Sarasota’s Verdi: Every Opera, And Complete Pleasure

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Sarasota Opera completed its Verdi Cycle with 'Aida,' which had 13 sold-out performances. <(Rod Millington/Sarasota Opera photos)
Sarasota Opera completed its Verdi Cycle with a spectacular ‘Aida,’ which had 13 sold-out performances.
(Production photos by Rod Millington/Sarasota Opera)
By John Fleming

SARASOTA, Fla. – The Verdi Cycle had an unremarkable beginning. In 1989, Sarasota Opera mounted a production of Rigoletto, and while artistic director and principal conductor Victor DeRenzi didn’t know it at the time, that was the first installment in what evolved into a glorious marathon. Since then the company has staged not only the 27 standard versions of Giuseppe Verdi’s operas, but also six revised or alternative versions. Sarasota has also performed all of the composer’s available non-operatic works, from juvenalia to the String Quartet to the Requiem.

Victor DeRenzi began the cycle with 'Rigoletto' in 1989.
Artistic director Victor DeRenzi began the cycle with ‘Rigoletto’ in 1989.

Of course, perennial favorites like Rigoletto and La traviata were staples (each done in three different seasons), but what made the cycle a singular achievement were rarities like Oberto, Alzira, Il corsaro, and other works that have inspired many Verdians to make the trek to this Gulf Coast resort city to check off a work on their bucket list. I masnadieri or Jérusalem, anyone? Sarasota was the place to see them.

In March the company completed its 28-year journey into the heart and soul and mind of Verdi with a typical mix of the obscure and the familiar: La battaglia di Legnano, Verdi’s 14th opera, which hadn’t been seen in the U.S. since Pittsburgh Opera performed it more than 30 years ago, and a spectacular staging of his evergreen Aida, which sold out 13 performances in the 1,100-seat Sarasota Opera House. A CVNA review of those productions is here, and a review of the gala concert of Verdi opera excerpts that brought down the curtain on the 2016 winter festival season is here.

The Verdi Cycle became DeRenzi’s magnificent obsession, right down to a previously unheard eight-measure piano fragment that was played in a concert of works by the young Verdi in March. An Italian-American who grew up in a working-class family on Staten Island, the conductor immersed himself in all things Verdi.

“In preparing these operas, I have not only learned Verdi’s music, but also I have tried to learn his aesthetic,” DeRenzi wrote in the program book. “I’ve read many of his letters and documents from the period during which he was alive. There is much to be learned about singing, drama, and orchestral playing in that material. To bring his operas to the stage, I have tried to put myself in those times, applying all that I have discovered to create an aesthetic that I hoped would bring Verdi to life in performance today.”

I started writing about Sarasota Opera in 1992, but because going there year in and year out has been such a constant in my life, it came as something of a surprise this season when I realized that I have seen every opera in the cycle except two: Aroldo, Verdi’s remake of Stiffelio, in 1990; and the 1991 production of Un ballo in maschera. I wasn’t around for the original Rigoletto, but I saw the other productions of the opera that the company has done.

Kim Josephson sang the title role in both versions of 'Simon Boccanegra.'
Kim Josephson was a riveting doge in ‘Simon Boccanegra’ in 1992.

My first entry in the Verdi Cycle was Simon Boccanegra, and it remains one of the most memorable. I had never seen the opera before, and the Sarasota approach was the perfect introduction because the season included both the revised version, which became the standard after its 1881 premiere, and the original 1857 version, which had been a flop. I saw the two productions just a few days apart, and the comparison provided insight into the working methods of Verdi, an inveterate rewriter of his operas.

Some of the greatest music in Boccanegra is in the council chamber scene that he created for the revision, but it was also fascinating to see that the original wasn’t bad at all, though saddled with a laborious libretto by Francesco Maria Piave (and revised by Arrigo Boito). Kim Josephson gave a wonderful performance in both versions as the noble doge of Genoa.

A half dozen singers have been in the casts of five or more productions in the Verdi Cycle. One is baritone Todd Thomas, whose roles have included Nabucco, Macbeth, Falstaff, and Ezio in Attila. He returned this season to play Rolando, part of the love triangle at the center of La battaglia di Legnano, which was premiered in 1849 and is an early example of Verdi’s French grand opera style. As in other Sarasota productions of obscure Verdi, La battaglia, with its Salvadore Cammarano libretto, anticipates much to come in the composer’s canon. Certainly, it foreshadows Verdi’s subsequent work with the same librettist on Luisa Miller; the grandeur of Les vêpres siciliennes; the march rhythms of Don Carlos and Aida; and, in the lyrical, tender singing of Rolando and his wife, Lida, the intimacy of La traviata. 

Verdi baritone: Todd Thomas as Macbeth in 2003.
Verdi baritone: Todd Thomas as Macbeth in 2003.

Thomas sang the original and revised versions of Macbeth back to back in 2003. He points to that experience as something that could happen at no other regional opera company, in part because of the long rehearsal time that DeRenzi insists upon.

“With the beautiful Sarasota climate, people don’t mind rehearsing here for four or five weeks in winter,” Thomas said. “With Victor, we spend a day reading the libretto, sitting around a table, like actors on the first day of rehearsal of a play. We read it both in Italian and a word-by-word English translation. We focus on Italian diction and pronunciation, keeping it accent free, and making the words our own. Most companies think they don’t have the time to do that, but Victor’s idea is that a table reading of the libretto is an investment. It always pays dividends in the end.”

