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 firstname.lastname@example.org.