Opera sounds wash over you in golden anniversary season

Bradenton Herald — Love, comedy and tragedy. It’s not just life, it’s opera.

After the successful launch of its new fall program, the Sarasota Opera continues its 50th anniversary season this winter with operas that will attract new and old patrons alike.

For long-time patrons like Syble Di Girolamo, of Parrish, it will be heaven on earth to relish the musical craft.

“I get lost in the music — Italian, French and English,” said Di Girolamo, who serves as president of the Bradenton Opera Guild — one of two opera guilds in the area that help promote and financially support the Sarasota Opera through a variety of fund-raisers and events.

“I don’t get lost in the lyrics,” Di Girolamo continued. “I get lost in the sound. I get lost in the sound of the voices as instruments. When I think about music as instruments, it washes me away.”

As relaxing as that sounds, it’s easy to see why opera has done so well in this area. The story lines for this season’s shows may pique additional interest.

Opening the season is Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca,” where a diva tries to defend her lover against an evil baron. The piece was last performed at the opera house in 2004 and was quite a success. This time around, there will be a new cast and an expanded orchestra taking advantage of the additions from last year’s renovation and expansion project at the opera house, said artistic director Victor DeRenzi.

Opening on Valentine’s Day is Gaetano Donizetti’s comedy “The Elixir of Love,” which was last performed here in 1986. In it, a magic love potion helps change the fate of unrequited love. Next is the rarely performed treat of Pietro Mascagni’s love story “L’amico Fritz.” Set in a Jewish community, a rabbi makes a marriage match between a landowner and a girl on his farm.

“If you’re an opera lover, chances are you have not seen ‘L’amico Fritz,’” said DeRenzi. “It’s very beautiful. It has a lot of beautiful music.”

Closing the season is the lofty production of “Don Carlos” by Giuseppe Verdi, which calls for a large orchestra and cast. It will mark the 25th opera in the company’s Verdi cycle, which pays tribute to the composer each year. The piece is set in Renaissance Spain, centering on a forbidden attraction among royalty.

DeRenzi is particularity excited to produce this work. It will be the biggest production for the opera house to date.

“It’s the first opera we are doing that we could not have done before the renovation of the opera house,” he said. “It is a piece that is constantly performed in major opera centers by the world’s biggest opera companies. It’s rarely performed in a theater our size. There’s a certain amount of the power of the piece that I think will come across differently in a small theater.”

In uncertain economic times, Sarasota Opera has continued to thrive with a strong patron base that has repeatedly filled the house. Even new experiments, such as the installment of a fall opera performance, has packed the house.

“It’s kind of funny that in these times where everybody is having troubles we are actually expanding to the point that we’re doing the biggest opera that we’ve ever done,” DeRenzi said.

While the opera house’s makeover has been able to enhance the quality of the productions it presents, aspects of it haven’t been embraced by all. Last season, seating was an issue. DeRenzi said some patrons were used to sitting in certain spots before the theater expansion, but with the addition of about 160 seats to the theater, favorite spots shifted. Some patrons didn’t like the change.

“We’ve dealt with those, made changes,” DeRenzi said. “A row of seats is gone. As best we can, we’ve dealt with everyone’s issues.”

But if you can’t make it to the opera this season, the opera will come to you.

Thanks to the Bradenton and Sarasota opera guilds, the company also brings snippets of opera into the community — for free. Locally, the Bradenton guild holds meetings every third Wednesday of the month at the El Conquistador Country Club. After the business portion of the meeting, performers from the company present 40 minutes of opera. Afterwards, lunch is available for purchase.

Di Girolamo said the best way those new to opera should experience the format is to take it all in, letting it wash over them. They should not be intimated about understanding a performance (a screen above the stage provides subtitles) nor worry about how to dress. The only formal times are the opening night shows.

Just come as you are and enjoy, said DeRenzi.

Lastly, you can’t beat the prices for the kind of opera that has attracted patrons to Sarasota from literally all over the world. It’s cheaper than attending a football game, believe it or not.

“People have said (opera) is elitist, and I think that sports events are elitist because the seats cost more,” said DeRenzi. “You can be sitting in this intimate 1,200-seat theater for $25. I don’t know where you would sit at a sports event (like the recent Super Bowl) for $25.”

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