The Sarasota Opera’s complete Verdi Survey, begun in 1989, has not only given this regional company a special identity but also popularised some fairly specialised repertoire. At a recent talk, patrons were asked if they had ever seen I Lombardi and some two-thirds of the substantial audience raised their hands. Where else would you find this? I Lombardi is pertinent because the survey currently embraces the seldom heard Jérusalem, a radically transformed 1847 revision for the Paris Opera of the earlier opera about the Crusades. Though never an everyday experience, I Lombardi overshadows Jérusalem in popularity, but several Verdi scholars in revisionist mode now favour the French work.
Given Sarasota’s musically gripping performance, it is easy to see what they admire. The Paris Opera’s superior orchestral resources are immediately reflected in a lovely new prelude. Further, in a vivid new scene calculated to rouse the Parisian audience, the hero Gaston, falsely accused of attempted murder and condemned, is subjected to degradation by having badges of his military honour – helmet, shield and sword – ritually destroyed in public.
The tangled Lombardi plot is smoothed out in Jérusalem. Strangely, Verdi’s French librettists removed from the story its love interest spanning opposed religions: instead of falling in love with a Muslim who converts to Christianity, the heroine (Hélène) loves a Frenchman (Gaston) from the start. The scholar Francesco Izzo, in Sarasota for a Verdi panel, recently hypothesised that governmental pressure, possibly related to French colonial ambitions, worked against a relationship between a French woman and a Muslim man.
More broadly, Jérusalem allows the stirring musical vocabulary of early Verdi to be experienced in a context new to most of us. As always, the conductor Victor DeRenzi treats Verdi’s score with Muti-like respect, offering an arresting reading that pays as much attention to the music’s expressivity as to its fervour. As Hélène, Danielle Walker squarely meets the role’s demands for both brilliance and intensity, and Heath Huberg, a liquid-voiced tenor, excels as Gaston.
The rub is Sarasota’s antiquated production style, although Jérusalem, directed by Martha Collins, fares better than most. Jeffrey W. Dean’s sets colourfully depict a harem scene, but a painted backdrop of Palestinian mountains never suggests a terrain that has pilgrims gasping for water, and when characters get too close to it on Sarasota’s narrow stage they look like giants. DeRenzi may loathe Regietheater but he needn’t shun modern stagecraft along with it.