By Susan Brodie
SARASOTA, Fla. — Sarasota Opera’s 28-year-long Verdi Cycle came to a glorious close over the weekend with two concerts, a conference of Verdi scholars, and performances of two operas, the rarely-performed La battaglia di Legnano (The Battle of Legnano) and the spectacular evergreen, Aida.
The recurring musical motif of Verdi’s fourteenth opera is a rousing patriotic march, a fitting theme for the first of Verdi’s overtly political operas. Set in 12th-century Lombardy, in northern Italy, it tells of the German invasion led by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, called Barbarossa for his red beard. Medieval Italy was a conglomeration of city-states, which was also the situation in 1848 when Verdi began composition. The movement to throw off Habsburg rule and create a unified Italy was dear to Verdi’s heart, and the eponymous battle had contemporary resonance in current events of 1848.
This revolutionary fervor animates La battaglia di Legnano but takes a back seat to a love triangle complicated by the conflict between love and duty. Arrigo, a Veronese soldier thought to have died in battle, arrives in Milan to rejoin his army and best friend, Rolando, and to claim his sweetheart, Lida. She however, believing Arrigo dead, had filled a promise to her father and married Rolando.
When Arrigo learns the unpleasant news, he curses her for her betrayal and joins the Company of Death, a brotherhood of warriors sworn to die fighting. Still in love with him, Lida invites Arrigo to meet in secret, though she intends to remain true to her husband. Rolando bursts in on their meeting and seeks revenge by locking them together in the tower, so that Arrigo will appear to break his warrior vows by deserting his comrades. Distraught, Arrigo leaps from the tower to escape. In the final act, as the Lombards celebrate their victory in the Battle of Legnano, the wounded Arrigo dies at the feet of Rolando, with whom he has reconciled.
True to Sarasota’s mission to present Verdi’s operas as he would have seen them, Martha Collins’ staging was traditional. Jeffrey W. Dean’s sets and Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s sumptuous costumes were picturebook representations of medieval Italy, although the compact dimensions of the Sarasota Opera House stage dictated movable set elements instead of customary painted backdrops. Walls with openings and stepped platforms provided visual depth and the needed space for crowds. The members of the chorus — as chest-thumping warriors, magistrates deliberating military action, Lida’s ladies-in-waiting — were directed to form masses that resembled crowd scenes in medieval paintings. There was no ironic directorial subtext, which left the singers free to act with complete sincerity. Despite the hoary plot devices, the approach worked.
The orchestra, under artistic director Victor DeRenzi, played with crisp precision. Tempi tended toward the metronomic, which enhanced the military tone but appeared to hamstring the soloists. Verdi needs supple phrasing, and apart from the occasional held high note, there wasn’t much nuance.
The mostly young cast was commendable, though nearly all the singing seemed overly loud, certainly a result of coaching. As Lida, soprano Jennifer Black sang with luscious, free tone, though her cadenzas had some wayward pitch and ornamentation. Tenor Martin Nusspaumer had the voice and temperament of the warrior and lover Arrigo; strain in his upper register, apparent from his first aria, was probably due to the illness which made him drop out of the final performance after singing only the first scene. Baritone Todd Thomas embodied Rolando with utter commitment; his strong baritone sometimes crossed over to bluster, but this served to emphasize the character’s anger. Bass Young Bok Kim as Federico Barbarosso brought a note of brashness to the emperor’s sonorous threats. Smaller roles were ably filled.
Aida, with its massive cast and supersized staging, was the company’s reward in celebration of its monumental completist achievement (final performance on March 19). Again a production in the traditional style, Stephanie Sundine’s staging could lay claim to authenticity thanks to the use of the disposizione scenica, a collection of stage directions issued by Verdi’s publisher Ricordi after the premiere of the work. David P. Gordon devised monumental masonry elements painted with colorful hieroglyphics and human figures in Egyptian style. Costumes were more Cecil B. DeMille than undyed linen. And in case you wondered, Amonasro’s skin — the character was played by the sonorous Marco Nisticò — was darkened with make-up. (Michelle Johnson, who played Aida, is African-American.)
This Aida was an appealingly colorful production, drawing applause when the curtain rose. Scantily clad maidens fanned the Egyptian princess with white ostrich plume fans, then performed a lithe and prancing ballet (choreography by Miro Magloire).
The best news was the Aida. Johnson, who is a 2011 Metropolitan Opera National Council Audition winner, has a sumptuous young voice with a sturdy chest register, a free and powerful middle, and the ability to soar easily above the staff. The high diminuendo of “O patria mia” posed a challenge, but the talent is there and I’d love to hear her again. (Her next assignment is Leonora in Il Trovatore, May 20-24 at Hawaii Opera Theatre).
Jonathan Burton performed the difficult role of Radames with clean, strong tone, blazing high notes, and plenty of stamina. His portrayal was sympathetically conflicted — he’d do well at almost any major opera house.
Leann Sandel-Pantaleo’s Amneris was very well sung, but more striking was the fearlessness of her acting. Was it over the top to collapse on the floor sobbing after Radames chooses death over her love? Possibly, but after the spectacular excesses of the Triumphal March, a viewer is certainly primed for grand emotions. If insistently metronomic tempi robbed Radames and Aida of expressive room in their earlier arias, the Nile Scene and the last act were more relaxed and emotionally engaging.
After all, you can’t have a death scene without held high notes. That is the charm of Aida: wrenching conflicts and extreme emotions in a lavish setting. Sarasota Opera delivered a treat for eye and ear, and the audience was more than appreciative.