The tip-off that a major change was about to be announced came with the pair of tangerine-colored plastic eyeglass frames that were handed out to all who attended Thursday afternoon’s meeting at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
And indeed, the news was major as Anthony Freud, Lyric’s general director, president and CEO, told his audience that Sir Andrew Davis would be retiring as music director at the end of the 2020-2021 season, and that Italian conductor Enrique Mazzola had been named as “music director designate,” and would assume the position of music director at the start of the 2021-2022 season.
Davis will step down after a distinguished career at Lyric where he has served as music director and principal conductor since 2000. But as Freud pointed out, he has been associated with Lyric for far longer – ever since his debut engagement with the company during the 1987-1988 season. He has conducted 673 opera performances at Lyric, as well as the majority of its free concerts in Millennium Park.
A two-year “transition period” has been built into the change of leadership. Davis will open Lyric’s 2019-2020 season as conductor of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” (Oct. 2-27), to be followed by a production of Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” (Oct. 12-31) to be conducted by Mazzola. Later in the season Davis will conduct Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” and Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung,” and then launch into three complete series of the four operas in “The Ring Cycle” – one of the most ambitious undertakings of his tenure. In addition, during his final season Davis will conduct “Lessons in Love and Violence,” an opera by George Benjamin and Martin Crimp that debuted at London’s Royal Opera House in 2018, as well as “two favorites” – Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” and Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”
Mazzola, who already is familiar to Lyric audiences (he conducted Donizetti’s “Lucia de Lammamour” in 2016 and Bellini’s “I Puritani” in 2018), is considered one of today’s foremost interpreters of bel canto opera and a leading specialist in the French repertoire and early Verdi. And he was praised by Freud for having “accrued a wealth of international experience” and being “tremendously well-liked and respected by the Lyric’s orchestra and chorus.”
In an emotional but playful address from the Lyric stage, Mazzola, 51 (who was born in Spain but is a self-described “true Italian,” and indeed does wear trademark tangerine-framed glasses), said he will take up residency in Chicago and hopes to become “a real Chicagoan.”
“From September 2021 my place is here, and I want to feel this great, fantastic city,” said Mazzola, who also named just a few of his favorite things, including “deep-dish pizza (even if it is not the Italian style), baseball (because of its different timing from soccer), Lake Michigan (because it looks like an ocean) and the formidable artistic forces of the Lyric.”
“As you know, Italians are known for their big hearts and also for falling in love easily,” quipped Mazzola. “And for me it was love at first sight for the Lyric.”
In demand worldwide as both an opera and symphonic conductor, Mazzola is currently principal guest conductor at Deutschland Oper in Berlin and until recently served as artistic and music director of the Orchestre National d’Ile-de-France in Paris. Earlier this year he conducted Donizetti’s “La fille du regiment” at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and had back-to-back summer engagements in Austria – first with a production of “Rigoletto” at the Bregenz Festival, and then with a new production of “Orpheus in the Underworld” at the Salzburg Festival.
Note: In addition to the previously noted productions, the 2019-2020 season will include “Dead Man Walking” (by Jack Heggie and Terrence McNally); Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”; Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly”; and, for Lyric’s now annual Broadway musical production, “42nd Street,” the 1980 stage adaptation of the tap dance-driven 1933 Hollywood film classic. For tickets call (312) 827-5600 or visit www.lyricopera.org.
Mazzola and Freud join “Chicago Tonight” in discussion.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic