South Florida’s opera companies have made the transition from the model of opera companies that has obtained since the Roosevelts, Vanderbilts and Morgans helped found New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1880. Back then, opera was about society as much as it was the music.
Twenty years ago in this area, opera-going was still in that Gilded Age mode: Anyone who was anyone made sure to have regular subscriptions whether they went to, or enjoyed, the operas at all, and the focus of the houses was squarely in 19th-century Italian repertoire. But now opera companies are competing with every other public entertainment in the same way, and have to breach that same access to surfeit that everyone with an interest and a digital device has.
The coming season for Palm Beach Opera and Florida Grand Opera will count on some old favorites but also stretch out in new directions. And Sarasota Opera, which has a bigger repertory season than the others, offers one rarity and a new children’s opera to entice local parterre box devotees who want to make the cross-state trip to enjoy opera in the only area company that has a theater of its own.
Here’s how the 2017-2018 season looks:
Palm Beach Opera: The West Palm Beach-based company celebrates the 100th anniversary, in 2018, of the birth of Leonard Bernstein with a mounting of his 1956 operetta, Candide. It’s one of the company’s rare excursions into English-language opera, having done Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance just last season, which followed by a couple years a young artist staging of Britten’s Turn of the Screw, plus two abridged versions – Britten’s Albert Herring and Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land – and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti at the now sadly discontinued One Opera in One Hour performances.
Candide is a work that seems to be coming into its own, and while it struggled on Broadway originally, its tuneful, high-spirited overture and the aria “Glitter and Be Gay” have been staples of orchestras and ambitious sopranos, respectively, for decades. Featured in this retelling of Voltaire’s 1759 satire about what really is the “best of all possible worlds” is tenor Myles Mykkanen as Candide and soprano Alisa Jordheim as Cunégonde, his love interest. Broadway veteran Ron Raines is Pangloss, and the beloved mezzo Denyce Graves is the Old Lady. Jay Lesenger, a frequent guest of the company, handles stage direction, and chief conductor David Stern directs the music (Feb. 23-25, Kravis Center).
The company’s other two mainstage productions are among the most popular operas in the world, starting with Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, first performed in 1900 and an audience favorite since. Set in Rome in 1800, it tells the story of the evil chief of police, Baron Scarpia, and his designs on the actress Floria Tosca, whose lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi, is allied with the underground resistance in a time of political repression. Scarpia will be sung by the much-admired baritone Michael Chioldi, a favorite of local audiences, while the role of Tosca will be shared by Palm Beach Gardens native Keri Alkema (Jan. 26 and 28) and Alexandra Loutsion (Jan. 27); Cavaradossi will be sung by the Italian tenor Riccardo Massi (Jan. 26, 28) and the American tenor Adam Diegel (Jan. 27), also a familiar face to local operagoers. Stern conducts a production directed by Fenlon Lamb, who like Lesenger frequently directs for Palm Beach Opera. (Jan. 26-28)
The third and final mainstage production is Mozart’s sublime The Marriage of Figaro, last seen in West Palm in 2009 in one of the best productions the company has given in its 56-year history. This great 1786 comedy about the love of Susanna and Figaro, which almost gets overturned by a randy count, is a masterpiece of the first order that changed what audiences began to expect from opera.
The Croatian tenor Marko Mimica makes his company debut as Figaro, and the American soprano Janai Brugger takes on Susanna. Company favorite Irene Roberts returns to share Cherubino (March 23 and 25) with Canadian mezzo Danielle MacMillan (March 24), who spent two years with the company as a Young Artist. David Adam Moore (March 23 and 25) and Brett Polegato (March 24) share the role of Count Almaviva, and his put-upon Countess is sung by Caitlin Lynch (March 23, 25); an as-yet unannounced soprano will sing the role on March 24. Colombian bass Valerio Lanchas is Dr. Bartolo, mezzo Elizabeth Bishop is Marcellina, and tenor Matthew DiBatista is Don Basilio. The Glyndebourne veteran Stephen Lawless directs, and Italian conductor Antonino Fogliani returns to the company to lead the music. (March 23-25, Kravis Center)
The company will open its season in December on West Palm Beach’s waterfront with a free outdoor concert, as it has done for the past several years. This year’s concert will feature a collaboration with The Ebony Chorale of the Palm Beaches, an African-American ensemble. (Dec. 9, Meyer Amphitheater, West Palm Beach)
Although the opera company has not brought back its singing competition, which ran for more than four decades, it still offers a gala with a megawatt star in February. This year’s special guest is Sondra Radvanovsky, who appears at The Breakers on Feb. 15 and will present a recital accompanied by pianist Anthony Manoli. Radvanovsky
opened the 2017-18 Metropolitan Opera season last month in the title role of Bellini’s Norma. She is best-known for her Verdi heroines including Elisabeth in Don Carlos.
