Opera Australia has launched its most ambitious season in years with new productions of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Shostakovich’s The Nose, Brian Howard’s Metamorphosis, a high-tech new Aida and – new to OA – Massenet’s Don Quichotte among the most interesting offerings. Australian singers making important role debuts and major international stars like Nicole Car, Jessica Pratt, Amber Wagner, Ferruccio Furlanetto and Michael Fabiano should turn certain operas into must-sees, while veterans Leo Nucci and Sir John Tomlinson making long overdue OA debuts provide two other excellent reasons for a night at the opera in 2018.

John Tomlinson and Martin Winkler in The Nose at The Royal Opera. Photo © Bill Cooper

The Sydney season will open with Danielle de Niese committing to a further run as Hanna Glavari in Graeme Murphy’s new Merry Widow fresh from its Melbourne opening. Her Danilo will be Australian tenor Alexander Lewis who then goes on to play the recalcitrant proboscis in Barrie Kosky’s exuberant production of Shostakovich’s The Nose. The production also features Martin Winkler reprising his Covent Garden star turn as Gogol’s hapless army major Platon Kuzmitch Kovalev and the Down Under debut of British bass Sir John Tomlinson.

“It’s the perfect piece for Barrie to do – it really is his shtick,” says a beaming Lyndon Terracini, taking time out in his office ahead of the hectic season launch. “The dancing noses – it’s a fantastic moment – but really, the whole piece is almost like a burlesque. Considering how young [Shostakovich] was when he wrote it, it is astonishing! I think Barrie’s really captured that quirky sense of humour in it, without being as obvious as a lot of other people might have been.”

The Nose is the latest in a fruitful list of co-productions with the Royal Opera House that started with Eugene Onegin and has included this year’s Cav and Pag and David McVicar’s Faust. Terracini, OA’s Artistic Director and the Australian architect of the relationship, is equally pleased to have bagged Tomlinson, one of opera’s greatest singing actors and the finest Wotan of his generation. “I spoke to him after the first night and said, ‘it’d be good if you did it in Australia’, and he was ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, that’d be good, yeah’. He probably thought, ‘who is this fruitcake coming up to me at a party with a glass of red wine in his hand?’ Anyway, we followed it up and he’s agreed to do it which is great because we need that sort of gravitas in the piece or it gets a bit too light.”

The always impressive Andrea Molino will helm the musical side of the production, and for those who might worry about all that Russian flying by, there is a new translation by David Pountney who did a great job on the same composer’s Cheryomushki for Pimlico Opera back in the day. “We all agreed to do it in English from the very beginning,” Terracini recalls. “With this piece, there’s too much text that’s interesting and funny to be reading a surtitle, because then you don’t see what’s going on.”

Nicole Car in OA’s Luisa Miller. Photo © Jeff Busby

For fans and followers of the rapid ascent of Nicole Car, the fact that she has chosen to make a role debut in Sydney as Violetta in La Traviata is a cause for celebration. “I think vocally she’s more of a classic Violetta than some,” explains Terracini. “We’ve always had lighter sopranos, which makes the E Flat a lot easier in Sempre Libera, and Nicole may or may not sing it – she doesn’t know yet either – but having someone of that age who later on in the piece is able to give it that sort of weight, I think is good.”

Another rising star, Stacey Alleaume, will take over from Car in Sydney, while later in the year Melbourne will get to hear the much-praised young American soprano Corinne Winters in the role. Andrea Licata conducts.

Immediately after La Traviata opens, Sydneysiders will get to see another rarity with a run of Massenet’s late masterpiece Don Quichotte. A lyrical gem, full of Spanish flavour, the San Diego Opera production (originally directed by their disgraced former General Director Ian D Campbell) will star Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto who was Helpmann-nominated for his previous OA appearance as King Philip in Verdi’s Don Carlos. “I think Massenet is incredibly underrated in all sorts of ways,” says Terracini, whose recent concert performances of Thaïs attracted outstanding notices. “Along with King Philip and Khovanshchina, it’s Ferruccio’s best part. He loves doing it, and like with John Tomlinson, you get a gravitas and presence that you don’t get it very often.”

Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Quichotte. Photo © Ken Howard/San Diego Opera

The rest of the cast includes Warwick Fyfe – perhaps born to play Sancho Panza – and Russian mezzo Elena Maximova, an impressive Olga in Kasper Holten’s pre-Sydney staging of Onegin. French opera specialist Guillaume Tourniaire conducts. The production, complete with Furlanetto and Fyfe but with Sian Pendry as Dulcinea, will travel to Melbourne the following May.

After that, two revivals get all-star casts. John Doyle’s Lucia di Lamermoor, a hit vehicle a while back for Emma Matthews – now WAAPA bound – will star Jessica Pratt (making her OA debut at last) alongside the returns of American tenor Michael Fabiano, who wowed audiences in McVicar’s Faust, and Italian baritone Giorgio Caoduro. “This was a co-production we did with Venice quite a while ago,” says Terracini. “I saw Jessica do it there and she was terrific in it. I think it’s her best part, it shows off the top of the voice really well. Michael’s fabulous, as you know, and Giorgio has done it with us before and he’s great too.”

Roger Hodgman’s recent Rigoletto, meanwhile, will see the OA debut of legendary Italian baritone Leo Nucci – 75 next year. So how’s the voice? “Leo did Rigoletto at La Scala with Nadine Sierra, who’s our fabulous second Gilda,” Terracini recounts. “At the end of the Si vendetta, as they often do there, they came forward and bowed and all that, and the audiences were clapping and cheering and so they encored it in front of the curtain. It’s fabulous, you can see it on YouTube! There’s this screaming A Flat at the end – and she’s a lot more worried than he is. It’s astonishing.”

