By James Bash
SARASOTA, Fla. — Sarasota Opera wrapped up its 28-year Verdi Cycle with a full-throttled grand finale concert that will have local opera goers buzzing for quite some time. A capacity crowd, which filled the Sarasota Opera House to the brim on March 20, enjoyed vivid excerpts from a number of Verdi’s operas plus a stirring performance of his “Te Deum.” The memorable occasion was a tremendous tribute to artistic director Victor DeRenzi’s vision to perform all of Verdi’s works, and it was complemented by the presence of Verdi’s great, great grandchildren.
To make the claim of performing everything Verdi composed, DeRenzi left no score unturned, finding alternative versions of operas and other pieces that are rarely, if ever, played today. One of them was a full-scale overture to Aida that Verdi wrote in 1871. The composer scuttled that version after hearing it in rehearsal, and it remained at his home until 1940, when the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini finally premiered it.
DeRenzi and the orchestra kicked off the concert with the overture, and the conductor became so involved in his gestures that he lost control of his baton during an accelerando about midway into the piece; it went airborne into the woodwind section. That did not stop anything, because DeRenzi deftly pulled a second baton from his stand and charged ahead without missing a beat. The orchestra gave the overture a sterling account, finishing all of the exotic themes with panache.
Of Verdi’s many father-daughter duets, one of the best is “Guardami! Sul mio ciglio” from Act I of his first opera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, in which father (Oberto) and daughter (Leonora) are reunited. Although Verdi originally wrote the title role for a bass, he subsequently transposed some of the lines in the duet to make them easier for baritone Raffaele Ferlotti and added a new cabaletta. It was the revised version that Sarasota Opera performed with Michelle Johnson as Leonora and Marco Nisticò as Oberto. Imbuing her voice with longing and anger, Johnson conveyed Leonora’s frustrations, accusing her father of torturing her soul. Nisticò responded with a commanding tone and a convincing plea to the heavens. All ended well with the two reconciling and vowing to work together.
The program proceeded with selections from various operas, following a historical progression. While all were done expertly, the one that lit up the house the most was the duet “Non sai tu che se l’anima mia” from Act II of Un ballo in maschera. Jonathan Burton’s Riccardo ardently declared his love for Amelia with a resonant tone and the appealing smile of a suitor who knew that the stakes were high. As Amelia, Kara Shay Thomson delivered thrilling high notes and deliciously clear cascades with a wonderful sense of spontaneity.
Other highlights included the duet “Tardo per gli anni, e tremulo” from the prologue of Attila, in which the Roman general Ezio proposes that Attila keep the entire empire yet allow Ezio to rule Italy. As Ezio, Sean Anderson stated his offer forcefully and heroically, and it was met with a wail of disgust from Young Bok Kim, in the role of Attila, as he threatened to burn down the city of Rome.
For the Act II quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore” from Rigoletto, Matthew Vickers inflamed the stage as the lascivious Duke while Kathleen Shelton fashioned an enticing Maddalena, Jennifer Townshend a horrified Gilda, and Eric Lindsey a comforting Rigoletto. Other winning selections featured Thomson’s searing performance of Lady Macbeth’s cavatina “Vieni! T’affretta!” from Act I of Macbeth, the Anvil Chorus and an episode featuring Azucena (Tara Curtis) from Il trovatore, the trio “Qual volutta tracorrere” from Act III of I Lombardi (Townshend as Giselda, Heath Huberg as Oronte, and Kim as the Hermit), the “Solenne in quest’ora giurarmi dovete” duet from Act III of La forza del destino (Michael Robert Hendrick as Don Alvaro and Anderson as Don Carlo), and the Brindisi, “Inaffia l’ugola! trinca, tracana,” from Act I of Otello (Anderson as Iago, Lucas Levy as Roderigo, and Huberg as Cassio).
The soloists joined the chorus for a fervent and incisive performance of the “Te Deum” from the Four Sacred Pieces, which Verdi wrote when he was 83. Although the “Te Deum” usually begins with the male voices a cappella, Verdi wrote an introduction to assist the entrance, and it was played on the organ in a reserved way that enhanced the solemn opening. All of the choristers sang impressively from memory, and DeRenzi kept the sound well balanced, even in the triple-forte passages.
At the conclusion of the “Te Deum,“ the audience responded with a thunderous standing ovation and cheering that included bursts of “Viva Verdi!” If DeRenzi had launched himself into the adoring mosh pit at the front of the stage, he could have surfed the hall in rock-star fashion. But he stepped onto the podium to lead an encore,“Va, pensiero” from Nabucco, which resulted in another roaring ovation. This was followed by the comic fugue that ends Falstaff, involving 10 soloists at the front of the stage, which caused another round of deafening acclamation. To cap off the evening, DeRenzi conducted an audience sing-along of “Va, pensiero.” Viva Verdi! indeed.
James Bash is a freelance writer based in Portland, OR. He reviews Portland Opera productions for Opera Magazine and writes for a number of publications, including his blog, Northwest Reverb.