It may be that the biggest news of the American operatic world has been the drama over at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which has only just settled things with its crews after 18 months of COVID hiatus.
But local opera companies have stayed in the game, too, perhaps none more so than Palm Beach Opera, which mounted an outdoor festival in February at the iThink Financial Amphiteatre that featured some of the loftiest names in the industry, voices that had been idled by the pandemic.
With vaccination rates allowing a cautious return to the opera house, the area’s troupes have planned full seasons.
Palm Beach Opera
West Palm Beach’s 60-year-old company announced in early September that it will be moving its headquarters to the former Center for Creative Education building in Northwood, and plans to renovate the structure and turn it into its ideal home, with rehearsal and performance space to boot. Adding to the interest is its decision to make its home in a rising, artsy neighborhood and give the city’s revitalization efforts in that area a boost.
Not wanting to miss out on December, the company is offering a single performance that month to start its season, presenting Henry Purcell’s 1689 opera Dido and Aeneas outdoors Dec. 11 at the Norton Museum Sculpture Garden. This story of desperate love that ends in tragedy is the length of a one-act and features Purcell’s great melodic and rhythmic gifts in abundance. Its best-known excerpt, “Dido’s Lament” (“When I am laid in earth”), is perhaps the best-known aria in all of Baroque opera. It will be led by the company’s choral director, Gregory Ritchey, and be performed by members of the company’s resident artists. A pre-concert dinner and post-concert reception are part of the evening. (Dec. 11, Norton Museum of Art)
The company will open its mainstage season with a work it has frequently presented over the years, Georges Bizet’s Carmen, which not long after its premiere in 1875 took Europe by storm and has not lost audiences since. It’s usually a star vehicle for its mezzo-soprano lead, and its melodramatic story of an erotically powerful woman who wins over a naïve Spanish officer before the tragedy of possessive love steps in, plus its abundance of marvelous tunes, make it a safe choice to open a season in an uneasy time. Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges stars as Carmen, with Migran Agadzhanyan as Don José; for the Saturday performance, Rihab Chaieb is Carmen and Jonathan Burton is Don José. Belarussian bass-bariton Anatoli Sivko debuts as Escamillo and Amanda Woodbury is Micaëla. Garnett Bruce returns to Palm Beach Opera to direct; Italian conductor Antonello Allemandi, another returning artist, leads the orchestra. (Jan. 28-30, Kravis Center)
Arriving in the second slot is a much-beloved bel canto opera that has not been seen at Palm Beach Opera for some time, Gaetano Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love (L’elisir d’amore). Premiered in 1832, it’s a charming story of a peasant named Nemorino who is in love with a beautiful landowner, Adina, who plays hard to get, leading him to spend all his money on a bogus love potion from a traveling quack. The best-known aria in the score is Nemorino’s “Una furtiva lagrima” (“One furtive tear”), which has been a staple of the tenor repertory for more than a century. Singing Adina will be Andriana Chuchman; her Nemorino is Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang. Alexey Lavrov sings Belcore, and Musa Ngqungwana is Dulcamara. Stage direction is by a familiar face at PB Opera, Fenlon Lamb, and the company’s artistic director, David Stern, leads the music. (Feb. 25-27, Kravis Center)
The final production of the season will be Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow, the best-known work of this fluent Hungarian composer of light music, and a hugely successful one since its 1905 premiere. It concerns Hanna Glawari, a rich widow from the fictional Balkan country of Pontevedro, which needs her to keep her money in the country to keep it from going bankrupt. The schemes that ensue take place around the country’s embassy in Paris, which allows the action to move to Maxim’s, already at that time a restaurant hot spot. Lehar’s score includes familiar selections such as “Vilja,” “I’m Going to Maxim’s,” and “The Merry Widow Waltz.” Palm Beach Opera will perform the work in English translation, and says the production, directed by Helena Binder, will have an Art Deco flavor. Jennifer Rowley sings Hanna and Andrew Manea is Danilo. Joining them are Elizabeth Sutphen (Valencienne), Duke Kim (Camille), and Metropolitan Opera stalwart Dwayne Croft as Baron Zeta. Making his company debut as conductor will be Ward Stare, who has led performances of this work at the Met and Vancouver Opera. (March 25-27, Kravis Center)
Another highlight of the season is the annual fundraising gala, which takes place in February and features a major opera celebrity. The guest this year is a hometown heroine who went to the Dreyfoos School of the Arts right behind Kravis Center, soprano Nadine Sierra. The one-time Delray Beach resident has become an internationally known opera star since her appearances as Euridice in Gluck’s Orfeo and Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto for Palm Beach Opera. Sierra will sing at the gala, which is set for Feb. 7 at The Breakers.
