Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Also see Bill's review of Marjorie Prime
d'Albert, Scottish born but German identified, is the composer of 21 operas. Tiefland is his most successful and remains reasonably popular in Germany, with productions cropping up here and there. I was more than a little surprised to find three performances available on a music streaming service I subscribe to, one with international caliber singers, another with a well-known conductor who has frequently conducted at the Metropolitan Opera. So I was prepared for something interesting, yet new to my ears.
Set long ago, my guess is between Feudal times and maybe as late as the 1700s. The plot revolves around a rich landowner, master of the village. He wants to marry his mistress off, so he can enter a financially lucrative arranged marriage. Pedro, the tenor, is a shepherd chosen to marry Marta, the soprano mistress of Sebastiano, baritone. The first act contains lovely pastoral music with some lovely woodwind writing but remains dramatically inert. At intermission it was difficult to identify the romantic triangle at the center. Pedro had had at this point two arias, one right at the top where he describes his lovely bucolic life in the mountains, and a second toward the end of act one describing his encounter with a wolf which he killed to protect his flock and dogs. The first has some lovely orchestra writing but meanders melodically, the second having more dramatic purpose but still not gaining the emotional excitement that I think it might have had in the hands of a more accomplished opera composer.
At this point I was thinking that the opera belonged to the tenor, as Marta had not had much of interest to sing, so far, but the casting on several of the available recordings should have tipped me off that a rush to judgment would be premature. I noticed several walk outs at intermission, and sadly for them, the second act proves far superior to the first. It opens with a short scene between a village elder and Marta, followed by a huge aria where she reveals her sexual past, which in modern terms amounts to sexual slavery. It starts slowly, quietly, but builds to huge passionate outbursts, the stuff to lure a major dramatic soprano to this part. This is followed by an equally big duet with Pedro, now her husband, in which they reveal their love for each other, although he still does not know the truth of her past. Now the dramatic conflicts are much clearer, and in opera time all is sorted out; husband and wife go off to the mountains together, if not without some lingering pain to get through. Twice as much drama occurs in the second act's 50 minutes than in the prologue and first act's hour and a half.
Sarasota Opera makes a fine case for Tiefland with a strong cast. Kara Shay Thomson is Marta and when the character finally comes out of the background, she delivers the dramatic soprano goods, not surprising since she has triumphed in the title role of Vanessa, as well as in Fidelio and Tosca for this company. Pedro is played by Ben Gulley, new to the company. He sings solidly, acts well. Aleksey Bogdanov is Sebastiano, our baritone villain. It is not a showy part, but he does get a nice solo toward the end of act two. Hanna Brammer as Nuri, friend of Martha, has a lovely aria, possibly one of the highlights of act one. Branch Fields, seen earlier this season in Faust at St. Petersburg Opera, brings gravitas to the role of Tommaso, the area elder, while Alexander Charles Boyd sings Moruccio, the current mill operator. Studio Artist Andrew Surrena brings a nice tenor to the small role of Nando, another shepherd who opens the opera with a plaintive little solo. Several other small, named roles are capably taken by Studio Artists.
David Neely, a frequent guest conductor for Sarasota Opera (Vanessa, Of Mice and Men, Dialogues of the Carmelites, among others) conducts splendidly. The orchestra plays with assurance for him, with beautiful wind solos and a lovely string tone. This is not a brass-heavy opera, so they don't get quite the workout other sections do. To my ears this is a fine evening for the orchestra and chorus.
Stage Director Michael Unger opts for clear-focused storytelling. The acting is not overly detailed, but with help from surtitles it is possible to follow the story. The lack of dramatic tension in the first act belongs to no one except d'Albert and librettist Rudolph Lothar. Scenic designer Steven C. Kemp provides colorful playing areas that help the audience get a sense of the historic period, while costumes by Howard Tsvi Kaplan are colorful and effective. Keri Yunker designed the lighting. Chorus master Roger L. Bingaman is responsible for clear focused work from his members. I think it a safe bet that none of them have sung this opera before.
I am an opera buff, and I've seen many unusual pieces and hope to see at least a few more in what remains of my life. Tiefland is not going to go to the top of the list of my favorites, but I am glad to have a chance to see it, if only for future bragging rights. It's possible it will show up within the next few years at Santa Fe Opera, as have a couple of other less often performed operas (The Golden Cockerel and Vanessa) that showed up locally first.
Tiefland, through March 25, 2018, at Sarasota Opera, 61 N. Pineapple Avenue, Sarasota FL. For tickets and information call 941-366-8450 or visit www.sarasotaopera.org.