The veteran Nucci sings three performances with Gianluca Terranova as the Duke and Irina Lungu as Gilda before Dalibor Jenis – OA’s fine Onegin of three years ago – makes his role debut as the tortured jester with Nadine Sierra and Atalla Ayan as an impressive second cast, all conducted by distinguished Verdian Renato Palumbo.

The other Verdi on the cards for 2018 is a new staging of Aida by Italian singer-turned-opera director Davide Livermore, Artistic Director of Valencia’s Palau de les Arts. His high-tech style with a strong emphasis on the visuals has garnered him considerable acclaim in recent years and it will be interesting to see what he conjures up for Sydney. “I guess because he’s been a singer too, he’s got a good affinity for acting with singers. But he’s got a really terrific visual eye,” Terracini says. “This Aida will be almost like a hybrid with physical sets, but a lot of digital technology. It’s more contemporary than traditional. It’s colourful, very bright, he’s got a great sense of scale and he makes you look at it. He uses projections front and back, all the way to the point of holograms, though it’s it’s early days for us at the moment.”

Amber Wagner – the Melbourne Ring Cycle’s magnificent Sieglinde – will make her role debut as Aida before Natalie Aroyan takes over. Amneris is split three ways, between Elena Gabouri, Clémentine Margaine (last season’s exciting Carmen) and Milijana Nikolic, while Radamès will see the welcome returns of Riccardo Massi (from last year’s Turandot), Yonghoon Lee and Diego Torre. Warwick Fyfe and Michael Honeyman share the role of Amonasro.

If that sounds as if Sydney is getting the lion’s share of new work, Melbourne can take comfort with Kasper Holten’s new production of Wagner’s Meistersingers heading for Australia. The production got decidedly mixed reviews in the London press – who often seemed to have it in for Holten – but Terracini believes that was largely unfair. “Kasper got a rough ride with a few things he did there,” he says, “but I thought the King Roger was fantastic – a terrific production, and I think the Meistersinger is too. He understands the piece very well but it’s more like a German production. There are a lot of layers that are probably not as obvious as people expect. He sets it in a gentleman’s club, and I think that’s perfect. The imagery looks a bit like a Barrie Kosky show sometimes, and maybe they didn’t like that. I actually did. I like it more than most Meistersingers I’ve seen.”

Kasper Holten’s Meistersinger at the Royal Opera. Photo © Clive Barda

Pietari Inkinen conducts an Australian-dominated cast that includes Natalie Aroyan as Eva and Dominica Matthews as her companion Magdalena, Warwick Fyfe as Beckmesser, Daniel Sumegi as Pogner and principal roles for Luke Gabbedy, Adrian Tamburini, John Longmuir, Nicholas Jones, Kanen Breen, Graeme Macfarlane, Andrew Jones, Michael Honeyman, Richard Anderson and Gennadi Dubinsky. German Heldentenor and OA’s Siegfried Stefan Vinke returns to sing Walther with rising star American tenor David Portillo as David. The central role of Hans Sachs will be sung by James Johnson, the Melbourne Ring’s Wotan. “Bryn [Terfel – Sachs in the London production], I have to say, was fantastic, the best thing I’ve seen him do,” says Terracini, “but James has that presence, and he’s an older man. Singers love working with him because he gives so much. Kasper loves him and I think he’ll enjoy working on it again.”

There are also Sydney revivals of John Bell’s Carmen – with Rinat Shaham – and Simon Phillips’ Turk in Italy – with Stacey Alleaume in the Emma Matthews role, Juan José de León, Warwick Fyfe, Samuel Dundas and Anna Dowsley plus the marvellous Turk of Paolo Bordogna – and Melbourne revivals of Bell’s Tosca – with Latonia Moore, Diego Torre and Marco Vratogna – and Gale Edwards’ Bohème with Maija Kovalevska, Yosep Kang, Jane Ede and Christopher Tonkin.

There’s even some contemporary opera, with a welcome revival of Brian Howard’s Metamorphosis, first seen in Melbourne in 1983 with Lyndon Terracini in the role of Gregor Samsa – the man who turns into a cockroach. “Steven Berkoff’s adaptation is great and I think it’s Brian Howard’s best piece,” says Terracini. “It’s really sinewy, but every now and then there’s a gorgeous aria, and it’s really moving. We’ll do it in our building dock so it’s a real Surry Hills audience piece – rough seating, cheap red wine, and Belvoir St is out the back door. In Melbourne we will do it at the Malthouse.”

For this production, OA have cast Simon Lobelson – who impressed recently in Eight Songs for a Mad King – alongside Julie Lea Goodwin, Christopher Hillier, Taryn Fiebig, Adrian Tamburini and Benjamin Rasheed. “I didn’t see Eight Songs, but I saw him do something with Sydney Chamber Opera and I got him in to audition,” Terracini says of Lobelson. “He’s got a good set of pipes and he’s got great theatrical instincts which you need for Gregor. He’s got to hang from a ceiling while he’s singing. It’s the right repertoire for him to do with us.”

The studio opera is a formula that Terracini hopes to repeat each year, although they won’t always be Australian operas, and if he admits that Sydney is unlikely to see any Wagner anytime soon, OA will be repeating the idea of large-scale concert operas that has proved so successful this year and initially programmed as an expedient to cover the closure of the Joan Sutherland.

So, a diverse programme, some intriguing debuts and some ambitious co-productions. And, off the record, there are some very grand designs indeed for the future.

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