Mark Sforzini used to be principal bassoon with the Florida Orchestra, and that experience still informs a lot of what he does as artistic director of St. Petersburg Opera. One of his fondest memories from his time in the orchestra was a performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 25, with then music director Jahja Ling on the podium.
Now Sforzini himself is conducting Mozart, with The Marriage of Figaro as the opera company's season finale in three performances Friday through June 5. He has some specific ideas about how he wants the 33-piece orchestra to play the score.
"I'm very particular about phrases ending lightly as opposed to being overly emphasized," he said. "The notes aren't always as fleshed out as they are in Romantic music. The gestures in Mozart can be a lot shorter and a lot cuter."
With a host of principal singers, The Marriage of Figaro's libretto (by Lorenzo Da Ponte) is bursting with intricate, farcical plot turns as it relates the upstairs-downstairs story of a philandering count who wants to seduce the fiance of his valet but is undone by the servants and his long-suffering wife, the countess. It's a very different sort of opera than the company's previous production, Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila, which doesn't have much plot and features a large chorus. The Mozart opera has a small chorus.
The cast includes Daniel Klein as Almaviva, Jacqueline Noparstak as the countess, Julianna Tauschinger-Dempsey as Susanna and Adelmo Guidarelli as Figaro. Sforzini, who held auditions in New York and St. Petersburg, was looking for good singers who could also act.
"They have to be ensemble singers," he said. "They have to have the skills not only to pull off a fantastic interpretation of their arias but then to turn around and be able to do trios and sextets and work in an ensemble."
Figaro is the character responsible for a lot of the intrigue that makes the opera tick.
"Adelmo, the guy playing Figaro, came in and had so much energy and life," Sforzini said. "Not only did he sing the heck out of it, but he obviously understood every line of text he was singing and conveyed it through his facial expressions and his gestures."
In a bit of luxury casting, mezzo soprano Ronnita Miller is playing the relatively small role of Marcellina, a housekeeper. Miller, who grew up in St. Petersburg, has sung with major companies such as San Francisco Opera and Los Angeles Opera.
"She seems to think highly of what we're doing," Sforzini said. "She did sing Marcellina with LA Opera. It's exciting. Somebody who sang the role with LA Opera is coming to sing it with us in little old St. Pete."
In some productions of The Marriage of Figaro, the relationship of the countess and her unfaithful husband is given a dark edginess, but Sforzini and director Dean Anthony will stress the comedy.
"My attitude about it is to keep it on the lighter side," Sforzini said. "Toward the end he does ask her forgiveness and sings very beautifully to her, and she does the same in response. I think it should be kept light and fun and not get too heavy."
This will be the third Mozart opera for Sforzini's company, after Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte. "I feel like there's a lot of flexibility in who you can hire for Mozart operas," he said. "The writing is broader and open to different types of singers being able to sing the music. Whereas in Puccini for a specific soprano role, you're definitely looking for a spinto soprano or a full lyric soprano. But the countess can be sung by full lyric soprano or a lyric soprano."
Sforzini, 42, has had a busy May. About two weeks ago, he was named music director of the Tampa Bay Symphony, a well-regarded community orchestra. A few days later the opera company announced its 2012-13 season, which opens in October with Stephen Sondheim's thriller-diller, Sweeney Todd. Playing Mrs. Lovett, the macabre meat-pie maker, will be Buffy Baggott, who has performed the role with Arizona Opera and Spokane Opera. She was Desiree in the St. Petersburg Opera staging of Sondheim's A Little Night Music in 2010.
"Sweeney Todd is a show I've loved ever since I was 18 years old," Sforzini said. "It's going to be kind of a dream come true to do it here."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.