Opera Antwerp © Ilse Liekens
Opera Antwerp
© Ilse Liekens
Opera Vlaanderen

is a single company operating out of two venues in two cities. With bases in Ghent and Antwerp, it offers a broad repertoire to the Flemish region of Belgium, exemplified this season by seven productions ranging from familiar classics to tasty rarities. Under Aviel Cahn’s directorship, the company has striven to offer innovative productions to help transform its international standing. Four of the productions play at both venues.

Erich Korngold’s operas are not often performed. Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) – that city being Bruges, just 50km away from Ghent – is his one opera to be staged with any sort of regularity. Das Wunder der Heliane, composed seven years later in 1927, didn’t meet with anything like as much critical acclaim and sank without trace for decades. Reasons for its neglect are difficult to fathom other than it falling foul to critics who found the opera too kitsch and backward-looking. The opera tells a fantastical story of a totalitarian ruler who, because his wife Heliane does not love him, will not tolerate his subjects living in happiness. When an attractive young Stranger enters their lives, arousing Heliane’s passion, it sets in chain a series of events which finds Heliane put on trial in which she must bring back the Stranger from the dead in order to prove her innocence.

<i>Das Wunder der Heliane</i> © Annemie Augustijns
Das Wunder der Heliane
© Annemie Augustijns

Korngold’s music has the lush, erotic sweep one would expect if familiar with his early Hollywood film scores. The highlight is Heliane’s gorgeous aria “Ich ging zu ihm” from Act 2 when she tells the court what happened when she entered the Stranger’s prison cell and stood naked before him. Audiences get the chance to judge the work on its own merits when a new production by German director David Bösch opens Opera Vlaanderen’s new season. Lithuanian soprano Ausrine Stundyte, who has earned a rave review for her performance in Calixto Bieito’s Zurich production of The Fiery Angel this year, takes on the title role, while Ian Storey sings the part of the mysterious Stranger.

Donizetti’s Le Duc d’Albe also falls into the rarity category. It was one of the composer’s late operas, but also one that he failed to finish, abandoning it after Act 2 so he could work on L’Ange de Nisida. Years after Donizetti’s death, his pupil Matteo Salvi completed the opera which was then given in an Italian translation in Rome 1882. However, in 2012 Opera Vlaanderen presented a new completion by Giorgio Battistelli – in the original French – which uses Roger Parker’s critical edition.

The opera concerns the revolt against the Spanish occupation, under the leadership of the Duke of Alba, of the Low Countries in the 16th century. Appropriately, Carlos Wagner’s production team combines Spanish and Flemish forces, with sets designed by Alfons Flores (of La Fura dels Baus) and costumes by Antwerp fashion duo A.F. Vandevorst. Slovak baritone Dalibor Jenis sings the title role in this revival.

Inside Opera Gent © Tom Dhaenens
Inside Opera Gent
© Tom Dhaenens

Of Prokofiev’s full length operas, The Gambler only gets the occasional outing. Based on Dostoyevsky’s story of the same name, which the author wrote to pay off gambling debts(!), it tells of outsider Alexei’s wild obsessions, both with casinos and Polina, the General’s daughter with whom he is besotted. It is set in the fictional spa resort of Roulettenburg, where blackmail and greed infect most of the residents. German theatre director Karin Henkel tackles her first opera with a fine cast including Russian soprano Anna Nechaeva as Polina and Czech tenor Ladislav Elgr as the increasingly unhinged Alexei.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (artistic director of Ballet Vlaanderen) and Damien Jalet are other daring directorial choices. The two choreographers tackle Pelléas et Mélisande in the centenary of Debussy’s death, joining forces with performance artist Marina Abramović. Debussy’s opera, based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, is a nebulous work, its protagonists caught in a web of conflicting emotions and confusion. Golaud discovers Mélisande in the forest, crying. He marries her but tensions arise when she draws close to Golaud’s brother, Pelléas. Adding dance choreography to Debussy’s sensuous, veiled score is an intriguing extra ingredient. South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo should make a terrific Pelléas, while Norwegian soprano Mari Eriksmoen is Mélisande.

<i>Parsifal</i> © Annemie Augustijns (2013)
© Annemie Augustijns (2013)

Michael Hampe directs a new production of Mozart’s opera seria La clemenza di Tito, where the emperor Tito chooses compassion when dealing with his political enemies. Lothar Odinius sings Tito, while rising Russian mezzo Anna Goryachova sings the trouser role of Sesto, Tito’s childhood friend who betrays him. Following his production of Der Rosenkavalier four seasons agoAustrian-German actor Christoph Waltz returns to Opera Vlaanderen for Verdi’s Falstaff. Largely based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (but considerably funnier), Falstaff was Verdi’s final opera, a rare foray into comedy. Thomas Johannes Mayer, more regularly heard singing Wagner, tackles the fat knight for the first time, while an attractive ensemble cast includes Johannes Martin Kränzle as Ford and Iris Vermillion as Mistress Quickly. The Vlaanderen season also includes a revival of Tatjana Gürbaca’s acclaimed 2013 staging of Parsifal. Playing only in Antwerp, it stars American tenor Erin Caves as Parsifal and German mezzo Tanja Ariane Baumgartner as the wild, mysterious Kundry. Cornelius Meister conducts.

Click here for Opera Vlaanderen’s full season listings.


Article sponsored by Opera Vlaanderen.