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					Posted on Wed, Mar. 07,
2007

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CLASSICAL
MUSIC REVIEW

Sarasota
Opera
presents a
grand finale
BY LAWRENCE A.
JOHNSON
lajohnson@MiamiH
erald.com




CEB HESSER
'HALKA': Maria Knapik made an
extraordinary debut in the title role,
and tenor Benjamin Warschawski
brought commanding vocalism to
the bitter peasant Jontek.
SARASOTA --

Elvis sang there. During World War
II, the third floor served as a brothel.
And the chandelier in the lobby is
the same that graced Ashley Wilkes'
lavish mansion in Gone with the
Wind, donated by a patron who
thought the foyer needed a more
elegant touch.

The colorful history of its theater
home notwithstanding, it is Sarasota
Opera's penchant for unearthing
offbeat repertoire that has earned its
adventurous reputation as a leading
regional company under the
leadership of artistic director Victor
De Renzi.

The final weekend of Sarasota
Opera's season offered the
opportunity to catch all three 2007
productions. Most interest this
season centered on the new
production of Stanislaw Moniuszko's
Halka, which had its closing
performance Saturday night.

A rarely encountered curio in this
country, Halka is considered
Poland's national opera.

The scenario tells of Halka, the
peasant girl, who is in love with the
wealthy Janusz, owner of the vast
estate on which she works, who has
spurned her. Carrying his child,
Halka refuses to believe that Janusz
is marrying Zofia, even as the
wedding feast is being prepared.
The sympathy of the serf Jontek
provides little comfort and Halka
drowns herself.

Moniuszko's revised 1858 version of
his opera greatly expanded the
Polish musical elements and toned
down the political implications
reflected in the landowner's
abandonment of the peasant girl.
Still, the bitter edge of the opera's
class-conflict remains unmistakable.
Janusz's cruel dismissal of the
loving Halka is jarring and the final
chorus celebrating Janusz's
marriage, ''Let's gaily sing,'' coming
just after Halka's suicide, is clearly
acidly ironic.

Halka is not a flawless work; it has
insufficient dramatic contrast, little
relief from the downbeat scenario
and a final scene that goes on way
too long. Yet the melodic richness
and Moniuszko's deft infusion of
Polish elements into the opera
structure is handed with great verve.

Sarasota Opera went all out for its
first Polish opera, with an elegant
new production (sets by Michael
Schweikhardt and striking Polish
costumes by Howard Tsvi Kaplan).
The Lira Dancers were brought from
Chicago, providing tremendous
vitality.

Maria Knapik made an
extraordinary company
debut in the title role. The
Polish soprano has the
vocal power and idiomatic
way with the native
melodies, singing with pure
tone and vital feeling.
Knapik put across the
character's yearning,
heartbreak and anger
vividly, with a subtle
psychological depth and
compelling acting. Even
when forlorn and
bedraggled, the soprano
exudes a charismatic star
quality and radiant stage
presence.

The surprise of the evening was
Benjamin Warschawski as Jontek.
No lovelorn weakling, the tenor
brought a vitriol, lurking danger and
commanding vocalism to the bitter
peasant. Jontek's palpable fury at
Janusz was riveting and
Warschawski's richly impassioned
and powerful performance of
Jontek's Act 2 aria proved
overwhelming.

As the selfish Janusz, Jonathan
Carle was an apt choice with a big
echt-Slavic baritone and blank
expression that fit the icy and selfish
landowner. Courtney Ames was a
pretty and well sung Zofia and
Jeffrey Tucker's resonant bass
made fine impact as Stolnik.

David Neely's ardent conducting put
the seal on this terrific performance,
drawing power of bristling intensity
and lyric majesty.

VARIABLE VERDI

This year's installment in Sarasota
Opera's 25-year project to present
Verdi's complete operas, was Attila.
Premiered in 1846, Attila has the
distinction of being the only Verdi
opera with the title role given to a
bass.

Oddly, the title ruthless marauder is
the most sympathetic character in
the opera and the three Italian foes
are the less savory personages. The
trio use Attila's love for Odabella to
lure him into a trap where all three
kill him, Odabella striking the first
blow in revenge for Attila's
enslavement of her countryman.

Attila has the fleeting rewards of
early Verdi, with rousing choruses
and ensembles, and graceful if
generally unmemorable arias for its
main characters.

The company's Verdi series has
settled into a routine of highly
variable singing, and stage direction
that seems more stodgy than
traditional. As always, the
conducting of Victor De Renzi is the
real star here: acutely focused,
blazingly dramatic, and providing
immense lift and buoyancy to
Verdi's melodies.
With his long ponytail and Mongol
garb, Young-Bok Kim resembled
Genghis Khan more than the
ruthless German warlord. Kim made
an imperious and commanding
enough presence though his bass
lacked weight and heft.

Company regular Todd Thomas'
voice was never a thing of tonal
beauty, but it has now taken on an
even more hard and gravelly timbre.
Still, as the duplicitous Ezio, the
baritone sang with booming power
and intensity, provided the most
Italianate singing of the evening in
his Act 3 aria.

As Foresto, Rafael Davila supplied
ardent vocalism and big tone, if little
subtlety. Othalie Graham was a
physically striking Odabella with
gleaming high notes undone by a
shaky middle register and
unseasoned technique.

Martha Collins' traffic cop direction
proved stronger on quickly setting
up eye-catching tableaux than
putting across the drama, with any
tension or excitement lost amid the
chorus' comings and goings. The
chorus singing was magnificent,
with Roger L. Bingaman drawing
powerful and boldly projected
ensemble singing.

GROUNDED BUTTERFLY

Sarasota Opera's Madama Butterfly
had many worthy things going for it,
including a lovely evocative set
design by David P. Gordon, colorful
costumes by Evan Ayotte and
sensitive direction by Stephanie
Sundine. Some breathless tempos
apart, De Renzi's boldly outlined
conducting showed a sense of the
score's sweep and lyricism, even
with a too-small orchestra for
Puccini. But the statuesque Julia
Makerov proved an improbable 15-
year-old bride, and even her fine
acting skill couldn't quite overcome
that debit.
With tenor Mauricio O'Reilly a
metallic, leather-lunged Pinkerton,
the Love Duet was the loudest
rendering one is ever likely to hear,
with little subtlety or tenderness.

				
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