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Bravos for the obscure operas

Opera is a business of brand names: La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, Carmen, et al. The famous ones are all that nonoperagoers have heard of, and diehards are staunchly brand loyal, much preferring the tried and true to the new or unknown.

Opera is also a matter of ritual. It's not uncommon for a lifelong opera fan to have seen a couple of hundred productions of La Traviata, Aida or Turandot, works whose every aria, chorus and orchestral interlude are as familiar as the communion liturgy is to a churchgoer.

So you can imagine the response I've gotten when I mention two operas I've been to recently, La Finta Giardiniera and L'Amore dei Tre Re.

Huh?

Nor do the titles translated into English _ The Pretended Garden Girl and The Love of Three Kings, respectively _ ring a bell. These operas epitomize obscurity.

Yet, they gave me more pleasure than anything I've been to in a while _ much more, for example, than Baz Luhrmann's ballyhooed and inventively staged La Boheme on Broadway. (Despite the razzmatazz, it's still La Boheme, the most popular opera that, for me, became way too much of a good thing some time ago.)

Novelty, I'll admit, is part of the appeal.

La Finta is teenage Mozart, an opera he wrote when he was 18, and it served as a useful apprenticeship for the masterpieces to come. It's hardly ever performed outside universities and major music centers, and I eagerly headed over to Fort Lauderdale a couple of weeks ago to take in a production by the Florida Grand Opera.

L'Amore, premiered in 1913, is even rarer. The one opera by Italian composer Italo Montemezzi to have any staying power, it had all but vanished from the repertory by the 1960s. Seen two weekends ago, it's the latest reclamation project of the Sarasota Opera, whose artistic director, Victor DeRenzi, has specialized in reviving neglected works, often with illuminating results.

Something about these productions off the beaten path brings out the collector's impulse in an operagoer, a kind of mania to experience a work simply because you may never get the chance again.

As to a Sarasota revival last year, I can't say that I was bowled over by Le Trouvere, the French translation of Il Trovatore prepared by Verdi for a production in Paris three years after the opera became one of his biggest hits. But to hear the quintessential Italian opera in French was a deliciously odd and memorable sensation. It contributed to my understanding of Verdi.

In the case of La Finta, because it is Mozart, the opera will get its share of stagings here and there around the world. The point of interest in the Florida Grand production was the subversive concept of director Mark Lamos that set the work not in the estate garden that Mozart intended but in a modern-day insane asylum.

That suggests another reason for relishing, for better or worse, a production of a rara avis of the opera world. Directors often try to get away with artistic murder, and sometimes it works, sometimes it flops. Nobody in the audience knows the work well enough, or cares enough, to object to over-the-top staging.

Lamos is a champion of high-concept opera that shifts the time and setting in wild ways. For the New York City Opera, he once placed Tosca in Mussolini's Italy.

Because La Finta is so unfamiliar, the audience probably came to it with more of an open mind than it would have for standards such as Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute. Faced with the confusing libretto about a seven-sided lovers' menage, the director took the idea that love drives people crazy and ran with it.

Purists hate on principal the kind of outrageousness that Lamos brought to Mozart, but the staging held my interest longer than a conventional pastoral treatment probably would have. There were amusing bits of business, such as the woman who tied up her two-timing fiance with a garden hose. The mezzo-soprano in the pants role _ described as "gender-challenged" in the cheeky English translation _ tore off her blouse at one point.

When the fresh-faced cast, mostly members of the company's Young Artist Studio, sang the first-act ensemble finale while bound in straitjackets, it almost made sense.

Lamos and conductor Stewart Robertson took lots of liberties. Most egregiously, they added a nonspeaking role, a therapist type who observed the neurotic goings-on. They cut an hour of music from the score, shortening the run time to about two hours and 40 minutes, including intermission. As the ironic posturing wore on into the second and third acts, and the story became hopelessly convoluted, Mozart's music wasn't enough to keep my mind from wandering.

La Finta, in the end, was something I was happy to have seen, even in the sometimes overly clever hands of Lamos, but not an opera I would necessarily seek out in the future. After all, when it comes to Mozart, there are plenty of others from which to choose.

Sarasota Opera's L'Amore engaged me more fully. For one thing, it has an interesting mix of musical languages, crossing Wagnerian harmonics in the orchestra with Italianate singing. Its obscurity is something of a puzzle.

I knew the opera only from an outstanding 1950 recording, with bass Sesto Bruscantini as Archibaldo, the blind barbarian who conquered Italy, and soprano Clara Petrella as the Italian princess Fiora, whom Archibaldo forced to marry his son, Manfredo.

However, I had come across many references that piqued my interest in L'Amore over the years, mainly in articles and books about singers. At the Metropolitan Opera, where Arturo Toscanini conducted the premiere, stars such as Rosa Ponselle, Grace Moore and Dorothy Kirsten played Fiora. Mary Garden was the princess in Chicago, where the opera was a staple. Enrico Caruso once sang Avito, Fiora's lover; Lawrence Tibbett, Manfredo; and Ezio Pinza, Archibaldo.

But for some reason, the luster faded, and Sarasota's production represents a rare recent outing. (The Lyric Opera of Chicago had planned a revival, but it was dropped in a cost-cutting measure.)

The approach of DeRenzi, who conducted, and director John Basil was the polar opposite of Lamos' La Finta. They were rigorously faithful to Montemezzi's score and Sem Benelli's libretto, set in the 10th century.

Kevin Short is Archibaldo, and he deserves credit not only for a powerfully fierce performance but also for being adventurous in his choice of roles. This is Short's second time in a Sarasota rarity, having played the title character in Verdi's first opera, Oberto, two years ago.

Learning an opera role takes a great deal of time and study, and it's the unusual artist who is prepared to embrace an infrequently performed one. From a career standpoint, it would be much more sensible to stick to bread-and-butter bass-baritone roles such as Escamillo (Carmen) or Colline (La Boheme).

Short may never repeat the role of Oberto because the opera is so one-dimensional, best seen as a telling reflection of Verdi's steep learning curve as a composer. But with Archibaldo, he could have an unlikely winner, because the barbarian is a richly nuanced character, with a gorgeous aria to Italy, and the opera isn't bad.

Solidly in the verismo tradition of Leoncavallo, Mascagni and Puccini, the Montemezzi score develops a relentless drive to the point where Archibaldo strangles Fiora in the second act. If the finale is a muddle, well, that's not the end of the world for an opera.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if a larger opera company took a cue from Sarasota and slotted L'Amore into an upcoming season as an offbeat change of pace, and that would be something to cherish for those of us who saw it here first.

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