Sarasota Opera soars with Verdi’s underrated “I Lombardi”

March 11, 2011

Abla Lynn Hamza as Giselda and Rafael Davila as Oronte in Sarasota Opera's production of Verdi's "I Lombardi." Photo: Rod Millington.

Sarasota Opera is nearing the final seasons of its quarter-century complete Verdi cycle—and we’re talking complete, including both Macbeth editions and Il trouvere, the French version of Il Trovatore (with ballet). Some major late works like Aida and Otello, to be presented next year, are still to come.

Yet it is the unknown Verdi operas that have proved most illuminating for the aficionados who make the annual trek to the toney resort/retirement community on the Gulf coast. Granted, there have been the occasional clinkers like Oberto and last year’s Giovanna d’Arco. But, by and large, it is the best of the lesser known operas that have proved the most fascinating and enjoyable discoveries in this ambitious project: works like I masnadieri, ll corsaro, I due Foscari and this year’s I Lombardi alla prima crociata.

The plot of Lombardi is Byzantine and ludicrous to a degree that makes Trovatore seem as linear as La Boheme. Pagano, son of Lord Folco, has been rejected by Viclinda, the woman he loves, for his brother Arvino. Pagano plots to kill his brother but his father is murdered instead.

Fast forward and Giselda, daughter of Arvino, has been captured by the Muslim Acciano and is being held captive in his harem, where Acciano’s son Oronte has fallen in love with her. Arvino leads a band of crusaders to rescue her but to his dismay, Giselda turns against him for his blood-letting of her Muslim captors.

Oronte is wounded but is guided towards a redeeming Christian deathbed conversion by a mysterious hermit. Ultimately the hermit is revealed to be the penitent Pagano, who is mortally wounded himself and dies, forgiven by Arvino and Giselda as the victorious crusaders reach the gates of Jeruslem.

A follow-up to his first big success with Nabucco, I Lombardi suffers from its bizarre and unwieldy libretto, but has much glorious music, more than most Verdi works of the period—the famous Act 3 trio, wonderfully rousing choruses, Oronte’s aria and some terrific ensembles, not least the Act 1 closer for sextet and chorus.

With an inspired cast and supreme advocacy by Victor DeRenzi in the pit, Sarasota Opera offered a rousing performance of I Lombardi, making a case that this opera deserves to be rescued from the fringes of the repertoire.

A smart director could update Lombardi in a way to make the central Christian vs Muslim conflict jarringly timely. Giselda’s rebuke to her father about murder in the name of religion, “Shedding more blood is not a righteous cause” seems more relevant today than ever. Yet Sarasota’s production was staged in the company’s brand of sturdy, uber-traditional style with costumes by Howard Tsvi Kaplan, sets by Jeffrey W. Dean and direction by Martha Collins.

As with The Crucible, Lombardi has a large cast but the singing was much more consistent in the Verdi opera, heard at last Sunday’s matinee performance.

As the redeemed patricidal villain Pagano, Kevin Short was superb in a difficult role, wielding his sonorous bass-baritone with dramatic point and bringing dark tone and refined expression to his arias.

Abla Lynn Hamza started off weakly as Giselda with a wobbly, shallow-toned prayer and was clearly challenged by the Act 4 cabaletta. Yet the soprano seemed to grow into her role as the performance unfolded, and proved dramatically engaged throughout, her gleaming top notes thrillingly cutting through the ensembles.

Rafael Davila’s voice has gained in both tone and refinement over the seasons in Sarasota and it was luxury casting to have the Puerto Rican tenor as Oronte, Davila delivering a wonderfully rich and Italianate La mia letizia.

Matthew Edwardsen showed a plaintive and lyrical tenor as Arvino, Lindsay Ohse was a serviceable Viclinda, and Sarah Larsen as Sofia, Benjamin Gelfand as Pirro and Jeffrey Beruan as Acciano filled their parts admirably.

Once again, the fulcrum was the magnificent conducting by Victor DeRenzi, who–okay, I’ll say it—is simply the finest, most idiomatic Verdi conductor I’ve ever heard, and I’m not forgetting some much more celebrated names. Time and again DeRenzi brought verve, color and lyric sensitivity to the music, while always maintaining taut dramatic point and the long line.

Concertmaster Liang-Ping How brought a warm tone and understated bravura to the elaborate obbligato solo violin in the prelude and trio of the third scene of Act 3–the closest Verdi ever came to writing a violin concerto. Under Roger L. Bingamon’s direction, the chorus stated out scrappy, yet soon were in synch, singing and characterizing well, though the harem scene could have used a few more youthful and alluring ringers.

The many scene changes were accomplished fluently except for a massive, apparently recalcitrant pile of boulders, which a stagehand effortlessly picked up and casually carried offstage. “He’s strong,” one audience member observed.

I Lombardi will be repeated March 12 and March 20.; 941-328-1300.


Sunday evening brought a revival of the company’s popular production of La Boheme.

While David P. Gordon’s set and Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s costumes remain charming and evocative, this was a decidedly uneven night of Puccini at best. When Rodolfo is outsung by Colline, you have a problem.

The youthful cast certainly looked the part of the young Paris artisans but vocally proved largely uninspired. Harold Meers’ film-star looks made him a handsome and oddly rakish Rodolfo but his loud hectoring singing and lack of finesse and artistic seasoning were manifest. Grant Clarke’s heavy-handed Marcello was cut from the same overemphatic cloth, with Carelle Flores a fluttery and charmless Musetta.

As Mimi, Maria D’Amato’s Act I aria was unsubtle her tone turning hard at higher volume. The soprano improved in the latter two acts with a lovely Donde lieta usci and proved affecting in the final scene.

Matthew Hanscom was a workmanlike Schaunard. Clearly enjoying a break from his usual Verdi villains, Young-Bok Kim was a superb Colline, delivering a warmly rounded Vecchia zimarra.

Victor DeRenzi’s conducting was the evening’s most consistent element, Sarasota’s artistic director drawing luminous string playing and uncovering a myriad of scoring details sloughed over by lesser hands.

La Boheme will be repeated March 11, 15 and 19.; 941-328-1300.

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