Sarasota Opera’s 2012 Winter Festival

They have also come to expect a performance of a
Giuseppe Verdi rarity, or at least a richly stylized version of a well-known
work as part of the company’s Verdi cycle. Opera-goers in Sarasota are also
used to the lasting presence of Victor DeRenzi leading their orchestras. This
season, Sarasota Opera and the Maestro celebrate his thirtieth anniversary with
the company.

A chance to catch Verdi’s Otello is cause for excitement
anywhere; interest is heightened for such a thing in Sarasota, where Verdi is
like an adopted patron saint. Begun in 1989, the company’s Verdi cycle is
four operas shy of its ambitious endeavor to be “the only company in the
world to have performed every note Giuseppe Verdi ever composed,” according
to program information. Mounting Otello is such the challenge that
many companies simply ignore it as repertoire. There is the problem of there
being, or finding, an Otello that can do the role justice, and the memory of
those that have is hard to erase.

Sarasota_2012_Otello03.pngSean Anderson as Iago

Rafael Davila’s performance of Otello comes with a few asterisks. Davila
is, as far as this writer is concerned, on a very short list of tenors that are
capable of sporting the naval jacket of Pinkerton and donning the “Lion of
Venice” robe of Otello within five month’s time, performing both
satisfyingly. More remarkable is this, on opening night March 3, was the Puerto
Rican tenor’s first assumption of the role. It will be a treat to hear
Davila’s Otello in other theaters. Davila will make first appearances with
Washington National Opera as Pollione and in Bilboa as Ismaele
(Nabucco) later this year. Otello is a real marathon, so when Davila
came out and made a statement for “Esultate” — the singing was secure,
had good weight and there was careful communication with the pit for the tricky
note patterns — the memory of others that did not make it past the second act
came to mind. Davila’s singing was caressing, with lines shaped in
untraditional ways for the duet. In Act II, Davila delved into Otello’s
insecurities while his voice continued to expand in expressiveness, pinging out
B naturals and riding the passagio with clear tone. Davila simply patted some
of Otello’s lower passages.

It is one thing to bluster through with power as some Otellos are like to
do, another to pierce through the orchestra and sing mellifluously as Davila
did. In “Dio mi potevi scagliar,” Davila expressed heartbreak and defiance;
“Nium mi tema” was every bit a last gasp of love. Otello’s asides to
Desdemona in act three were carried out excellently — Davila changed both
tension and volume of voice without a hitch. This performance was missing,
waiting for it, a tugging hostile polarity between Otello and Iago.

Some would argue that finding, or making, an Iago is a greater problem in
casting this opera. In the early stages of its development, Otello’s
librettist Arrigo Boito and Verdi only half-jokingly considered naming it after
the vile ensign. Much of the challenge in the role of Otello lies in matters
vocal; Iago has some difficult music to be sure, but it is in the psycho-drama,
in Iago’s sowing seeds of malice, in his mutually disgusting and seducing,
that this opera turns into a mesmerizing show. Verdi believed that in Iago,
Shakespeare “invented the truth.” The most accomplished of baritones have
fallen short of finding the truth in Iago.

Davila and Sean Anderson (Iago) have worked together before. Anderson is
another Sarasota Opera perennial — he was a terrific John Proctor in The
Crucible here last season. If Anderson gets any other opportunities to go
deeper into Iago, he might could connect the text and method in the profound
way he did with Proctor. Anderson’s singing was steady, with some highlights
— the drinking song was like a warm-up (with little fun and a few ratty
downward scales). Iago’s satisfaction over bringing down the Moor was
well-announced but when Anderson gingerly floated his boot over Davila, setting
it down gently, Iago became awkwardly maudlin over menace.

Sarasota_2012_Otello02.pngMaria D’Amato as Desdemona

The Sarasota Opera chorus, with Roger L. Bingamen chorus master, takes any
show here to another level. In Otello, the chorus came in strongly —
both musically and in acting — just after Otello’s entrance. Then, they
were on — shadings and dynamics for the storm were of great attention to
detail, as was the fanfare of act three.

The role of Desdemona is in some ways remote, with motivations and
inclinations in an alternate universe compared to those of the defending
Italians and maraudering (though hapless) Turks. Desdemona has to communicate
this distance, and the heart break and twisting frustration she suffers from
not understanding the world Shakespeare has put her in. Maria D’Amato, in
long glossy blonde curls, sang beautifully, displaying desperate desire for
closeness to Otello early on, and for mercy and understanding up to her death
bed. Her “Willow song” and “Ave Maria” were all those things that must
be — prayerful and giving, and with the will to ask for what one wants.

