A Splendid Nabucco at Sarasota Opera

The great composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) had his first big success with his Biblical opera Nabucco. It had the rhythmical quality that we call early Verdi but it also had big arias sung by two sopranos and dominant bass and baritones that were memorable. The magic was in its choral singing of “Va Pensiero.” (The chorus of the Hebrew slaves) which became the rallying cry of the Italian revolution and Verdi’s name became the match that made the light and gave strength to the movement – Victorio Emannuel Re Di Italia (Verdi) the calling cry of freedom. In my oral dissertation to receive my Bachelors Degree in History from St. Francis College in Brooklyn I was asked about a subject I knew nothing about, but instead I gave the professors the story of Verdi and how Nabucco and “Va Pensiero” liberated the people of Italy and remains to this day the rallying cry for freedom everywhere. I was one of only two people who passed this oral exam and did not have to take the more elaborate written one. Coincidentally, my fellow graduate and co- winner of the St. Francis College oral exam, Michael Zufolo, was also in attendance with his sister, Sarasota transplant Rosemary. His subject was Peter Caesar Alberti, North American’s first Italian American immigrant.

Nabucco was the composers third opera. His first, Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, was successful, his second, Un Giorno di Regno, a comedy was a failure. Verdi’s wife Margherita Barezzi died age 26 in 1840 and their two children also died. The Impresario Bartolomeo Merelli pressed Verdi to compose a third opera to fulfill his contract. Verdi composed Nabucco Donosor and it was also called Nino because Biblical names were not allowed to be used. This seminal work led to the other masterpieces we associate with this immortal composer. His second wife, the beloved Giuseppina Strepponi sang in the La Scala premiere March 4, 1842. The libretto is by Temistocle Solera, the play Nabucco Donosor by Auguste Anicet Bourgeois. It came to the Metropolitan Opera in October 1960 with brilliant soprano Leonie Rysanek,esteemed baritone Cornell MacNeil and romantic basso Cesare Siepi with Thomas Schippers conducting. I was there and until the Sarasota performance, that was my standard.

On the afternoon of Sunday, March 10th, Maestro Victor DeRenzi came to the podium and the opera began.This is the 60th Anniversary season of the Sarasota Opera and is cause for a great celebration.The recently renovated William E. Schmidt Theatre is one of America’s great opera spaces and seats about 1100 people.The souvenir booklet is a celebration of this special Diamond Anniversary season.

Chorus of the Hebrew slaves. Photo by Rod Millington.

The overture is among Verdi’s greatest beginning with a vigorous melodic section and transferring to the “Va Pensiero” mournful strains and ending with tympani rolling vigor. The music, under the magical baton of Maestro Victor DeRenzi and superb orchestra, received great applause and the opera began.

Stephen Gaertner as Nabucco with golden idol Baal in background. Photo by Rod Millington.

It was Jerusalem and Babylon circa 587 B.C. Jerusalem has been defeated by Nabucco, King of Babylon but his daughter Fenena, is held hostage by the Hebrews and their priest Zaccaria. Ismaele, a Hebrew with whom she is in love, allows Fenena to escape to her father and repulses the advances of her warrior sister Abigaille. The Hebrews are held captive in Babylon. Abigaille discovers that she is really the child of slaves and not Nabucco’s daughter. Her rage and anger are at the breaking point.  

Ben Gulley as Ismaele, Lisa Chavez as Fenena, Stephen Gaertner as Nabucco. Photo by Rod Millington.

Nabucco returns and declaring himself both King and God, is struck by lightning. When his reason returns, he prays for forgiveness to Jehovah and saves the Hebrews. Abigaille poisons herself and dies repentant.

Rochelle Bard as Abigaille; members of the chorus. Photo by Rod Millington.

Baritone Stephen Gaertner was Nabucco. His stage demeanor was royal and rageful and his vocal status excellent. His mellow baritone has power on reserve and great flexibility. His glazed demeanor after being struck by lightning was impressive and his declamatory utterance definitive. His voice had the color and power to take the audience on his emotional irrational ride. He handled the controls very well and deserved his ovation. Nabucco’s aria in Act Four with the chorus “Son pur queste mia membra! Dio di Giuda” had the richness of tone that indicated that resolution was near.

