Sarasota Opera Winter Festival 2011

She describes pre-recession times, and more recently, the buzz inside Sarasota
Opera House’s two-tier atrium lobby and the general enthusiasm the
company’s 2011 Winter Festival is generating.

LombardiGisArvino.gifGiselda (Abla Lynn Hamza) and Arvino (Mathew Edwardsen) square off.

Sarasota’s 52nd season serves up standards in Boheme and
Giovanni. The company’s Verdi cycle, now on its 27th work,
resumes with I Lombardi. This season Sarasota Opera begins another
venture, the America Classics Series, showcasing the 20th century operas of
American composers. Robert Ward’s The Crucible starts the
series. Skipping across the operatic landscape as it does — from
Puccini’s Paris, Mozart’s Spain, Verdi’s Middle East, and
17th Century Massachusetts — Sarasota Opera’s word for the season
is idiomatic.

It is not enough to note that all shows presented at Sarasota Opera are
produced especially for the company, as sets are so perfectly suited to the
venue and to the company’s goal of traditional opera readings as to draw
raves. Each of the sets for the Festival run is remarkable for the acute use of
angles, perspective and for craftsmanship. For Boheme, seen on March
11, the thought David P. Gordon (Scenic Design) gives to matters of stage
action was in full effect. At Momus, we see sets at their most practical, to
the extent that chorus members occupy a shop within the space allowing free
room for the show at the town square (think Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley).
Gordon and R.A. Reed Productions crafted this brilliant architectural art that
debuted here in 2006.

Maestro Victor DeRenzi’s Puccini is quite grand. Just when the
orchestral bounds slid close to a volume bordering on coarse, bearing in mind
the space and style, the playing eased back to Puccini. DeRenzi knows this
orchestra and vice-versa; he can afford to take risks. On the flip side, the
orchestra overpowered singers, as it did Harold Meers (Rodolfo) in “Che
gelida manina” and Carelle Flores (Musetta) in her waltz. Singers also
found themselves falling behind the music, as did Meers in pickups for the

BohemeMuseMomus.gifOn parade, Marcello (Grante Clarke), Musetta (Carelle Flores), Schnaurd (Matthew Hanscom), Rodolfo (Harold Meers) and Mimi (Maria D’Amato)

Meers sang most convincingly when portraying a man powerless over a malady
that will take his love in Act III. His sound — tight and lean above the
staff — made for a less than affecting connection with that of the Mimi
in this performance. Maria D’Amato’s lyric soprano is well-produced
on low and carries buttery overtones. Dramatically and vocally, Flores and
Grant Clarke (Marcello) were the more interesting pairing in a strong cast of
singing-actors. Batting eyelashes and strutting right to the edge of the stage
on her entrance was Flores as Musetta. No stranger to Sarasota audiences, Young
Bok-Kim’ s dark, round voice had hints of graininess that imparted mettle
to his Colline. Sarasota Opera Studio Artists Matthew Hansom and Carlos Monzon
were playful as Schaunard and Alcindoro. Benjamin Gelfand’s elegant
singing is not what one expects to hear in the role of Benoit and Adam
Bielamowicz stopped the show as Parpignol.

Stage director Stephanie Sundine’s influence will be remembered for
the well-executed utensil fencing in the opening act and a streaming parade in
front of the cafÈ. There were tempo kinks between the pit and the men in Act
III, otherwise the chorus was musically exacting and energetic. Roger L.
Bingaman is Chorus Master and Micheal Shane Wittenburg the Youth Opera Chorus

GiovanniPoulisCommend.gifThe Commendatore (Benjamin Gelfand) stands on guard over Giovanni (Lee Poulis).

On the streets and in the colonnades of Spain, David P. Gordon’s work
(this time constructed by Center Line Studios, Inc.) excels further. Seamlessly
fitting pieces and interlocking scenes of fresh squares with walkways either
dropped down, slid across, rose up or a combination of these smoothly.
Giovanni’s denouement — at some very swank digs — has him
going down in damned deglutition at the top of a staircase as hell-fire shades
(Lighting supplied by Ken Yunker) gobble him up. In the end, Howard Tsvi Kaplan
has Giovanni sporting a Hugh Heffner robe: Giovanni as the
feinschmeker he was. Peter Kozma provided a staging sequence that
stood out to open Act II, the lights flashed on to Giovanni gaining on
Leporello, both in full trot. Jim Hoskins’ choreography was carried out
rather sluggishly by Lee Poulis (Giovanni) and Benjamin Gelfand (Commendatore)
at this matinee on March 12th.

“If I am true to one, I will be cruel to all others.” While Lee
Poulis spoke Da Ponte’s words for Giovanni, there were only faints signs
of the attitude that makes such a rake. Poulis fit into Giovanni in other
important ways; he is tall, slim and handsome. Gelfand played the officer well,
and he was stiff as granite mounted on a steed in the cemetery.

