Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Sarasota Opera opens last exquisite production of the season

"Tiefland" is a little-known opera with music so beautiful, it's easy to forget how savage (and relevant) the storyline is.

  • By
  • | 9:06 a.m. March 12, 2018
  • Arts + Entertainment
  • Reviews
  • Share

A superb production of D’Albert’s “Tiefland” is the final offering of this festival season of the Sarasota Opera.

Those of us who write reviews, be they for musical, dramatic or dance performances, are usually reluctant to use superlatives, but Sarasota Opera’s knockout production of “Tiefland” is enough to send me scampering through my Roget’s Thesaurus to find enough words of praise.

I must be personal about this: I’ve been in the opera world for some 60 years now, in all sorts of capacities, and I can’t remember when I’ve been so pleased, moved and excited as I was last Saturday at the opening performance of “Tiefland.”

“Tiefland”? Who? What ? Is that an opera? Never heard of it, and why on earth is the Sarasota Opera producing it? Now to find out why …

Yes, it is an opera by a Scottish born, German composer with a French name, based on a Spanish play that takes place in the Pyrenees. Surprisingly enough, the theme of, yes, sexual abuse, is as relevant as today’s headlines and “MeToo” movement. Would that all of those headlines could be immersed in such a beautiful score as that of D’Albert.

Kara Shay Thomson as Marta, Ben Gulley as Pedro, and Hanna Brammer as Nuri performing in Sarasota Opera’s production of Tiefland by Eugen d’Albert. Photo by Rod Millington
Kara Shay Thomson as Marta, Ben Gulley as Pedro, and Hanna Brammer as Nuri performing in Sarasota Opera’s production of Tiefland by Eugen d’Albert. Photo by Rod Millington

The story of a young girl’s virtue bartered for the commercial interests of a licentious master for his pleasure and profit could have been taken from many of today’s headlines, but D’Albert’s opera, based on Guimerá’s play engulfs us in so much beautiful music that we almost forget the savagery of the story.

Almost any composer finds inspiration in music he or she has heard and experienced. D’Albert’s “Tiefland” is at once German “verismo” opera, linked with real people and events of real life, but it is enveloped in a score of romantic grandeur reminiscent of Wagner, Puccini and Italian composers. I’m pretty sure it served as an influence for the later film scores of Korngold, Rózsa, Hermann and others.

It would be difficult to duplicate the outstanding cast of singers, and “Tiefland” is the most evenly cast opera of the season, with good singing and acting in every role.

Kara Shay Thomson’s Marta captured and shared the full impact of her early humiliation, domination and vindication of her personal servitude to her master. She has appeared in many roles and productions of Sarasota Opera, but this is her best performance by far, both vocally and dramatically. Her sizable soprano possessed vocal color and dramatic intensity that projected throughout the theater, from moments of self-pity to blinding rage.

Tenor Ben Gulley and soprano Kara Shay Thomson perform
Tenor Ben Gulley and soprano Kara Shay Thomson perform "Tiefland." Photo by Rod Millington

Ben Gulley was well cast as Pedro, the lonely shepherd who marries Marta, while not knowing she has been the forced mistress of Sebastiano. His transition from a guileless peasant to an avenging husband is impressive. His clarion tenor was especially impressive in the lovely duets with Marta in Act 2.

Baritone Alexsey Bogdanov as Sebastiano was the Scarpia-like villain, who, with his full-throated and commanding baritone, was a menace to everyone in sight. The fight scene in which he is subdued and strangled by Pedro is spine-tingling in its fury.

All of the smaller yet vital roles were strongly cast, particularly the Nuri of Hanna Brammer, with her bright clear soprano, Brian Fields as the elderly Tommaso and Alexander Charles Boyd as Moruccio, a mill servant. Studio artists Aura Veruni, Annie Chester and Lara Michole Tillotson were a perky trio of village girls and the small part of shepherd Nando was sung by Andrew Surrena, another studio artist.

The dynamic duo of conductor David Neely and Stage Director Michael Unger are both to be congratulated for their outstanding contributions to this successful evening. Earlier, they had presided over Sarasota Opera productions of “Vanessa,” “Crucible” and “Of Mice and Men,” but this was their best pairing to date. Ever a stickler for dramatic realism and detail, Unger was able to secure sensitive performances from the entire cast, staging the emotions of the music as well as the plot with unerring accuracy. All this was supported and buoyed up by the excellent orchestra and conducting of David Neely, who led the piece as if he had known it forever. Singing, staging and orchestra were beautifully nuanced through every emotion of the composer’s score.

Steven C. Kemp’s interior setting was extraordinary in its realism, with its double flight of stairs and on stage mill wheel, and was again beautifully lit with the lighting plots of Ken Yunker. As always, costumes by Howard Tsvi Kaplan and wigs and make up by Brittany Rapise were appropriate and well done.

This season of “Femme Fatales” by the Sarasota Opera has shown us three ladies who met untimely ends: Manon Lescaut, Carmen and Norma. But as Marta and Pedro leave the valley to return to the mountains of the Pyrenees in “Tiefland,” we finally receive our happy ending, both to the opera and the 2018 season. The winter festival season of Sarasota Opera runs through March 25.


Related Articles