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Crucible's verdict. John Proctor (Sean Anderson) and Rebecca Nurse(Kaitlin Bertenshaw) on the gallows. [Photo by Rod Millington courtesy of Sarasota Opera]
24 Mar 2011

Sarasota Opera Winter Festival 2011

Opera is alive and well in Sarasota. “It feels like it did before,” says Communications Officer for Sarasota Opera Patricia Horwell.

Sarasota Opera Winter Festival 2011

See cast lists in body of review

Above: Crucible's verdict. John Proctor (Sean Anderson) and Rebecca Nurse(Kaitlin Bertenshaw) on the gallows.

All photos by Rod Millington courtesy of Sarasota Opera


She describes pre-recession times, and more recently, the buzz inside Sarasota Opera House’s two-tier atrium lobby and the general enthusiasm the company’s 2011 Winter Festival is generating.

LombardiGisArvino.gifGiselda (Abla Lynn Hamza) and Arvino (Mathew Edwardsen) square off.

Sarasota’s 52nd season serves up standards in Boheme and Giovanni. The company’s Verdi cycle, now on its 27th work, resumes with I Lombardi. This season Sarasota Opera begins another venture, the America Classics Series, showcasing the 20th century operas of American composers. Robert Ward’s The Crucible starts the series. Skipping across the operatic landscape as it does — from Puccini’s Paris, Mozart’s Spain, Verdi’s Middle East, and 17th Century Massachusetts — Sarasota Opera’s word for the season is idiomatic.

It is not enough to note that all shows presented at Sarasota Opera are produced especially for the company, as sets are so perfectly suited to the venue and to the company’s goal of traditional opera readings as to draw raves. Each of the sets for the Festival run is remarkable for the acute use of angles, perspective and for craftsmanship. For Boheme, seen on March 11, the thought David P. Gordon (Scenic Design) gives to matters of stage action was in full effect. At Momus, we see sets at their most practical, to the extent that chorus members occupy a shop within the space allowing free room for the show at the town square (think Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley). Gordon and R.A. Reed Productions crafted this brilliant architectural art that debuted here in 2006.

Maestro Victor DeRenzi’s Puccini is quite grand. Just when the orchestral bounds slid close to a volume bordering on coarse, bearing in mind the space and style, the playing eased back to Puccini. DeRenzi knows this orchestra and vice-versa; he can afford to take risks. On the flip side, the orchestra overpowered singers, as it did Harold Meers (Rodolfo) in “Che gelida manina” and Carelle Flores (Musetta) in her waltz. Singers also found themselves falling behind the music, as did Meers in pickups for the same.

BohemeMuseMomus.gifOn parade, Marcello (Grante Clarke), Musetta (Carelle Flores), Schnaurd (Matthew Hanscom), Rodolfo (Harold Meers) and Mimi (Maria D'Amato)

Meers sang most convincingly when portraying a man powerless over a malady that will take his love in Act III. His sound — tight and lean above the staff — made for a less than affecting connection with that of the Mimi in this performance. Maria D’Amato’s lyric soprano is well-produced on low and carries buttery overtones. Dramatically and vocally, Flores and Grant Clarke (Marcello) were the more interesting pairing in a strong cast of singing-actors. Batting eyelashes and strutting right to the edge of the stage on her entrance was Flores as Musetta. No stranger to Sarasota audiences, Young Bok-Kim’ s dark, round voice had hints of graininess that imparted mettle to his Colline. Sarasota Opera Studio Artists Matthew Hansom and Carlos Monzon were playful as Schaunard and Alcindoro. Benjamin Gelfand’s elegant singing is not what one expects to hear in the role of Benoit and Adam Bielamowicz stopped the show as Parpignol.

Stage director Stephanie Sundine’s influence will be remembered for the well-executed utensil fencing in the opening act and a streaming parade in front of the café. There were tempo kinks between the pit and the men in Act III, otherwise the chorus was musically exacting and energetic. Roger L. Bingaman is Chorus Master and Micheal Shane Wittenburg the Youth Opera Chorus Master.

GiovanniPoulisCommend.gifThe Commendatore (Benjamin Gelfand) stands on guard over Giovanni (Lee Poulis).

On the streets and in the colonnades of Spain, David P. Gordon’s work (this time constructed by Center Line Studios, Inc.) excels further. Seamlessly fitting pieces and interlocking scenes of fresh squares with walkways either dropped down, slid across, rose up or a combination of these smoothly. Giovanni’s denouement — at some very swank digs — has him going down in damned deglutition at the top of a staircase as hell-fire shades (Lighting supplied by Ken Yunker) gobble him up. In the end, Howard Tsvi Kaplan has Giovanni sporting a Hugh Heffner robe: Giovanni as the feinschmeker he was. Peter Kozma provided a staging sequence that stood out to open Act II, the lights flashed on to Giovanni gaining on Leporello, both in full trot. Jim Hoskins’ choreography was carried out rather sluggishly by Lee Poulis (Giovanni) and Benjamin Gelfand (Commendatore) at this matinee on March 12th.

