Sarasota Opera opened its season this month with Rigoletto, but before the prophetic curse began to work its way through Verdi's melodrama, operagoers got a chance to inspect the opera house, reopened after an 11-month, $20-million renovation.
First things first: Yes, as promised, the new seats are a big improvement. Finally, after years of enduring some endless nights (a production of Il Trovatore comes to mind) in the wretchedly uncomfortable old seats, it is now no problem to sit through a three-hour opera.
One of the most enjoyable things about Sarasota Opera has always been its intimate theater, a converted 1926 movie house, and that continues to be an asset after the renovation, whose architect was Killis Almond & Associates of San Antonio, Texas. Seating capacity has increased slightly, to 1,198 seats. The small stage remains essentially the same, though the rigging systems and lighting units are new, and columns have been incorporated into the proscenium.
The expansion took place in the orchestra pit, which used to accommodate about 40 musicians in cramped conditions and now handles 70 with ease. There weren't that many in the pit for Rigoletto (seen March 4), but the orchestra sounded warmer than in the past, benefiting perhaps from brass and percussion being farther beneath the stage. A company administrator who has attended most every performance post-renovation told me the orchestral sound has more presence in the balcony, while voices are most clearly heard in seats at the rear downstairs.
I had a seat in row D, which was less than ideal, since it is one of several front rows that are not raked at an angle to the stage. It felt as if I were watching the opera from a hole. Seats farther back are better. One change downstairs is the elimination of side aisles, leaving just two aisles, which grew awfully clogged as ticketholders headed for their seats.
At the opera house entrance, the three-story atrium now is open to a skylight, though some people may miss the chandelier that used to hang there. The floor is travertine marble from Turkey. Inside the theater, the predominant colors are a golden orange (walls) and royal blue (carpeting, seat covers, stage curtain).
There are attractive decorative touches here and there: gilded scrollwork in the atrium; lacy metalwork over the three doors into the narrow parterre lobby; circular rose lights in the balcony overhang and tiles along the walls; art deco standards at the ends of seat rows.
So what was already a good venue for opera (except for those seats), with dimensions similar to the European houses where much of the standard repertory originated, has been given a plush makeover that will serve the company well for decades to come.
It was probably inevitable that the renovation would overshadow the serviceable production of Rigoletto, with artistic director Victor DeRenzi conducting and Stephanie Sundine directing.
Rigoletto was Verdi's breakthrough opera in 1851, followed in short order by Il Trovatore and La Traviata, and it will survive just about anything (my favorite is gadfly director Jonathan Miller's interpretation, in which the Duke is a Mafia don and Rigoletto a bartender in New York's Little Italy). The Sarasota approach is to weigh down the work in tradition as heavy as the richly woven costumes (designed by Howard Tsvi Kaplan) worn by the Duke's courtiers.
Michael Corvino is an actorly Rigoletto, undoubtedly out of vocal necessity, since the deformed court jester has one of Verdi's highest, most challenging baritone parts. After first encountering the assassin Sparafucile, for example, Rigoletto's soliloquy Para siamo! was musically bland but still dramatically potent.
If Corvino's singing is workmanlike at best, he does bring a persuasive sense of aggrieved resentment and vulnerability to the stocky, disreputable buffoon, especially in scenes with his teenage daughter, Gilda.
Erica Strauss is a girlish, diminutive Gilda, in striking contrast to her big and colorful, if rather undisciplined, voice. In the doomed heroine's only aria, Caro nome, there was heaviness to the phrasing and lack of variety in the musical characterization, but the soprano had plenty of power in some exciting high notes.
For many opera buffs, La donna e mobile, the Duke's swaggering aria on the fickleness of women, is the heart of Rigoletto. It was lyrically done by Rafael Davila, though he is more ardent swain than lowdown cad.
In general, the Sarasota production is a polite affair that doesn't come close to capturing the licentious corruption of the Duke and his court. There are stylized dances (choreographed by Diane Partington) when there should be debauchery. The wildest moment came in the Verdian clatter from the orchestra as the Duke raped Gilda behind closed doors.
Two highlights were Jonathan Carle as the Count of Monterone, the booming voice of righteousness who puts a curse on Rigoletto, and Jeffrey Tucker, a darkly ominous Sparafucile. As the assassin's slutty sister, Maddalena, Blythe Gaissert was fine in the famous quartet.
Rigoletto features Verdi's only chorus with no women, and the guys' lusty singing was a strong point. David P. Gordon's scenic design is at its best in the third act storm, as a greenish mist oozes spookily and lightning flashes over a twisted tree.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.