Sarasota’s Verdi Crusade Advances With Jérusalem
By John Fleming
SARASOTA, Fla. – Where would an obscure 19th-century opera – a revised version of an equally obscure opera, no less – be the most anticipated work of the season?
Only at Sarasota Opera, and only if the opera were by Verdi.
Artistic director Victor DeRenzi and his company are adding one more entry to their Verdi cycle with a rare production of Jérusalem, a melodrama set in the Middle Ages during the Crusades. Opening March 8, it will be the latest installment in the company’s quest to perform every note the great Italian composer ever wrote.
The project began with Rigoletto in 1989. Because Verdi wrote 28 operas plus several substantial revisions, there has been a lot of ground to cover. About 15 of his works are in the standard repertory – La traviata, Otello, Falstaff, and the like – but that still leaves plenty that are utterly unfamiliar. I’ve seen quite a few over the years in Sarasota – Oberto or Alzira, anyone? – and even when they proved to be deservedly obscure, they were highlights of the season.
Now the Verdi marathon is in its final stretch with Jérusalem. It is an extensive rewrite of his fourth opera, I Lombardi alla prima crociata, which premiered in 1843 at La Scala. About four years later it was “transformed out of recognition” (as Verdi wrote in a letter) to become the composer’s first work for the Paris Opera. With a new French libretto by poets Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz, the revision transplants the Christian crusaders from Lombardy to Toulouse before they head out to do battle with Muslims in the Holy Land. To complicate matters, there was also Verdi’s Gerusalemme, a translation back into Italian of the French remake, but it never caught on with Italian audiences, which have always preferred I Lombardi.
After Jérusalem, there are just three Verdi operas to go in the next two seasons at Sarasota: the original Paris version of Don Carlos, La battaglia di Legnano, and finally Aïda in 2016.
Jérusalem is indeed a rare bird, almost never seen in the United States except in New Orleans, where it had its North American premiere in 1850 and was popular until essentially dropping out of sight after an 1891 production. The only U.S. productions since then, according to George W. Martin’s Verdi in America, have been by Opera Peninsula in San Mateo, Calif.; New York Grand Opera; and a concert version by Opera Orchestra of New York, all in the 1990s. On CD, there is a Decca recording with Marcello Giordani in the leading tenor role, conducted by Fabio Luisi in a 1998 concert with L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. On DVD on the TDK label, Michel Plasson conducted a 2000 performance at Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa.
This weekend, ten members of the Music Critics Association of North America will be in Sarasota for the opening of Jérusalem, and all of them will be taking in the work for the first time. The critics will be reporting for Classical Voice North America on the opera company’s season as well as other Sarasota arts events.
Also in the Sarasota repertory are a new staging of Il trovatore (previously performed in 1993, as was the French version, Le trouvère, in 2002), plus revivals of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, featuring bass-baritone Kevin Short as the doomed mariner, and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.
In addition, there is an exhibition of production sketches and costumes from 100 years of Verdi operas performed at the Rome Opera House, which will open Saturday at the Sarasota Opera House Library. Costumes on display include those worn by singers such as Beniamino Gigli, Renata Scotto, and Angela Gheorghiu.
In 2011, DeRenzi conducted Sarasota’s I Lombardi – as he has all the works in the Verdi cycle – but he said the experience wasn’t especially helpful in working on the French version: “I try to put I Lombardi aside. Sometimes I’m conducting Jérusalem and the Italian words come into my head. Sometimes an aria is the same but it’s in a different key. The orchestration is different. Sometimes there is completely new material.”
One notable new scene is at the end of Act III, when Gaston, the opera’s leading man, is dishonored by the crusaders. “Even in the least performed of his operas, there is a kernel of what Verdi is becoming, something worthy of seeing,” DeRenzi said. “The best example in Jérusalem is the ‘degradation scene’ where the tenor is stripped of his rank and shield and sword.” Sarasota will not be performing the ballet that Verdi composed for Paris.
Martha Collins, the director of Jérusalem, also staged I Lombardi three years ago, and she concedes that the earlier opera – 11 scenes patched together in four acts – was a clunky affair. “Jérusalem holds together so much better than I Lombardi did,” Collins said. “It shows Verdi’s growth. It’s humbling and inspiring to realize how driven he was to learn everything he could about the theater and to make his operas as dramatically credible as they could be.”
Soprano Danielle Walker is singing Hélène, whose romance with Gaston (sung by Heath Huberg), takes her from a palace in Toulouse to an Arab harem. “It’s probably the biggest role that I’ve ever sung,” said Walker, whose résumé includes Mimi in La bohème and Micaëla in Carmen. “I have three arias. And in most of the ensemble pieces there is a big moment for Hélène where she is either begging God to save the one that she loves or she’s cursing everybody because they’re not standing up for what’s right.”
Walker is no stranger to Verdi rarities, having played the ingénue Giulietta in last season’s Sarasota production of the early comedy, Un giorno di regno. “Just because these operas aren’t done often doesn’t mean they aren’t good,” she said. “I think Jérusalem is a great show.”
