An intriguing season of opera

The Baltimore Sun

The star power of soprano Renee Fleming and Italian crossover sensation Andrea Bocelli, and a resumed Ring Cycle, will help animate Washington National Opera's 2008-2009 season.

The big news, vocally speaking, is the company debut of the sumptuous-voiced, exceptionally popular Fleming, who will sing the title role in a new production of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, a gem from the early 19th-century bel canto repertoire. This will be Fleming's first staged performance of the work in the U.S.

A previous encounter with the opera provoked boos when she performed it in 1998 before the notoriously volcanic public at La Scala in Milan, Italy. Elsewhere, of course, the singer tends to be rapturously received, which is likely to happen when she appears at the Kennedy Center in November.

The conductor for Lucrezia Borgia will be Washington National Opera general director Placido Domingo, the preeminent tenor who has sung several times with Fleming - "my dear colleague," he called her in a statement yesterday. Sondra Radvanovsky will alternate with her in the title role. John Pascoe will direct and design.

Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes will receive its first Washington National production (March/April 2009). Domingo, recalling the company's memorable staging of Britten's Billy Budd in 2004, said, "It is natural that we should add what many regard as the composer's finest achievement - especially when we have tenor Christopher Ventris for the difficult and complex title role."

Also in the Grimes cast is the extraordinary soprano Patricia Racette, who had a triumph last season in Janacek's Jenufa.

The company's first attempt at the complete Ring Cycle by Wagner will get back on track next season, after financial pressures caused a year's postponement. The third installment in the cycle, Siegfried, will continue director Francesca Zambello's intriguing, Americanized take on this cornerstone of German opera (May 2009). Company music director Heinz Fricke will conduct. Par Lindskog will sing the title role, with Alan Held as the Wanderer and Gordon Hawkins as Alberich.

Wagnerites will want to note that Gotterdammerung, the final piece in the Ring, will be unveiled in November 2009, when the entire four-opera Cycle will be presented. Held (Wotan/Wanderer), Ventris (Siegmund), Hawkins (Alberich), Anja Kampe (Sieglinde), Ian Storey (Siegfried) and Elizabeth Bishop (Fricka) are among the featured artists.

Back to 2008-2009. Two works by Bizet don't typically turn up in a single season anywhere, but Washington National Opera will offer such a double dose. The season was already scheduled to contain The Pearl Fishers (Sep- tember/October) when word reached the company that a Zambello production of Carmen from London's Royal Opera House and the Norwegian National Opera was available for import.

As Domingo explained it: "Almost simultaneously, we learned that Denyce Graves, one of the foremost interpreters of [Carmen], was also available. Since I am a fervent believer that one should always be flexible in determining the structure of a season, I transferred another opera to a future season and grabbed the opportunity to present one of the most beloved of all operas in its place." Carmen will be offered this November.

Italian favorites round out the season. Verdi's La Traviata, in a production directed by Domingo's wife, Marta, will open the season in September with Elizabeth Futral and Arturo Chacon-Cruz. And Puccini's extravagant Turandot will be back (May 2009), this time with Maria Guleghina and Sylvie Valayre sharing the torturous title role. Keri-Lynn Wilson will conduct.

Bocelli will be heard in a classical setting as one of four soloists with the Washington National Opera orchestra and chorus in one of Rossini's most ingratiating sacred works, Petite Messe Solonnelle (a "small, solemn Mass" that is neither). Domingo will conduct two performances of this nonsubscription event in November.

For more information, call 202-295-2400 or 800-876-7372.

Nathan Gunn recital

Bit by bit, the Shriver Hall Concert Series has been trying to break down local resistance to vocal recitals, a noble cause to be sure. The latest singer to aid this effort is Nathan Gunn, the noted Indiana-born baritone who made his Shriver debut in an unusual, captivating program Sunday night.

He divided the program between German-language classics and American songs, most of the latter folksy in nature. Gunn treated all the material as equal in musical and textual value, communicating in a natural, ingratiating style and revealing a considerable range of vocal color.

Accompanied with technical finesse, expressive nuance and second-nature timing by his wife, pianist Julie Gunn, the singer did particularly eloquent work in a group of Schubert songs. Two of Papageno's arias from Mozart's The Magic Flute were delivered with abundant charm.

In Benjamin Moore's retro-romantic settings of Joyce and Yeats poems, Gunn found the poetic center of melody and verse alike. His soft high note at the end of "In the dark pine-wood" was exquisite. A couple of tunes by eclectic singer/composer Tom Waits and imaginative songs by Charles Ives inspired vivid performances.

In many ways, the recital's peak came quietly at the end, in the haunting Civil War song "Tenting Tonight," with its wish "for the right to see the dawn of peace." Gunn's understated delivery struck a perfect, timeless note.

Alsop on Rose

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop will be a guest on Charlie Rose tonight. The broadcast is set for 11 p.m. on WETA, Channel 26.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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