Florida Grand Opera: In its 77th year, the Doral-based company’s general manager, Susan Danis, has decided to base its four productions on a quartet of very different heroines. Danis has moved the company decisively in a more modern production with coups such as a new production of Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra, Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger, and last year, Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls.
This year, she presents two company premieres, one a contemporary Spanish-language opera and another repertory staple from the Classical era, rounding out the season with a familiar bel canto opera and a classic of the German-language repertory from the early 20th century.
First up is Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, which will be FGO’s ninth production of this work, and the third one so far this century, it having been presented in 2005 and 2010. This time around, Anna Christy is the titular bride driven homicidally mad for four performances, sharing the role with the South Korean-born soprano Haeran Hong, who will handle three others. Edgardo will be sung by Joshua Guerrero and Jesus Leon; Enrico by Trevor Scheunemann and Troy Cook; Raimondo by Kristopher Irmiter and Simon Dyer; and Arturo by Chaz’men Williams-Ali and Benjamin Werley. Elise Sandell directs a production from the Houston Grand Opera, and Alexander Polianichko conducts. (Nov. 11-18, Ziff Ballet Opera House, Miami; Nov. 30 and Dec. 2, Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Fort Lauderdale)
Richard Strauss’s brilliant one-act Salome, based on a play by Oscar Wilde, comes next. This wonderfully decadent piece was considered obscene at its premiere in 1905, but is now standard repertory despite its great vocal difficulty. Melody Moore stars as the princess whose overwhelming desire for John the Baptist leads her to ask her father Herod for John’s head; Kristen Chambers sings the role for three of the seven performances. The fine bass-baritone Mark Delavan is John (or Jochanann), John Easterlin sings Herod and his wife Herodias is sung by Elizabeth Bishop, who also sings in PBO’s Figaro in March.
The veteran French opera director Bernard Uzan will direct the Pittsburgh Opera production, with former North Carolina Opera artistic director Timothy Myers leading the music. (Jan. 27-Feb. 3, Ziff Ballet Opera House; Feb. 8 and 10, Broward Center)
It seems hard to believe, but in more than 75 years, Florida Grand Opera has never mounted Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, the German composer’s best-known work, and one of his reform operas that broke with the opera seria tradition. This opera from 1774 is a recounting of the Greek myth of the musician who is allowed to return to Hades to rescue his dead wife on the stipulation that he not turn around and look at her until he returns to the surface.
The opera is now regularly done with countertenors as Orfeo, and one of the best-known young countertenors, Anthony Roth Costanzo (who did this role for Palm Beach Opera a few seasons back) will be starring in the role, sharing it with the very fine John Holiday, who made a strong impression at Palm Beach Opera’s vocal competition in 2011. Company stalwart Eglise Gutierrez, a fine Lucia in 2010, sings Euridice for five performances, with Jessica Jones in the role for two performances. Soprano Evan Kardon is Amore, god of love, for all performances. Director Keturah Stickann returns to FGO after a 13-year absence to stage the Seattle Opera production; conductor Anthony Barrese leads the music. (March 17-24, Ziff Ballet Opera House; March 29 and 31, Broward Center)
FGO’s season closes with the Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas, based on the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Catán’s 1996 opera was the first one in Spanish commissioned by an American opera company (actually three of them: Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle), and it has received a respectable number of performances since its premiere. Its score is highly reminiscent of Debussy and Fanciulla del West-era Puccini, and it lushness has made it popular with audiences otherwise averse to contemporary opera.
Florencia is the story of a Brazilian opera singer in the early 20th century who is returning to her homeland by boat in search of her lover, a butterfly hunter who has disappeared in the jungle. Florencia will be sung by Ana Maria Martinez for four of its five performances; Sandra Lopez will sing the fifth performance. Steven LaBrie is Riolobo, Cecilia Violetta Lopez is Rosalba, Andrew Bidlack is Arcadio, Paula is Mariya Kaganskaya, William Lee Bryan is Alvaro, and the Captain is sung by Rafael Porto. Ramón Tebar conducts the opera, which will be directed from an Opera Colorado production by Jose Maria Condemi. (April 28-May 5, Ziff Ballet Opera House)
Other attractions: The company’s 77th season gala is scheduled for Jan. 27 at the Ziff Ballet Opera House. “Night of the Seven Veils,” which is a reference to Salome, is a $1,000 ticket-and-up black-tie gathering that features dinner and dancing.
