Kennedy Center Opera House
2700 F St., NW
This spring at Washington National Opera, the fairer sex will be the talk of the capital’s operatic scene. From stars to directors and the repertoire itself, women rule the stage, with exciting company debuts as part of the stable.
First out of the gate, opening Saturday, is “Manon Lescaut,” starring Washington favorite Patricia Racette in the title role. Last seen on the Kennedy Center’s opera stage in 2011 for “Iphigenie en Tauride” and “Tosca,” Racette (a lesbian) will be tackling the role of Manon Lescaut for the first time in the revival of gay director John Pascoe’s 2007 production.
Written by Giacomo Puccini and premiered in 1893, “Manon Lescaut” was a risky undertaking for the composer. Almost a decade earlier, Frenchman Jules Massenet had unveiled a wildly popular version of the same story, simply titled “Manon.” Up to this point in his career, Puccini hadn’t been particularly successful, but “Manon Lescaut” put Puccini on the operatic map.
For many of his operas, Puccini’s heroine is the crux of the drama, and “Manon Lescaut” set the bar for this winning equation. At the opera’s start, the young and achingly beautiful Manon is on her way to a convent at her family’s insistence. Her carriage stops in a small town for a rest, where she meets the young and handsome Des Grieux. After he professes his undying love for her, she decides to run away with him, whether for love or a convenient escape is up for debate.
At the start of the second act, time has passed and Manon has cashed in her chips for money and comfort instead of love. She’s now the kept woman of an older wealthy man, and although she has everything she could ever dream of, she pines for Des Grieux. Eventually, the young pair manages to reconnect with disastrous results, including an appropriately operatic death scene for Manon.
One of the greatest tests of an operatic soprano is the titular role of “Norma.” Divas from Rosa Ponselle to Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland have made the Druid priestess their calling card, and now, rising soprano Angela Meade steps up to the plate for her first full production of this titanic role.
Audiences and critics have long been anticipating this moment with a mixture of hopeful curiosity and timidity. In July of 2010, Meade sang the role in a concert version, and while the reviews were generally kind, many felt it was too much too soon for the young soprano. Cut to February 2012 when a more seasoned Meade, on the heels of winning the Beverly Sills Artist Award, received glittering notices for her performance at the Metropolitan Opera in Verdi’s “Ernani.” Starting March 9, the soprano makes another run at Norma in a new production, directed by out theater and opera director Anne Bogart.
“Norma” is a tale of betrayed love and, ultimately, redemption, headed by the priestess of the title. The ancient Celts, under Roman occupation, are biding their time to destroy the southern interlopers until Norma gives her consent.
She’s been delaying, though, because she’s fallen deeply in love with the Roman general and has secretly born him two children.
As men are wont to do, the Roman falls in love with another priestess, leaving Norma in the emotional lurch. The opera ends in a spectacularly heartbreaking climax between Norma, her former lover and her father who is shocked to learn of Norma’s transgression. Written by Vincenzo Bellini and premiered in 1831, “Norma” has persevered in the repertoire because of its interpreters. This spring, we’ll see if Angela Meade makes it her own.
Later in spring, comes the final offering of the opera’s season, the American musical “Show Boat,” a piece that has long straddled the line between opera and musical theater. This new production, opening May 4, will be directed by Washington National Opera’s new artistic director, Francesca Zambello, who started her tenure as artistic director in January.
Jerome Kern’s musical masterpiece features songs that have become woven into America’s cultural identity, including the show stopping “Ol’ Man River.” Zambello, who is gay, is no stranger to Washington’s operatic stage, having directed much of Wagner’s Ring Cycle for the company along with another great American opera “Porgy and Bess.”