Sarasota Opera’s Verdi Project Sets the Standard with ‘Jérusalem’


Roy C. Dicks, What's the Score?

By Roy C. Dicks: What’s the Score?

Sarasota, Fla. – With this season’s production of Jérusalem, the Sarasota Opera’s massive Verdi Cycle, begun in 1989, is just three operas away from completion. The 33 stage works, counting all the alternate versions and revisions, include a number of operas infrequently mounted or recorded. Jérusalem is certainly among those, but not because of major inadequacies, as proved by the company’s highly satisfying, often thrilling production.

Verdi’s 1847 work for the Paris Opera is nearly a wholesale revision of his 1843 I Lombardi alla prima crociata. Besides the language change, the plot was drastically reworked and much of the music put in different positions in different keys. A fair amount of new music also was composed, including a major scene for the tenor.

Comparisons of the two operas’ changes would take too much space (check your favorite online synopsis sources) so only Jérusalem will be considered here.

Jérusalem, Act I finale. Photo by Rod Millington
Jérusalem, Act I finale. Photo by Rod Millington

The opera takes place in the late 11th century during the First Crusade. In Toulouse, lovers Gaston and Hélène are about to be married when her father, the Count, is mistakenly wounded by orders of Roger, the Count’s brother. Roger is also in love with Hélène and meant to have his rival Gaston murdered instead. Roger villainously accuses Gaston of the Count’s near death and Gaston is exiled. Roger takes his secret into the desert where he wanders, repentant, as a hermit.

Later, in Palestine, Gaston is captured by the Emir of Ramla, where Hélène has gone to find Gaston and she is also captured. As the lovers plan their escape, the Count and the Crusaders take the Emir’s palace, discover Gaston there and condemn him to death. While Gaston awaits his execution, he is led to a hermit (Roger) for comfort. The hermit gives Gaston a sword and tells him to fight in the battle for Jerusalem. Gaston, in disguise, goes to fight and returns victorious, ready to face his fate with honor. But Roger reveals himself as the true culprit, restoring Gaston’s innocence and dies in his brother’s arms as he looks upon the conquered Jerusalem.

With seven operas under his belt after Lombardi, Verdi applied newfound concision and directness in Jérusalem, the score more through-composed, with fewer instances of outright display for the singers. Despite four acts and a run time well over three hours, the piece never felt overly extended or languorous, at least in Sarasota Opera’s very fine production (seen opening night, March 8, 2014).

Much of the performance’s success was due to conductor and long-time company artistic director, Victor DeRenzi, who signaled from the first notes of the prelude that this would be a taunt, rhythmically exciting traversal that gave singers enough leeway to shine interpretatively but was never indulgent or wayward. The orchestra played with fine cohesion and energy, by turns rousing and emotive as warranted.

As in Der Fliegende Holländer and Il Trovatore earlier in the week, Sarasota’s chorus, under Roger L. Bingaman’s expert direction, sang with thrilling force and precision, giving its several big numbers (the pilgrims’ chorus in act II and the crusaders’ hymn that closes the opera) gripping intensity, aided by the very live acoustics in the intimate, 1100 seat opera house.  The chorus also added rich underpinning to the concerted finales of several scenes.

The leads were evenly strong, with soprano Danielle Walker taking honors as the one for whom no praise needed qualifying. Hélène is one who must constantly top out the many concerted numbers, which Walker did unflaggingly and with great verve. Her voice was clear, firmly controlled and beautifully supported. Walker’s acting was appropriate for the conventional style of the production and she moved in the period costumes with dignity and flair.

Heath Huberg’s fine tenor gave Gaston’s music refinement and enough heft to carry the more vigorous phrases, only occasionally making one wish for a more sizable output. He was particularly successful at the lyrical, tender moments. He made his height and lanky frame an asset in portraying both warrior and lover.

Heath Huberg (Gaston) and Danielle Walker (Hélène). Photo by Rod Millington
Heath Huberg (Gaston) and Danielle Walker (Hélène). Photo by Rod Millington

As Roger, Young Bok Kim started out a little wooly and constrained but soon loosened up into cleanly sung lines, especially impressive in several low notes that were unstrained and fully formed. There were times when more volume and weight would have been an advantage but he colored his phrases in a variety of emotions and put his arias across authoritatively.

The Papal Legate ( Jeffrey Beruan). Photo by Rod Millington
The Papal Legate ( Jeffrey Beruan). Photos by Rod Millington

Matthew Hanscon’s Count registered effectively, both as singer and actor. Jeffrey Beruan had creepy stature as the Papal Legate and Jon Jurgens made a dutiful Raymond, Gaston’s squire.

Sarasota’s production approach in all its offerings is firmly traditional, and Jérusalem was no exception. But stage director Martha Collins managed to give the action a freshness and straightforward presentation that mostly avoided clichéd gestures and old-fashioned stances.

Jeffrey W. Dean’s sets were representational yet clean and unfussy, with enough dimension to avoid the “painted flat” look. Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s costumes were sumptuous and rich, the women’s gowns nicely detailed and the Crusaders’ outfits stirring in their white capes and shields with red crosses.

Sarasota’s 30th Verdi staging is a winner, one for which the company can justifiably be proud. If the  Don Carlos, La battaglia di Legnano and Aida yet to come can be of equal quality, the series will most definitely end on a high note.