Ben Gulley as Ismaele, Rochelle Bard as Abigaille. Photo by Rod Millington

Ismaele, the King of Jerusalem, Ben Gulley, had a strong tenor which was used romantically and heroically and his refined tones made the audience warm to his character. His strong stage presence and vocal projection showed a tenor of power and promise.  

Kevin Short as Zaccaria. Photo by Rod Millington.

Zaccaria, the High Priest of the Hebrews, was sung by bass Kevin Short. Mr. Short sang with ardent fervor, striking lows, burnished passion and nobleness. His was a very impressive character study with every gesture capturing the eye and ear. Zaccaria’s aria in Act Two “Vieni, o’ Levita! Tu voi labbro” was a strong indication of his basic character and his strength as a potentially eminent singer. We need dark voices today-where are the Pinza’s and Siepi’s of old? At the Sarasota Opera!  

Kevin Short as Zaccaria, Lisa Chavez as Fenena. Photo by Rod Millington.

Abigaille, Nabucco’s first born daughter, thought to be a slave, was Rochelle Bard. Ms. Bard’s soprano was both dazzling and stunning, not like a volcanic eruption à la Mme. Rysanek, but rather a brilliant meteor that beguiles, taunts and settles things, fiercely. In Abigaille’s recitative, aria and cabaletta in Act Two”Ben ioLinvenni -anchio dischiuso un giorno” one could feel her rage, her sibling rivalry imploding and exploding with the cry of vengeance. Ms. Bard has a very rare talent combined with instinct that will place her in the pantheon of the very greatest of the great. Her musical intelligence will see to that and what a dazzling display of vocal fireworks! At the finale, she forgives Fenena, professes her belief in the God of the Jews as Zaccaria gives thanks to Jehovah.

Rochelle Bard as Abigaille. Photo by Rod Millington.

Fenena, Nabucco’s daughter, was sung by Lisa Chavez. Ms. Chavez has a strong, true soprano, flexible, subtle and titillating that sticks like crazy glue. A perfect rival for her Cruella Deville bitch witch sister. Ms. Chavez sang with much lyrical passion which caught the operatic madness and kept ones ongoing interest. A very impressive vocal minestrone with many rich and enduring edibles.

Stephen Gaertner as Nabucco, Rochelle Bard as Abigaille. Photo by Rod Millington.

Abdallo, an old official of the King of Babylon, was sung by tenor Samuel Schlievert, studio artist who is rising like the sun to a bright future.

Ben Gulley as Ismaele, Lisa Chavez as Fenena, Rochelle Bard as Abigaille, Stephen Gaertner as Nabucco. Photo by Rod Millington.

The High Priest of Baal was robust basso James Eder, studio artist and Anna, Zaccaria’s sister was Yvonne Trobe, stirring soprano also studio artist. To hear fresh voices low and high fills the gap and gives hope for the glowing future.

Stephen Gaertner as Nabucco. Photo by Rod Millington.

The Sarasota Opera Orchestra was brilliantly conducted by Music Director Victor DeRenzi whose past projects included all of Verdi’s works, a feat never done before. The Nabucco Overture is truly a gem with both foot stomping rhythm and soaring melody. All of the opera with its awe inspiring Biblical happenings were conducted with the special genius that Maestro DeRenzi gives us. The finale was stirring and the good feelings spread through the house with loud applause and bravos of time well spent with sublime music and singing.

The chorus under Roger L. Bingaman sang with passion, elegance and heaven bound tones. The “Va Pensiero,sul al dorate”still is filling my head with great music instead of the nonsense we see on television most of the time.

Martha Collins’ stage direction ensured us of a stage of great coherency no matter how crowded. Jeffrey Dean’s colorful scenic design was eye catching and always held the interest.

Nicola Benois’s costumes were beautiful. The various peoples were represented  in a very noble and coherent manner.

Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s costume design was striking. Ken Yunker lighting designer was imaginative and transfixed the various moods.

