It’s certainly not like the old days at the Sarasota Opera, where getting a ticket was a near impossibility once the season opened.
I was surprised and a bit saddened to notice the reality that there were lots of empty seats at recent performances of Verdi’s “King for a Day” and Carlisle Floyd’s “Of Mice and Men.”
I hope more seats are filled before the two productions end next week, because each has moments of musical glory or stirring power that I wasn’t expecting.
These are probably the two least familiar operas of the Sarasota Opera season, which also includes the company’s first production of Puccini’s “Turandot” (which was essentially sold out the night I was there) and the past hit “The Pearl Fishers,” which was so popular in 2000 that the company brought it back just three years later. Audiences still seem to love it this season.
“King for a Day” is an early and light-hearted work by Verdi, strongly contrasted with his darker, more heavily romantic and better-known work that would secure his place as an opera composer.
I didn’t do much preparation other than to read the synopsis, so I was pleasantly surprised by the lively and sprightly music, which had me tapping my feet (and occasionally conducting at my seat). That music, conducted by Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi, is beautifully set to a comical love story by Felice Romani (based on an old play) about arranged marriages giving way to true love.
It all reminded me of a Mozart opera, but with more plot development.
What often keeps me disconnected from the opera is the unnatural way some are staged and how performers put more focus on making the big notes than on creating believable characters, no matter how broad and exaggerated they may be.
That’s not a concern either in “King for a Day” or “Of Mice and Men.” “King” director Martha Collins has staged this production with a knowing nod, and her cast members deliver. There’s a fun moment when Jennifer Feinstein as the Marchesa raises her eyebrows and smiles as she realizes that her efforts to win some time for the young lovers Giulietta and Edoardo will actually happen. It just seems right.
Everything about “Of Mice and Men” seems right, too, even if it won’t be a musical favorite of those who aren’t accustomed to relatively contemporary music.
This is not an opera that will leave you humming the songs on your way out of the theater. But that’s not really the goal of Floyd or the production.
This opera, based on John Steinbeck’s moving and poignant novel, is one of dark edges and deep emotions. The music conveys those feelings. It may sound atonal at times (I’m not sure that’s a technically accurate description) or not seem melodic, the way Sarasota audiences have grown accustomed to the melodies of Puccini, Verdi or Bizet.
But suddenly, you’re listening to what seems like clashing voices that somehow combine into glorious sounds that fit perfectly together and suit the emotions of the moment.
The music is a challenge for the performers, led by Sean Anderson as George Milton and Michael Hendrick as his slow-witted friend, Lonnie Small, and a rewarding challenge for the audience in this well-performed production staged by Michael Unger and conducted by David Neely.
While you don’t get all the characters and depth of Steinbeck’s novel, Floyd, as both librettist and composer, has distilled this touching story down to its essence. There is the deep bond between the protective George and Lennie, the man-child who needs a constant eye of supervision. They worry about how they can live safely and freely, and repeatedly share the dream of owning their own farm where they can “live off the fat of the land.”
It’s a harsh life for these two ranch hands, who have to stay on the move because Lennie’s fondness for petting soft things often leads to dire consequences.
I can’t say that I loved all the music, but I was actively involved and emotionally connected to the plight of these two men and depths of their friendship, just as I was in the book and play.
Consider giving them a try.
For information about the Sarasota Opera: 366-8450; sarasotaopera.org
Jay Handelman is the theater critic for the Herald-Tribune and chairman of the American Theatre Critics Association. Contact him at email@example.com. Be sure to “like” Arts Sarasota on Facebook, Follow me on twitter at twitter.com/jayhandelman.