23 Apr 2008
Sarasota rises above the regional
Victor DeRenzi is a man of convictions — and of courage. Given his commitment to tradition, you might call DeRenzi, artistic director of Sarasota Opera since 1982, conservative.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
Victor DeRenzi is a man of convictions — and of courage. Given his commitment to tradition, you might call DeRenzi, artistic director of Sarasota Opera since 1982, conservative.
These, however, are concepts given new dimensions by the four operas on stage this spring in Sarasota’s newly remodeled 1200-seat theater.
DeRenzi is no friend of Regieoper, the approach to opera that gives the director full freedom to ignore the original time and place of a work — and the intentions of the composer. At Sarasota Opera, for example,you will never see Handel’s “Julius Caesar” set at the Cairo Hilton,where Peter Sellars once located it to great acclaim. That does not mean,however, that DeRenzi is a man stuck in an bygone age. His concern is for fidelity to opera and for authenticity and integrity in SO stagings.
Much research and study go into each production to make it reflect its time in history. Every effort is made to offer an honest presentation of a composer intentions. All this came to the fore in the season’s “I due Foscari,” which was part of two major SO projects. It continued the Verdi cycle designed to perform the composer’s entire oeuvre — operatic, vocal and instrumental — in Sarasota.
Launched in 1989 by DeRenzi, a Verdi scholar in his off hours, the cycle includes alternate of versions of scores when they exist. It will conclude in2013 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth.“Foscari” is also part of DeRenzi’s “Masterworks Revival Series,” which brings to the SO stage long-neglected works that the director considers of artist merit. The series, begun in 1989, has included such rarities on the American stage as Catalani’s “La Wally,” “Königskinder” by Humperdinck and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “May Night.”
Given the quality of the SO “Foscari,” directed by Martha Collins, the neglect of the 1844 score is difficult to understand. The opera, the well-focused and touchingly sad story of a wronged father and son, is without the complexities that often make Verdi’s plot line hard to follow. With DeRenzi on the podium, the April 6 performance moved with edge-of-the-seat excitement through three hours of full-blooded choruses — several of them for men alone.
Italian baritone Marco Nistico brought dramatic intensity to octogenarian Doge Franceso Foscari, while Benjamin Warschawski sang his passionate song with an energetic voice that, however, lacked the support that a good teacher should have given the Swiss tenor. As devoted wife, mother and daughter-in-law Panamanian soprano Reyna Carguill bore the sufferings of Lucrezia Contarini with regal dignity. Jeffrey W. Dean’s sets were of classic simplicity, and costumes by Howard Tsvi Kaplan brought the richness of primary colors to the staging.
That one knows of Puccini’s “La Rondine” at all is due to the popularity of the aria “Il bel sogno di Doretta,” a favorite of singers from Kiri Te Kanawa to Renee Fleming. And a pity that is, for the entire work, performed as lovingly as it was at the SO April 5 matinée, is an experience of heightened sensuous beauty. Some devaluate the sumptuous score as operetta, for in the directness of its emotional appeal it follows in the footsteps of Vienna’s fin-de-sie`cle masters. And the reference to Vienna is indeed valid, for Puccini had been asked to write “a comic opera like‘Der Rosenkavalier,’ but more amusing and more organic.” Whether“ Rondine” amuses the individual can decide, but the work is organic in that is well organized and tightly written. Nothing in it is superfluous.
Ryan MacPherson as Ruggero and Lina Tetruashvili as Magda (Photo by Richard Termine courtesy of Sarasota Opera)
Georgian soprano Lina Tetruashvili, who headed the cast as Magda, was perhaps the top star of the entire ’08 SO season. A young woman of gentle beauty, she was equally convincing as the successful courtesan and as a woman experiencing great love for the first time. As both she was painfully vulnerable, and her delivery of the first-act confessional self-confrontation competed favorably with recordings by established divas. Tenor Ryan MacPherson was a perfect blend of spoiled mama’s boy and unwritten page as a Ruggero who was a perfect partner for Tetrusashvili. As the second couple in the story Christina Bouras sang the maid Lisette with ironic detachment and a sense of good humor about the fools that mortals can be. But the true hero of the afternoon was David Neely, a young conductor whose career centers in Germany. Neely obviously believes in this score and in his surrender to its beauty made a fine case for its greatness.
The scenery and costumes that evoke the time and place of each SO production were particularly noteworthy in the second act of “Rondine.” A café of the Belle Époque was designed to perfection by Michael Schweikardt.An abundance of glass walls and ceilings, some decorated with sprays of flowers, made visible groups of round lights and a gray cityscape outside. References to the posters of the period by Alphonse Mucha and Toulouse-Lautrec provided a perfect ambiance for chance meetings and revelry.
Sometimes called “a poor man’s ‘Traviata’” because of parallels in plot, director Michael Unger proved that “La Rondine” is anything but;it is an opera to be taken seriously for its own merits. One hopes that the excellence of the SO staging will lead other companies to consider the work.