Hair and makeup design by Brittany Rappise were never garish and always accurate.

The explosion that destroyed the gold statue of Baal was wonderful. For a moment I thought I saw actor Edward G. Robinson praising Baal to Moses followers in that fabulous film, The 10 Commandments.

Kudos to the subtitles supplier “Words for Music” and the truly helpful translations by Maestro Victor DeRenzi.

It was nice to meet Communications Coordinator the ebullient and effervescent Lana Mullen and Director of Artistic Administration, Greg Trupiano our neighbor in Brooklyn who gives lectures on poet Walt Whitman (Brooklyn Eagle) and happy to hear that Richard Russell (Executive Director) is playing the Emperor in Puccini’s Turandot! Bravo Richard and to all, who, under Maestro Victor DeRenzi’s leadership, are making the opera world look toward beautiful Sarasota, Florida in a new light”-Sunshine and Opera” or” moonlight and excellent dining”in this truly wonderful venue.

A Beautiful La Bohème at the Regina Opera

Saturday afternoon on March 2nd, a beautiful La Bohème was presented at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School by the Regina Opera. Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) composed this heartbreaking tribute to young, doomed love in 1896. The conductor was Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) who recorded it with the NBC Symphony with famed tenor Jan Peerce and beloved soprano Licia Albanese in 1946. La Bohème was also the title of an opera composed by Ruggero Leoncavallo, the composer of I Pagliacci which premiered in 1897. Although Leoncavallo’s La Bohème has some passionate music and beautiful arias, Puccini’s masterpiece was the one that gripped the public and Leoncavallo’s work was doomed to obscurity.

The great tenor Enrico Caruso recorded two thrilling arias from Leoncavallo’s work “Lo non ho che una povero stanzetta” and “Testa adorata”,  but the opera lacked the delicacy of Puccini’s magical score. The great Verdi Maestro Vincent La Selva with the New York Grand Opera did a performance in Central Park of Leoncavallo’s La Bohème with its many enchanting scenes, but it could not touch the heart the way Puccini did.  Puccini’s La Bohème, based on Henry Murger’s novel “Scenes de La Vie de Bohème,”  had its premiere in Turin, Italy on February 1, 1896. The libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica helped ensure its success all around the world.

The new year 1912 was ushered in at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) with Puccini’s La Bohème featuring tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) and famed soprano Alma Gluck as Mimi on January 2, 1912. On December 23, 1913 with the MetOpera on tour in Philadelphia, the famous Spanish bass Andreas De Segurola lost his voice as Colline, just before his big aria “Vecchia Zimarra” and turned towards Caruso, who told him “don’t worry, turn your back towards the audience and I’ll sing it for you.” Nobody knew. Frances Alda, the Mimi said she felt like applauding Caruso from her bed. Caruso made a private recording of it on February 23, 1916 and it is now available. Enrico Caruso – tenor – bass. The cast at the Regina Opera would have made these opera immortals proud.  

The 4 Bohemians (clockwise from top left – José Cuartas, Luis Alvarado, Scott Lefurgy, & Hyunho Cho) distract their landlord Beniot (David Tillistrand, center) with wine to avoid their paying the rent. Photo by Steven Pisano

The first two acts take place on Christmas Eve. Mimi, a seamstress, was in the caressing hands of Christina Rohm. Ms. Rohm’s singing of “Mi chiamino Mimi” was right up there with the greats. Her rapturous outpourings in her duet (“O soave fanciulla”) with Rodolfo were thrilling. Ms. Rohm’s pouring out her heart to Marcello in Act Three gave one chills, and her death scene so poignantly done, was as sad as could be. Ms. Rohm’s glorious soprano soared to the heavens with the joys of her love and left us utterly alone, along with Rodolfo and her friends at her passing. Ms. Rohm’s diminishing her tones, shading her volume, and opening her soul for her beloved Rodolfo, made hers a Mimi to put in your memory bank and withdraw the interest to give you emotional solvency for a lifetime. Her exquisite singing of “Addio senza rancor” echoes in memory. The pathos and poignancy of her words and voice made all feel the strength of her love and the defiance of her terrible illness and the goodness of her soul.  In the last act, her sublime singing “Sono andati fingevo di dormire” was indelible and unforgettable. Poor Mimi. Brava – sublime artist Christina Rohm.  

