The folks at OperaBase tell us there are more than 25,000 live opera performances across the globe each year, which says something about the durability and resilience of this art form that first saw daylight in 16th-century Florence.
Closer to home, the three major opera companies in this region – the Palm Beach and Florida Grand opera companies on the I-95 corridor, and the Sarasota Opera Company a 2½-hour drive west across the state – are offering a healthy helping of box-office certainties along with a couple off-the-beaten-path pieces to pique the interest of connoisseurs along with the general public.
Palm Beach Opera: Time was when this 57-year-old West Palm Beach company had four mainstage productions each year as well as a national singing contest for emerging opera singers. The company now does three, and has used its December slot (where the first of four productions was) to host concerts of big works such as the Beethoven Ninth and the Verdi Requiem. Most recently, it’s held free outdoor concerts at the Meyer Amphitheater on the Intracoastal Waterway.
This year, it will open its season in December with an indoor version of what the outdoor concert was largely about: Young opera singers. The concert, called “Rising Stars and Classic Melodies,” features members of the Beneson Young Artist Program in favorite selections from opera and Broadway; the eminent mezzo Stephanie Blythe will be the special guest. (Dec. 18, 7 p.m., Kravis Center)
The mainstage season proper opens with the most popular opera on the world’s stages over the past few years, Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, which premiered in 1853. The tragic tale of Violetta Valery, the consumptive French courtesan whose love for her man, Alfredo Germont, is so pure that she gives him up when his family objects to her line of work, is one of Verdi’s tightest, most lyrical creations, and it never fails to make a powerful impact. Russian soprano Kristina Mhkitaryan and American soprano Jacqueline Echols share the double-cast role of Violetta; Russian baritone Alexey Tatarintsev and American Derrek Stark appear as Alfredo on separate nights. The rising Italian director Fabio Ceresa handles the stage action, while Antonello Allemandi returns to lead the orchestra. (Jan. 25-27, three performances, Kravis Center)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s gripping Don Giovanni is up next, the 1787 story of a lecherous Spanish nobleman who kills the father of one of his conquests. Unpunished and unchastened, he continues seducing whomever he can until the statue that has been erected of the man he killed, the Commendatore, invites himself to dinner and drags Giovanni down to Hell. Director Kristine McIntyre will lead a Giovanni set in a film noir environment; baritones Andrei Bondarenko and Edward Nelson share Giovanni; Caitlin Linch and Sarah-Jane Brandon appear as Donna Anna, Danielle Pastin and Felicia Moore are Donna Elvira, and Danielle MacMillan is Zerlina, opposite Neil Nelson as Masetto. Palm Beach Opera artistic director David Stern conducts. (Feb. 22-24)
For its third and final mainstage production, Palm Beach Opera turns to the world of operetta, performing the best-known example of the genre, Die Fledermaus, by Johann Strauss II, first staged in 1874. It’s crammed with well-known melodies, and its farcical plot, which revolves around Dr. Falke’s plan to play a practical joke on Gabriel von Eisenstein (who had forced Falke to walk home from a masked ball dressed as a bat, hence the title of the work) at a party in Vienna hosted by Prince Orlofsky. Palm Beach Opera will present the work in English translation, which will show even more clearly how works like this were the forefathers of the American musical. Stephanie Blythe will sing Orlofsky (a mezzo-soprano trouser role), Zach Borichevsky is Eisenstein, Keri Alkema is Rosalinde, Anna Christy is Adele, Jack Swanson is Alfred, and Tobias Greenhalgh is Dr. Falke. Dona D. Vaughn directs, and Stern returns to the pit. (March 22-24)
Florida Grand Opera: The Doral-based company was planning to bid farewell to its general director, Susan Danis, who had announced she was departing for California to lead the La Jolla Music Society. But Danis is remaining with the company following an incident in which a former FGO employee sent a letter to La Jolla critical of her, which he later retracted. In any case, this season bears her stamp, focusing as it does on compelling female characters. FGO performs at two venues: the Ziff Ballet Opera House in the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Arts complex in downtown Miami, and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, where the two final performances of most company productions take place.
