Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Opera review: Brilliant 'Crucible' highlighted Sarasota Opera season

Heather Johnson as Elizabeth Proctor
and Sean Anderson as John Proctor,‭ ‬in The Crucible.

Editor's note: This story has been reposted to correct errors.

By‭ ‬Rex Hearn‭

‬Sarasota Opera‭’‬s season in February and March each year has three weekends to suit the traveling operagoer.

This year‭’‬s offerings were‭ ‬Don Giovanni,‭ ‬The Crucible,‭ ‬La Bohème and‭ ‬I Lombardi.

I wasn‭’‬t able to attend‭ ‬La Bohème,‭ ‬but here are summaries of the rest of the Sarasota season:

The Crucible‭

A sprightly‭ ‬93-year-old Robert Ward came to Sarasota‭ ‬to hear the company sing his‭ ‬50-year-old opera on opening night from his‭ ‬retirement home in‭ ‬Raleigh,‭ ‬N.C.

Commissioned by the Ford Foundation in‭ ‬1961,‭ ‬The Crucible is the first and most successful of‭ ‬Ward‭’‬s five operas.‭ ‬Last summer I saw Arthur Miller‭’‬s play,‭ ‬upon which it is based,‭ ‬and thought it wordy.‭ ‬In cutting the dialogue to fit the music,‭ ‬librettist ‭ ‬Bernard Stambler improves the dramatic content of this story of mass hysteria by Salem‭’‬s village girls.

Ward‭’‬s music is written in an eclectic style,‭ ‬influenced by Puccini,‭ ‬Copland and a little Schoenberg in the parlando style of delivering the dialogue.‭ ‬Indeed,‭ ‬this‭ ‬opera is much more thrilling than Miller‭’‬s long-winded play.‭ ‬The condensed scenes never compromise the original.‭ ‬The music enhances them in climax after climax,‭ ‬with orchestral and vocal crescendos fit to sear ones ears,‭ ‬as the moment of truth,‭ ‬or betrayal,‭ ‬draws nearer.

This powerful opera,‭ ‬which was‭ ‬given a strikingly brilliant performance,‭ ‬goes to the heart of this company‭’‬s success.‭ ‬Nine studio artists and eight apprentice artists‭ ‬were in the full cast of‭ ‬21‭ ‬singers,‭ ‬and enormous risk in casting terms.‭ ‬But it was a production that ranks in the top level of professional regional opera‭ ‬.‭

Everyone was first-rate in acting,‭ ‬voice and diction‭ (‬the opera is sung in English‭)‬.‭ ‬The preparation by Richard Cordova and Giovanni Longo paid off handsomely‭ ‬--‭ ‬each singer also had a cover‭! ‬Stage director Michael Unger‭ ‬stayed‭ ‬close to Miller‭’‬s drama and made it wholly believable. David Neely conducted with understanding and flair.

And now for the young cast.‭ ‬Steven Uliana‭’‬s high tenor suited his role as Rev.‭ ‬Samuel Parris.‭ ‬His daughter,‭ ‬Betty,‭ ‬sung by mezzo Tania Marie Rodriguez,‭ ‬was his equal‭ ‬in voice and characterization.‭ ‬Tituba,‭ ‬the black servant girl accused of dancing naked in the woods with village girls,‭ ‬was brilliantly played and sung‭ ‬by contralto,‭ ‬Nicole Mitchell.‭ ‬A tour de force.‭

Lindsay Barche‭’‬s‭ ‬Abigail Williams,‭ ‬the‭ ‬deceitful mistress of lead character‭ ‬John Proctor,‭ ‬was perfection.‭ ‬She has a soaring,‭ ‬lovely soprano voice.‭ ‬Lindsay Ohse,‭ ‬soprano,‭ ‬sang a very convincing role as Ann Putnam.‭ ‬Baritone Dimitrie Lazich sang superbly as her husband,‭ ‬Thomas.‭ ‬Lazich has a voice of‭ ‬great magnitude and clarity,‭ ‬and he is surely a talent to watch.