It’s love at first sight for Rodolfo (Hyunho Cho (left) and Mimi (Christina Rohm). Photo by Steven Pisano

Rodolfo, a writer, was in the handsome and strong countenance of tenor Hyunho Cho who looked the part, tall, lithe, and full of dreams. The iconic aria “Che gelida manina” was sung with additional beauty on its ascendancy. The climactic high C was securely hit and gently held back so that one felt ease and not strain. This is a voice where the top is partially in hibernation on its way to glorious full bloom. His singing of “O soave fanciulla” made for a wonderful outpouring and the offstage climax was exhilarating as two young fresh voices were united by love. His Act Three singing was heartfelt and we were all so happy that they decided to remain together until Spring. On so many occasions in this performance, Rodolfo, Mimi and the orchestra playing so rhapsodically were one as Puccini would have wanted. Rodolfo’s reaction and final cries clutching the moribund  body of his beloved Mimi, were heartbreaking. There is nothing that can compare with his great loss. Hyunho Cho was a superb Rodolfo – bravo to him. His cries of “che vuol dire Quel guardarmi cosi” followed by sobbing “Mimi, Mimi” were devastating. Please pass the Kleenex.

The 4 Bohemians & Mimi enjoy Christmas Eve at Café Momus. From left (Scott Lefurgy, Hyunho Cho, Christina Rohm, Luis Alvarado, José Cuertas). Photo by Steven Pisano

Musetta, a grisette, (French – a working class woman) was in the persona of Carami Hilaire, whom I remembered as a very fine Aida with the Regina Opera. Musetta is a carefree, amusing character who is Marcello’s girlfriend. Their romance is sizzling hot, and on and off between jealous arguing. However her basic goodness shines through when Mimi is dying and she acknowledges being a flawed gem while Mimi is an angel. The Christmas eve Café Momus scene is where Musetta makes a grand entrance and sings the iconic “Quando m’en vo,” which decades ago was a hit record by Della Reese. Musetta has left Marcello and enters the cafe with a rich sugar daddy, Alcindoro. After Mimi feigning a foot ache from her new shoes, Alcindoro leaves to get them repaired while Marcello and Musetta are passionately reunited. Ms. Hilaire sang “Quando m’en vo” beautifully, and her exceptional top voice dominated the ensemble and was as captivating as Musetta’s big heart and generous nature. A very strong splash of brilliance on this portrait of bohemian life and love.  

Musetta (Carami Hilaire) brags about her own charms, to the horror of her wealthy, elderly escort Alcindoro. (David Tillistrand) (seated left). Photo by Steven Pisano

Marcello, a painter was a good friend to Rodolfo and Mimi. Scott Lefurgy was an excellent Marcello with a strong manly baritone. Rodolfo’s singing of “O Mimi tu piu non torni” with the remorseful Marcello, when Mimi has moved out and Musetta’s flirtations have upset him beyond mere patience, was touching. Their voices blended beautifully in this much loved duet and the ending so softly because they really can’t live without the love their girlfriends/ soulmates offered.  

Marcello (Scott Lefurgy, left) & Colline (Luis Alvarado, right) carry Musetta out of the cafe, after sending Alcindoro, her wealth escort, allegedly to have her shoe fixed. Photo by Steven Pisano

The Bohemians were all wonderful. Schaunard, a musician, was sung by José Cuartas, a Colombian American baritone from Queens. His rich sounding voice and comedic acting made for a memorable and impressive portrait of his character. His sister Marissa and her  friend were in the audience giving loving support.

Mimi (Christina Rohm) asks Marcello (Scott Lefurgy) for his help: Rodolfo has left her because he is jealous. Photo by Steven Pisano

Colline, a philosopher was sung by Luis Alvarado and yes it was Mr. Alvarado who sang the coat song – not Caruso. Mr. Alvarado sang this brief but touching aria beautifully, his rich full voice slowly milking the mournful “Death theme” of Mimi at its core.

