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Loving the Lombards

Sarasota Opera House
02/26/2011 -  & March 1, 3, 6*, 9, 12, 20, 2011
Giuseppe Verdi: I Lombardi alla prima crociata
Abla Lynn Hamza (Giselda), Rafael Dávila (Oronte), Kevin Short (Pagano), Mathew Edwardsen (Arvino)
Sarasota Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Roger L. Bingaman (Chorus Master), Victor De Renzi (Conductor)
Martha Collins (Director), Jeffrey W. Dean (scenic design), Howard Tsvi Kaplan (costume design), Ken Yunker (lighting design)

A. L. Hamza & R. Dávila (© Patricia G. Horwell)

Sarasota’s Verdi Cycle, begun in 1989 is getting close to its completion by offering one of the master’s problem operas, I Lombardi alla prima crociata. Verdi’s opera has some glorious music including one of Italian opera’s most moving trios. Though the soprano role might not be as taxing as Nabucco’s Abigaille, it isn’t for lightweights. On the other hand, the romantic tenor lead is pretty tame stuff by Verdi standards. The only other role of any consequence is Pagano, the bass, and in the right hands, he makes a significant contribution.

But it is the libretto here that keeps companies from exploring I Lombardi. The Metropolitan didn’t get around to premiering it until 1993 in a lukewarm production that has never been revived. The plot is just plain silly. But because Verdi is hinting at what is to come in his future works, I Lombardi needs never be boring.

Sarasota Opera had some mixed results but the overall effect was fun old-fashioned spaghetti and meatballs Italian opera. Thank goodness the director, Martha Collins, was not encouraged to come up with a “creative” take for the dramatic onstage shenanigans. Any insight into Christian-Muslim relations would have come off as distasteful and distracted from the glorious music. And there is plenty in Lombardi to marvel at.

It is always fun with early Verdi to hear the young composer’s experiments. In Lombardi one can easily hear the seedlings of Il Trovatore, Macbeth, Rigoletto and maybe even Aida. There are memorable choruses and aforementioned trio. The second act tenor aria is terrific and in Giselda and Pagano, Verdi showed what he was about to become.

No character is unscarred from the awful story and libretto, but because of his way with melody, even with the ever-present oompah-pah's, Verdi creates a heroine with tremendous passion and sympathy. Though her behavior at the end of the fourth act seems way out of place based on her previous declarations of peace and forgiveness, it can be forgiven because, after all, she has just witnessed the violent death of her beloved who makes his conversion to Christianity just in time. Abla Lynn Hamza’s voice often lost focus and though her vibrato did not waver too much, it did interfere with what is essentially a very lovely and warm sound that never feels forced. Giselda is a taxing role; any soprano willing to take it on must be an accomplished musician. Hamza’s vocal limits did not, however, distract from the intensity of her characterization. She had several very moving moments.

Her uncle, Pagano, was sung by bass Kevin Short. His instrument is a clear clean one but he does not have the power to make this role what it could be. Imagining the voice of Pinza, it is clear that Pagano could easily become this opera’s protagonist. This is part of the problem with Lombardi; it is hard to decide which character we should look towards for explanations which in the end don’t feel very satisfying anyway. Don’t even ask how Pagano and his family rediscover one another. And as silly as this is, worse librettos for Verdi were soon to come.

So, to best enjoy this opera, just sit back and enjoy the lovely and sometimes very powerful music and smile at the silliness. Sarasota also had a darned good tenor in Rafael Dávila. This role is a piffle but it is memorable when performed this well. Comprimario roles were all well-handled though none really offers any of the studio or apprentice artists a chance to make a significant impact. And once again Sarasota Opera’s chorus is commendable.

The company’s artistic director, Victor de Renzi conducted with not only intelligence but an elegance that would befit a Mozart opera. There is nothing obvious or overly sentimental, just complete conviction for the opera and seemingly, an awareness of the privilege of having an audience that is willing to take a chance on the unfamiliar.

Sarasota Opera does not offer Zeffirelli-type productions. Sets are always tasteful and appropriate though never call attention to themselves. How refreshing it is to attend a theatre performance when the audience does not applaud the scenery! The same is true of the lovely costumes.

Opera here is presented in an old-fashioned style. Since Lombardi requires many scene changes, the director decided to not disturb the audience’s attention by continuously dropping the curtain. There is a price to pay for this when sometimes moving a set can be awkward or noisy; yet at the same time, this can be charming when the need to focus on the text is not essential.

Sarasota Opera has made a commitment to perform every note of music that Giuseppe Verdi ever wrote. Eventually the French revision of Lombardi, Jérusalem, will be produced. How lucky is South Florida to be able to have such opportunities!

Jeff Haller



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