Which is the greater, poetry or music? With a thought-provoking new season, the Opernhaus Zürich raises the ever-present question in the opera world that not even Richard Strauss nor his Countess in Capriccio saw fit to answer. It is a season that encourages you to delve into the words of Aleksandr Pushkin, ETA Hoffmann and Stefan Zweig, of Franz Kafka and even Lewis Carroll – poets who inspired and brought out the best of composers. Read, listen and decide for yourself, or, like our Countess, have dinner and put off the decision for another day...

Opernhaus Zürich © Dominic Büttner
Opernhaus Zürich
© Dominic Büttner

The first new production of the season also promises to be the most exciting. Director Barrie Kosky and conductor Kirill Karabits have opted to stage Modest Mussorgsky's entire score of Boris Godunov, adding the “Polish” act and final revolution scene to his original 1869 version. The opera draws a deep psychological profile of the tsar, tainted with murder and crippled with guilt. Inspired by the character of the monk Pimen, who maintains a chronicle of Russia, Kosky will explore the question of how we write and remember history and how history is used. Michael Volle makes his role debut as the isolated leader Boris, while Brindley Sherratt is entrusted to depict Pimen.

Another captivating role debut sees Christian Gerhaher taking on the role of Simon Boccanegra, the Genoan Doge. After a less than favourable response after the premiere, it took 23 years for Verdi to be persuaded to rework his opera. This revision was his first collaboration with librettist Arrigo Boito and the major change – the Council Chamber scene – is a gripping piece of theatre. The new version was first performed in 1881, but the opera never really caught audience imaginations until the 1970s when Giorgio Strehler's La Scala production led to an upturn in its fortunes. Fabio Luisi conducts his last new Verdi production as music director in Andreas Homoki's new staging.

<i>Les Contes d'Hoffmann</i>
Les Contes d'Hoffmann

Jacques Offenbach’s only Grand Opéra is based on three surreal short stories by ETA Hoffmann, who stars as the main protagonist. In his new production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Homoki explores Offenbach’s strange world on the threshold between reality and imagination, love and dream, art and life. Antonino Fogliani appears on the podium with the Philharmonia Zürich. As the unlucky poet, Saimir Pirgu is tempted (and haunted) by an enchanting quartet of lovers: Erica Petrocelli (Stella), Katrina Galka (Olympia), Ekaterina Bakanova (Antonia) and Lauren Fagan (Giulietta), with Alexandra Kadurina as his Muse. Who could possibly resist them?

According to Gaetano Donizetti himself, every opera requires “love, destruction-laden love” and his Lucia di Lammermoor more than just vindicates this claim, culminating in Lucia’s Mad Scene. After Rossini’s retirement and Bellini’s death shortly before the premiere, his opera about the two feuding families Ashton and Ravenswood was one of the greatest triumphs of the Neapolitan theatre and left Donizetti as the sole master of bel canto. American soprano Lisette Oropesa has already thrilled audiences as Lucia at the ROH and she will doubtlessly do the same in Zürich, living through the vocal and dramatic tour de force. As her beloved Edgardo, Piotr Beczała will once more melt the audience’s hearts. Tatjana Gürbaca directs while Speranza Scappucci gives the note in the pit.

Although Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s period of artistic activity only lasted for five years – he died at the age of 26 in 1736 – he was one of the most influential composers of the 18th century, ingeniously allowing for more emotional and melodic agility in his arias. In his opera seria L’Olimpiade – to a libretto by Pietro Metastasio’s which has also been set by, among others, Vivaldi and Hasse – our hero Megacle takes part in the Ancient Greek Olympic Games. In order to pay his debts, he competes under a false name to win the hand of the king’s daughter, Aristea, for his friend, Licida, even though Megacle is himself still in love with her. After a couple of suicide and murder attempts, the audience’s spirits are lifted with a double wedding before they leave the opera house. David Marton, acclaimed for rethinking theatrical forms, directs this new production, and Pergolesi expert Ottavio Dantone conducts the Orchestra La Scintilla. The exquisite cast is anchored by Vivica Genaux and Anna Bonitatibus.