As Cassio, Heath Huberg (who reappears and puts on lovely French for
Remendado in Carmen this season) did a fine job, unsuspectingly
playing into Iago’s hands in a role that’s launched the principal part
career of many a tenor. Mathew Edwardsen’s Roderigo was effective as Iago’s
clumsy tool — his fight (choreographed by Brian Robertson and staged by
Stephanie Sundine) with Huberg was lively plus. It felt as though Cynthia
Hanna, a Studio Artist with the company, was often separated from the goings-on
as Emilia. Other Studio Artists took the roles of the Herald (Dinitre Lazich),
Lodovico (Jeffrey Beruan), and Montano (Stephen Fish).

The orchestra sounded in much better shape accompanying singers in arias
than in instrumental sections or playing for the chorus. The storm scene was an
exception: the ebbs and flows and stridency of a tempest were captured by
finely coordinated string and horn sections. The rather fast tempo set by
Maestro DeRenzi rarely varied but he rarely missed an opportunity to spin a
line movingly, or powerfully, along with singers — the “Un bacio” line
(the “Kiss” motif) had more depth each time played, the “Credo” was
finely timed, “Dio mi potevi scagliar” was shaped with deference for
Davila’s stage position and actions, and in the “Canzone del Salice” the
orchestra mourned as if pitying Desdemona.

“Others have ceded their places to us and we must cede ours to still
others. I am more than happy to give mine to people of talent like Verdi,”
Gaetano Donizetti wrote. As we know, Verdi ran with that baton — putting
Otello to opera much later. It was a time that bore similarities to
today; the public was crazed over what it wanted. Today that means new
applications, and successively smart and smarter electronic devices. Back in
the mid-19th century, the public frothed at the mouth for more opera. At this
Verdi was ready and willing to oblige; Donizetti fared less well and history
will say that he buckled under the pressure of producing opera to meet the
perceived demand. He ended up institutionalized, a similar consequence that
befalls Donizetti’s best known operatic creation: Lucia.

Lucia di Lammermoor represents a plot on the operatic timeline, of
which Otello is beneficiary and derivative. Lucia and Otello
then are linked beyond the two running together in repertory as is the case
this season in Sarasota.

The opening scene of Lucia — bearing a few similarities to
Otello’s opening story — all the way through the first scene of
act two was tepid in this performance (on March 2). That changed in scene two
— the chorus sprang to life with full sound and more movement. Brain
Robertson (visiting stage director) was in on lifting the action: the chorus
knelt as Raimondo finished telling of the horror he just witnessed. It was
surreal but effective.

Sarasota_2012_Lucia01.pngKathleen Kim as Lucia

As far as keeping interest stimulated, the flute took up that
responsibility. Marie Tachouet (principal flutist) and Kathleen Kim, the Lucia,
paired note-for-note through familiar music and unconventional ornamentation.
“I worked with my teacher on cadenzas first. I didn’t want to limit myself to
the ‘traditional way.’ So, we tried to find and create cadenzas that suit
my voice; fresh and effective in the boundary of the style. When I met Maestro
Barrese, of course, he had a few ideas. So we shared what we each had and came
up with to create what has become final product.” Visiting conductor Anthony
Barrese’s ideas here are grounded in flexibility: “it [the cadenza] should
have definite points of improvisation (in the beginning section whatever
Kathleen sings the flute mimics, and this process is reversed at the end. Both
the singer and flautist have been encouraged to change this up from night to
night.)”?“as the flute gains ascendancy, it simultaneously reflects the
dramatic idea that “madness” has taken over, while providing Kathleen time
enough to recoup for her final high note.”

In Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Lucy is 17 years old and it is on that
account that Ms. Kim so well characterizes Lucia. A Metropolitan Opera regular
of late, the “tiny dynamo” — as Kim has been referred to — lent an
adolescent quality to her parlando as the Scottish girl caught in a
desperate situation. Kim’s light sound, constrained on high this evening, has
no problem being heard.

Joshua Kohl (Edgardo) produced an inconsistent sound. Enough was heard
though to describe it as quite attractive when produced cleanly. Kohl seemed to
thrive with others on stage, doing well across the board up to the and after
the Tomb scene which was shaky; he fumbled through “Fra poco a me
ricovero.” When others entered the cemetery, Kohl’s singing was again quite
lovely — his cries at “nume in ciel” were sung beautifully. Lee Poulis,
Sarasota’s Giovanni last year, put his pointed baritone to work as Lord
Enrico Ashton. Sarasota perennial Young-Bok Kim’s Raimondo was workmanlike,
as were the Arturo of James Chamberlain (whose makeup shiny and campy), the
Alisa of Daryl Freedman, and the Normanno of Steven Uliana, the latter three
Studio Artists with the company.

