“Ring” cycle, “Don Giovanni,” “Dead Man Walking” highlight Lyric Opera’s 2019-20 season

Thu Jan 24, 2019 at 1:00 pm

By John von Rhein

Burkhard Fritz faces the dragon in Lyric Opera’s 2018 production of “Siegfried.” Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Depending on how you slice it, the 2019-20 season at Lyric Opera of Chicago will encompass seven main stage productions – or eleven, if you count the four music dramas that make up Wagner’s monumental Ring cycle, which Lyric is presenting as a self-contained series in spring 2020 following the regular season.

The cutback from the standard eight main stage titles to seven next season is no different from the two previous occasions Lyric presented the full Wagner tetralogy, Lyric general director Anthony Freud said in an interview. (Not quite: Although 2004-05, the season of Lyric’s most recent Ring, did indeed comprise seven titles, the company in 1995-96 mounted eight main stage shows in addition to three postseason cycles of the Ring.)

Freud said the new labor contracts signed last fall had no impact on Lyric’s artistic decisions for 2019-20, which he said predated contract negotiations. He also dismissed speculation that broader financial concerns had any impact on the number of 2019-2020 productions.

“This is not Lyric Opera cutting back because we can no longer afford to do eight operas – this is a Ring-specific solution,” he said. 

Lyric’s 65th season will in fact be an anomaly, he said, in that the Ring cycles — running for three consecutive weeks from April 13 to May 3, 2020 – will extend the employment of orchestra and chorus members significantly. Lyric will return to its regular eight-opera main stage schedule in 2020-21, the general director said. That number has remained more or less constant since the 1988-89 season.

“It’s not that the contracts have now driven a change in our approach to the scale of our seasons — it’s the other way around,” Freud said. “What we wanted to achieve, and did achieve, in the negotiations was to bring the number of [guaranteed work] weeks [for the orchestra and chorus] in line with the number of weeks of the season.”

Lyric’s pared-back season precipitated a brief strike by the orchestra in October, when management won cuts to the number of weeks its musicians work and to the number of full time orchestra players. The company’s subscriber base, for many decades the bulwark of sold-out seasons, has taken major hits in recent years, reflecting a trend at other opera companies, symphony orchestras and theater groups across the nation. This comes at a time when ticket sales — even at record high prices — are covering a smaller percentage of overall costs in Chicago and elsewhere than used to be the case.

All of which has prompted Freud to seek out new means — such as Lyric’s annual series of musicals, which sell tens of thousands of tickets — of pulling in new cash and customers. The Depression-era classic 42nd Street is the latest in that series, set for May 29 to June 21 at the Opera House.

Repertoire for the 2019-20 lineup, announced Thursday afternoon, is a judicious and appealing mix of Italian warhorses (Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly), a recent American work (Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Dead Man Walking), a Mozart staple (Don Giovanni), a seldom-heard Verdi opera (Luisa Miller), a Russian grand opera (Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades) and Wagner (Götterdämmerung).

All main stage shows save for Barber, Don Giovanni and Butterfly will be given in new or new-to-Chicago productions. Casts include the usual solid complement of established stars and highly regarded newcomers. The list of conductors also looks strong.

Stand-alone performances of the new Götterdämmerung production conceived by director David Pountney are April 4 and 11. Then Götterdämmerung merges with Pountney’s other Wagner stagings for the Lyric (Das Rheingold, from 2016-2017; Die Walküre from 2017-2018; and Siegfried, presented last fall) for three complete Ring marathons spanning six-seven days each. Dates are April 13-18, April 20-25 and April 27-May 3.

The Lyric will complement its full Ring set with various ancillary activities, including a Wagner spoof by Chicago’s Second City improv troupe, lectures by University of Chicago scholar Martha Nussbaum, discussions and recitals.

Rounding out the season will be Blue, a new American opera by composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist-director Tazewell Thompson, presented in collaboration with Chicago Shakespeare Theater. A co-production with the Glimmerglass and Washington National operas, the chamber opera relates a ripped-from-the-headlines story about an African-American family in which the father, a police officer, must cope with the death of his son, a political activist, at the hands of a fellow cop. The Lyric Unlimited project will run June 19-28, 2020, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.

Added attractions include Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel’s first Chicago recital since 1998, on Feb. 2; and three semi-staged concert performances of “The Three Queens,” a.k.a. the finales to Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux, starring soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. Riccardo Frizza will wield the baton, with Matthew Ozawa directing. Three performances will be given during the week of Dec. 1-7.