John Fleming, performing arts critic of the Tampa Bay Times for 22 years until retiring from the job last summer, writes for Opera News and other publications. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Date posted: March 6, 2014
Search this site
Help Us Grow
Support quality coverage of the performing arts.
Click here to help Classical Voice North America resound!
CLASSICAL VOICE NORTH AMERICA – LOOK AROUND!
Welcome to Classical Voice North America (CVNA), an online journal of classical music criticism and commentary written by the expert members of the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), with occasional guest contributors. We aim to convey the richness of musical life in the U.S. and Canada at a time when traditional print media is shrinking, and to bring classical music to life via digital images, audio samples, video and more. Full Story →
Are you a music writer? Join us. CVNA is writer-run, writer-written, and writer-friendly.
If you like what you see, become one of our sponsors. No contribution is too small!
We want to hear from you. Questions? Suggestions? Tell us at CVNA.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit These Classical Music Websites
Classical Voice North America is on Twitter
Stories We Like: Recommended by Members
Aspen Music Festival season opens with a call to action -- News report at The Aspen Times
‘Conjurer’ by John Corigliano and ‘Switch’ by Andrew Norman Reviews -- By Barbara Jepson at the Wall Street Journal
In Baltimore, the largely white orchestra world talks diversity -- By Tim Page at the Baltimore Sun
For ASO double bassist Jane Little, life meant going “on with the show” -- By Michael Kurth at ArtsATL
Kansas City Symphony musicians agree to new contract -- By Patrick Neas at the Kansas City Star
What an opera review spiked by the National Post really tells us -- By Lev Bratishenko at Macleans in Maclean's
MTT Revisits Das Lied Von Der Erde – This Time With A Mezzo -- By Richard S. Ginell at From Out of the West
The Met`s curious history of failing to fire lackluster directors -- By James Jorden at the Observer
Vienna Phil in Naples, Fla: Historic institution pays a visit to an ambitious newcomer -- By Barbara Jepson at the Wall Street Journal
Give me a break: classical musicians who step away -- By Anne Midgette at the Washington Post
Verbier Festival's Kim Gaynor to take over Vancouver Opera -- By Janet Smith at the Georgia Straight
Charles Dutoit returns to Montreal 14 years after bitter split -- By Robert Everett-Green at the Globe and Mail
How unlikely Steven Stucky proved indespensible to the LA Philharmonic's rise -- By Mark Swed at the Los Angeles Times
Every Recording Of Satie's Gymnopedie One Played At Once – By Coffee Break at MusicalToronto.Org
Playing it forward: Norman Johns has inspired young minority musicians for decades – By Janelle Gelfand at Cincinnati.com
A Stunning Verdi Requiem by the L.A. Master Chorale -- By Rodney Punt at Huffington Post
Overwhelmingly male slate mars Winnipeg New Music Festival – By Holly Harris at the Winnipeg Free Press
Adjusting Medication May Prolong Levine’s Tenure at the Met -- By Michael Cooper at the New York Times
New York Philharmonic picks Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Jaap van Zweden as music director -- By Scott Cantrell at the Dallas Morning News
Jaap Van Zweden and the future of the New York Philharmonic -- By Anthony Tommasini at the New York Times
Last Man Standing: Eugene Onegin, Courtesy of NC Opera -- By John Lambert at CVNC
Kronos Quartet to revisit horrors of Vietnam with 'My Lai' -- By Hannah Edgar at Chicago Classical Review
Piano teacher Eleanor Sokoloff, 101, feted at Barnes Foundation -- By Peter Dobrin at the Philadelphia Inquirer
Violons du Roy founder Bernard Labadie prepares for emotional homecoming -- By Arthur Kaptainis at the Montreal Gazette
Prototype Festival shows opera houses one path to new work -- By Anne Midgette at the Washington Post
Igor Levit and Evgeny Kissin revise the recital format -- By Alex Ross at the New Yorker
Librettist Royce Vavrek: So Many Juicy, Amazing Words -- By Frank J. Oteri at New Music Box
‘Mozart in the Jungle’: Where Classical Music Meets Soap Opera -- By Zachary Wolfe at the New York Times
ENO's woes: opera company begins new year in offstage turmoil -- By Mark Brown at the Guardian
Claude Gingras: Canada's Longest Running Music Critic Retires -- By Michael Vincent at Musical Toronto
The Third Annual Excellence in Opera (a. k. a. Freddie) Awards -- By Fred Plotkin at WQXR
Kurt Masur Dies at 88; Conductor Transformed New York Philharmonic -- By Margalit Fox at the New York Times
Taylor Swift donates $50,000 to the Seattle Symphony -- By Hannis Brown at WQXR
Violinist Ray Chen gives classical music a new-media twist -- By Xavier Flory at the New York Times
Rival visions to reboot the New York City Opera detailed -- By Jennifer Smith at the Wall Street Journal
Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music receives $20 million gift -- By Ade Adeniji at Inside Philantrhopy
Calgary's Hohnens Piano Competition is kinder, gentler -- By Michael Morreale at Maclean's