The Spanish Expedition

Cincinnati Opera’s Spanish-themed season offers creative, classic selections

Jun 10, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Cincinnati Opera’s summer season isn’t quite virtual travel, but you can experience Spain at four pivotal moments in its long history. Three operas are standard repertoire and one contemporary work has its regional premiere. And all were written by foreigners.

“There’s a rich Spanish tradition of literature but it just didn’t make (it) into opera,” says Cincinnati Opera’s artistic director Evans Mirageas. “It took the foreigners to bring Spanish culture to the world’s attention through the art of opera.”

So what was the fascination for those composers? Geography, for starters. Nineteenth-century Spain was isolated enough to be mysterious and its rugged landscapes, hard-driving dance rhythms and exotic inhabitants inspired some of the world’s most famous music that ultimately defined Spain. The season opens with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, deemed “the perfect opera” for its witty libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte and its brilliant score. French author Pierre de Beaumarchais’ play was the source material, a comedy that Napoleon called “the first shot of the Revolution.”

The action is set in Seville although it could easily be 18th century suburban Paris. Figaro, the wily hero of The Barber of Seville, and his equally clever fiancée Susanna are about to celebrate their wedding, but first they have to stop Figaro’s boss, Count Almaviva, from claiming his feudal right to bed Susanna. The Countess joins the plot and the “crazy day” resolves happily.

The stellar cast features barihunk Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the libidinous Count; acclaimed soprano Nicole Cabell, now a major star at the Metropolitan Opera, as the Countess; New Zealander Jonathan Lemalu in his U.S. role debut as Figaro; and British soprano Sarah Tynan, who also makes a U.S. debut as Susanna.

Eminent conductor Sir Roger Norrington, who rarely works outside of Europe, will be in the pit, and Scottish director James Alexander debuts as stage director.

If Figaro is Mozart’s perfect opera, Don Carlo is considered to be Verdi’s finest work, filled with intense drama, intimacy and spectacle. Set in the 16th century, the action triangulates around a dysfunctional father-son relationship, love subjugated to realities of politics, and Christianity leached of compassion with the Spanish Inquisition firmly in control.

Esteemed veterans and exciting newcomers are in the cast, headed by bass James Morris as King Phillip II and soprano Angela Brown as Elisabetta, first engaged to Don Carlo and now married to Phillip. Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, an acclaimed performer at the Cincinnati May Festival and the Metropolitan Opera, makes her debut as Princess Eboli. Also making their debuts are tenor Frank Porretta as Don Carlo and Italian Marco Caria as Roderigo. Richard Buckley conducts and former CCM Opera Chair Sandra Bernhard directs.

The season’s most intriguing work is Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, a work premiered in 2003 at Tanglewood and staged at Santa Fe in 2005. A story with contemporary resonance and a fascinating score with electronic elements offer compelling entry points for both opera newcomers and aficionados.

The opera follows the gay Spanish poet Federico García Lorca’s early play Mariana Pineda, a drama that eerily foretells his own death at the hands of Francisco Franco’s troops in 1936. A Spanish freedom fighter executed in 1834, Mariana Pineda’s story meshes with those of Lorca himself and his friend and artistic partner, the actress Margarita Xirgu.

“It has such a potent, dreamlike quality that can just suck you in,” says Mirageas, who was “blown out of my seat at that premiere in 2003. The opera is quite cinematic with its use of flashbacks and, of course, the score is a work of genius.”

The son of Eastern European Jews who immigrated to Argentina, Golijov’s music assimilates the soundscapes of a peripatetic life. Hebrew cantillation, klezmer, Argentine tango, currents of popular dance music and 19th century Romantic opera fuse seamlessly.

One of Ainadamar’s most important performers is the laptop player, responsible for creating sound effects ranging from falling water and galloping horses to the bullets and falling cartridges that kill Lorca — a sound that morphs into a flamenco rhythm.

The sound design won’t faze people in their twenties or thirties, says Mirageas. “That’s part of their sonic landscape. And for more experienced opera audiences, there are moments that rival classic operas like Strauss’s Rosenkavalier.

Making a long overdue debut is Grammy-winning soprano Dawn Upshaw as Margarita. Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor sings Lorca, and flamenco singer Jesus Montoya is Lorca’s murderer Ruiz Alonso. Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who led the Santa Fe premiere, conducts. CCM alum Jose Maria Condemi directs.

The season ends where it begins, in Seville, with Georges Bizet’s Carmen and one can only hope that Mirageas and his creative team eradicate memories of the earlier disappointing productions. Mezzosoprano Ruxandra Donose returns in her role debut as the tempestuous gypsy. Tenor William Burden is her doomed demented lover Don José and the swaggering toreador Escamillo is sung by yet another barihunk and Metropolitan Opera star, Dwayne Croft. Look for Cincinnati Shakespeare’s artistic director Brian Isaac Phillips as tavern owner Lilas Pastia. Andreas Delfs makes his local conducting debut and Mark Streshinsky directs.

Like virtually every local arts organization, Cincinnati Opera has cut its budget, but Mirageas is adamant that “the art not be compromised,” a commitment borne out by the artistic and creative lineups. If travel to Spain is off-budget this year, CO’s Spanish season and a pitcher of sangria are decent alternatives.

Cincinnati Opera’s summer season begins with The Marriage of Figaro Thursday and Saturday at Music Hall. For more details, go to Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.