“If I am true to one, I will be cruel to all others.” While Lee Poulis spoke Da Ponte’s words for Giovanni, there were only faints signs of the attitude that makes such a rake. Poulis fit into Giovanni in other important ways; he is tall, slim and handsome. Gelfand played the officer well, and he was stiff as granite mounted on a steed in the cemetery.

Such are Leporello’s text and music that only a little extra something will have the role come off entertainingly. Playing the straight man might not be Andrew Gangestad’s strongpoint but he was just mordant enough to underscore the ridiculous situation he finds himself in. In the “Catalogue Aria,” Gangestad displayed both admiration for and confusion over his master’s conquests. Sarasota Opera debutant Christina Pier was the Donna Anna. Hers is a voice of ample volume for large houses; in Sarasota’s venue, the sound was piercing to the point of losing some of its luster. Her affianced Ottavio was played by Joshua Kohl. Unpolished, and tried as it was by Mozart’s tricky lines with scales tagged on, the young tenor’s timbre is what makes one take notice. The Donna Elvira Danielle Walker, had little trouble communicating her anger over Giovanni’s interminable infidelity. Studio Artists Patrick McNally (Masetto) and Sarah Asmar (Zerlina) played their parts’ vulnerabilities well. The chorus was tighter across the board for Mozart.

The orchestra played civilly and subdued for conductor and Sarasota Opera regular Anthony Barrese — there was not much here to disturb what exists neither to reveal anything interesting in Mozart’s score.

GiovanniPoulis.gifA toast to the Don (Lee Poulis at center; Andrew Gangestad to the right).

Revealing though is what I Lombardi is in examining Giuseppe Verdi’s career topography. Occupying the period termed Early Verdi, Lombardi marks the beginning of the composer’s life-long struggle with censorship, he officially takes up the mantle of patriot, and in setting a complex cause to music-drama, he takes set pieces to a new level (for one thing, the final two acts are split into six scenes).

As one would expect in a work such as Lombardi performed in Sarasota, the chorus had clearly gone through extensive preparation for this performance (on March 12th). Bingaman’s group sounded more like a well-balanced legion of 80 than the 20 or so there were. The chorus managed to come in and out of the panorama smoothly, as required. The orchestral performance was solid with DeRenzi conducting — the few interludes were warmly shaped, as was Concert Master Liang-Ping How’s violin solo.

Lombari’s character of central interest is more or less Pagano — after being excommunicated and committing patricide, he is received back in the end as a sort of prodigal son. Kevin Short’s imposing baritone gave Pagano intensity and he is an artist with obvious stage sense. As Arvino, Pagano’s brother, Mathew Edwardson’s slender tone cut through the orchestra, his acting was also quite good. Arvino’s daughter Giselda holds much of the opera’s attention through the end of Part One and all of Part Two. Alba Lynn Hanza is a slight woman with a lyric voice that filled the auditorium with Giselda’s urgent pleas of deliverance and objections to war.

In Part Two, Studio Artist Jeffrey Beruan lent a hearty bass to Acciano, the ruler of Antioch. Acciano’s son Oronte is perhaps the best known of Lombardi’s characters, and his “La mia letizia infondere” its best known tune. Shortly after his entrance, Rafael Davila established himself as a singer with little inhibition and some old-school sentimentality. Marvelous stuff. Later, Davila capped Oronte’s “In cielo benedetto” with a tenore di forza-defying diminuendo. For this scene, Yunker and Martha Collins (Stage Director) are applauded for placing the fallen Oronte beyond a dreamy underwater moonlight effect.

LombardiGisOronHermit.gifThe wandering hermit (Kevin Short) finds Giselda (Abla Lynn Hamza) and the mortally wounded Oronte (Rafael Davila)

The lengthy supporting cast for Lombardi all played a part in making this disorganized story, a bear though it is, somewhat engaging.

With Robert Ward’s The Crucible, engagement is never a problem. In reading through Sarasota Opera’s literature reporting on the opera, the word powerful appears many times. From a distance, this work tells the story of the Salem witch trials. Up close, Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible — from which Ward created his opera — is a specific account of human treachery that recycles through time, therefore regenerating as a topic of concern and interest.

Micheal Unger’s stage direction was instrumental in the power of this performance of Crucible (March 13 matinee). The positioning, and jumpiness, of male characters at Reverend Parris’ house was tension-inducing. The distance kept between the Proctors at the farmhouse kitchen was indicative of the couple’s split and how their individual misunderstandings led to mutual isolation. The Act II courtroom was one of a sniveling and jeering cabal out to bring down the Proctors and whip up Abigail Williams on one side, and the outnumbered and drowned-out voice of reason (Reverend John Hale, for one) on the other.

