Editor’s note: This story has been reposted to correct errors.
By Rex Hearn
Sarasota Opera’s season in February and March each year has three weekends to suit the traveling operagoer.
This year’s offerings were Don Giovanni, The Crucible, La Bohème and I Lombardi.
I wasn’t able to attend La Bohème, but here are summaries of the rest of the Sarasota season:
A sprightly 93-year-old Robert Ward came to Sarasota to hear the company sing his 50-year-old opera on opening night from his retirement home in Raleigh, N.C.
Commissioned by the Ford Foundation in 1961, The Crucible is the first and most successful of Ward’s five operas. Last summer I saw Arthur Miller’s play, upon which it is based, and thought it wordy. In cutting the dialogue to fit the music, librettist Bernard Stambler improves the dramatic content of this story of mass hysteria by Salem’s village girls.
Ward’s music is written in an eclectic style, influenced by Puccini, Copland and a little Schoenberg in the parlando style of delivering the dialogue. Indeed, this opera is much more thrilling than Miller’s long-winded play. The condensed scenes never compromise the original. The music enhances them in climax after climax, with orchestral and vocal crescendos fit to sear ones ears, as the moment of truth, or betrayal, draws nearer.
This powerful opera, which was given a strikingly brilliant performance, goes to the heart of this company’s success. Nine studio artists and eight apprentice artists were in the full cast of 21 singers, and enormous risk in casting terms. But it was a production that ranks in the top level of professional regional opera .
Everyone was first-rate in acting, voice and diction (the opera is sung in English). The preparation by Richard Cordova and Giovanni Longo paid off handsomely – each singer also had a cover! Stage director Michael Unger stayed close to Miller’s drama and made it wholly believable. David Neely conducted with understanding and flair.
And now for the young cast. Steven Uliana’s high tenor suited his role as Rev. Samuel Parris. His daughter, Betty, sung by mezzo Tania Marie Rodriguez, was his equal in voice and characterization. Tituba, the black servant girl accused of dancing naked in the woods with village girls, was brilliantly played and sung by contralto, Nicole Mitchell. A tour de force.
Lindsay Barche’s Abigail Williams, the deceitful mistress of lead character John Proctor, was perfection. She has a soaring, lovely soprano voice. Lindsay Ohse, soprano, sang a very convincing role as Ann Putnam. Baritone Dimitrie Lazich sang superbly as her husband, Thomas. Lazich has a voice of great magnitude and clarity, and he is surely a talent to watch.
Sean Anderson, as John Proctor, is a remarkable talent. He has a strong, beautifully produced voice, comparable to Mark Delevan’s rich, sonorous baritone. Completely immersed in his role defending his honor against the women of Salem village, he had to break character with a deep breath as he took his bow to thunderous and well-deserved applause.
Bradley Smoak, bass, sang well as Francis Nurse. His wife, Rebecca, was beautifully portrayed by mezzo Kaitlin Bertenshaw: what a lovely, honeyed timbre she has.
Fresh from his triumph the night before, when he substituted for Don Ottavio, tenor Heath Huberg gave a nicely drawn characterization as an older gentleman, Giles Corey. Bass Jeffrey Tucker, a seasoned opera singer, was perfection as the older Rev. John Hale, seeking reason, appealing for calm amid the mass hysteria.
Mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson, as Elizabeth Proctor, was brilliant. Her lovely voice and superb acting made this central character sympathetic and very believable. Lara Michole Tillotson brought meaning to her wavering character of Mary Warren. It was a fine interpretation of this easily led girl who loses her moral compass. Judge Danforth, as sung by seasoned opera artist Matthew Edwardsen was excellent; his stentorian tenor was very commanding.
Other roles, all apprentice artists, were capably sung by Bernard Holcomb, Leah Dexter, Carolina Castell, Melissa Mino, Jennifer Townshend, Rebecca Caliendo and Leah Kaye Serr. Each one of these singers deserves kudos for what was perhaps the highlight of the weekend operas I saw.
European opera houses have the reputation of turning out “refined” productions of Mozart. Closer to home, 170 miles from here, one could experience this European style in Sarasota’s Don Giovanni, which was both refined and excellent.
The strong cast with superb voices would have pleased Amadeus and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte. What is the secret? It’s a matter of scale.
In the “bigger is better’” mindset that has dominated the building of so many of our city and state opera houses over the last 50 years, architects looked askance at the smaller European houses. Not so, Sarasota.
The company’s restored vaudeville theater has about 1,000 seats, which gives their productions a special intimacy. European houses average 800 to 900 seats, and this intimacy serves the singer well. Bel canto techniques are enhanced because the singer is not tempted to push the voice as at the Met with its 3,800 seats.
In this Don Giovanni, every singer excelled. Baritone Lee Poulis led an ensemble cast with hubris and aplomb. His Don was smooth, with a subtle swagger, striking the right master/servant relationship to his man, Leporello. Poulis has an equally smooth baritone voice, flexible enough to take him through the minefield of Mozart’s patter songs.
