There are reasons for the active arts scene in Sarasota. Much of the winter population of this sunbathed West Coast Florida city is affluent and generous. In the renovated Sarasota Opera House, names and photos of major donors appear in the ample program, and on the surtitle banner above the curtain before performances. Each section of the 1100-seat former vaudeville theater, including foyers and rest rooms, has a sponsor plaque. At the 1700-seat Van Wezel Hall where the symphony performs, one can even sponsor a single piece of music, and at intermission, stroll on a piazza by the bay.
The Sarasota Opera, under its Staten Island-born artistic director and longtime conductor, Victor DeRenzi, presents a February-March winter festival, which this season consisted of “Il Trovatore,” “The Barber of Seville,” “The Flying Dutchman,” and the seldom-heard “Jerusalem”--Verdi’s retooling of his “I Lombardi” for the Paris Opera, in French (minus harem ballet this time around).
DeRenzi’s project--begun in 1989 and scheduled to finish in 2016--is to perform Verdi’s complete operas and Requiem. Once, in New York, Vincent La Selva and his New York Grand Opera presented the cycle in concert and in chronological order. DeRenzi’s pick-and-choose method of combining masterworks with early efforts has more box-office appeal, and allows him to complete the cycle with “Rigoletto” and “Aida.”
“Jerusalem” was composed in 1847, when Verdi was in his mid-30's. It has youthful vigor and the composer’s signature style: evocative scene-setting, substantial, exhilarating harmony and if not iconic tunes, stirring arias. Set in Palestine during the Crusades, as is “I Lombardi,” it features love, plotting, disguises and injustice, then more love, followed by truth, justice and redemption.
Hélène is a real Verdi soprano role, with arias, screamers and opportunities for misplaced high notes. Her lover, Gaston, a crusader spared assassination by his brother because of identity confusion in the dark, should possess a healthy, dominant tenor tone. Principal duets have variations of increasing speed and brilliance, like ballet pas de deux. The American-born leads had strong regional credits: Danielle Walker as Helene was on the light side and often, if not always, got the all-important grand opera top notes. Heath Huberg was also thin-voiced as Gaston, but achieved a well-spun tone by the last act.
Villains are often more interesting types. As Roger, who mistakenly has Helene’s father killed, then heads for the Holy Land and becomes a white-bearded penitent hermit, bass Young Bok Kim had a good middle range and was otherwise okay--not really enough in a role that calls for a thrilling Sarastro-like bass. Vocally more attractive was bass Jeffrey Beruan, the red-robed Papal Legate who leads an army procession of immense pomp, 10 years before “Aida.”
Best in “Jerusalem” were choruses, at which Verdi was a genius. He knew just when a choral number would intensify emotion or add to the panoply--not to mention when and how to compose a sweeping unison melody. The chorus has multiple roles--soldiers, knights, pilgrims, penitents--which are clearly defined, sometimes by men's parts versus women's, sometimes with mouthfuls of patter, but usually with uplifting lines and harmony. (The religious choruses are particular marvels, more refined than in "I Lombardi"--and the group was well prepared). Walker joined a couple of choruses, leading well. DeRenzi and the orchestra gave committed support.
Backdrops were effective, though costume materials did not glow like the ones in a historical exhibition on loan from the Rome Opera. Static blocking by Martha Collins was a letdown; characters passively waited their turns to sing, and supernumeraries were expressionless and detached.
Lighting by the talented Ken Yunker, however, was stunning in all the operas. He must have spent luxurious hours studying the sumptuous painting collection of Rubens and his contemporaries, in the nearby Ringling Museum.
This is not a review of elegant restaurants and lavish Gospel brunches. Too bad.
"Il Trovatore, " also great lighting