The three major opera companies in the South Florida region are sticking to the mostly tried-and-true this season, but there are enough surprises to make it a good few months for the opera veteran, too.
Palm Beach Opera: Over the summer, General Director Daniel Biaggi stepped down from his post in search of new challenges, but will stick around for a little while to allow the new director, David Walker, to feel comfortable at the helm. Biaggi has done an admirable job in rethinking the company as it made the painful transition from the fat budgets of 20 years ago to one that is leaner but smarter about its productions, and he will be missed.
One sticking point over the years has been the number of the company’s productions. Once Palm Beach Opera presented four productions a season, beginning in December, but cut that to three for budgetary reasons. It’s replaced that December production with symphonic repertoire and outdoor concerts, but this year, it’s replacing it with — opera.
The Young Artists of the company will star in Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel, a beautiful, Wagnerian work based on the Grimm fairy tale that has become a Christmas staple in other parts of the operatic world. And they’ll be doing it at Delray Beach’s Crest Theatre, a restored 1920s schoolhouse. It should make a good home for this presentation, which includes a set made entirely of paper. (Dec. 6-8, tickets: $25-$75)
The company formally opens its season with the last great opera in the Italian tradition, Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, the tale of a cruel princess of ancient China who forces her suitors to answer three riddles to win her hand, then has them executed after they fail. An exiled prince named Calaf, traveling with his father and their maid Liu, decides to take on Turandot and try his luck.
The opera’s Act III opens with Calaf singing “Nessun dorma” (“None shall sleep”), probably the opera aria best known to the public at large today. Puccini died in 1924 while being treated for throat cancer, having finished all but the last scene of the opera. It was completed by composer Franco Alfano for the premiere in 1926.
Alexandra Loutsion sings Turandot opposite Stefano La Colla as Calaf, with Leah Crocetto as Liu in two of three performances (Friday and Sunday afternoon); the roles are taken by Alexandra LoBianco, Hovhannes Ayvazya and Anastasia Schegole on Saturday. Keturah Stickann directs, with musical direction by David Stern. (Jan. 24-26, Kravis Center)
Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville is up next, easily the most popular and well-known of all operas in the bel canto tradition of the early 19th century. This charming comedy, which debuted in 1816, concerns Rosina, a ward of Dr. Bartolo, with whom the Count Almaviva is in love. But Bartolo, aging though he is, wants to marry Rosina. To thwart him, Almaviva turns to the cleverest man in town: the barber Figaro. Mezzo Daniela Mack makes her company debut at Rosina, with Andrew Manea as Figaro, Taylor Staton as Almaviva and Renato Girolami as Bartolo. Joshua Major directs, with Stern leading in the pit. (Feb. 28-March 1)
Palm Beach Opera closes its season with a company premiere, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The most well-known of the Russian master’s operas, it’s an intimate story drawn from Pushkin of a young woman named Tatiana who is passionately in love with Onegin. She writes a letter laying bare her feelings for him, but he rejects her. Years later, consumed with regret, he returns to seek out Tatiana, now a married woman. Baritone and company favorite Michael Chioldi is Onegin opposite Russian soprano Svetlana Aksenova as Tatiana (Friday and Sunday); Vladislav Kupriyanov and Yelena Dyacheck take the roles Saturday night. The stage director for this lovely score is Tomer Zvulun, director of the Atlanta Opera; no music director had been announced as of late September. (March 28-30; call 561-832-7469 for tickets)
Florida Grand Opera: The Doral-based troupe marks its 78th season with three mainstay operas and one 18th-century rarity. General Manager Susan Danis had announced her departure for California earlier in the year, where she was to take command of the La Jolla Music Society, but decided to remain at Florida Grand after a dustup over a complaint about FGO’s management from a former member of the company.
Florida Grand performs its operas at the Ziff Ballet Opera House, part of the Adrienne Arsht Center in downtown Miami, then does two final performances at the Broward Center for the Arts in Fort Lauderdale.
First up is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni, his epic 1787 version of the Don Juan legend as told by his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Giovanni, a young, licentious Spanish nobleman, kills the Commendatore, the father of one of his conquests, setting up an opera-long pursuit of him as he continues to seduce every woman he can find. Elliot Madore is Giovanni, Elizabeth de Trejo is Anna, Elizabeth Caballero is Elvira, and Nicolas Huff is Ottavio. Asleif Willmer is Zerlina opposite Michael Miller as Masetto; Giovanni’s put-upon servant Leporello is sung by Federico De Michelis in Miami, and Rafael Porto in Fort Lauderdale. The opera is directed by Mo Zhou; no music director has yet been announced. (Six performances from Nov. 19 to Dec. 7)
Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is next, a beloved weepie and box-office certainty that audiences have embraced since its debut in 1904 (except for the world premiere). Based on a play by David Belasco, Butterfly is the story of a Japanese teenager who rejects her culture and family to marry Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a young American Navy officer. He departs shortly after their marriage, only to return three years later married to someone else. Sandra Lopez is this most tragic of heroines, Joshua Guerrero is Pinkerton, Stephany Pena is Suzuki, and Morgan Smith is Sharpless, the American consul. E. Loren Meeker directs, with Ramon Tebar at the podium. (Six performances from Jan. 18 to Feb. 1)
FGO returns to Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto for its third production, an opera it has presented twice in recent years. This 1851 classic of Verdi’s early maturity tells the story of a jester at the court of the lustful Duke of Mantua who mocks the courtiers whose womenfolk have fallen prey to the duke. But Rigoletto’s own daughter Gilda, carefully hidden away from the world, succumbs to the charming nobleman, and Rigoletto plans revenge. Todd Thomas is Rigoletto, with Piotr Buszewski as the Duke, and Jessica E. Jones as Gilda. Kathleen Belcher directs, with Pacien Mazzagatti of New York City Opera leading the orchestra. (Six performances from March 28 to May 2)
The last production in the season is a rarity, Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Marriage) by the Italian composer Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801). Of his 80-plus operas, this is the only one that gets revived, and it’s a sweet buffa about a wealthy father trying to marry off one of his daughters, Elisetta, to a count without knowing that his other daughter, Carolina, is secretly married to the household secretary, Paolino. The opera will be performed in Spanish rather than the original Italian, and at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium in downtown Miami. Rafael Porto is Geronimo, Asleif Wilmer and Shaina Martinez are daughters Carolina and Elisetta, Stephany Peña is Fidalma, the girls’ aunt, Nicholas Huff is Paolino and Nathan Matticks is Count Robinson. Crystal Manich directs, and Emily Senturia leads the orchestra. (Four performances, April 18-26; ticket information: 800-741-1010)
Sarasota Opera: Victor DeRenzi’s repertory company in southwest Florida always offers plenty of reason to take the day and drive over to the other side of the state for opera in a beautiful 1,100-seat theater in the heart of Sarasota’s downtown on Pineapple Avenue.
