Opera NEO Offers Mozart, Gounod, and Rameau in Promising 2020 Summer Opera Festival

Following a pattern that has won devoted audiences, the Opera NEO Summer Opera Festival announced its August 2020 season: two repertory favorites, Charles Gounod’s Faust and Mozart’s The Magic Flute, complemented by a Baroque rarity, Jean Philippe Rameau’s Platée. Staging these three operas in UC San Diego’s spacious Mandeville Auditorium is a sign of Opera NEO’s steady development over the last eight seasons.

Artistic Director Peter Kozma will open this year’s festival on August 9 conducting The Magic Flute, with stage direction by Ophélie Wolf, who made her Opera NEO debut last season directing Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Although Mozart’s Italian language operas set to Lorenzo da Ponte’s librettos, especially Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, are Mozart’s best known operas, The Magic Flute, written at the height of his creative prowess—after the da Ponte operas—was clearly the greatest operatic success of the composer’s career. And as a practicing Mason, the opera’s florid Masonic themes and imagery reflect more of the composer’s personality and commitments.

Luke Harnish in 2019 Eugene Onegin [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

Singing the lead roles of Pamina and Papageno are returning Opera NEO singers soprano Sara Womble and baritone Luke Harnish. Harnish made a strong debut with Opera NEO last season in the title role of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and Womble sang the major role of Princess Ilia in the company’s production of Mozart’s Idomeneo in 2018. They will be joined by newcomer Andy Zimmermann as Prince Tamino.

Sara Womble (standing) Stephanie Doche in 2018 Idomeneo [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

Italian comic opera—opera buffa—did not catch on in 18th-century French aristocratic circles until Rameau came up with Platée in 1745, a clever entertainment he concocted for the festivities surrounding a royal wedding at the court of Versailles. The opera’s plot has Jupiter, the ultimate Deity, tricked into marrying Platée, an ugly water nymph. No one could have missed the parallels to the impending marriage of the French Dauphin to a Spanish princess who was less than glamorous. To press the point further, Rameau wrote the role of Platée to be sung by a high tenor in drag. His daring paid off—the court loved his opera, and he won the title of court composer from Louis XV.

Kozma is bringing back Benjamin Bayl to conduct the Platée production’s period instrumentalists, as he has done with such authority in the company’s 2019 La Calisto by Francesco Cavalli and the 2018 Partenope by G. F. Handel. La Calisto director David Radamés Toro returns to direct Platée, and title role will be performed by tenor George Milosh in his Opera NEO debut. Performances will be staged on Friday, August 14 and Sunday, August 16.

Dane Suarez in 2018 Idomeneo [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

Opera NEO concludes the festival with Gounod’s evergreen Faust, which Kozma will both direct and conduct. Tenor Dane Suarez, who sang a commanding Lensky in last season’s Eugene Onegin, returns to sing the title role, and bass-baritone Johann Schram Reed makes his Opera NEO debut as the villain, Méphistophélès. Performances are slated for Thursday, August 13 and Saturday, August 15.

Two festival performances that precede the three opera productions include the Aria Marathon, introducing each young artist performing a signature aria, and the popular Cabaret evening, featuring opera, operetta, and Broadway scenes, served up in a festive atmosphere with dinner, desserts, and champagne at the Encinitas Library. The Aria Marathon takes place Sunday, July 12 at 4:00 pm, at Palisades Presbyterian Church, and the Cabaret will be held on two nights, July 24 and July 25.

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