By George Loomis
SARASOTA, Fla. — Sarasota Opera’s identification with Verdi has shaped its personality, giving it the kind of individual profile that most American regional opera companies lack. Some people here quip that the artistic director, Victor DeRenzi, even thinks he is Verdi, but nobody jokes about his deep respect for Verdi’s operas, which in our day and age elicits comparisons to Riccardo Muti.
With the company’s exhaustive Verdi survey, which began in 1989, scheduled for completion in 2016, interest this year centers on a genuine rarity – a phenomenon the Sarasota audience is by now well accustomed to – his first opera for Paris, Jérusalem, an 1847 revision of I Lombardi alla prima crociata. But on March 7, the night before Jérusalem opened, the company presented one of the best-known works of the canon, Il trovatore, which long ago made its official appearance in Sarasota’s complete series, both in its familiar Italian version and in its mildly revised version for Paris known as Le trouvère.
Possibly because of demands imposed by Jérusalem, the cast for Trovatore was something of a mixed bag, although there were fine performances in the principal male leads. Reyna Carguill brought a bright, firm soprano to the role of Leonora and sang the notes solidly and for the most part accurately, despite occasional intonation problems, especially early on. But there was a mechanical dimension to her singing that prevented her from making much of an emotional impact. Expressive phrases simply came and went without much nuance.
The exquisite Act IV aria “D’amor sull’ali rosee” found the high notes one waits for securely in place, but it was dynamically almost uniform, with not a pianissimo in sight. As applied to Il trovatore, DeRenzi’s no-cuts-in-Verdi policy – one I heartily applaud – initially brings to mind the tenor and how he will handle both verses of “Di quella pira.” But it also puts a burden on the soprano, who is called upon to sing “Tu vedrai che amore in terra” (the cabaletta of “D’amor sull’ali rosee”) complete. Carguill found it heavy going.
“Di quella pira” was not exactly a piece of cake for the evening’s Manrico, Kirk Dougherty, but he rose valiantly to the challenge with a committed and exciting performance. To his credit, he even sang the notes of the coda, which tenors often leave out as they gear up for the (unwritten) high note. His performance crowned a satisfyingly ardent and appealingly muscular performance.
As the Count di Luna, who is revealed to be Manrico’s brother moments after the latter’s execution, David Pershall bore an appropriately brotherly resemblance to Dougherty’s Manrico, looking physically fit and sporting a nicely trimmed beard. More to the point, he sang beautifully, with a lean, resonant sound and ample power. His polished phrasing of “Il balen” was a high point.
Margaret Mezzacappa, a ferocious presence as Azucena, was something of a puzzlement. She is a big woman and has a rich lower register to match, but her voice turns tremulous and edgy, almost acidic, in mid-range and above, which made her singing something of a trial. Jeffrey Beruan was a sonorous, rather gruff Ferrando.
As is his wont, DeRenzi led an assured performance that stressed the beauty and expressivity of Verdi’s music and let its fervor take care of itself. Not much needs to be said about the production, directed by Stephanie Sundine, other than that it follows Sarasota’s practice of largely ignoring modern approaches to staging operas. It is possible to follow scrupulously a libretto’s stage directions, yet still come up with something visually fresh and distinctive.
Too often Sarasota’s productions look like generic stagings from the distant past, and this one, with Michael Schweikardt’s painted sets and Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s conventional costumes, is one of them.
George Loomis writes regularly for the International New York Times and is a New York correspondent for Opera magazine.