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This September, Boston Proves It's Still An Opera Town With Big Names And Even Bigger Productions

Singer Renée Fleming will be performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Richard Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier." (Courtesy Andrew Eccles Decca)closemore
Singer Renée Fleming will be performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Richard Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier." (Courtesy Andrew Eccles Decca)

They say Boston isn’t an opera town, and September isn’t usually a big opera month. Most companies need more time to prepare for performances, so what operas we get usually come later in the season. But not this year.


"Ouroboros Trilogy" | ArtsEmerson, Sept. 10-17

The first major event of the classical music season (presented by ArtsEmerson) is one of the largest: a trilogy of operas, two of which are world premieres. Under the overall title of “Ouroboros Trilogy” (the circular image of the snake eating its own tail — an ancient Greek symbol of life, death and rebirth), the project is really the brainchild of Cerise Lim Jacobs, a retired lawyer born in Singapore, who wrote the librettos for all three operas, basing them on Chinese legends.

“Naga,” one of the premieres, deals with the dangerous encounter between a monk and the mysterious, sexually alluring figure of the White Snake. The music is by the Boston composer and Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble director Scott Wheeler, whose latest CDs are the Bridge recording “Portraits and Tributes” with the superb pianist Donald Berman, and a section on an Albany recording called “Songs to Fill the Void” with baritone Robert Barefield. Wheeler’s major musical influences are Charles Ives and his teacher Virgil Thomson, and I’ve been a particular fan of his operatic jeux d’esprit “The Construction of Boston.”

Here are some YouTube excerpts from the terrific Naxos recording:

The other new opera “Gilgamesh,” composed by Paola Prestini, is about the half-demon son of Madame White Snake. Prestini, a New Yorker and Juilliard graduate who was born in Italy and grew up near the Mexican border, should be a welcome addition to the Boston musical scene. Here she is talking about her life and career with a selection of her music:

The central opera, and the earliest, is Chinese-American composer Zhou Long’s “Madame White Snake,” based on the legend of the snake who falls in love and turns herself, tragically, into a real woman. The opera was written for the now defunct Opera Boston, which presented it in 2010. I had very mixed feelings about its familiar combination of Chinese and Western musical styles and the stilted diction of the libretto, but the Pulitzer Prize committee didn’t agree with me and awarded it the 2011 prize for music. This is Opera Boston’s promo video for the original production:

And here’s soprano Ying Huang, the original Madame White Snake, accompanied by pianist Ken Noda, singing her "Awakening Aria":

The cast for the trilogy includes two of the star countertenors of our day. In "Madame White Snake," Michael Maniaci reprises the role he created of the White Snake’s woman servant and former lover. In both "Naga" and "Gilgamesh," that character will be played by the Met’s Anthony Roth Costanzo. Each opera will have a different Madame White Snake.

On both Sept. 10 and 17 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, beginning at 11 a.m. there will be performances of all three operas, though in two different orders. Each opera will get a separate showing during the evening performances Sept. 13-15. There are special subscriptions for either all three operas or all nine performances.


"Dimitrij" | Odyssey Opera, Sept. 16

On Friday, Sept. 16 at Jordan Hall, Odyssey Opera will present its annual concert performance of an opera that’s too big for most companies to stage. So far, there have been exciting, sold-out versions of Wagner’s epic “Rienzi,” Korngold’s orgasmic “Die Tote Stadt,” and Massenet’s Technicolor “Le Cid.” This year’s concert opera may be the most unusual. It’s the first Boston performance of Dvořák’s grand opera, “Dimitrij,” a sort of sequel to Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” — a vast and colorful national canvas about what happens in Russia after the death of Czar Boris. Sung in Czech, it will feature leading artists from Czech opera new to Boston and a large chorus.

Listen to what Odyssey’s music director Gil Rose has to say about it:

And here is the impressive Czech lyric/heroic tenor Aleš Briscein, who sings the title role, in a famous aria from Wagner’s “Lohengrin”:


"Carmen" | Boston Lyric Opera, Sept. 23, 25, 30 and Oct. 2

A week later, Boston Lyric Opera brings its latest version of Bizet’s “Carmen” to — of all places — the Opera House, which hasn’t seen a full-fledged opera in quite some time. (It's also the concluding event of BLO's "40 Days of Opera" in honor of the company's 40th season.) This will be the BLO’s fourth “Carmen” since 1994, when the incandescent Lorraine Hunt Lieberson gave life and depth to the title role. In 2002, thousands of people attended the BLO’s “Carmen on the Common” (an “Aida on the Common” was supposed to follow, but there wasn’t enough money). And in 2009, BLO shortchanged the audience by making significant musical cuts.

This latest “Carmen” production (Sept. 23, 25, 30 and Oct. 2) already has a history. It will be the first time a Boston audience will get to see anything by the controversial Catalan director Calixto Bieito, as revived by Joan Anton Rechi (who recently oversaw the American debut of this 1999 production in San Francisco where it got quite a range of reviews). Updated to the late 20th-century and moved from Seville to Spain’s North African city of Ceuta, this comes with a warning: “Please note: This production contains violence, nudity and suggestive behavior. Parental discretion is advised.”

The role of Carmen will be sung here by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, who sang Donna Elvira in BLO’s 2015 production of “Don Giovanni.” In the Metropolitan Opera’s “Carmen,” she appeared in the smaller role of the Gypsy Mercédès. Last year, she was well received playing the title role in Savannah. Here’s a clip of her singing Vitellia’s major aria from Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito”:

You can hear excerpts from “Carmen” by Maria Callas and Jonas Kaufmann on the BLO website.


"Der Rosenkavalier" | Boston Symphony Orchestra, Sept. 29 and Oct. 1

And leave it to the Boston Symphony Orchestra to put the cherry on top of this mini opera season (mit schlag). Andris Nelsons — especially admired here for his two Richard Strauss operas (“Salome” and “Elektra”) — will be conducting the most beloved of all Strauss operas, “Der Rosenkavalier,” with no less than super-diva Renée Fleming in one of her signature roles, the glamorous but aging Marschallin. Fleming has recently announced that her upcoming Strauss performances this season at Covent Garden and the Met “will be my last mainstream opera appearances.”

At the BSO, she’ll be joined by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in the “trouser role” of her young and soon-to-be former lover Octavian. Coloratura soprano Erin Morley, the Met’s current Sophie of choice, plays the ingénue for whom Octavian abandons the Marschallin. The final trio, in which Octavian gives up his love for the Marschallin and his ensuing love duet with Sophie, are among the most luscious pieces of music for women’s voices in all of opera. The libretto by poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal is half farce, half bittersweet romance. Between the trio and the duet, Sophie’s father says innocently to the Marschallin, “Young people are just like that!” to which the Marschallin responds with knowing resignation and irony, “Ja, ja.”

Some of the most sublime singing you will ever hear is in this performance of the “Rosenkavalier” trio and duet from a 1992 concert in Berlin, with the great conductor Claudio Abbado leading Fleming, Kathleen Battle and Frederica von Stade.

There are only two performances at Symphony Hall, Sept. 29 and Oct. 1, at 7 p.m., and there are unlikely to be any empty seats.

Who says Boston isn’t an opera town?

Lloyd Schwartz Contributing arts critic
Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and senior editor of Classical Music for New York Arts.

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