Opera Philadelphia: New name, expanded reach

Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross as Abigaille in "Nabucco," to be staged Sept. 27-Oct. 6 with a free broadcast at Independence Mall on Sept. 28.
Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross as Abigaille in "Nabucco," to be staged Sept. 27-Oct. 6 with a free broadcast at Independence Mall on Sept. 28. (SCOTT SUCHMAN)
Posted: January 29, 2013

Though it's only a matter of two words, Opera Company of Philadelphia's adoption of the simpler moniker "Opera Philadelphia" in its 39th season is full of implications for 2013-14, right down to the cursive of the new logo.

Unveiling an unprecedented range of activities - from a grand-opera production of Verdi's Nabucco to a new Ricky Ian Gordon chamber work starring Frederica von Stade - general director David Devan explained the name change this way:

"Our whole goal is to put opera in the city, and that can mean the Academy of Music, the [Kimmel Center's] Perelman Theater, and site-specific work. It can mean random acts of culture or education programs. In every facet of life opera can find you, and 'company' was a bit of a restriction in communicating that message."

The less-imposing new logo is also expected to lend itself to digital animation, Devan said.

The 2013-14 season announcement being made Tuesday does not include details of a projected collaboration with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, or of out-of-theater opera productions, possibly in a warehouse. Yet accounting for those activities, the organization's budget does not show much of an increase. Fiscal 2013's budget is $9.9 million; 2014's is projected at $10 million.

The two standard-repertoire operas at the Academy of Music are Nabucco (Sept. 27-Oct. 6) with a free broadcast at Independence Mall on Sept. 28, and Mozart's Don Giovanni (April 25-May 4, 2014).

What Devan calls the "adventure slot" at the Academy will be Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar Feb. 7-16, 2014, which the opera company previously co-produced with the Curtis Opera Theatre and the Kimmel Center at the smaller Perelman in 2008.

The "Aurora Series" at the Perelman will consist of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites March 5-9, 2014 (with Curtis and the Kimmel Center) and the Gordon opera, A Coffin in Egypt, June 6-15, 2014, a mono-drama starring Von Stade and based on a play by Horton Foote.

Nabucco reflects a trend toward co-producing, this time with expenses shared by the Minnesota Opera and the Washington National Opera, where the production has already run. Though such alliances can be short-lived when companies have problems coming to artistic agreement, Devan hopes to establish a lasting network based on mutual trust.

"It's not cost cutting but a way to get more resources on the stage for what we spend," Devan said. "We want to do big Verdi, and this a good stake in the ground."

Nabucco's ancient-Egyptian setting requires sets of a certain magnitude, though the Thaddeus Strassberger production, seen at Washington's Kennedy Center, isn't simply big but attempts to recreate what the opera might have looked like at its 1842 La Scala premiere, using painted drops and simulated candlelight.

The challenge of casting often keeps Nabucco off the stage; this production features Romanian baritone Sebastian Catana and Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross.

Ainadamar ("fountain of tears") is a surprise. Though the 2003 piece, about the 1936 murder of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, made an extremely favorable impression here in a chamber-opera setting, it returns - this time at the Academy - due mainly to Opera Philadelphia music director Corrado Rovaris.

After conducting it in Philadelphia, Rovaris led a big production in Spain, where it had never been performed, with a cast featuring flamenco singers as well as opera stars. When Devan and some Philadelphia patrons saw it in 2011, he says, "We were breathless. I believe in the work so much that we can have multiple creative approaches to it."

Dialogues of the Carmelites, a story of nuns guillotined in the French Revolution, would seem to be a candidate for the Academy but is instead in the Perelman, with the hope that it will lend itself to intimate stagecraft.

The Gordon piece signifies the operatic re-emergence of mezzo von Stade, 67. She announced her retirement from opera years ago but was lured back for a piece written for her, in a project originating at the Houston Grand Opera.

A Coffin in Egypt is set in Egypt, Texas, where one Myrtle Bledsoe, age 90, reviews her life. It marks Gordon's return to Philadelphia, where his earlier works The Tibetan Book of the Dead and States of Independence were staged in the 1990s by the American Music Theatre Festival.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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