Such are Leporello’s text and music that only a little extra something
will have the role come off entertainingly. Playing the straight man might not
be Andrew Gangestad’s strongpoint but he was just mordant enough to
underscore the ridiculous situation he finds himself in. In the
“Catalogue Aria,” Gangestad displayed both admiration for and
confusion over his master’s conquests. Sarasota Opera debutant Christina
Pier was the Donna Anna. Hers is a voice of ample volume for large houses; in
Sarasota’s venue, the sound was piercing to the point of losing some of
its luster. Her affianced Ottavio was played by Joshua Kohl. Unpolished, and
tried as it was by Mozart’s tricky lines with scales tagged on, the young
tenor’s timbre is what makes one take notice. The Donna Elvira Danielle
Walker, had little trouble communicating her anger over Giovanni’s
interminable infidelity. Studio Artists Patrick McNally (Masetto) and Sarah
Asmar (Zerlina) played their parts’ vulnerabilities well. The chorus was
tighter across the board for Mozart.

The orchestra played civilly and subdued for conductor and Sarasota Opera
regular Anthony Barrese — there was not much here to disturb what exists
neither to reveal anything interesting in Mozart’s score.

GiovanniPoulis.gifA toast to the Don (Lee Poulis at
center; Andrew Gangestad to the right).

Revealing though is what I Lombardi is in examining Giuseppe
Verdi’s career topography. Occupying the period termed Early Verdi,
Lombardi marks the beginning of the composer’s life-long
struggle with censorship, he officially takes up the mantle of patriot, and in
setting a complex cause to music-drama, he takes set pieces to a new level (for
one thing, the final two acts are split into six scenes).

As one would expect in a work such as Lombardi performed in Sarasota, the
chorus had clearly gone through extensive preparation for this performance (on
March 12th). Bingaman’s group sounded more like a well-balanced legion of
80 than the 20 or so there were. The chorus managed to come in and out of the
panorama smoothly, as required. The orchestral performance was solid with
DeRenzi conducting — the few interludes were warmly shaped, as was
Concert Master Liang-Ping How’s violin solo.

Lombari’s character of central interest is more or less
Pagano — after being excommunicated and committing patricide, he is
received back in the end as a sort of prodigal son. Kevin Short’s
imposing baritone gave Pagano intensity and he is an artist with obvious stage
sense. As Arvino, Pagano’s brother, Mathew Edwardson’s slender tone
cut through the orchestra, his acting was also quite good. Arvino’s
daughter Giselda holds much of the opera’s attention through the end of
Part One and all of Part Two. Alba Lynn Hanza is a slight woman with a lyric
voice that filled the auditorium with Giselda’s urgent pleas of
deliverance and objections to war.

In Part Two, Studio Artist Jeffrey Beruan lent a hearty bass to Acciano, the
ruler of Antioch. Acciano’s son Oronte is perhaps the best known of
Lombardi’s characters, and his “La mia letizia
infondere” its best known tune. Shortly after his entrance, Rafael Davila
established himself as a singer with little inhibition and some old-school
sentimentality. Marvelous stuff. Later, Davila capped Oronte’s “In
cielo benedetto” with a tenore di forza-defying
diminuendo. For this scene, Yunker and Martha Collins (Stage Director)
are applauded for placing the fallen Oronte beyond a dreamy underwater
moonlight effect.

LombardiGisOronHermit.gifThe wandering hermit (Kevin Short) finds Giselda (Abla Lynn Hamza) and the mortally wounded Oronte (Rafael Davila)

The lengthy supporting cast for Lombardi all played a part in
making this disorganized story, a bear though it is, somewhat engaging.

With Robert Ward’s The Crucible, engagement is never a
problem. In reading through Sarasota Opera’s literature reporting on the
opera, the word powerful appears many times. From a distance, this work tells
the story of the Salem witch trials. Up close, Arthur Miller’s play
The Crucible — from which Ward created his opera — is a
specific account of human treachery that recycles through time, therefore
regenerating as a topic of concern and interest.

Micheal Unger’s stage direction was instrumental in the power of this
performance of Crucible (March 13 matinee). The positioning, and
jumpiness, of male characters at Reverend Parris’ house was
tension-inducing. The distance kept between the Proctors at the farmhouse
kitchen was indicative of the couple’s split and how their individual
misunderstandings led to mutual isolation. The Act II courtroom was one of a
sniveling and jeering cabal out to bring down the Proctors and whip up Abigail
Williams on one side, and the outnumbered and drowned-out voice of reason
(Reverend John Hale, for one) on the other.

Ward’s use of driving, tense strings and the presence of horns relaxes
as the story unfolds and some of the scoring turns reminiscent of
Korngold’s film music. He keeps the vocal line moving, with few inklings
of extended melody and many exposed notes right in the break of the voice.
Conductor David Neely and orchestra represented Ward very well overall.

A hulking and strapping man whose baritone has similar qualities, Sarasota
Opera returnee Sean Anderson made a commanding impact as John Proctor. By the
time of Proctor’s booming high note of despair closing Act II, the stage
was set for a bring-down-the-house performance. Anderson’s acting at the
jail was gut-wrenching in its pathos (this was enhanced by skillful disheveling
of Anderson by Wig and Make-up Designer Georgianna Eberhard).