Sarasota Opera: Victor DeRenzi’s company made a permanent mark on the history of opera in America with its nearly 30-year project to present all of the works of Giuseppe Verdi, which wrapped last year. The works of Verdi were not part of the 2016-17 season, but the Italian giant is back this year in the fall shoulder of the Sarasota season. Some workhorse operas also are part of the season, as is a post-Wagner German rarity, all of which make it well worth the trip to downtown Sarasota to see an opera in the company’s beautiful house on Pineapple Avenue.
Sarasota began offering fall performances a few years ago, and the opera this year is Verdi’s deathless La Traviata, probably the composer’s most-performed, most popular work. The story of the doomed high-society courtesan Violetta Valery has won audiences since its debut in 1851, and the music remains wonderfully lovely and fresh. Soprano Elizabeth Tredent stars as Violetta, and David Guzman is her lover Alfredo Germont. The Italian baritone Marco Nistico, a frequently seen performer on all South Florida’s operatic stages, is Alfredo’s father Giorgio, and Laurel Semerdjian is Flora. DeRenzi conducts a production directed by Stephanie Sundine, who also is his wife. (Nov. 3-21, seven performances, Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota)
Also in November, Sarasota presents a world premiere children’s opera, Rootabaga Country, by the New York-based composer Rachel J. Peters. This Sarasota Youth Opera production is based on the work of the American writer Carl Sandburg, and Peters says it offers a message of tolerance and cultural inclusivity in a fraught political time. (Nov. 11 and 12, Sarasota Opera House)
The winter season begins with Giacomo Puccini’s breakthrough opera, Manon Lescaut, which still holds the stage despite it being not-yet-mature Puccini and saddled with a libretto that gets noticeably weak in the last two acts. But the first two acts of this opera based on the familiar Abbé Prevost story of Manon announce the arrival in the opera house of a major composer, and revivals of it are to be welcomed. Sandra Lopez stars as Manon, with Matthew Vickers as her lover the Chevalier Des Grieux. Lescaut will be sung by Filippo Fontana and the role of Geronte will be taken by Costas Tsourakis. Sundine is the stage director; DeRenzi conducts. (Feb. 10-March 24, nine performances, Sarasota Opera House)
Next up is an opera that is always listed as either the most popular of all time or in the top three, and that’s Georges Bizet’s Carmen, which premiered in 1875; Bizet died at age 36 three months later. It’s a tautly constructed melodrama with a score of nothing but hits, one after the other, and it shows no signs of ever losing its hold on the public. Lisa Chavez stars as the strong-minded cigarette worker who lures the foolish Don Jose into her romantic and criminal web. Cody Austin sings Jose, and Hanna Brammer Dillon is Micaela, the orphan girl with whom he grew up and who fails to bring him back home. Steven LaBrie is Escamillo, the toreador, and the production is directed by Martha Collins and conducted by John F. Spencer IV. (Feb. 17-March 24, 11 performances, Sarasota Opera House)
One of the most iconic bel canto operas follows, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, the story of a Druid priestess in ancient Gaul and forbidden love. Norma’s plea to the moon goddess, “Casta diva,” is surely Bellini’s best-known work, and it’s been identified with a number of great sopranos, perhaps Maria Callas most indelibly of all. Joanna Parisi sings the soprano title role, with mezzo Jennifer Black as her romantic rival Adalgisa. Cameron Schutza signs Pollione, the Roman proconsul who has fathered Norma’s two children, and Young Bok Kim is the archdruid Oroveso. Mark Freiman directs the stage action; DiRenzi conducts. (March 3-24, eight performances, Sarasota Opera House)
The last opera of the season is a rarity of rarities, Tiefland, a German-language opera from 1903 by Eugen d’Albert, a Scots-German composer and virtuoso pianist who was a student of Franz Liszt. D’Albert was hugely famous for his pianism in the early 20th century, and this opera in particular (he wrote no less than 21 of them) is repertory in Germany and Austria, but almost never done here. It’s the story of a woman named Marta, long the mistress of Sebastiano, a wealthy landowner who wants to marry a wealthy heiress. But he still wants to keep his mistress, and so plans to marry her off to one of his shepherds, Pedro. This leads to tragic complications, and d’Albert tells the story in highly Romantic, moody music. Soprano Kara Shay Thomson is Marta, and tenor Ben Gulley is Pedro. Sebastiano is sung by baritone Aleksey Bogdanov, and soprano Hanna Brammer Dillon is Marta’s friend Nuri. David Neely of the Des Moines Metro Opera conducts, and the opera will be directed by Michael Unger. (March 10-25, five performances, Sarasota Opera House)