Opera often takes the audience to exotic locations – 19th-century French composers, in particular, were fascinated by the orient. India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) are among the far-flung destinations for audiences in Liège next season, along with Japan, Peru, Eldorado and ancient Babylon. Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège presents six new productions for the 2019-20 season under general and artistic director Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, including one of the greatest challenges for any company, Verdi’s Don Carlos.

Les Pêcheurs de perles © Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège
Les Pêcheurs de perles
© Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège

For a house that revels in the Italian repertory, it’s surprising that a standard tear-jerker such as Madama Butterfly was last presented in Liège way back in 2001. A co-production with the Puccini festival at Torre del Lago, Mazzonis’ staging will doubtless be broadly traditional in flavour – a style that is popular with Liège audiences. Praised for her “consummate acting skills” in Zurich in 2017, Svetlana Aksenova shares the title role with Japanese soprano Yasko Sato. Taking on the thankless role of Pinkerton – the American naval officer who marries his teen bride then abandons her – are Alexey Dolgov and Dominick Chenes.

Léo Delibes’ Lakmé was premiered in 1883 at the Opéra Comique in Paris and has been in and out of the repertory ever since, yet interest in it has been sustained thanks to two hit musical numbers: Lakmé’s “Bell Song” – which tests even the best coloratura technique – and the “Flower Duet” for Lakmé and her faithful slave, Mallika. Davide Garattini Raimondi’s new staging features rising Belgian soprano Jodie Devos, who is perfectly suited for the vocal demands of the Indian priestess, while Philippe Talbot sings the British officer, Gérald, who falls in love with her. Another Belgian, baritone Lionel Lhote, sings Nilakantha, Lakmé’s father, a Brahmin priest who swears revenge for the affront to his daughter’s honour.

Alzira © DR
© DR

Set just across the Palk Strait that separates India from Sri Lanka, Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles is another French opera that dips in and out of fashion. Like Lakmé, it features the tribulations of a young priestess who falls in love; here, two pearl fishermen had put their friendship ahead of their mutual love of this priestess, Leïla, only for their paths to cross again years later. Passions are reignited, friendships are tested, and an heroic deed from the past is uncovered, with tragic consequences. Annick Massis sings Leïla in a revival of Yoshi Oïda’s characteristically spare, but beautiful staging, while Cyrille Dubois – a splendid tenor – and Pierre Doyen sing Nadir and Zurga, the men who are in love with her.

Audiences head to South America for a true rarity: Verdi’s Alzira. Based on Voltaire’s 1736 play Alzire, ou les Américains, it is set in Peru and features conflict between the Incas and the governing Spaniards. It flopped at its 1845 premiere and has had few revivals since, but in a sympathetic staging the drama stands up well and there is merit in Verdi’s score, not least its succinct nature, lasting little more than 90 minutes. Jean Pierre Gamarra directs and designs this new production, shared with Bilbao and the Peruvian National Grand Theatre, which stars Hui He as Alzira, daughter of the Inca leader.

Also based on Voltaire – and also dipping (briefly) into South America – is Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, which gets a single semi-staged performance in November, with Thomas Blondelle in the title role.

Orphée et Eurydice © Pierre Grosbois
Orphée et Eurydice
© Pierre Grosbois

Other season highlights include a trip not to the exotic, but a voyage to the underworld. The French version of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice employs a tenor instead of countertenor as Orpheus. Aurélien Bory has a fine trio cast at his disposal: Varduhi Abrahamyan as Orphée, Mélissa Petit as Eurydice, and Julie Gebhart as Amore.

Liège’s superb music director Speranza Scappucci conducts the new production of La sonnambula, Bellini’s credulity-stretching sleepwalking tale, next March. Jaco van Dormael’s staging stars Nino Machaidze as Amina, opposite René Barbera as her jealous lover, Elvino, duped into believing she’s having an affair with Marko Mimica’s Count Rodolfo.

Don Carlos is a huge challenge for even the biggest international houses, not least because Verdi’s epic demands six great singers for the principal roles. Mazzonis has assembled a strong line-up for his production of the original five act French version of the opera, which includes Italian basses Ildebrando D’Arcangelo and Roberto Scandiuzzi squaring up to each other as Philip II and the Grand Inquisitor. Spanish soprano Yolanda Auyanet sings Elisabeth de Valois, while local favourite Lionel Lhote is Rodrigue, the noble Marquis de Posa.

Anna Netrebko and Yuzif Eyvazof © Vladimir Shirkov
Anna Netrebko and Yuzif Eyvazof
© Vladimir Shirkov

Revivals of La Cenerentola and Nabucco are attractively cast, including Karine Deshayes as Cinderella, and Anna Pirozzi as Abigaille. Concert recitals with full orchestra are given by stars Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov, D’Arcangelo and South African soprano Pretty Yende.

And if all that operatic travel isn’t enough, the company takes its new production of Anna Bolena (just premiered) to the Royal Opera House in Muscat. Pack your suitcase and your passport now.

This preview was sponsored by Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège