Seattle Opera: looking ahead

In announcing its 2008-09 season Seattle Opera is upping the ante and showing some possible aspects of what the company will be like after Speight Jenkins retires.
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Janice Baird as Elektra. (Patrice Nin)

In announcing its 2008-09 season Seattle Opera is upping the ante and showing some possible aspects of what the company will be like after Speight Jenkins retires.

Seattle Opera has just unveiled its plans for the 2008-09 season, which will mark general director Speight Jenkins's 25th year with the company. The company is raising the stakes for the next season, an encouraging sign after the cautious present season. The season opens with an especially action-packed August, including Verdi's Aida (characterized by Jenkins in a press release as "the grandest of all grand operas"), a recital by tenor Ben Heppner, and a return of the International Wagner Competition. The Aida production–not given in Seattle since 1992--will use sets from San Diego Opera and costumes from Dallas Opera. (Full details, including all cast lists, can be found here.) The season will also present Richard Strauss's gripping one-act Elektra (a revival of the company's own production), Bizet's The Pearl Fishers (a production from Philadelphia Opera), a double bill comprised of Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle and Schoenberg's Erwartung (Robert Lepage's production for Canadian Opera Company), and, as season finale, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro (a new production). In comparison with the current season's distressingly narrow spectrum (three Italian operas–including the war horses Pagliacci and Tosca--among a total of five productions), the upcoming plans are positively kaleidoscopic in variety. I'm especially intrigued by the early-modernist double bill of Bartók/Schoenberg (even if the company has lost a bit of the edge of doing its first Bluebeard by memories of last year's Seattle Symphony-Dale Chilhuly collaboration in a concert performance). The season closer will also be a key event for those thinking about Jenkins's eventual successor, since it showcases the work of Peter Kazaras, the savvy artistic director of the company's Young Artists Program. In fact, this Mozart production will be an expansion of the version Kazaras originally conceived and directed for the Young Artists Program in 2005. Other indicators of the future: Asher Fisch, recently named "principal guest conductor" for Seattle Opera, will be on hand in August to accompany Heppner in his recital (on the piano) and to conduct for the Wagner Competition. Jane Eaglen, former glory of Seattle Opera, is nowhere in sight, while we'll get a good sample of Janice Baird, the soprano announced to replace Eaglen in the next (2009) Ring, when she takes on the extremely taxing title role of Strauss's Elektra. Meanwhile, new company favorite Mariusz Kwiecien (a killer Don Giovanni) returns as Almaviva in Figaro, which will be sure to be a highlight. But for all the interesting array of repertory, and despite Jenkins's confident assertion that "all the ingredients for the exciting musical and theatrical journey that people have come to expect from Seattle Opera" are in place, a number of concerns remain. Asher Fisch's presence has been a great boon to the company in recent seasons, given the serious need for a stabilizing, coherent force in the pit. What a shame, then, that he won't actually be conducting a single production. And given the company's uneven results with Verdi productions in recent seasons, a mix-and-match Aida could spell trouble.


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