CrucibleJProctorCourtroom2.gifEnraged, John Proctor (Sean Anderson, middle) is restrained in the
courtroom (Thomas Putnam, played by Dimitrie Lazich at right).

Heather Johnson ably produced both the strong and broken sides of wife
Elizabeth Proctor. The role of Reverend John Hale is the sunniest in terms of
Crucible’s social commentary and Jeffrey Tucker communicated
this well. Studio Artists Steven Uliana (Reverend Samuel Parris) and Dimitrie
Lazich (Thomas Putnam) were excellent. Tenor Uliana handled Ward’s
demanding vocals and Lazich adroitly steered his baritone through
Putnam’s high tessitura and declamations. The entire cast of
over 20 in Crucible could have been a touring company performing this
one piece alone, such was the synchronicity of the production.

What was mentioned of Sarasota Opera’s sets applies to the work of
Michael Schweikardt, and the company for building the sets, for
Crucible. The wood in Act III is particularly memorable for its plain
treatment; lined patterns of slim, straight-trunked trees with small leaves
were softly lit (by Yunker) suggesting the coming dawn.

Sarasota Opera’s Winter Festival closes on March 20th, alive and in
idiomatic style.

Robert Carreras

Cast Lists

La boheme (Friday, March 11)

Conductor: Victor DeRenzi. Stage Director: Stephanie Sundine. Scenic
Designer: David P. Gordon. Costume Coordinator: Howard Tsvi Kaplan. Lighting
Designer: Ken Yunker. Wigs & Make-Up Designer: Georgianna Eberhard. Chorus
Master: Roger L. Bingaman. Youth Opera Chorus Master: Michael Wittenburg.

Mimi: Maria D’Amato; Rodolfo: Harold Meers; Marcello: Grant Clarke;
Colline: Young-Bok Kim; BenoÓt: Benjamin Gelfand; Musetta: Carelle Flores;
Schaunard: Matthew Hanscom; Alcindoro: Carlos MonzÛn.

Don Giovanni (Saturday, March 12 matinee)

Conductor: Anthony Barrese. Stage Director: Peter Kozma. Scenic Designer:
David P. Gordon. Costume Designer: Howard Tsvi Kaplan. Lighting Designer: Ken
Yunker. Wigs & Make-Up Designer: Georgianna Eberhard. Chorus Master: Roger
L. Bingaman.

Donna Anna: Christina Pier; Donna Elvira: Danielle Walker; Don Ottavio:
Joshua Kohl; Don Giovanni: Lee Poulis; Leporello: Andrew Gangestad; The
Commendatore: Benjamin Gelfand; Zerlina: Sarah Asmar; Masetto: Patrick

I lombardi (Saturday, March 12)

Conductor: Victor DeRenzi. Stage Director: Martha Collins. Scenic Designer:
Jeffrey W. Dean. Costume Designer: Howard Tsvi Kaplan. Lighting Designer: Ken
Yunker. Wig & Make-Up Designer: Georgianna Eberhard. Chorus Master: Roger
L. Bingaman.

Giselda: Abla Lynn Hamza; Oronte: Rafael D·vila; Arvino: Mathew Edwardsen;
Pagano: Kevin Short; Pirro: Benjamin Gelfand; Viclinda: Lindsay Ohse; Sofia:
Sarah Larsen; Prior of the City of Milan: Heath Huberg; Acciano: Jeffrey

The Crucible (Sunday, March 13 matinee)

Conductor: David Neely. Stage Director: Michael Unger. Scenic Designer:
Michael Schweikardt. Costume Designer: Howard Tsvi Kaplan. Lighting Designer:
Ken Yunker. Wigs & Make-Up Designer: Georgianna Eberhard. Chorus Master:
Roger L. Bingaman.

Elizabeth Proctor: Heather Johnson; Judge Danforth: Mathew Edwardsen; John
Proctor: Sean Anderson; Reverend John Hale: Jeffrey Tucker; Abigail Williams:
Lindsay Barche; Mary Warren: Lara Michole Tillotson; Ann Putnam: Lindsay Ohse;
Tituba: Nicole Mitchell; Ezekial Cheever: Bernard D. Holcomb; Thomas Putnam:
Dimitrie Lazich; Francis Nurse: Bradley Smoak.

image_description=Crucible’s verdict. John Proctor (Sean Anderson) and Rebecca Nurse(Kaitlin Bertenshaw) on the gallows. [Photo by Rod Millington courtesy of Sarasota Opera]
product_title=Sarasota Opera Winter Festival 2011
product_by=See cast lists in body of review
product_id=Above: Crucible’s verdict. John Proctor (Sean Anderson) and Rebecca Nurse(Kaitlin Bertenshaw) on the gallows.

All photos by Rod Millington courtesy of Sarasota Opera