The opera also has named two co-chairs of its 60th anniversary season, the legendary mezzo Denyce Graves and the pop singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, who has recently branched into opera.
For more information, call 833-7888 or visit pbopera.org.
Florida Grand Opera
Florida Grand Opera has well and truly moved past the older model it followed a decade or so ago, with a focus on standard repertoire that would be good box office.
Under Susan Danis, it has mounted a revival of Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra in a stunning-looking production, and Soviet Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger, a grim Holocaust-themed drama that few other companies have taken on since its reappearance at Austria’s Bregenz Festival in 2010.
To open this year’s season, which is its 80th, FGO turns to an American opera from 1995, André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, a setting of Tennessee Williams’s classic 1947 play about the mentally frail Blanche Dubois, who has come to New Orleans to live with her sister Stella and her brutish husband Stanley Kowalski. Previn’s score is very skillful, one to which he brought all his mastery of genres from film to jazz. It’s been a popular addition to company repertoires, and it stands fair to be a strong opening draw for FGO. The beloved local diva, soprano Elizabeth Caballero, is Blanche, with Rebecca Krynski Cox, also a soprano, in her FGO debut as Stella. Baritone Steven LaBrie is Stanley, and tenor Nicholas Huff is Mitch. Stage director Jeffrey Buchman returns to helm the opera, with Gregory Buchalter directing the music. (Jan. 22, 23, 25, Ziff Ballet Opera House, Miami; Feb. 3 and 5, Broward Center, Fort Lauderdale)
One of the operas FGO returns to regularly is Rigoletto, Giuseppe Verdi’s timeless 1851 story of a court jester and his secret daughter, a dissolute, womanizing duke, and a curse that leads to tragedy. Rigoletto has one of opera’s most familiar arias in the duke’s “La donna è mobile,” and it offers a breakout star possibility for the soprano who sings Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter. Veteran baritone Todd Thomas sings Rigoletto, and Canadian soprano Sharleen Joynt (recently seen on The Bachelor)is Gilda. Tenor Jose Simerilla Romero makes his FGO debut as the duke, and bass Matt Boehler is the assassin Sparafucile. Kathleen Belcher of the Metropolitan Opera directs, and the opera is conducted by Pacien Mazzagatti. (March 12, 13, 15 and 17, Ziff Ballet Opera House; March 31 and April 2, Broward Center)
Another contemporary American opera is next up: Gregory Spears’s Fellow Travelers, which premiered only five years ago. Spears, a Virginia native now working in Brooklyn, may be known to area audiences for his completion of Mozart’s Requiem, commissioned for and premiered by Seraphic Fire. Fellow Travelers, based on a 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon, is set in the Washington, D.C., of the early 1950s, when Sen. Joe McCarthy was riding high as he embarked on a crusade to rid the government of Communists and “sexual subversives.” The story concerns the passionate affair of two men, a young journalist and a State Department official, and an act of betrayal that provides the opera’s dramatic climax. Spears writes in an accessibly modern style, with abundant melody and strong rhythmic drive. New Zealand baritone Hadleigh Adams sings Hawkins, and tenor Andres Acosta is Timothy. The role of Mary is sung by soprano Adelaide Boedecker. Peter Rothstein directs the stage action, and conductor Emily Santuria debuts in the FGO pit. (April 23, 24, 26, and 28, Lauderhill Performing Arts Center, Lauderhill)
FGO closes its season with its longest look back, to the beginning of George Frideric Handel’s operatic career. His Agrippina, written in 1709, tells the story of its title character, wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius, who schemes to install her son Nero on the throne. Handel was barely into his 20s when he wrote this opera for the Venetian Carnival season, and it shows much of the style that became familiar to audiences after he established his career in England. Agrippina, which made waves recently at the Metropolitan Opera in an edgy staging by David McVicar, is a thoroughly Baroque opera, and thus is a showpiece for its singers, who will plan to fill the space at Miami’s Scottish Rite Temple (renowned for its acoustic) with acres of melismatic vocal display. Soprano Christine Lyons is Agrippina, with soprano Flora Hawk is Poppea. Tenor Kenneth Tarver sings Nerone, and Buchman returns to stage-direct. Leading the music is Jeri Lynn Johnson, founder of Pittsburgh’s Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra. FGO promises period orchestral instruments, too. (May 14, 15, 17 and 19, Miami Scottish Rite Temple, Miami)
For more information, call 800-741-1010 or visit fgo.org.
