The star tenor in Parsifal leads a season that includes Nicole Car, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Emma Matthews and Ermonela Jaho.

The superstar tenor is back, and this time he means Wagner. Opera Australia have announced today that Jonas Kaufmann will make his operatic debut in concert performances of Wagner’s last, and some would say greatest opera, Parsifal. Other season highlights will include Nicole Car in Massenet’s Thaïs, operatic debuts from Ermonela Jaho, Greta Bradman, Danielle de Niese, and Saimir Pirgu, the return of legendary bass Ferruccio Furlanetto and new productions of Cav and Pag, The Merry Widow and a genuine rarity, Szymanowski’s sensuous historical epic, King Roger.

Kaufmann in the Met’s Parsifal

“There are some pieces where it doesn’t feel like a performance anymore, it feels like a religious experience, and that’s what I feel like with Parsifal,” says a clearly delighted Lyndon Terracini chatting about the new season in his office at the Opera Centre in Surry Hills. “When it works, it’s just this incredible thing, where time becomes irrelevant. I really don’t know how else to describe it except to say that it’s for me it’s one of the most sublime creations in the history of not only Western music but in the history of art. I don’t know how a human being could put a piece like that together.”

Kaufmann has made the “pure fool” who redeems the Knights of the Holy Grail in Wagner’s final masterpiece into something of a signature role, performing it at the Met and all over Europe. He’ll be joined in his OA performances by the excellent Korean bass Kwangchoul Youn as the faithful Gurnemanz and three Australian singers: Jacqueline Dark as the doomed temptress Kundry, Michael Honeyman as the tortured, wounded King Amfortas and Warwick Fyfe as the evil sorcerer Klingsor.

“I actually think it’s his best part,” Terracini says of Kaufmann. “From a purely vocal point of view, it just sits in the right place for him. And that allows him to be able to do whatever he wants with it. He can play with the text, use the text and when the big moments are coming he knows they’re coming and he builds them in an incredible way so that when the climax is there ‘boom!’ – and you can only do that when you feel absolutely at home in the role. And the sound is what you expect a Parsifal to sound like. It can be gentle, but it’s incredibly beautiful and heroic.” 

Danielle de Niese in La Calisto at Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper

The other international star headed south will be more of a homecoming. Australian-born, but since her marriage to Glyndebourne’s chief Gus Christie very much British-based, Danielle de Niese will star in a new production of Lehár’s The Merry Widow to open in Melbourne. Director and choreographer Graeme Murphy will make a welcome return to the company to create a new staging for a cast that will include American baritone Rodney Gilfrey as Count Danilow. “When we first started talking about this Widow about two years ago, the idea was not to get caught up in that clichéd operetta thing,” Terracini explains. “It will play like a musical and have a Great Gatsby feel to it that’s incredibly elegant and beautiful and yet really runs. Danielle is very much a party girl and she is really up for it – that’s what she wants to do and I think she’ll be great.” 

There’s more operetta and musicals on the bill for 2017 as Melbourne gets a season of Dame Julie Andrews’ production of My Fair Lady, set to open in Sydney next month, while Robert Greene and director Dean Bryant are set to plunder the repertoire to create a pasticcio operetta in the style of a French farce that will go by the name of Two Weddings, One Bride. With the genre’s propensity for well-crafted, memorable music, but clunky plots and stilted dialogue, the idea of coming up with something fresh and new here seems appealing. According to Terracini it will have a healthy dose of favourites as well as some rarities from some of the less well-known German composers of the period and star OA soprano Julie Lee Goodwin.

Opera lovers seeking melody but less frivolous dramatic fare should probably look no further than Damiano Michielotto’s new production of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. The Italian director is one of the hotter properties on the circuit right now, and the brouhaha surrounding the controversial ‘rape’ scene in his Covent Garden William Tell last year pulled the focus from what was an interesting and dramatic take on Rossini’s epic. His Cav and Pag, also for the Royal Opera House and the latest in a recent series of Opera Australia co-productions, was shown in cinemas earlier this year and is a good-looking, smartly-conceived affair. “You have characters from both operas in both shows,” Terracini explains. “Even in Cav, there’s a poster for Pagliacci. I think it’s a fantastic production set in a later period with the obligatory Fiat cars. Pagliacci is clever because they obviously don’t have any money and the whole jealousy thing rather than ‘raaar’, it’s a lot more complex than that.”

Damiano Michielotto’s Cavalleria Rusticana at the Royal Opera House

Dragana Radakovich, who was a terrific Turandot earlier this year on Sydney Harbour, and José Carbó feature as Santuzza and Alfio in Cav, while Samuel Dundas plays Silvio in Pag. Taking on the two tenor leads in one evening will be Mexican-born Diego Torre, now and Australian citizen, who thrilled Sydney audiences most recently with a terrific performance in Luisa Miller opposite Nicole Car. And speaking or the rapidly rising international star, she will return in 2017 for a run as Mimì in Gale Edwards’ perennial Bohème (a role she will share with the highly-anticipated opera debut of Australian soprano Greta Bradman), followed by concert performances as Massenet’s Thaïs, a role she admitted to Limelight recently was particularly high on her future hit list.