It is probably a good thing that Mozart’s “Cosí fan tutte” lists as a comic opera, for — considered in the cold light of day — this opera offers a picture of man — and woman — that in its brutal frankness is of a shocking cruelty that would otherwise ban it from the stage. (Indeed, one left the matinée performance on April 6 recalling the admonition from Georg Büchner’s drama “Woyzeck:” “Humans, you are sand, dust and filth —how dare you pretend to be more?”) Small wonder then that it took “Cosí” well over a century to find its way into the repertory. Fortunately, Mozart conceals his view on human frailty beneath the surface of music irresistible in its charm and élan, and Sarasota was fortunate in having as it conductor Pacien Mazzagatti, a youthful American who understands both dimensions of the work.
New Yorker Mazzagatti had cast and orchestra on such short leash that it was almost impossible for the audience to applaud at the end of arias. This practice should spread to operas everywhere, for it was astonishing to seethe continuity and dramatic structure that there is in Mozart when the music is not continuously interrupted by listeners overly eager to show their appreciation. Director Pat Diamond had an ideal quartet at his disposal:Marie Adele McArthur (Fiordiligi), Vanessa Cariddi (Dorabella), Sean Anderson (Gugglielmo) and Chad A. Johnson (Ferrando). Young, good looking and secure in their roles, the four easily kept pace with Mazzagatti’s animated approach to the score. Stephen Eisenhard was a worldly Alfonso without the Mephistophelean overlay often encountered elsewhere these days, but it was Alice Bernesche who really made things move as a bright and witty Despina. David P. Gordon’s airy sets permitted spoke almost fragrantly of the land where lemons blossom and allowed for quick changes by stage hands also in costumes by Howard Tsvi Kaplan.
Sean Anderson as Guglielmo, Vanessa Cariddi as Dorabella, Marie-Adele McArthur as Fiordiligi, and Chad A. Johnson as Ferrando (Photo by Danielle Rappaport courtesy of Sarasota Opera)
“Rigoletto” is something of a signature opera in Sarasota. In 1989 DeRenzi launched his Verdi Cycle with the 1851 work and he chose it to reopen the company’s renovated Mediterranean Revival theater this season. (The project cost $20 million.) It is thus surprising that it fell below the standard of excellence and excitement set by the other three works on SO stage this season. Michael Corvino kept the jester’s unsavory side in check to emerge as a truly tragic figure. However, Rafael Dávita sang — and played — the Duke with all the markings of a provincial tenor, and as Gilda Erica Strauss failed to catch fire. Impressive singing came from those in minor roles: Jeffrey Tucker (Sparafucile), studio artist Blythe Gaissert (Maddalena) and Jonathan Carle (Monterone). DeRenzi’s conducting was neither inspired nor inspiring. Stephanie Sundine directed; designer was David P. Gordan, and costumes by Howard Tsvi Kaplan. “Cosí” was a revival of the 2002 staging; the three other productions were new this season.
Although Saratoga packs its 33 performances — plus several programs staged by its apprentices — into a seven week March/April season, the company is an active presence on the Florida arts scene throughout the year.From August through April the SO musical staff works with three Youth Opera Choruses that enroll members beginning at age eight. They stage formal concerts in various venues in the city and appear also in hospitals, senior residences and nursing homes. The ensembles have participated in Italy’s International Choral Festival in Tuscany. As soon as the main season ends, work begins on the annual Youth Opera Production that stages works expressly written for children and young adults.
On stage in May this year is Canadian composer Dean Burry’s “The Hobbit,” a work based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel that was premiered to critical acclaim by Toronto’s Canadian Children’s Opera in 2004. Saratoga presents the American premiere of the work at performances slated for May 9 and 10. And SO has commissioned America’s senior music master Ned Rorem to compose a new work for 2009 based on Winsor Mcay’s comic strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” The libretto is being written by J.D. McClatchy. Members of the Youth Opera Choruses work with SO’s professional staff as supernumeraries and — when required — in children’s roles and choruses in mainstage productions.
Rafael Dávila as the Duke of Mantua (Photo by Richard Termine courtesy of Sarasota Opera)
Sarasota, with a population of 300,000, is — like much of Florida — primarily a retirement community. It is relatively easy to find accommodations within easy walking distance of the opera, which has contributed greatly to the revitalization of the downtown area. The town is immaculately groomed, and good — and reasonably priced — restaurants abound. Public transportation, although limited largely to daylight hours, is well organized. It gets one to the famed Ringling Art Museum in only 15 minutes. The small airport is a fairy-tale realm compared to the chaos and confusion that prevails elsewhere today. A taxi to downtown is as little as $13.
An advantage of the SO main season is that on two weekends one can hear all four operas in only three days. On the other hand, it seems a shame to spend so little time in a town that offers a maximum of leisure at slow tempos.
Saratoga Opera opens its 50th anniversary season in November with “Barber of Seville.” On stage in spring 2008 are “Tosca,” “Elixir of Love,” “L’amico Fritz” and “Don Carlos.”
For information, visit www.sarasotaopera.org