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Mara Bonde as Adina [Photo by Richard Termine courtesy of Sarasota Opera]
27 Mar 2009

In Sarasota the composer is king

In the world of opera it’s now the director who is the top banana.

In Sarasota the composer is king

Above: Mara Bonde as Adina

All photos by Richard Termine courtesy of Sarasota Opera


He moves Figaro into Trump Towers and has Giovanni — light headed after two centuries of champagne — shoot up on cocaine in the South Bronx. Caesar courts Cleopatra — or is it the other way around? — poolside at the Cairo Hilton. Elixir — cross bred with The Music Man — plays at the Iowa State fair. It’s fun now and then, but in the long run it’s opera that suffers from this mayhem and madness. And thus in the midst of all this it’s reassuring to know that there is an opera company where it’s still the composer who comes first: the Sarasota Opera that just wound up its 50th anniversary season on the Florida coast.

“Our mission is to produce outstanding opera true to the vision of the composer,” says Victor DeRenzi, SO artistic director for half its history. “Here each production is based on one approach: the view of the work that comes from the composer.” The result is opera as envisioned by those who created it; no one else gets in the way.

Catherine_Cangiano_Suzel.gifSuzel : Catherine Cangiano

Those who have never attended one of the 500 performances that DeRenzi has conducted in Sarasota might find this the conservative credo of a man who looks back in history. But those who know the perfection and excitement of every opera staged at the SO relish the authenticity — and respect — that DeRenzi brings to SO productions.

In Sarasota it’s Verdi’s Verdi and Puccini’s Puccini that is on stage — not a flight of the imagination imposed upon their work by the Wunderkinder of Regieoper — director’s opera, the European import that currently prevails elsewhere. The major triumph of the 2009 season that ran for eight late-winter weeks in the intimate SO house that was handsomely rebuilt a year ago was Verdi’s Don Carlo. With it DeRenzi as conductor again confirmed his stature as a leading interpreter of this composer.

Don Carlo isn’t merely Verdi at his best, it is also the best of his operas based on a drama by Germany’s Friedrich Schiller. Here the Italian patriot underscores the parallels between the struggle for freedom in Inquisition-ridden Spain and the Italy of his own day.

Don_Carlos_scene03.gifEboli : Stella Zambalis; Don Carlos : Gustavo López Manzitti; Rodrigue : Marco Nisticò

Kevin Short was a deeply human Philippe II, unable to assert himself against the intolerance of a church chillingly represented by Jeffrey Tucker as the Grand Inquisitor. Panamanian Reyna Carguill was a full-blooded Elizabeth, beautifully balanced by the searing mezzo of Stella Zambalis as Eboli. And as Rodrigue Marco Nistico` was the very fiber from which revolutionaries are made.

Don_Carlos_scene04.gifElisabeth : Reyna Carguill; Don Carlos : Gustavo López Manzitti; Philippe : Kevin Short; Grand Inquisitor : Jeffrey Tucker

It was only Argentina’s Gustavo López Manzitti who in the title role failed to reach the level of passion of his colleagues. Stephanie Sundine directed this first North-American production of the four-act French version of the opera. Sets were by David P. Gordon, and Howard Tsvi Kaplan was responsible for lavish costumes that enhanced the realism of Verdi’s 16th-century Spaniards. Indeed, Kaplan who created costumes for all four operas of the SO season is a major asset of the company.

Each season Sarasota revives a work that has disappeared from the repertory, and the reaction to the first act of L’Amico Fritz, the 2009 “masterpiece,” was that works residing in oblivion are perhaps right where they belong. By the second act Mascagni’s 1891 score dispelled such doubts as vintage verismo warmed the heart. Swiss tenor Benjamin Warschawski and American soprano Catherine Cangiano were a winning lovers, while Heather Johnson earned high marks in the trouser role of Beppe. And although a rabbi seemed somewhat out of place in late 19th-century Alsace baritone Michael Corvino made him a winning figure. David Neely conducted; Michael Unger was stage director. Sets were by Michael Schweikardt.

L_amico_Fritz_scene2.gifSuzel : Catherine Cangiano; Beppe : Heather Johnson; Fritz Kobus : Benjamin Warschawski; David : Michael Corvino

The popularity of Donizetti’s Elixir of Love easily leads to overplayed and exaggerated stagings. Happily, however, director Martha Collins kept everything under careful control to make the SO production unusually engaging. She was helped by an ideal cast led by youthful Mexico’s Edgar Ernesto Ramirez, a tenor who might well have the makings of a future Pavarotti.

Elixir_Scene01.gifAdina : Mara Bonde; Nemorino : Edgar Ernesto Ramirez; Giannetta : Jo Ellen Miller

Michael Redding obviously relished the lover-boy image of soldier Belcore, and Stephen Eisenhard was a delight as an understated snake-oil salesman Dulcamara. As Adina Mara Bonde was all sugar and spice. John Mario Di Constanza conducted. Roger Hanna signed for sets.

Kara_Shay_Thomson_Tosca.gifFloria Tosca : Kara Shay Thomson

One would search far today to find a better trio of singers than the three brought to Sarasota for Tosca, which opened the season on February 7. In her SO debut Kara Shay Thomson was a Floria Tosca even younger than the years of the established singer that Puccini’s heroine is. She sang the famous “Vissi d’arte” with tender and internalized emotion.

Rafael Dávila, a splendid Cavaradossi, is a native of Puerto Rico and yet another of the richly talented tenors now coming from Latin countries. Yet it was the Scarpia of Grant Youngblood that brought new dimensions to this staging. Long a signature role of the American baritone, Youngblood downplays the tyrant that Scarpia is to make the appeal of Tosca to him far more than a passing sexual fantasy. DeRenzi conducted; Sundine was the director.

Tosca_scene01.gifFloria Tosca : Kara Shay Thomson; Mario Cavaradossi : Rafael Dávila

Of special interest was the March 20 performance of opera choruses by the Sarasota Youth Opera, an ensemble open to kids from the third grade up. The thoroughly professional conduct of these 75 singers was as amazing as it was impressive. Lance Inouye, their major mentor, conducted the full SO orchestra for the event. This is the only such opera program in the United States.

Wes Blomster

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