Sean Anderson,‭ ‬as John Proctor,‭ ‬is a remarkable talent.‭ ‬He has‭ ‬a strong,‭ ‬beautifully produced voice,‭ ‬comparable to Mark Delevan‭’‬s rich,‭ ‬sonorous baritone. Completely immersed in his role defending his honor against the women of Salem village,‭ ‬he had to break character with a deep breath as he took his bow to thunderous and well-deserved applause.‭

Bradley Smoak,‭ ‬bass,‭ ‬sang well as Francis Nurse.‭ ‬His wife,‭ ‬Rebecca,‭ ‬was beautifully portrayed by mezzo Kaitlin Bertenshaw:‭ ‬what a lovely,‭ ‬honeyed timbre she has.

Fresh from his triumph the night before,‭ ‬when he substituted for Don Ottavio,‭ ‬tenor Heath Huberg gave a nicely drawn characterization as an‭ ‬older gentleman,‭ ‬Giles Corey. Bass Jeffrey Tucker,‭ ‬a seasoned opera singer,‭ ‬was perfection as the older Rev.‭ ‬John Hale,‭ ‬seeking reason,‭ ‬appealing for calm amid the mass hysteria.

Mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson,‭ ‬as Elizabeth Proctor,‭ ‬was brilliant.‭ ‬Her lovely voice and superb acting made this central character sympathetic and very believable.‭ ‬Lara Michole Tillotson brought meaning to her wavering character of Mary Warren.‭ ‬It was a fine interpretation of this easily led girl who loses her moral compass.‭ ‬Judge Danforth,‭ ‬as sung by seasoned opera artist Matthew Edwardsen was excellent‭;‬ his stentorian‭ ‬tenor was very commanding.‭

Other roles,‭ ‬all apprentice artists,‭ ‬were capably sung by Bernard Holcomb,‭ ‬Leah Dexter,‭ ‬Carolina Castell,‭ ‬Melissa Mino,‭ ‬Jennifer Townshend,‭ ‬Rebecca Caliendo and Leah Kaye Serr.‭ ‬Each one of these singers deserves kudos for what was perhaps the highlight of the weekend operas I saw.‭

Christina Pier as Donna Anna
and Lee Poulis as Don Giovanni,‭ ‬in Don Giovanni.

Don Giovanni

European opera houses have the reputation of turning out‭ “‬refined‭”‬ productions of Mozart.‭ ‬Closer to home,‭ ‬170‭ ‬miles from here,‭ ‬one could experience this European style in Sarasota‭’‬s‭ ‬Don Giovanni,‭ ‬which was both refined and excellent.‭ ‬

The strong cast with superb voices would have pleased Amadeus and his librettist,‭ ‬Lorenzo Da‭ ‬Ponte.‭ ‬What is the secret‭? ‬It‭’‬s a matter of scale.‭

In the‭ “‬bigger is better‭’‬” mindset ‭ ‬that‭ ‬has‭ ‬dominated the building of so many of our‭ ‬city and state‭ ‬opera houses over the last‭ ‬50‭ ‬years,‭ ‬architects looked askance at the smaller European houses.‭ ‬Not so,‭ ‬Sarasota.

The company‭’‬s restored vaudeville theater has about 1,000‭ ‬seats,‭ ‬which gives their productions a special intimacy.‭ ‬European houses average‭ ‬800‭ ‬to‭ ‬900‭ ‬seats,‭ ‬and this‭ ‬intimacy serves the singer well.‭ ‬Bel canto techniques are enhanced because the singer is not tempted to push the voice as at the‭ ‬Met with its‭ ‬3,800‭ ‬seats.‭

In this‭ ‬Don Giovanni, every singer excelled.‭ ‬Baritone Lee Poulis led an ensemble cast with hubris and aplomb.‭ ‬His Don was smooth,‭ ‬with a subtle swagger,‭ ‬striking the right master/servant relationship to his man,‭ ‬Leporello.‭ ‬Poulis has an equally smooth baritone voice,‭ ‬flexible enough to take him through the minefield of Mozart‭’‬s patter songs.

