With directors Robert Lepage and Penny Woolcock making Met debuts and Mary Zimmerman returning after her hit production of Lucia di Lammermoor, the potential for dynamic stagecraft at the Met next season is enormous. But beyond theatrical ingenuity, the 2008 _09 season's new productions also afford the opportunity for extraordinary vocalism. The stars of the six new productions may be familiar to Met audiences, but their repertoire is not. With the exception of Il Trovatore, none of these operas has been performed at the Met in more than a generation: and in the case of Doctor Atomic, never before.
"She's a wonderful character to play," says Ren_e Fleming of the title heroine of Massenet's ThaÇs, last staged at the Met in 1978, when Beverly Sills played the part. Fleming will sing the role of the beautiful Egyptian courtesan who finds religion in a new production opening on December 8. "She has a lot of outward confidence and uses her seductive gifts to basically rule her world," Fleming continues. "But inwardly, she's incredibly lonely." Drawing a parallel to the modern world, the singer adds, "ThaÇs is the equivalent of a great Hollywood star."
Hollywood didn't even exist the last time another work now presented in a new production was heard at the Met. Lepage's new production of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust, which opens in November with tenor Marcello Giordani as the scholar in search of eternal youth, had its last staged performance here in 1907, 61 years after it was written. Giordani won't have to worry about listener comparisons to his predecessor, Charles Rousselire. He will effectively introduce the character to Met audiences with his interpretation. "The character and story of Faust are very timely," he says, "because our society places such an emphasis on remaining eternally young."
You don't have to go so far back in time for La Rondine, which will premiere on New Year's Eve, starring the real-life couple Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna in the leading roles. One of Puccini's least known works, it had its American premiere at the Met, but it hasn't been seen here since 1936. The fact that La Rondine contains some of the composer's most ravishing music: including the aria "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta": makes it surprising that it is so rarely heard. The story seems to have inspired Puccini to blend aspects of other operatic women in the character of Magda. "She's dreaming of true love, like Violetta or Musetta," says Gheorghiu. "She is similar to Manon Lescaut: she loves her liberty. She's as sincere as Carmen, and she's a strong character like Tosca."
Another star soprano : Natalie Dessay : also returns to the Met in a new production, La Sonnambula, directed by Zimmerman. But her character, the fragile sleepwalker Amina, is anything but strong. "She's a very pure character, very innocent, and she has a beautiful soul," says Dessay, who is currently starring in La Fille du R_giment and who caused a sensation in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor. "With Amina, I can show something different: I can show my most tender part." A few people in the audience may remember the previous Met Sonnambula, 36 years ago, with Renata Scotto starring. What hasn't changed since then is the magic of Bellini's music. "I love the lines he wrote for the voice," Dessay says. "You have to keep this purity and softness all the time."
Stepping into the shoes of an artist like Scotto may be daunting, but baritone Gerald Finley faces no such challenge. He stars as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the title character of John Adams's Doctor Atomic, which has its Met premiere in October in a staging by Woolcock. It's a role Finley created at the opera's 2005 world premiere at the San Francisco Opera. Doctor Atomic deals with a dramatic moment in the history of the 20th century: the creation of the atomic bomb: and Finley sees a lot of potential in the part and in what might be considered an unlikely operatic subject. "The challenge for me is trying not to absorb the public perception of Oppenheimer as a failed and broken man," he explains, "because at the time the opera is set, he was the most galvanizing, energetic person and a supremely respected motivator of his colleagues. It was hugely exciting for me to realize that he was a very positive figure, that there was no way to know this situation was going to be seen as a tragedy."
Among his colleagues, only Salvatore Licitra stars in a new production that won't be a novelty for Met audiences. He plays Manrico, the title hero in Verdi's Il Trovatore. His portrayal, however, will be something new: Licitra will sing the troubadour for the first time with the company. "It's an iconic role for a tenor and one of the most dramatic operas ever," he says. "Manrico is conflicted and confused, he tries to find peace for himself. It's difficult to imagine a more heroic moment than 'Di quella pira' in the third act. But in the end Manrico becomes a victim of his destiny."