‘Verdi is the greatest dramatist of the 19th century,” declares conductor Victor DeRenzi, ranking his operas ahead of the purely theatrical works of Victor Hugo and August Strindberg. As evidence, he points out that Verdi is the most-performed 19th century dramatist, outdistancing solely theatrical figures.
Verdi expert DeRenzi conducts Giussepe Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” which opens Opera New Jersey’s 10th season Sunday, July 8, at 2 p.m. in McCarter Theater. Stephanie Sundine directs. The cast includes Leonora, played by Erica Strauss; Azucena, Margaret Mezzacappa; Manrico, Rafael Davila; Di Luna, Marco Nistico; and Ferrando, Young Bok-Kim. The New Jersey Symphony Chamber Orchestra provides instrumental coverage. Additional performances take place in McCarter Saturday, July 14, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, July 22, at 2 p.m. A final show occurs Sunday, July 29, at 3 p.m. in Asbury Park’s Paramount Theater.
DeRenzi describes the ONJ “Trovatore” as being “a straightforward production that tells the story from beginning to end. There is no change of period or psychological overlay.”
The ONJ summer season also includes Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” at McCarter on Sunday, July 15, at 2 p.m., Thursday, July 19, at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, July 21, at 7:30 p.m. Performances also are scheduled for Morristown’s Mayo Center on Wednesday, July 18, and Asbury Park’s Paramount Theater on Friday, July 27.
Interviewed by telephone from New York City, DeRenzi cites compelling details for Verdi’s theatrical preeminence. Born in 1813, Verdi wrote operas over a longer period than any other composer. His first opera dates from 1839, when he was 26; he composed his last opera in 1893 at age 80.
A body of 33 operas — DeRenzi counts a major revision as a separate opera — make up Verdi’s output. DeRenzi has conducted 29 of them. “There are more Verdi operas in the repertoire than there are works by any other composer,” he says. “At least 16 of them should be produced by major opera companies. And they are.
“One of the things that makes a great opera is the libretto that you set,” DeRenzi says. “The way you make the story compelling is the way you set it. All of Verdi’s operas have something to say when they’re staged, and not merely recorded.
“Great opera composers don’t separate the musical from the dramatic. The music grows from the text and the dramatic situation. Opera is a blend of staging and music. All of the great opera composers saw their works as theatrical works. Opera is not an either/or situation.”
“Il Trovatore” is set during a 1409 rebellion in Spain. Count Di Luna, an aristocrat, leads the Prince’s army and Manrico, a troubadour, leads the rebels. The two men are rivals for the love of Leonora, a lady-in-waiting at the Prince’s court.
About 25 years earlier a gypsy woman had been burned at the stake for casting a spell on Garzia, Di Luna’s infant brother. Before dying, the gypsy woman asked her daughter, Azucena, to avenge her. Azucena therefore kidnapped the royal infant and was seen to throw a baby onto the pyre where her mother was burned. Actually, the child whom she murdered was her own child and not the royal infant. Azucena named the surviving royal child Manrico and brought him up as her son. Only Azucena knows that Manrico is the brother of Di Luna.
Leonora favors Manrico over Di Luna. They are about to be married when Di Luna captures Manrico and orders his execution. Leonora begs Di Luna to spare Manrico’s life. He promises to spare Manrico if Leonora will surrender to him. She agrees, but takes poison. Leonora dies. As the ax falls on Manrico, Azucena reveals that Manrico was Di Luna’s brother. She declares that her mother is avenged.
“Azucena is the character that drew Verdi to the opera,” DeRenzi says. “She was so different from other characters portrayed on stage at the time.”
DeRenzi believes the titles that now are standard accessories for an opera performance are essential to a worthwhile opera experience. “When people used to go to see opera, they knew only the outline of the story. But with titles audiences can know what every word on stage means.” Preparing good titles is a special skill. “The audience has to be able to read the information in the title and also to look at the stage. The timing is important. The titles have to say what the story is, and not interpret it.” DeRenzi prepared the titles for “Trovatore,” working through the surtitle company “Words for Music,” which he and his wife started.
DeRenzi is married to Stephanie Sundine, who directs ONJ’s “Trovatore.” Sundine directed ONJ’s January production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca” (U.S. 1, January 18). The couple met when Sundine auditioned for a role in Verdi’s “Falstaff,” with DeRenzi conducting. Sundine, with DeRenzi’s urging, switched from singing to directing, and husband and wife ended up at Sarasota Opera.
“We were renting titles at Sarasota Opera,” Sundine says. “Some titles were translated inaccurately. So we decided to do the work ourselves. We want titles to be accurate and to be read quickly so viewers can turn their attention back to the stage. Each of our titles is no more than two lines.”