Opera fans from the east coast of Florida find it not too difficult to take a 2- or 3-hour scoot across the state to Sarasota for opera performances by this fine repertory company led by Victor DeRenzi, who led his troupe through all of the operas of Verdi over a period of more than 25 years.
The performances take place in the company’s beautiful 1,119-seat house on Pineapple Avenue in downtown Sarasota.
First up is Giaochino Rossini’s comedy La Scala di Seta (The Silken Ladder), which is the sole production of Sarasota’s fall season. This bubbly 1812 farce with a famous overture tells the story of Giulia, who has secretly married her lover Dorvil, who climbs up the silken ladder outside her bedroom each night. Giulia is the ward of Dormont, who wants her to marry Blansac; Giulia schemes to make him fall in love instead with her cousin Lucilla. There are the usual mixups before everything is resolved happily. Hanna Brammer sings Giulia, Christopher Bozeka is Dorvil, Maria Miller sings Lucilla, and Alexander Boyd is Blansac. Samuel Schleivert sings Dormont. Company artistic director Victor DeRenzi conducts; stage direction is by Stephanie Sundine. (Oct. 29-Nov. 13)
Casts and creatives for Sarasota’s winter season have not yet been announced. The four-opera season begins with Giacomo Puccini’s 1900 verismo powerhouse, Tosca, one of the most popular operas in the repertoire. It’s the story of Floria Tosca, a singer in Rome in love with the painter Mario Cavaradossi, who also is a political dissident. Tosca is the lust object of Baron Scarpia, the loathsome head of the secret police, who determines to get rid of Cavaradossi so he can have Tosca for his own. The score has staple tenor arias (“Recondita armonia” and “E lucevan le stelle”), a beloved soprano aria (“Vissi d’arte”), and a great Act I finale for Scarpia (“Va, Tosca”). (Eight performances from Feb. 13 to March 19)
Up next is Gaetano Donizetti’s 1846 French comedy, La Fille du Régiment. The “fille” of the title is Marie, an orphan who was adopted by a military regiment and has grown up with them. She has fallen in love with a simple peasant, Tonio, and wants to marry him, but the path to wedded bliss is blocked (temporarily, of course), by the actions of the Marquise de Birkenfeld, who says she is Marie’s long-lost aunt. The score features a famous tenor challenge (“Ah, mes amis!”) which contains no fewer than nine high C’s. The action is busy and easy to understand, and the music is light, charming and eminently hummable. (Seven performances from Feb. 19 to March 18)
Georges Bizet didn’t have much luck with opera in his short life (he died at 38), only achieving widespread success, and that after his death, with Carmen. But his 1863 opera, The Pearl Fishers, has established itself in recent decades as a repertory piece, not least because of its famous tenor and baritone duet, “Au fond du temple saint.” Set in what was then known as Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), it tells the story of two fisherman friends, Zurga and Nadir, who are both in love with the Brahma princess Leila. She loves Nadir, in violation of her religious vows, and Zurga, as chief of the fishermen, sentences her and Nadir to death. There’s more to the story, of course, and Bizet’s music for this exotic drama (very much in vogue in the second half of the 19th century) is full of his gift for orchestral color and arresting melody. (Six performances from March 5-19)
The final opera in the season is Giuseppe Verdi’s Attila, which premiered in 1846 and is considered the last of his early operas; the next one, Macbeth, marks the first opera of his maturity. Nevertheless, Verdi was already the coming man in Italian opera, and this score about the legendary 5th-century Hun chieftain has much exciting music to recommend it. In the opera, the legendary conqueror is smitten by Odabella, one of the female fighters Attila’s hordes have captured while conquering the Italian town of Aquileia. She joins Attila’s female entourage, but in league with her lover Foresto, she plans to assassinate Attila instead as he prepares to march on Rome. (Five performances from March 12-22)
For more information, call 941-328-1300 or visit sarasotaopera.org.