Like buses, you can wait for ten years for a Thaïs to come along, and next year Australia is getting two, with the brilliant Guillaume Tourniaire conducting for OA and Sir Andrew Davis directing concert performances in Melbourne. “I know, it’s bizarre,” says Terracini, admitting that the concert performances in Sydney are an expedient to compensate for the planned works updating the Joan Sutherland Theatre. “We wouldn’t do it any other year – we couldn’t afford it – and no one wants to do a co production. But I think it’s a perfect piece for Nicole at this time, and Etienne [Car’s real life partner, French singer Etienne Dupuis] is a fantastic baritone. Thaïs is underestimated. It’s one of the best things Massenet ever did and it’d be a pity for people not to hear it.”

A curiosity it may be, but it pales into insignificance in the rarity stakes next to Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger, which receives a full staging in Sydney next year. The story of the medieval Norman monarch who ruled over Sicily, it’s also a Covent Garden co-pro, conducted by Andrea Molino and directed by Director of Opera Kasper Holten, whose cleverly thought-through Eugene Onegin was seen in Australia in 2014. “I’ve always loved Szymanowski,” enthuses Terracini. “I think he’s an incredibly underrated composer but you need a really good production to make this piece work and I think it’s probably the best thing Kasper’s done. This kind of piece really suits him, and there’s a lot of work for the chorus – and we’ve never done an opera in Polish!”

Szymanowski’s King Roger at The Royal Opera, 2015. Photo: Bill Cooper

“King Roger ruled Sicily in a period when many cultures were existing at the same time in Italy, so you hear influences of Arabian music and Greek and European. Clearly all those cultures were existing together without any issues, and I guess that’s the history of Sicily too. We’re trying to build in a little Szymanowski festival around it as well – string quartets and that sort of stuff. I hope audiences will be surprised by what an extraordinary piece of music it is, and how really arresting it is when you’re in the theatre. I know a lot of them will think ‘Oh, it’ll be 12-tone music – it’s going to be hideous so I’m not going to buy a ticket’, but it’s not. It’s much, much better than that.”

Michael Honeyman sings the lead in King Roger, while Albanian Saimir Pirgu, an exciting young tenor who has been making waves on the international scene, sings the key role of The Shepherd in Sydney. And there are other overseas rising stars making their Australian debuts next year as well. In a piece of dream triple casting Ermonela Jaho will be singing her first Traviata with the company alongside Lorina Gore, who so impressed in the lead role last year, and Emma Matthews, probably Australia’s most experienced Violetta. Renato Palumbo conducts. “Ermonela is really an unusual singer for our time,” explains Terracini. “In all sorts of ways, she reminds me of Callas. I think her voice is much more beautiful, but the way that Callas used to use the text and shape the line, she does that, and that’s not so fashionable now. She really lets the narrative unfold with a musical, vocal quality. You just sit there and your blood runs cold – it’s just extraordinary. And honestly you won’t see anyone else do Traviata like this anywhere. And Saimir Pirgu is a really intelligent singer with a gorgeous voice, but again it’s the way he uses it and what he brings out. And for something like King Roger you need more than just someone singing the notes.”

Ermonela Jaho in La Traviata at the Arena di Verona, 2011

The other plan to let Sydneysiders hear some great voices while the opera theatre is closed will see a series of recitals, some at Angel Place, others at the Opera Centre. First up will be the return of Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, nominated for a Helpmann following his searing portrayal of King Philip in OA’s recent Don Carlos. He will sing Schubert’s Winterreise as well as a selection of Russian songs by Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov. “Italian basses never do this repertoire,” says a delighted Terracini. If you go back to Siepi, he would never sing things like Winterreise. Pinza, none of them. Ghiaurov, never! Ferruccio is the greatest bass of his generation and he brings all these other things into the German and Russian repertoire that you don’t expect. I suppose that’s one of the things that makes him so interesting.” 

Other recitals will allow OA regulars to stretch their wings and offer some less well-known material. Natalie Arroyan and José Carbó will perform a concert of Armenian and Argentinian music, while John Longmuir will sing Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared with Stacey Alleaume singing Dvořák. Rising star New Zealand tenor Jonathan Abernathy will join OA’s recent Dorabella, Anna Dowsley, in a programme that will include Schubert and Hugo Wolf. Oh, and there will be a Verdi Requiem, the greatest operatic non-opera of all time.

If that all sounds very new and rather outside of the ordinary, it is. With production costs down for concerts and recitals, it has clearly allowed OA to spread its wings and think outside of the box. Of course, there are some of the staples as well. John Bell’s Tosca plays Sydney with Spanish soprano Ainhoa Areta, Romanian tenor Teodor Illincai and Italian baritone Lucio Gallo in the leads. The same director’s Carmen heads for Melbourne with Rinat Shaham as the tempestuous gypsy, and Moffatt Oxenbould’s Madama Butterfly plays Sydney’s Capitol Theatre. But there are important debuts too for Aussie baritone Christopher Tonkin in Bohème and a new Aida designed to play Coolangatta Beach with Natalie Aroyan taking the lead. As OA seasons go, this one looks set to broaden opera lovers’ horizons, amnd that is no bad thing at all.

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