Explaining his words-first approach, DeRenzi said: “We are a very text-oriented company. I talk to the singers about how Italian poetry is constructed. The reason Verdi wrote the music he did is that the poetry of the libretto is written a certain way. Italian poetry is written to strict rules, and those rules also apply to the music.”

DeRenzi’s methods are not for everyone. Knowing exactly what he wants in performance, he gives copious notes, and he expects the cast to sing out fully in rehearsal, rather than marking. He will do only traditional stagings meant to emulate the way the composer intended his work to be seen in the 19th century, consulting original production manuals whenever possible. There has never been a Verdi opera done in a modern conception during his 34-year tenure, and in more than a few cases, the old school “park and bark” style of singing is alive and well in Sarasota. That can be tiresome, but the best productions (often those directed by Stephanie Sundine, a former singer and the conductor’s wife) are vividly clear in cultivating interaction between characters and blocking singers to their advantage. As DeRenzi said, “When you change the staging of Verdi, you change the relationships, and Verdi operas are all about relationships.”

Thomas, a consummate singer-actor, gave the greatest portrayal of the Scottish king I have seen in any medium, be it opera, theater, or film. “To do those two versions of Macbeth on the same weekend was grueling,” he said. “Nowhere else do I work as hard as I do here. But you become something of an expert under Victor’s reverence for Verdi. For a young singer, having Sarasota on your resume can be important.”

Rafael Davila's Otello in 2012 was a highlight.
Rafael Davila’s Otello in 2012 was a highlight of the cycle.

Thomas has sung Macbeth and Falstaff with other U.S. companies, and he will be making his debut in the title role of Simon Boccanegra in October at Pacific Opera Victoria in Canada. Another singer whose career benefited from time in Sarasota, with roles in five Verdi productions, is tenor Rafael Davila, whose Otello in 2012 was a highlight of the cycle. In February and March, Davila sang Radames at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain, and he is Don Jose in Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s Carmen April 23-May 1. Bass Young Bok Kim was in the most Verdi Cycle productions, seven, including this season’s Aida (as Ramfis) and La battaglia di Legnano (as Federico Barbarossa).

If DeRenzi’s rigid attitude about staging is sometimes limiting, his conducting of the orchestra is consistently engaging, with a confidence and nuanced understanding borne of his vast experience in the Verdi works. Some of my greatest pleasures in the cycle came in the discovery of amazing music in the obscure works, such as the overture of La battaglia, a delicate, classically proportioned work of about eight minutes that would make an interesting concert piece, or the mini-violin concerto (played by concertmaster Liang Ping How) that punctuates Oronte’s death scene in I Lombardi.

Phillip Gossett pounded out 'La forza del destino' on an upright piano in la ecture.
Philip Gossett pounded out ‘La forza del destino’ on an upright piano.

DeRenzi brought a scholarly sensibility to the Verdi Cycle. Through the years, he invited experts on the operas to make presentations, often in collaboration with the American Institute for Verdi Studies. One of my fondest memories is from 1996, when University of Chicago musicologist Philip Gossett, perhaps America’s leading authority on Italian opera, pounded out the score of La forza del destino on an upright piano on the stage of the opera house as he explained differences between the original and revised versions. All these gatherings have been open to the public, and in March, during a two-day conference of Verdi scholars, there was a good turnout to hear papers on the ornamentation of Verdi arias (by David Lawton), the reception of Verdi works in Victorian England (by Roberta Montemorra Marvin), the warlike themes of many Verdi operas (by Linda B. Fairtile), and other arcane matters.

Jennifer Feinstein: Marchessa in 'Un giorno di regno.'
Jennifer Feinstein: Marchessa del Poggio in ‘Un giorno di regno.’

The brainy approach extended to Verdi Cycle productions, a number of which used critical editions of the operas, including the world premiere of that definitive edition of Un giorno di regno, which was an unexpected hit in 2013. This came as quite a revelation because Verdi’s second opera — and only comedy until Falstaff, his farewell to the form – had a disastrous premiere in 1840. But the Sarasota staging was an entertaining affair, featuring a matched set of buffo basses, Stefano de Peppo and Kevin Short, soprano Danielle Walker in the ingénue role, and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Feinstein in a sparkling performance as the merry widow Marchessa del Poggio.

“The contribution by Sarasota to the critical edition of Un giorno was marvelous,” said Francesco Izzo, editor of the edition and successor to Gossett as general editor of The Works of Giuseppe Verdi critical editions, co-published by the University of Chicago Press and Casa Ricordi. “I was able to be in the rehearsal room for days and days, and maestro DeRenzi was absolutely welcoming. It was to our mutual advantage. He was able to ask me questions about details in the score, and I learned things from him and the singers that informed my editing of it.”

Izzo said that he made about 150 changes in the Un giorno critical edition as a result of the 2013 performances in Sarasota. It is slated to be published in 2017.

Is there life after Verdi in Sarasota? His work is not going to be performed in the 2017 season, which includes the company’s first staging of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. Executive director Richard Russell talked about wanting to do Bellini’s Norma – “We just have to make sure we have the right Norma” — or an American opera (the company has done excellent productions of Robert Ward’s The Crucible, Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, and Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men). “But obviously Verdi will come back,” he said. “You can’t have an opera company and not do Verdi.” 

John Fleming has covered Sarasota Opera for the Tampa Bay Times, for whom he was performing arts critic for 22 years, and Opera News.

Young Bok Kim was in seven Verdi Cycle productions. The bass played the title role in 'Attila' in 2007.
Young Bok Kim was in seven Verdi Cycle productions. The bass played the title role in ‘Attila’ in 2007.