Sarasota_2012_Lucia02.pngJoshua Kohl as Edgardo

Lucia’s last act is noteworthy as far as set designs (Robert O’Hearn) go
this season in Sarasota. The island-style tomb, upstage-right, and the cloudy
ambiance were of fine visual quality, with care for audience sightlines and
depth in features (carvings and shadows).

As Donizetti did in making way for Verdi, Verdi made way for others. Even if
he seemed to object to “symphonic” biases creeping into opera composition,
Verdi understood such things were inevitable. Georges Bizet was probably in
that group of composers Verdi thought were refashioning the making of operatic
music. But, Verdi’s Otello and Bizet’s Carmen are alike
in significant ways.

On the operatic timeline, the operas are separated by a mere 12 years. They
are both leitmotif driven; where Otello has the “Kiss” theme,
Carmen has the “Fate” theme. One big difference has to do with the
developments at the time of recitative in opera, spoken parts and different
operatic cultures, as found in Carmen. In this dynamic is where this
performance (a matinee on March 4th) of Carmen was distinguished.

DeRenzi chose to go with the original spoken dialogue the Opera Comique
audience heard at Carmen’s first showing in 1875. This can give
Carmen another life: the “mental massage” is in full force and
tells a little of Bizet’s talent for comedy. An emphasis on language favors
artists who have an affinity for it, and this cast had a few ringers. The level
of French never strayed lower than good and there were a few examples of
Francais delicieuse, some of the most delicious produced by
bass-baritone Stephen Fish as Zuniga.

Sarasota_2012_Carmen01.pngAntonio Nagore as Don Jose and Fredrika Brillembourg as Carmen

Fredericka Brillembourg’s French was sassy and spirited, her Carmen cold
and fun. In the mountainous outskirts of Seville, gypsy women would have clawed
each other’s eyes out for the right to a man. After, they would be like
sisters, commiserating and using their wiles to survive — this came through
in the connection between Brillembourg and Studio Artists Sarah Asmar
(Frasquita) and Vira Slywotzky (Mercedes). Their hugging, stealing whispers,
and ease in sharing space with each other — due to the work of Martha Collins
(stage director) and Carolina Esparza (choreographer) — also

The Don Jose of Antonio Nagore, a native Arizonian, was very much a
characterization driven by voice, a good job of casting. Nagore’s
spinto was beefy and proved durable. The Escamillo of Carlos Monzon
was a case of characterization by looks. The Mexican bass-baritone was all
hot-blooded Hispanic, with oily slicked-back bun and dark olive skin. Danielle
Walker made some beautiful music in “Micaela’s song” and was not
completely absent from the story as can happen with this role.

The rest of the events onstage contributed to the comedy — other soldiers
played inept, other gypsies scheming, the gypsy smugglers, also inept. The
group of kids assembled by Youth Opera chorus master Jesse Martins had a
raucous good time making good music and fun.

DeRenzi’s treatment of Carmen was more “big-picture” than in
Otello and paced just as evenly. The orchestra, wavering as woodwind
playing was right at the start, took Carmen as a whole. In
Carmen this meant playing to the different parts without too much
emphasis on showpieces; there were light strings and muted horns for the fate
motif and Carmen’s solos were as much for the orchestra, and even more so for
the words, to shine. The “Flower song” was another example of this — the
volume and intensity was restrained in returning to the tonic (fate motif) and
at the peak of the vocal line. The one moment where the orchestra notably let
loose was at the entr’acte of act three.

David P. Gordon’s first act (the square in Seville) was an example of a
fine job making the most — using small staircases and wells, and tiered
walkways — out of closed quarters.

Sarasota_2012_Carmen02.pngScene from Act IV of Carmen

Sarasota Opera’s interest in continuing to rouse audience expectation led
to the American Classic Series begun in 2011. The project goal is to present
the operas of American composers. This season, Samuel Barber’s
Vanessa ran from March 10th through the 24th.

As far as expectations go, visitors to Sarasota in March can bet on more
than just opera, and Verdi, to welcome them; expect sunny days, soothing
breezes off the gulf, and powder soft sand on fantastic beaches. In so far as
there existed a timeline plotting the production of high quality opera,
Sarasota Opera will stand apart as an example of what opera could be in the
early part of the 21st century.

Robert Carreras

image_description=Rafael Davila as Otello [Photo by Rod Millington courtesy of Sarasota Opera]
product_title=Sarasota Opera 2012 Winter Festival
product_by=Click here for cast and production details.
product_id=Above: Rafael Davila as Otello

Photos by Rod Millington courtesy of Sarasota Opera