Benoit the landlord, was David Tillistrand, whose mournful countenance was truly amusing and whose basso buffo was titillating. His was an adroit caricature of a buffoon outsmarted by the scrappy Bohemian tenants.

Rodolfo (Hyunho Cho, center) tries to help the ailing Mimi (Christina Rohm, right). Marcello (Scott Lefurgy, left) & Schaunard (José Cuartas, rear) try to assist him. Photo by Steven Pisano

Alcindoro, a sugar daddy, could have been one in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” David Tillistrand once again struck gold as Alcindoro, and how nice to see his face when given the bill for all at the Café Momus.

Mimi (Christina Rohm, right) is deathly ill. Rodolfo (Hyunho Cho, center) & Musetta (Carami Hilarie) try to help her. Photo by Steven Pisano

As Parpignol, Lindell Carter used his clear, fine tenor voice to add color to the toy vendor. His music is just a tad sad, and the parade that follows is so glad.

Reliable Thomas Geib was solid and majestic as the Sergeant.

Realizing that Mimi (Christina Rohm) is dead, Rodolfo (Hyunho Cho) is overcome with despair. Photo by Steven Pisano

It was nice to see and hear Francine Garber’s super soprano briefly in Act Three.

The superb Regina chorus sang sweetly at the Café Momus, and the ensemble was also used both  well and colorful. The familiar angelic faces of Arina Ayzen, Nomi Barkan (Boy) Shelly Barkan, Raphaëlle Blin (Delivery boy, waiter,) Alexandra Cummings, Catherine Greco, Kerianna Krebushevski, Elena Jannicelli-Sandella, Martin Peacock (Delivery man, headwaiter, soldier) Ksenia Stepanova, Jonathan Turner, Aliyah Meredith Weinstein and Lindsey Wells.

The set design by Linda Lehr and Wayne Olsen was eye catching and mood setting, yet simple and accomplished. The Bohemian signs and portraits were symbolic and lovely.

The costumes by Marcia C. Kresge were perfection. Each “Bohemian” stood out colorfully not garishly. Mimi’s simple wardrobe and Rodolfo’s colorful attire and those of his fellow Bohemians were symbolic and welcome. Musetta stood out in blazing color and flamboyance. Saori Morris’s make up was subtle and shaded properly.

Linda Lehr’s stage direction was perfection. Everyone was in their proper place for audience viewing. There was direction and flow – sheer genius.The Café Momus was so joyful. Alcindoro getting the bill after all his frustrations was genuinely funny. Some directors choose to omit that piece of operatic action but to many, it’s the whipped cream on an ice cream sundae. It was nice to chat with Ms. Lehr and sing her praises with her friends Frank and Patrizia at La Casa Vieja restaurant afterwards.

Maestro Gregory Ortega Music director conducted an illuminating performance with the 35 splendid musicians, and Puccini’s brilliant touching music was revealed to its very core. Maestro’s finales were all exhilarating and the finale showed us love lost forever and the tears flowed for Mimi and all.

So nice to see members of the Barkan family on violin and oboe and onstage. Marlene Ventimiglia was the  ever gracious volunteer and Joe Delfausse is always reliable and helpful. Linda Cantoni’s translations of the titles made the opera more enjoyable.

Bravo Regina Opera. Thank you to Francine Garber – Cohen, Producer; and to Linda Lehr for the spectacular staging.

My group of friends and family, some with grandchildren went to Casa Vieja, a Mexican restaurant, where we lifted a glass to two of Regina Opera friends who have passed away. Gabe Carbone age 91 and Bill Safka age 79, who were two beloved Bohemians and opera lovers. They were with us in spirit. They, like Judy and myself and countless opera lovers, love the Regina Opera. Their bravos echo in happy memory. Lourdes Peña and staff are like the Café Momus to us. Like the sun every morning, Sunset Park rises with Casa Vieja and the Regina Opera – both are part of its ascendancy. The Regina Opera will end its 49th season with Verdi’s masterpiece Il Trovatorein May. We look forward to being at the Regina Opera – Brooklyn’s premiere opera house for that opera.