He was a very likable Don, not the villainous sod one so regularly sees. I found his interpretation refreshing. Andrew Gangestad, bass, was the reluctant servant, Leporello. His voice kept pace with the Don’s, in a fine portrayal that lacked the usual obsequiousness associated with this role.
Christina Pier, as Donna Anna, daughter to the murdered Commendatore, sang her arias with passion and musicality: it is difficult to sustain this high-pitched soprano role without seeming to scream or go slightly sharp by the end of the opera. Pier was pitch-perfect all night long.
Her fiancé, Don Ottavio, was sung by a last-minute substitution, tenor Heath Huberg. Had this been his Broadway debut, Variety would have led with the headline “High on Heath” the next morning.
Huberg’s rendition of Il mio tesoro in Act II won long and rapturous applause. His tenor got stronger and stronger as the aria continued, and his breath control in the second half was superb for one so young. His role as the supportive fiancé was nicely paced; with his good looks and steady stage presence he will be in demand, here and in Europe.
Another brilliant performance came from soprano Danielle Walker, jilted lover of the Don. Hers is a golden soprano, easy on the ear in the difficult tunes Mozart gives her as Donna Elvira. Patrick McNally’s Masetto was excellent as the country boy who must confront the Don for trying to seduce his girl friend, Zerlina.
In the many productions I’ve seen, he rates tops. He never cowers, but comes across full of spirit and fight. His rolling baritone kept pace with the music and he is another talent to watch.
Lastly, among the singers, Sarah Asmar’s Zerlina was wonderful. She struck the right attitude, never letting the Don overwhelm her, and winning back Masetto’s love in a very fine Batti, batti. Her cajoling was a joy to watch.
Stage director Peter Kozma created a fertile field which this ensemble cast used to great effect. A good direction of this opera that made it knit together seamlessly. Anthony Barrese conducted with a brisk baton, drawing the best from his cast of fine singers.
A truly inspiring production – better than at Salzburg, home of Mozart, I’d dare to say.
Verdi must have been very conflicted when he wrote this opera.
Known to be an agnostic in later life, it is clear he was wrestling with faith-based religious problems back in 1843, the year he turned 30. In this opera about the First Crusade by the Kingdom of Lombardy, one character, Giselda, goes over to Islam. Verdi has her sing “The same God shall have my prayers” as she prays for her lover, Oronte, a Muslim. In Act III, before he dies of battle wounds, Oronte is baptized into Christianity with water from the river Jordan.
After the success of Nabucco in 1842 at La Scala, Verdi was offered a blank check to write another opera by impresario Bartolomeo Merelli. Demanding the same fee Bellini got for Norma, he set to work. Sadly, it smacks of a young man in a hurry. Temistocle Solera, his librettist, wrote a ramshackle set of scenes that turn Verdi’s music on its head. He was in a hurry too, no doubt.
This does not reflect on Sarasota Opera’s fine production, the 27th in its Verdi Cycle. The company performs versions written in French and some revisions. Try as he may, Verdi could not recreate another Nabucco, though it rivaled its predecessor in popularity back in 1843. Time has proven otherwise.
Sarasota Opera’s production is a worthwhile endeavor, if only for the reason that the public has an opportunity to see and hear it. Chorus master Roger Bingaman is to be congratulated: there are so many choruses, and his singers do him proud. Sadly, none of the choruses come near to approaching Va, pensiero in Nabucco.
Outstanding in the cast was Rafael Davila as Oronte. He is the perfect Verdi tenor. One could not hear a better voice of such enormous heft, not even at The Met.
Kevin Short’s bass-baritone is another stunning instrument worthy of the high esteem in which the local audience holds him. This is his seventh appearance in Sarasota. As Pagano and later a hermit, his voice rolls into the depths and heights of Verdi’s solos, making them sound easy, which it is not the case.
Abla Lynn Hamza as Giselda was wonderful, too. Her dramatic soprano rang through the house in the powerful Salve Maria. Victor DeRenzi conducted with the assurance of a Verdi expert.
A violin solo introduces Act IV, brilliantly played by concertmaster Liang-Ping How. Almost the length of a Vivaldi violin concerto, it is a very beautiful piece of music. A tremendous ovation followed How’s sympathetic playing.
A Risorgimento concert ended the season, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, which until 1861 had been a series of little kingdoms. Verdi, as a senator of the new republic wrote, ‘’They can do what they wish, intrigue as much as they like. Those who strive to impose themselves by brute force will not succeed in cheating the people of their rights!” A somewhat accurate prediction of what is happening on the south side of the Mediterranean Sea today.
Of note in the concert was Maria D’Amato’s gorgeous soprano singing the Libera me, Domine from the original Requiem Mass for Rossini (to which many other composers contributed), backed by a very fine chorus.
Finally, it must be said that the 65-member Sarasota Opera Orchestra sounded marvelous at this concert and throughout their accompaniment of the many operas.
Next winter’s Sarasota Opera festival begins Feb. 11 and ends March 25. Bizet’s Carmen opens the season, followed by Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Verdi’s Otello, and Samuel Barber’s Vanessa. The fall opera, which runs from Oct. 28 to Nov. 15, is Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. For more information, or for tickets, call 941-366-8450.