DeRenzi made operatic history over the past three decades with performances of the complete operas (and all their variants) of Giuseppe Verdi, which took 26 years to accomplish. Verdi returns to the house to open the new season:
The winter opera festival opens with Verdi’s Rigoletto, which also is being presented by Florida Grand Opera this season. Sarasota’s version stars company regular Marco Nisticò as Rigoletto, Hanna Brammer as Gilda, William Davenport as the Duke of Mantua, Young Bok Kim as the assassin Sparafucile and Annie Chester as his sister, Maddalena. DeRenzi conducts a staging by Stephanie Sundine. (Six performances from Nov. 1-17)
The second production is by the Sarasota Youth Opera company, and it’s a special one, the children’s opera Brundibár, by the modernist Czech composer Hans Krasa. Written in the 1930s, it occupies a special place in World War II lore because it was performed 55 times at the Nazi concentration camp Terezin; Krasa did not survive the camps, nor did virtually all of the cast except two children. It’s the charming tale of two kids who go out to buy milk for their mother, but are thwarted by the evil organ-grinder Brundibár. But the kids eventually win out, with the help of some friends from the animal kingdom. Martha Collins directs the two performances, with Jesse Martins conducting. (Nov. 15-16)
Giacomo Puccini’s most beloved opera, La Bohème, follows next. A repertory item almost immediately after its premiere in February 1896, it’s the story (later borrowed for Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent) of four starving artists in the Paris of the 1830s. One of their number, the writer Rodolfo, meets cute with another resident of their chilly apartment building, the seamstress Mimì, who has come to get a light for her candle. This opera never fails to enchant audiences with its flow of memorable melody and dramatic melodrama, and remains one of the most popular works of operatic theater ever composed. William Davenport is Rodolfo, and Anna Mandina is Mimì, with Filippo Fontana as Marcello and Jessica Sandidge as Musetta. Mark Freiman stage directs, DeRenzi conducts. (Thirteen performances from Feb. 8 to March 21)
Time was at the beginning of the last century when Charles Gounod’s Faust was the French composer’s most-performed opera, but you’d be hard-pressed to find it revived much today, at least in regional opera houses. That’s not the case with Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, premiered in 1867, which is much more frequently seen these days, not least because of its familiar Shakespeare story. Hanna Brammer is Juliette, Andrew Surrena is Roméo, Lisa Chavez is Gertrude, Matthew Hanscom sings Mercutio, and Ricardo Lugo is Frère Laurent. Collins stage-directs, and Anthony Barrese handles the musical duties. (Nine performances from Feb. 15-March 20)
Next comes Gaetano Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love), a comic melodrama from 1832 that tells the story of Nemorino, who is in love with the indifferent Adina, and buys a love potion from a quack doctor in a bid to win her over. Donizetti’s melodic gifts are on exemplary display in this opera, particularly in the aria “Una furtiva lagrima.” Adelaide Boedecker sings Adina, and Geoffrey Agpalo is Nemorino, with John Viscardi as Belcore and Stefano de Peppo as Doctor Dulcamara. Marco Nisticò goes from the stage to the director’s chair, and John F. Spencer IV conducts. (Seven performances from Feb. 22-March 21)
Sarasota closes its season with La Wally, the best-known opera of the short-lived Alfredo Catalani. Premiered in 1892, it is a deeply tragic story based in Austria’s Tyrol Mountains where a young woman named Walburga, or Wally for short, is in love with Hagenbach, who doesn’t return her love. He, in fact, is the son of her father’s sworn enemy, and the opera ends in dramatic fashion when an avalanche carries both Hagenbach and Wally away. Teresa Romano is Wally opposite Rafael Davila’s Hagenbach, while Sean Anderson is Gellner, Jessica Sandidge is Walter, and Lisa Chavez is Afra, with Young Bok Kim as Stromminger, Wally’s father. Sundine directs, DeRenzi conducts. (Six performances from March 7-22; for ticket information, call 941-328-1300.)