Asked about working with his wife, DeRenzi chalks up their smoothness as a team to their long professional collaboration and adds a historical note. “Directing has become outside the sphere of the conductor,” he says. “Until recently, the conductor had as much to say about a production as the director did.” It’s a good guess that in the DeRenzi family the traditional balance is still in effect.
DeRenzi was born in 1949 in Staten Island, New York, and grew up there. He says that his family was not musical. Still, he started piano at about 10. In high school, he studied bassoon, double bass, and flute. “I was good enough to know that I was bad,” he says. “I knew I would never make a living with those instruments.”
Before entering high school DeRenzi was hooked on opera. “I had my conversion to opera when I was in seventh grade,” DeRenzi says. “There was a small opera company on Staten Island. My teacher designed sets for the company and got the class involved. My first opera was Verdi’s ‘Forza del Destino’ with piano and semi-professional singers. I fell in love with opera.”
“I started going to the Met when every performance had at least three real stars, not stars manufactured by public relations departments,” DeRenzi says. I wonder whether he would like to see this implied criticism attributed to him in print, and he assures me that it’s exactly what he means.
De Renzi started conducting in his late teens and early 20s. He studied conducting with Adriano Petronia, head Italian prompter at the Metropolitan Opera Company, and with Carlo Moresco, director of Philadelphia’s Grand Opera. He conducted while he attended Queens College.
After college, DeRenzi freelanced as a conductor. In 1982 he joined Sarasota Opera, where he is artistic director and principal conductor. Under DeRenzi’s leadership Sarasota played its first Verdi opera, “Rigoletto,” in 1989. Since that date Sarasota Opera’s programming has accelerated into a Verdi extravaganza, though DeRenzi’s repertoire includes operas by Giacomo Puccini, Leos Janacek, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Richard Wagner, Peter Tchaikovsky, Bedrich Smetana, Igor Stravinsky, and others.
The 1989 “Rigoletto,” DeRenzi says, was unique in recreating musical practices of the 1850s. The following year, audiences cheered Verdi’s “Aroldo,” a major revision of the composer’s “Stiffelio.” Because of the listeners’ response DeRenzi initiated a Verdi cycle focusing on a selection of works by the composer. Five years later, he enlarged the plan to include all the Verdi operas. “I thought that performing all of the operas would be worthwhile because of the audience reaction,” he says. “Verdi would have agreed.”
Eventually, DeRenzi led the way to presenting not only Verdi’s operas, but all of his music — “every note of it,” he says. He notes that the Verdi canon includes choral works, both sacred and profane; piano pieces, chamber music, songs, and compositions for orchestra. “Sometimes,” he says, “Verdi added arias, not originally part of an opera, to a performance by a particular singer.” The exhaustive presentation of Verdi works is estimated to conclude in 2016.
“I had to find out what Verdi wrote, find out if it still exists, and try to get it,” DeRenzi says. “Fortunately, there are a lot of Verdi lovers out there.” He singles out the American Institute for Verdi Studies and Italy’s National Institute of Verdi Studies.
DeRenzi notes that the University of Chicago Press and the Italian publisher Ricordi are in the process of publishing a critical edition of Verdi works. So far 12 operas have been published.
Immersed as he is in Verdi, DeRenzi might have a possible publication in the works, I suggest. (He has edited a two-volume edition of Verdi’s songs with piano.) “I’ve made notes on books that I might want to write,” he says, “but I’m not sure if I’ll do anything. I’m too busy with conducting.”
Opera Groups Partner for Staged Reading of New Works
Opera New Jersey has partnered with American Opera Projects to present a staged reading of “Blessed Art Thou Amongst Women: Three Meditations on the Virgin Mary,” on Saturday and Sunday, July 21 and 22, the Berlind Theater.
American Opera Projects, based in Brooklyn, has spent more than 20 years developing new American opera and musical theater, and this year presents new works by composers Gregory Spears and Tarik O’Regan.
Spears writes instrumental and vocal music that has been performed by Houston Grand Opera and Center City Opera Theater, among others. His composition, “Our Lady,” is the first of the three meditations. The piece uses Marian texts written by a troubador in medieval Provencal that depict the seven sorrows of Mary.
The middle meditation, “Stabat Mater,” includes six of the nine movements originally composed by Antonio Vivaldi based on medieval texts about Mary for performance in church. The six movements chosen portray a man’s lamentations over Mary’s experience of the death of her son.
“The Wanton Sublime,” by British composer Tarik O’Regan, is the third meditation. Based on Anna Rabinowtiz’s book of the same name, it focuses on the Virgin Mary’s chaotic mind as she struggles with her identity.
The cast for the reading includes countertenor Ryland Angel and mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn. Steven Osgood conducts. Visit www.operaprojects.org for more information.
Opera New Jersey, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Sunday, July 8, through Sunday, July 22. 609-799-7700 or 609-258-2787. Visit www.operanj.org or www.mccarter.org.