FGO opens its 78th season with Giacomo Puccini’s ageless La Bohème, the 1896 opera that made his career and which served as the basis of Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent a century later. In 1830s Paris, four young, starving artists inhabit a freezing garret which becomes much warmer when a seamstress named Mimi encounters one of them, a poet named Rodolfo. The lovers break up, a sadness that turns bleak when Mimi, who has tuberculosis, returns to the apartment where she met Rodolfo as her illness has turned terminal. Adrienn Miksch is Mimi, Alessandro Scotto di Luzio is Rodolfo; Marcello is sung by Trevor Scheunemann opposite Jessica E. Jones as Musetta. Ramon Tebar conducts a staging by Jeffrey Marc Buchman. (Nov. 3-17; four performances in Miami, two in Broward)
While Palm Beach Opera is doing Don Giovanni, FGO is presenting another of the Mozart operas with libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte, The Marriage of Figaro. Based on a play by the French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, it takes a stab at relations between the working classes and aristocrats, a message that in retrospect was seen as a warning of the French Revolution that was about to erupt. In the opera, which in any case dispenses with most of that, Count Almaviva’s manservant, Figaro, is to be married to Susanna, but the married, philandering count wants to seduce her. After many deceptions, disguises and broad comedy, all ends happily in praise of the power of love. Familiar FGO faces include the fine comic baritone Jonathan Michie as Count Almaviva, Lyubov Petrova as the countess, Elena Galván as Susanna and Calvin Griffin as Figaro. Andrew Bisantz conducts a staging by Elise Sandell. (Jan. 26-Feb. 9, four performances in Miami, two in Broward)
American composer Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s Frida, which chronicles the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera, premiered in 1991 and has had numerous performances since, particularly for companies looking for ways to recognize diversity and strong female characters. The third production in the season, it features soprano Catalina Cuervo, who has specialized in this role in recent years. Rodriguez’s music is contemporary, but it also makes use of Mexican folk music styles, something familiar to Rodriguez, a native of San Antonio, Texas. And it is also a Spanish-language opera, which Danis has been careful to add to each season (the last two seasons saw Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas, and Jorge MartÍn’s Before Night Falls). Joining Cuervo in this production is bass-baritone Jorge Herrera as Rivera, and a large case of FGO Studio Artists in supporting roles. Marco Pelle directs the production, which will be conducted by Roberto Kalb. In a bid to reach more audiences, FGO will perform the opera twice at the Miramar Cultural Center, three times at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium, and twice at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale. (March 16-30)
FGO closes its season with French opera, Jules Massenet’s Werther, not seen here since 1996. First staged in 1892, the opera is based on Goethe’s novel, which after its publication in 1774 caused Werther-fever across Europe, with young readers imitating its tragic young artistic hero in dress, artistic pursuits, and unfortunately, a spike in suicides. Werther, a poet and diplomat, falls in love with Charlotte, and she him, but she has promised her dying mother she will marry Albert. She does, and while Werther is pursued by Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister, it is Charlotte he cannot live without. Tenor Dmitri Pittas debuts with FGO as Werther, opposite Daniela Mack as Charlotte; Evan Kardon is Sophie, and Benjamin Dickerson is Albert. Joseph Mechavich conducts an FGO production; no stage director had been named by presstime. (April 27-May 11, four performances in Miami, two in Broward)
Sarasota Opera: Victor DeRenzi’s company, which gives its performances in its own beautiful theater on Pineapple Avenue in downtown Sarasota, has also distinguished itself by its remarkable 26-year presentation of the entire corpus of the works of Giuseppe Verdi. This year, the company presents mostly Italian opera and adds a new three-concert recital series of art songs.
Sarasota Opera presents operas in the fall and winter; one of the two operas in the fall is a work for children. In October, the fall opera will be Gioachino Rossini’s deathless The Barber of Seville, the 1816 story of how Figaro thwarts the plans of Dr. Bartolo to marry his much younger ward, Rosina, so she can marry her lover, the student Lindoro, who actually turns out to be the Count Almaviva in disguise. (In the sequel, The Marriage of Figaro, we see that their marriage has turned out to be rocky.) Filippo Fontana is Figaro, and Lisa Chavez is Rosina. Victor Ryan Robertson is Almaviva, and Dr. Bartolo is sung by Stefano de Peppo, with Young Bok Kim as Don Basilio. DeRenzi conducts a staging by Stephanie Sundine. (Oct. 26-Nov. 11, six performances).
The children’s opera this fall is The Little Sweep, Benjamin Britten’s 1949 opera about a child apprenticed to a cruel chimney sweep (the year is 1810) whose friends try to free him from his bondage. The audience is supposed to serve as the chorus, with music handed to concertgoers as they take their seats. The cast includes Nicole Woodward as Miss Baggott, Samuel Schlievert as Clem, and Brent Hetherington as Big Bob. Jesse Martins conducts; Martha Collins handles the stage. (Nov. 3 and 4)
The winter season features four productions, and five operas (the last production being two one-acts), performed in repertory. The season opens with Puccini’s Turandot, his last and most magnificent opera, not quite finished at his death from complications of throat cancer in 1924. Since its premiere two years later, it’s been performed with an ending supplied by a contemporary of Puccini’s, Franco Alfano. Often described as the last opera in the old Italian tradition and the last one to be written that audiences everywhere unreservedly love, it is a story set in ancient China, ruled by an aged emperor and his willful daughter, the princess Turandot.
