On the Beat: Sarasota Sempreverdi
TODD THOMAS wraps up Sarasota Opera’s monumental VERDI CYCLE with La Battaglia di Legnano.
by Brian Kellow.
Viva Verdi: Thomas in Battaglia, one of the composer’s operas that boosted Italian reunification
© Rod Millington
NEARLY THREE DECADES of work came to an end in mid March when Sarasota Opera presented the conclusion of its complete traversal of Verdi’s music. This cycle, the brainchild of artistic director VICTOR DeRENZI, began in 1989 with Rigoletto and wound up with a spring weekend that included the seldom-performed La Battaglia di Legnano, plus Aida and a final concert of arias. Over the course of three days, surprises abounded: the 1,119-seat Sarasota Opera House made an ideal venue for experiencing Verdi’s works, and while the traditional stagings were occasionally provincial, the level of music-making was exceptional. The orchestra, as well as the chorus, under the direction of ROGER L. BINGAMAN, performed impeccably. I found myself deeply moved at the end of Aida’s triumph scene. Such an enormous undertaking is a daunting challenge for a “level two” Opera America company with a limited budget; to pull it off with such musical excellence is a mightily impressive achievement.
The weekend offered several standout individual performances, among them baritone TODD THOMAS as Rolando, leader of the Milanese troops, in Battaglia. A veteran performer who has regularly been part of Sarasota’s Verdi cycle, Thomas began the March 18 performance a bit roughly but quickly warmed up, giving the audience a dose of authentic Verdian style. The evening’s emotional apex came in “Digli ch’è sangue italico,” in which Rolando tells his wife, Lida (the excellent JENNIFER BLACK), that should he be killed in battle, she must teach their son that after love of God, he should be motivated by love of country. Thomas recalls that when he appeared in Sarasota’s Attila in 2007, DeRenzi told him, “If I were ever to have a mistress in my life, it would be the culture and country of Italy. So sing tonight as if Italy is your mistress.” Thomas laughs. “Victor’s adoration for that culture really is immense.”
Each rehearsal period in the Verdi cycle began with a table read and several days of nothing but rehearsing the text. “We have four to five weeks’ rehearsal period,” says Thomas. “The part of Rolando has a lot of recitative-driven stuff, and Victor was less concerned about my vocal abilities than he was about my linguistic abilities and making me sound as native as possible.” Thomas adds, “During the last few weeks, you could sense Victor getting more tense and frustrated. He’s spent such a huge part of his artistic life in this quest. And then it will have been completed. There has to be a kind of mourning process.”
Thomas always had his sights set on being a dramatic baritone. He remembers that when he was a young artist singing in competitions, he spotted LICIA ALBANESE on the panel, and, he says, “I knew I was going to lose. My teacher, JOAN PATENAUDE-YARNELL, found out that Albanese thought I was a lazy tenor. That’s a common error with Verdi baritones or high baritones. In my student days at Academy of Vocal Arts, people said, ‘You have two beautiful voices—a ringing top and a nice low voice, but you have to work out that bridge.’ Victor DeRenzi helped me trust an open sound on top and not over-cover.” When Thomas auditioned for the Met, word came back to his agent that he shouldn’t sing things like “Il balen.” “They wanted me to bring my Fach down a little bit,” he says. “I was told Traviata should be the most dramatic thing I did if I wanted to get a job there. It helps to know who your panel of listeners is.” Thomas made his Met debut in 2007 in War and Peace.
Thomas has received considerable career support from SHERRILL MILNES; he also worked with Milnes’s pianist, JON CURTIS SPONG, whom he credits as a major influence. “Sherrill came to see me in Atlanta as Rigoletto last season,” recalls Thomas. “I called him before the last performance of Battaglia,and he told me that he had never been invited to look at the opera. I said, ‘You should! There’s a good role for you in it.’ Sherrill said, ‘Thanks. I’ll take that under advisement.’”