Posted on Wed, Mar. 07, 2007 reprint or license print email 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.