Here is a detailed look at the 65th season schedule:

— Opening the season will be a revival of Lyric’s 2013-14 production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), as staged by director and choreographer Rob Ashford. Adam Plachetka will portray Figaro, with Marianne Crebassa as Rosina, Lawrence Brownlee as Count Almaviva and Alessandro Corbelli as Bartolo. Music director Andrew Davis conducts. Eight performances, Sept. 28-Oct. 27.

— Lyric will launch a multi-year series of early – in this case, early middle – Verdi operas with its first presentation in more than three decades of Luisa Miller. (The only previous Lyric performances in 1982 marked the work’s company premiere.) Krassimira Stoyanova will sing the title role, with Joseph Calleja as Rodolfo, Quinn Kelsey as Miller, Christian Van Horn as Walter and Soloman Howard (debut) as Wurm. Enrique Mazzola will conduct, and Francesca Zambello will direct a production from San Francisco Opera. Six performances, Oct. 12-31.

— The belated Lyric debut of Dead Man Walking will bring one of the most successful American operas of recent decades to the Opera House at long last. Composer Heggie and librettist McNally’s adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s 1993 book about her work as spiritual adviser to death row inmates inspired the 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The operatic version has traveled far and wide since its world premiere in San Francisco in 2000. It was heard locally in student productions at DePaul University in 2014 and Northwestern in 2015.

Patricia Racette will portray Sister Helen, with Ryan McKinny (debut) as the convicted murderer Joseph De Rocher and Susan Graham as his mother. (Graham created the role of Sister Helen at the world premiere, when Frederica von Stade sang Mrs. De Rocher.) Nicole Paiement (debut) will conduct, and Leonard Foglia will direct. This Lyric-owned production was previously mounted by Opera Pacific, Michigan Opera Theatre, New York City Opera and other companies. Six performances, Nov. 2-22.

Don Giovanni will return in the staging by Chicago director Robert Falls originally presented here in 2014-15. James Gaffigan will conduct, and Ildar Abdrazakov will portray the dissolute don. Other principals include Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Donna Anna, Amanda Majeski as Donna Elvira, Ying Fang as Zerlina, Ben Bliss as Don Ottavio and Matthew Rose as Leporello. Abdrazakov, Willis-Sørensen, Fang and Bliss will be making Lyric debuts. Nine performances, Nov. 14-Dec. 8.

Madama Butterfly will return in the Michael Grandage staging that debuted here in 2013-14. Louisa Muller will be the revival director. The lovers will be double-cast. Ana María Martínez will share the title role with Lianna Haroutounian, in her Lyric debut. Martinez’s Pinkerton will be Brian Jagde; Haroutounian’s will be Brandon Jovanovich. The cast includes Deborah Nansteel as Suzuki and Anthony Clark Evans as Sharpless. Henrik Nánási will conduct. Ten performances, Feb. 6-March 8.

— Jovanovich will portray the tortured protagonist Gherman in The Queen of Spades (Pique Dame)Other principals include Radvanovsky as Lisa, Jane Henschel as the Countess, Elizabeth DeShong as Polina and Lucas Meachem as Prince Yeletsky. It’s fitting that Davis should preside, since Queen of Spades marked his debut as music director in 2000-01, the only previous season in which Lyric has mounted the Russian masterpiece. Richard Jones’ production originated at Welsh National Opera during Freud’s tenure there as general director. Five performances, Feb. 15-March 1.

— Pountney’s expressly theatrical interpretation of the Ring will close with the magnificent apocalypse of Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). Greeting the end of the world will be Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde, Burkhard Fritz as Siegfried, Stephen Milling as Hagen, Brian Mulligan as Gunther, Mary Elizabeth Williams (debut) as Gutrune and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner as Waltraute. Davis will conduct.

Subscriptions for Lyric’s 2019-20 season go on sale Friday, single tickets in July. Subscribers will receive advance ordering priority for the Ring through April 1. lyricopera.org; call 312-827-5600.

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One Response to ““Ring” cycle, “Don Giovanni,” “Dead Man Walking” highlight Lyric Opera’s 2019-20 season”

  1. Posted Jan 26, 2019 at 10:22 am by John

    After seeing the shockingly bad Boheme this week, I won’t be renewing my subscription for next year.

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