Ward’s use of driving, tense strings and the presence of horns relaxes as the story unfolds and some of the scoring turns reminiscent of Korngold’s film music. He keeps the vocal line moving, with few inklings of extended melody and many exposed notes right in the break of the voice. Conductor David Neely and orchestra represented Ward very well overall.

A hulking and strapping man whose baritone has similar qualities, Sarasota Opera returnee Sean Anderson made a commanding impact as John Proctor. By the time of Proctor’s booming high note of despair closing Act II, the stage was set for a bring-down-the-house performance. Anderson’s acting at the jail was gut-wrenching in its pathos (this was enhanced by skillful disheveling of Anderson by Wig and Make-up Designer Georgianna Eberhard).

CrucibleJProctorCourtroom2.gifEnraged, John Proctor (Sean Anderson, middle) is restrained in the courtroom (Thomas Putnam, played by Dimitrie Lazich at right).

Heather Johnson ably produced both the strong and broken sides of wife Elizabeth Proctor. The role of Reverend John Hale is the sunniest in terms of Crucible’s social commentary and Jeffrey Tucker communicated this well. Studio Artists Steven Uliana (Reverend Samuel Parris) and Dimitrie Lazich (Thomas Putnam) were excellent. Tenor Uliana handled Ward’s demanding vocals and Lazich adroitly steered his baritone through Putnam’s high tessitura and declamations. The entire cast of over 20 in Crucible could have been a touring company performing this one piece alone, such was the synchronicity of the production.

What was mentioned of Sarasota Opera’s sets applies to the work of Michael Schweikardt, and the company for building the sets, for Crucible. The wood in Act III is particularly memorable for its plain treatment; lined patterns of slim, straight-trunked trees with small leaves were softly lit (by Yunker) suggesting the coming dawn.

Sarasota Opera’s Winter Festival closes on March 20th, alive and in idiomatic style.

Robert Carreras

Cast Lists

La boheme (Friday, March 11)

Conductor: Victor DeRenzi. Stage Director: Stephanie Sundine. Scenic Designer: David P. Gordon. Costume Coordinator: Howard Tsvi Kaplan. Lighting Designer: Ken Yunker. Wigs & Make-Up Designer: Georgianna Eberhard. Chorus Master: Roger L. Bingaman. Youth Opera Chorus Master: Michael Wittenburg.

Mimi: Maria D’Amato; Rodolfo: Harold Meers; Marcello: Grant Clarke; Colline: Young-Bok Kim; Benoît: Benjamin Gelfand; Musetta: Carelle Flores; Schaunard: Matthew Hanscom; Alcindoro: Carlos Monzón.

Don Giovanni (Saturday, March 12 matinee)

Conductor: Anthony Barrese. Stage Director: Peter Kozma. Scenic Designer: David P. Gordon. Costume Designer: Howard Tsvi Kaplan. Lighting Designer: Ken Yunker. Wigs & Make-Up Designer: Georgianna Eberhard. Chorus Master: Roger L. Bingaman.

Donna Anna: Christina Pier; Donna Elvira: Danielle Walker; Don Ottavio: Joshua Kohl; Don Giovanni: Lee Poulis; Leporello: Andrew Gangestad; The Commendatore: Benjamin Gelfand; Zerlina: Sarah Asmar; Masetto: Patrick McNally.

I lombardi (Saturday, March 12)

Conductor: Victor DeRenzi. Stage Director: Martha Collins. Scenic Designer: Jeffrey W. Dean. Costume Designer: Howard Tsvi Kaplan. Lighting Designer: Ken Yunker. Wig & Make-Up Designer: Georgianna Eberhard. Chorus Master: Roger L. Bingaman.

Giselda: Abla Lynn Hamza; Oronte: Rafael Dávila; Arvino: Mathew Edwardsen; Pagano: Kevin Short; Pirro: Benjamin Gelfand; Viclinda: Lindsay Ohse; Sofia: Sarah Larsen; Prior of the City of Milan: Heath Huberg; Acciano: Jeffrey Beruan.

The Crucible (Sunday, March 13 matinee)

Conductor: David Neely. Stage Director: Michael Unger. Scenic Designer: Michael Schweikardt. Costume Designer: Howard Tsvi Kaplan. Lighting Designer: Ken Yunker. Wigs & Make-Up Designer: Georgianna Eberhard. Chorus Master: Roger L. Bingaman.

Elizabeth Proctor: Heather Johnson; Judge Danforth: Mathew Edwardsen; John Proctor: Sean Anderson; Reverend John Hale: Jeffrey Tucker; Abigail Williams: Lindsay Barche; Mary Warren: Lara Michole Tillotson; Ann Putnam: Lindsay Ohse; Tituba: Nicole Mitchell; Ezekial Cheever: Bernard D. Holcomb; Thomas Putnam: Dimitrie Lazich; Francis Nurse: Bradley Smoak.

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