He was a very likable Don,‭ ‬not the villainous sod one so regularly sees.‭ ‬I found his interpretation refreshing.‭ ‬Andrew Gangestad,‭ ‬bass,‭ ‬was the reluctant servant,‭ ‬Leporello.‭ ‬His voice kept pace with the Don‭’‬s,‭ ‬in a fine portrayal that lacked the usual obsequiousness associated with this role.‭

Christina Pier,‭ ‬as Donna Anna,‭ ‬daughter to the murdered Commendatore,‭ ‬sang her arias with passion and‭ ‬musicality:‭ ‬it is difficult to sustain this high-pitched soprano role without seeming to scream‭ ‬or go slightly sharp by the end of the opera.‭ ‬Pier was pitch-perfect all night long.

Her fiancé,‭ ‬Don Ottavio,‭ ‬was sung by a last-minute substitution,‭ ‬tenor Heath Huberg.‭ ‬Had this been his Broadway debut,‭ ‬Variety would have led with the headline‭ “‬High on Heath‭”‬ the next morning.

Huberg‭’‬s rendition of‭ ‬Il mio tesoro in Act‭ ‬II‭ ‬won long and rapturous applause.‭ ‬His tenor got stronger and stronger as the aria continued,‭ ‬and‭ ‬his breath control in the second half was superb for one so young.‭ ‬His role as the supportive fiancé was nicely paced‭;‬ with his good looks and steady stage presence he will be in demand,‭ ‬here and in Europe.

Another brilliant performance came from soprano‭ ‬Danielle Walker,‭ ‬jilted lover of the Don.‭ ‬Hers is a golden soprano,‭ ‬easy on the ear in the difficult ‭ ‬tunes Mozart gives her as Donna Elvira.‭ ‬Patrick McNally‭’‬s Masetto was excellent as the country boy who must confront the Don for trying to seduce his‭ ‬girl friend,‭ ‬Zerlina.‭

In the many productions I‭’‬ve seen,‭ ‬he rates tops.‭ ‬He never cowers,‭ ‬but comes across full of spirit and fight.‭ ‬His rolling baritone kept pace with the music and he is another talent to watch.

Lastly,‭ ‬among the singers,‭ ‬Sarah Asmar‭’‬s Zerlina was wonderful.‭ ‬She struck the right attitude,‭ ‬never letting‭ ‬the Don overwhelm her,‭ ‬and winning back Masetto‭’‬s love in a very fine‭ ‬Batti,‭ ‬batti.‭ ‬Her cajoling was a joy to watch.

Stage‭ ‬director‭ ‬Peter Kozma‭ ‬created a fertile field which this ensemble cast used to great effect.‭ ‬A good direction of this opera that made it knit together seamlessly.‭ ‬Anthony Barrese conducted with a brisk baton,‭ ‬drawing the best from his cast of fine singers.‭

A truly inspiring production‭ ‬--‭ ‬better than at Salzburg,‭ ‬home of‭ ‬Mozart,‭ ‬I‭’‬d dare to say.

Abla Lynn Hamza as Giselda
and Rafael Davila as Oronte,‭ ‬in I Lombardi.

I Lombardi‭

‬Verdi must have been very conflicted when he wrote this opera.

Known to be an agnostic in later life,‭ ‬it is clear he was wrestling with faith-‭based religious problems back in‭ ‬1843,‭ ‬the year he turned‭ ‬30.‭ ‬In this opera about the First Crusade by the Kingdom of Lombardy,‭ ‬one character,‭ ‬Giselda,‭ ‬goes over to Islam.‭ ‬Verdi has her sing‭ “‬The same God shall have my prayers‭”‬ as she prays for her lover,‭ ‬Oronte,‭ ‬a Muslim.‭ ‬In Act‭ ‬III,‭ ‬before he dies of battle wounds,‭ ‬Oronte is baptized into Christianity with water from the river Jordan.

