By Arthur Kaptainis
SARASOTA, Fla. – The title is Jérusalem, and with an accent aigu, if you please. Verdi’s 12th opera is a reworking of his fourth – I Lombardi alla prima crociata – for the Paris Opera. It is also a great night out, as a crowd in the Sarasota Opera House discovered March 8 in what was probably a first-time experience for everyone in attendance.
An appearance by Jérusalem on the Gulf Coast was inevitable, as Sarasota Opera is committed to performing every note that Verdi left us. But there could be no doubt that the undertaking was a matter of love, not labor. Victor DeRenzi, artistic director of the company and the mastermind of the Verdi project, led a performance of remarkable cohesion, and the singers (cast and chorus alike) sounded like true believers.
Which is what the libretto of Jérusalem requires them to be. As in I Lombardi, the subject is the First Crusade, although the internecine conflicts are simplified and the subplot concerning the conversion of Oronte (the Saracen tenor of I Lombardi) is suppressed. Most Verdi authorities – including some assembled for a panel discussion on the day of the performance – view Jérusalem as the more coherent work and attribute its absence from the repertoire to a worldwide preference for Italian over French.
Could it make a comeback? I think it could. The overture is atmospheric; the choruses are stirring; and the arias, even where infused with elements of display, have psychological relevance. The French version’s Act III includes the newly composed (and so-called) Degradation Scene, in which the lead tenor, Gaston, is ceremonially cashiered and sentenced to death. Splendidly theatrical, it scans as Verdi in his early maturity and handily overcomes any questions of narrative logic it might raise (the justice seems rough, given that this crusader has already been exiled and declared anathema).
There are other such oddities in Jérusalem. We have a right to wonder how so many of the characters dispersed in France in Act I – including the Count of Toulouse, whom we believe to have been assassinated – could reassemble conveniently in the Levant four years later, as if attending a class reunion. But as in a few mid-19th-century potboilers (including Il trovatore, a rip-roaring performance of which was given the night before), what looks bad on paper can, on stage, get quite nicely off the ground.
High performance standards are crucial, and these were forthcoming. The smallish Sarasota Opera Orchestra played with admirable exactitude, and a chorus comprising about 30 Sarasota Opera apprentices and understudies (as prepared by Roger Bingaman) sang with head-spinning focus. Like I Lombardi, Jérusalem has many big moments for the multitude, including a collective prayer in Act II that has something of the lilt of “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco. The processional of Act IV registers as a mini-oratorio. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that these wonderful numbers alone are worth the price of admission.
On this firm orchestral and choral foundation, the young leads could give their all. In a larger space Heath Huberg, the Gaston, might be considered a tenor of lyric weight, but a little spinto goes a long way in this house of about 1,100 seats. Even more convincing was Danielle Walker as Hélène, the soprano whose unassailable dedication to Gaston entails sparkling technique, long lines of supplication and, in Act IV, deity-defying dramatic force.
Young Bok Kim applied a steady bass to the role of the nobleman-turned-hermit Roger, piloting his Act II aria to a secure landing on a low F. There was stalwart supporting work from baritone Matthew Hanscom (the Count), bass Jeffrey Beruan (the Papal Legate), and bass-baritone Keith Brown (the Emir). Soprano Catheryne Shuman and tenor Jon Jurgens sounded fresh as Hélène’s handmaiden and Gaston’s squire.
They were all marshaled assuredly by DeRenzi, a conductor with an unerring sense of how to time an early-Verdi ker-pow. Martha Collins supplied lucid direction, although perhaps something symbolic in the way of degradation should be found to replace the unworkable smashing of Gaston’s helmet and shield. The painterly sets of Jeffrey W. Dean and regulation crusader costumes of Howard Tsvi Kaplan were fresh enough to withstand any charge of conventionality. It should be stressed that Sarasota is firmly a traditional house. I probably speak for more than a few of my colleagues in feeling sweet relief at not having to describe and evaluate some ludicrous directorial conceit.
So where to place Jérusalem in the operatic scheme of things? The characters ring true enough to overcome the vicissitudes of plotting, and the music (minus perhaps some interludes of band music) is of high dramatic caliber. It is not a short piece. The omission of the ballet – the only cut sanctioned by Verdi – was probably advisable. Jérusalem has no hit aria to function as a calling card. Some spectators on opening night suggested that the theme of Christian-Muslim conflict could be considered timely. This strikes me as far-fetched, although it is interesting that the Emir is seen placing his faith in Allah, just as the Crusaders rely on their Almighty.
In any case, there are no grounds to deny Jérusalem entry to the outer orbits of the repertoire occupied by Nabucco and the various Rossini and Donizetti former exiles that are now embraced by the big companies. Montreal and Quebec City suggest themselves as logical French-language launching pads for Jérusalem. To say nothing of the house that brought it into being. What was it called? Oh, yes. The Paris Opera.
Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for The Gazette (Montreal) and the National Post (Canada).