church and Opera Goes to Temple series, which sold out in a matter of hours.
Helpful hint to newbies: buy tickets in Music Hall’s nosebleed, better known as the gallery. They’re cheaper, the acoustics are great and, unless you’re way on the side, you’ll see everything. There are no bad seats at SCPA.
CINCINNATI OPERA’s season opens Thursday and continues through July 28. Tickets: 513-241-2742 or cincinnatiopera.org.