<i>Orphée et Eurydice</i>
Orphée et Eurydice

Another jewel of the 18th century is Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orphée et Euridice. After a failed Viennese premiere in 1762, sung in Italian, the French version finally captured audience hearts and, in 1859, Hector Berlioz transcribed the role of Orphée for contralto. Russian mezzo-soprano Nadezhda Karyazina, a former ROH Jette Parker Young Artist, will no doubt melt the gods’ hearts with her lamentations to lead Orpheus’ beloved Euridice (Chiara Skerath) back to the land of the living. Director Christoph Marthaler and set designer Anna Viebrock make their third appearance at the Opernhaus. Stefano Montanari conducts the Orchestra La Scintilla.

Christof Loy’s new production of Capriccio has already proved incredibly successful at the Teatro Real in Madrid last year and it will finally see its eagerly awaited Zürich premiere in May. In his final opera, subtitled “A Conversation Piece for Music”, Richard Strauss raises the impossible question “Which is the greater, poetry or music?” and, like the Countess, torn between her two suitors – the poet, Olivier, and the musician, Flamand – the opera world might (quite rightly) never agree on an answer. If you choose one, you lose the other – so my proposal is to have a nice dinner after the opera before you make your decision! Strauss described his light-hearted piece as a “Leckerbissen für kulturelle Feinschmecker” (a delight for cultural gourmets) and so is the Zürich cast. Julia Kleiter debuts as the Countess, while Christof Fischesser, Markus EIche and Paula Murrihy complete the tasty cast. Markus Poschner is in the pit of the Opernhaus.

Roman Haubenstock-Ramati’s opera Amerika is based on Franz Kafka’s eponymous novel fragment. Originally titled Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared) it tells the story of Karl Rossman who, outcast by his family, travels to America only to find himself in a land of nightmares instead of promised happiness. Haubenstock-Ramati takes moments from Kafka’s novel and blends them into breathtaking mobiles of sound, picture and action, integrating the entire auditorium and audience. With this new production Sebastian Baumgarten, led by a conductor known for his passion for contemporary music, Gabriel Feltz, the Opernhaus continues its exceptional series of modern music theatre.

<i>Alice im Wunderland</i>
Alice im Wunderland

A notoriously late white rabbit, a mad hatter celebrating unbirthdays, a suspiciously grinning Cheshire cat and a water-pipe smoking caterpillar – Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has fascinated generations of children and parents alike and Zürich could not have found a better composer to write a new family opera for its house. After a successful Wizard of Oz, Italian composer Pierangelo Valtinoni has been commissioned to turn yet another classic into opera. Directed by Nadja Loschky and conducted by Michael Richter it should make for a perfect family treat.

After his sparky 2017 take on The Nutcracker – returning to ETA Hoffmann’s spooky original, Nussknacker und Mausekönig – Christian Spuck returns to Tchaikovsky next season with a new choreography for The Sleeping Beauty (Dornröschen). Based on Charles Perrault’s fairy tale, Spuck is set to put his individual stamp on the story by focussing on the fate of Carabosse, the fairy furious at the lack of an invitation to the christening of Princess Aurora. This could be a deliciously dark retelling of Tchaikovsky and Petipa’s classical confection. 

Edward Clug’s ballet version of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt – employing Grieg’s incidental music plus other works such as his Lyric Pieces – premiered at the Wiener Staatsballett in 2015. It now makes its keenly anticipated Zürich bow, charting the tale of the good-for-nothing farmer’s son who cheats and boasts his way through life before being forced to face reality. 

The new Zürich season also sees a new work from Norwegian choreographer Jo Strømgren, along with revivals of Spuck’s balletic version of Winterreise, his Anna Karenina and a Jiří Kylián programme featuring the hypnotic Bella Figura.

As usual, the revivals are in no way inferior to the premieres and see audience favourites return to Zurich as well as new voices. Cecilia Bartoli revives her portrayal of Alcina and Angelika Kirchschlager and Bryn Terfel once again reunite in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Aigul Akhmetshina, another former ROH Jette Parker Young Artist to look out for, makes her Opernhaus debut as Rosina in the Zürich premiere of Il barbiere di Siviglia. Sir Mark Elder conducts a stellar cast in Verdi’s Don Carlo, with Marcelo Álvarez giving his role debut in the title role, Tatiana Serjan as Elisabetta and a double-cast Rodrigo with Simon Keenlyside and Ludovic Tézier. And even the concert season, which sees Beatrice Rana continuing her Beethoven cycle, Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem conducted by Gianandrea Noseda or Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with Fabio Luisi, leaves nothing to be desired.

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Article sponsored by Zurich Opera and Ballet