After the success of Nabucco in‭ ‬1842‭ ‬at La Scala,‭ ‬Verdi‭ ‬was offered a blank check to write another opera by impresario Bartolomeo Merelli.‭ ‬Demanding the same fee Bellini got for‭ ‬Norma,‭ ‬he set to work.‭ ‬Sadly,‭ ‬it smacks of a young man in a hurry.‭ ‬Temistocle Solera,‭ ‬his librettist,‭ ‬wrote a ramshackle set of scenes that turn Verdi‭’‬s music on its head.‭ ‬He was in a hurry too,‭ ‬no doubt.

This does not reflect on Sarasota Opera‭’‬s fine production,‭ ‬the‭ ‬27th in its Verdi Cycle.‭ ‬The company performs versions written in French and some revisions.‭ ‬Try as he may,‭ ‬Verdi‭ ‬could not recreate another‭ ‬Nabucco,‭ ‬though it rivaled its predecessor in popularity back in‭ ‬1843.‭ ‬Time has proven otherwise.‭

Sarasota Opera‭’‬s production is a worthwhile endeavor,‭ ‬if only for the reason that the public has an opportunity to see and hear it.‭ ‬Chorus master Roger Bingaman is to be congratulated:‭ ‬there are so many choruses,‭ ‬and his singers do him proud.‭ ‬Sadly,‭ ‬none of the choruses come near to approaching Va,‭ ‬pensiero in Nabucco.

Outstanding in the cast was Rafael Davila as Oronte.‭ ‬He is the perfect Verdi tenor.‭ ‬One could not hear a better voice of such enormous heft,‭ ‬not even at The Met.‭

Kevin Short‭’‬s bass-baritone is another stunning instrument worthy of ‭ ‬the high esteem in which the local audience holds him.‭ ‬This is his seventh appearance in Sarasota.‭ ‬As Pagano and later a hermit,‭ ‬his voice rolls into the depths and heights of Verdi‭’‬s solos,‭ ‬making them sound easy,‭ ‬which it is not the case.

Abla Lynn Hamza as Giselda was wonderful,‭ ‬too. Her dramatic soprano rang through the house in the powerful‭ ‬Salve Maria.‭ ‬Victor DeRenzi conducted with the assurance of a Verdi expert.

A violin solo introduces Act IV,‭ ‬brilliantly played by concertmaster Liang-Ping How.‭ ‬Almost the length of a Vivaldi violin concerto,‭ ‬it is a very beautiful piece of music. A tremendous ovation followed‭ ‬How‭’‬s sympathetic playing.

A Risorgimento concert ended the season,‭ ‬celebrating the‭ ‬150th anniversary of the unification of Italy,‭ ‬which until‭ ‬1861‭ ‬had‭ ‬been a series of little kingdoms.‭ ‬Verdi,‭ ‬as a senator of the new republic wrote,‭ ‬‘’They can do what they wish,‭ ‬intrigue as much as they like.‭ ‬Those who strive to impose themselves by brute force will not succeed in cheating‭ ‬the people of their rights‭!”‬ A somewhat accurate prediction of what is happening on the south side of the Mediterranean Sea today.

Of note in the concert was Maria D‭’‬Amato‭’‬s gorgeous soprano singing the‭ ‬Libera me,‭ ‬Domine from the‭ ‬original Requiem‭ ‬Mass for Rossini‭ (‬to which many other composers contributed‭)‬,‭ ‬backed by a very fine chorus.

Finally,‭ ‬it must be said that the‭ ‬65-member Sarasota Opera Orchestra sounded marvelous at this concert and throughout their accompaniment of the many operas.

Next winter‭’‬s Sarasota Opera festival begins Feb.‭ ‬11‭ ‬and ends March‭ ‬25.‭ ‬Bizet‭’‬s‭ ‬Carmen opens the season,‭ ‬followed by Donizetti‭’‬s‭ ‬Lucia di Lammermoor,‭ ‬Verdi‭’‬s‭ ‬Otello,‭ ‬and Samuel Barber‭’‬s‭ ‬Vanessa.‭ ‬The fall opera,‭ ‬which runs from Oct.‭ ‬28‭ ‬to Nov.‭ ‬15,‭ ‬is Puccini‭’‬s‭ ‬Madama Butterfly.‭ ‬For more information,‭ ‬or for tickets,‭ ‬call‭ ‬941-366-8450.‭

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