Citing the rape of one of her ancestors, she offers her many suitors only a series of riddles that he must answer successfully or lose his head. The challenge is taken up by a mysterious stranger who turns out to the Prince Calaf, fleeing with his father and a devoted servant girl, Liu, from the overthrow of their kingdom. Kara Shay Thomson sings the forbidding role of Turandot, and Calaf is sung by Jonathan Burton (his Act III romanza, “Nessun dorma,” may be the opera aria the general public knows best). Liu is sung by Anna Mandina, and Filippo Fontana sings Ping, one of the three court officials. Sundine is the stage director, and DeRenzi directs the music. (Feb. 9-March 22, 13 performances)
Next up is Mozart’s singspiel (a precursor to operetta and the Broadway musical; it has spoken dialogue), The Magic Flute, which premiered only two months before the composer’s death at 35 in 1791. A brilliant, Masonic-influenced work (Mozart was a loyal Mason, as was the librettist, his lodge brother Emmanuel Schikaneder) that’s also quite ridiculous and has broad opportunities for comedy, it concerns Prince Tamino, who is sent by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter, Pamina, from the clutches of Sarastro, the high priest of Isis and Osiris. He is aided in his quest by a magic flute and a bird catcher named Papageno. Andrew Surrena is Tamino, and Hanna Bremer is Pamina (except on `March 1, when Adelaide Boedecker steps in). Matthew Hanscom is Papageno, Sarastro is Brian Kontes, and the Queen of the Night is Alexandra Batsios. Jesse Martins conducts, and the stagecraft is handled by Mark Freiman. (Feb. 16-March 23, nine performances)
The music of Verdi is back for the third production in his breakout opera, Nabucco, whose first performance in 1842 was one of the legendary nights of Italian theater history, particularly because of its choral aria “Va, pensiero,” the song of enslaved Jews longing to be freed from captivity. The plot concerns Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon (aka Nabucodonosor in Italian, or Nabucco for short), whose daughter, Fenena, has fallen in love with Ismaele, nephew of the king of Jerusalem. Scheming against Nabucco is his elder daughter, Abigaille, who seizes the throne after a bolt of lightning renders Nabucco mad. Singing Nabucco for Sarasota will be baritone Stephen Gaertner, with soprano Rochelle Bard as Abigaille and soprano Lisa Chavez as Fenena; as Ismaele is tenor Ben Gulley. Martha Collins stage-directs, and DeRenzi conducts. (March 2-24, eight performances)
The final production includes two operas of relatively rare provenance, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Il Segreto di Susanna (Susanna’s Secret), and Gaetano Donizetti’s Rita. The Wolf-Ferrari opera, a charming piece about a young wife whose keeping something hidden from her husband, perhaps an affair, was better-known in the years after its premiere in 1909, but is enjoying something of a renaissance. The Donizetti opera was written in 1841 and not performed until 1860, a dozen years after Donizetti’s death. It, too, has come into in its own, both in its original French and in Italian translation. In this one-act, Rita and her henpecked husband Peppe are shocked when Gaspar, Rita’s first husband, who vanished and was presumed dead, returns in search of Rita’s death certificate, believing her, too, to be dead. Gaspar and Peppe have a card game to determine who will be Rita’s husband. Baritone Marco Nistico is Count Gil in Susanna, and Gaspar in Rita; soprano Elizabeth Tredent is Susanna and Rita, and tenor William Davenport is Peppe and the servant Sante in Il Segreto di Susanna. J.J. Hudson is the stage director for the one-acts, and Marcello Cormio conducts. (March 9-23, six performances)
Other opera: The South Florida Symphony is aiming for the heights this season with a staging of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, by common critical consent the greatest of all American operas. For the three performances of an abridged version of this masterwork, conductor Sebrina Alfonso will lead her orchestra in a staging of the work that will use costumes from the original 1935 production and video mapping to create the Catfish Row sets. The orchestra has managed to land the eminent Broadway director Richard Jay-Alexander to stage-direct the cast, which includes baritone Neil Nelson, seen earlier this summer in Palm Beach Opera’s pop-up summer concerts. Gershwin’s opera will be staged three times: Jan. 16 at the Arsht Center in Miami, Jan. 19 at the Tennessee Williams Theatre in Key West, and Jan. 23 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. [Call 954-522-8445 or visit www.southfloridasymphony.org]
The scrappy Opera Fusion company founded by soprano Birgit Fioravante weighs in for the Halloween festivities with two performances of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s The Medium, the Italian-American composer and librettist’s 1946 tale of a phony medium who encounters the real supernatural. Opera Fusion, which has presented an original opera by Fort Lauderdale composer Michael Ross about the killing of Wyoming LGBT teen Matthew Shepard (Not in My Town) and Bela Bartok’s two-hander Bluebeard’s Castle, will present the Menotti opera Oct. 26 at the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale and Oct. 28 at Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in West Palm Beach. [For tickets, visit operafusion.org or pay at the door]