SARASOTA — Jerusalem is a showcase for its prima donna, and Danielle Walker was rightly the star of last Saturday's opening of the early Verdi melodrama at Sarasota Opera. The soprano brought passionate conviction to the huge role, which includes three arias, a duet and a trio, as well as a prominent voice in many ensembles. Her scintillating performance helped to make the case that this seldom staged work deserves to be considered more than simply a footnote to Verdi's familiar masterpieces.
Premiered in 1847, Jerusalem is the latest entry in Sarasota's Verdi cycle, an epic project started 25 years ago by artistic director Victor DeRenzi to perform every note written by the great Italian composer. As Verdi's 12th opera, it was his initial foray into the grand style of the Paris Opera, for which he extensively revised a work from four years earlier, I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata. The story takes place in the Middle Ages during the Crusades, when armies from the West descended on the Holy Land to do battle with Islam.
There are echoes of I Lombardi – performed by Sarasota in 2011 – throughout the remake, but it is more than just a translation. The French libretto by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaez relocated the Christian crusaders from Lombardy to Toulouse, changed the characters' names, eliminated one tenor role and refashioned the other into a knight who is the romantic hero. There are different orchestrations and a full-blown prelude. A scene for the tenor in Act 3 is new.
Plenty of marvelous coloratura sopranos have sung Jerusalem – a concert version by June Anderson can be found on YouTube – but Walker has won a place in the Verdi pantheon for her portrayal of the plucky Helene, whose love for the knight Gaston takes her on an improbable journey from a French palace to the Palestine desert. When Helene was being held captive in an Arab harem, her singing of the high, floating lament Que m'importe la vie was a highlight. Downstage, on one knee, her face a mask of sadness, she brought an exquisite sense of dramatic timing to the poignant aria. As striking as Walker's solos were – Quelle ivresse, bonheur supreme! was a joy – she also stood out for her clarion cries in the choruses.
As Gaston, tenor Heath Huberg had his lyrical moments, though he resorted to a jarring falsetto in the upper reaches of the music for the degradation scene, Verdi's addition for Jerusalem in which the knight is stripped of his banner, helmet, sword and shield. Young Bok Kim's French diction was virtually nonexistent, but the veteran bass still gave a moving performance as Roger, the holy hermit with a guilty desire for his niece Helene. Another bass, Jeffrey Beruan, was tremendous as the Papal Legate who passes judgment on Gaston. Baritone Matthew Hanscom was a sturdy Count of Toulouse.
DeRenzi conducted and drew a relentless reading of the score from the orchestra, though the occasional shaky brass play was unfortunate. Roger L. Bingaman prepared the youthful chorus, which was sensational. The set (by Jeffrey W. Dean) and costumes (Howard Tsvi Kaplan) were lavishly traditional, and Ken Yunker's lighting had some nice atmospheric touches. Director Martha Collins efficiently marshaled big numbers like a procession of the crusaders. Clocking in at well over three hours, including two intermissions, the opera was performed without the ballet that Verdi wrote for Paris.
In keeping with the Verdi theme, Il Trovatore is also a part of Sarasota's season this winter, making its second appearance in the cycle (third, if you count the French version, Le Trouvere.) The cast features a generally strong quartet of principals, especially David Pershall, whose light baritone made for an elegant Count de Luna in the performance I saw last Friday, and an earthy Margaret Mezzacappa, the mezzo-soprano who throws a baby into a fire.
If you go to Jerusalem or Il Trovatore, be sure to allow time to see a traveling exhibit from Rome Opera of production sketches and costumes from Verdi operas. The costumes are sumptuous. The exhibit is free and open to the public from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and until 8 p.m. on performance evenings.
John Fleming, the former performing arts critic of the Tampa Bay Times, can be reached at [email protected]