An obscure 19th century opera, which was the revised version of an equally obscure opera, is the most anticipated work of the season?
Only at Sarasota Opera, and only if the opera is by Verdi.
Artistic director Victor DeRenzi and his company in Sarasota have added one more notch to their Verdi Cycle with a rare production of Jerusalem, a melodrama set in the Middle Ages during the Crusades that opened Saturday night at the opera house whose patron saint has become the great Italian composer.
Since a staging of Rigoletto in 1989, Sarasota has presented at least one Verdi opera a season in a quest to perform every note he ever wrote. Now the marathon is in the final stretch. After Jerusalem, there are just three Verdi operas to be performed in the next two seasons: the original Paris version of Don Carlos, La Battaglia di Legnano and Aida.
In 2011, Sarasota performed Verdi's fourth opera — he wrote 28, plus several substantial revisions — I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata, which the composer revised about four years later as Jerusalem for the Paris Opera. He drastically adapted the story in a new French libretto (by poets Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaez) that relocated the Christian crusaders from Lombard to Toulouse before they headed out to do battle with Muslims in the Holy Land.
DeRenzi conducted Sarasota's I Lombardi — as he has all the works in the Verdi Cycle — but that experience wasn't particularly helpful in working on the French remake. "I try to put I Lombardi aside," he said. "Sometimes I'm conducting Jerusalem and the Italian words come into my head. Sometimes an aria is the same but it's in a different key. The orchestration is different. Sometimes there is completely new material."
One notable new scene is at the end of Act 3 when the opera's leading man is dishonored by the crusaders. "Even in the least performed of his operas, there is a kernel of what Verdi is becoming, something worthy of seeing," DeRenzi said. "The best example in Jerusalem is the 'degradation scene' where the tenor is stripped of his rank and shield and sword."
Martha Collins, the director of Jerusalem, also directed I Lombardi three years ago, and she acknowledges that the earlier opera was a clunky affair. "Jerusalem holds together so much better than I Lombardi did," Collins said. "It shows Verdi's growth. It's humbling and inspiring to realize how driven he was to learn everything he could about the theater and to make his operas as dramatically credible as they could be."
Soprano Danielle Walker is singing Helene, whose romance with the tenor, Gaston (sung by Heath Huberg), takes her from a palace in Toulouse to an Arab harem. "It's probably the biggest role that I've ever sung," said Walker, whose resume includes Mimi in La Boheme and the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. "I have three arias. And in most of the ensemble pieces there is a big moment for Helene where she is either begging God to save the one that she loves or she's cursing everybody because they're not standing up for what's right."
Walker is no stranger to Verdi rarities, having played the ingénue Giulietta in last season's Sarasota production of an early comedy, Un Giorno di Regno. "Just because these operas aren't done often doesn't mean they aren't good," she said. "I think Jerusalem is a great show."
With Saturday's opening of Jerusalem, Sarasota now has all its winter season operas up and running through March 23. Also in the repertory are a new staging of Verdi's popular Il Trovatore (previously performed in 1993 by the company, as was the French version, Le Trouvere, in 2002), plus revivals of productions of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, featuring bass-baritone Kevin Short as the doomed mariner, and Rossini's comic masterpiece The Barber of Seville.
In addition, there is an exhibition of production sketches and costumes from 100 years of Verdi operas performed at the Rome Opera House, which opened Saturday and runs through March 25 at the Sarasota Opera House library. Costumes on display include those worn by singers such as Beniamino Gigle, Renata Scotto and Angela Gheorghiu in Verdi operas in Rome. 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, former performing arts critic of the Tampa Bay Times, can be reached at email@example.com.