Florentine goes romantic for Valentine's Day

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Milwaukee's Florentine Opera wants to capitalize on love, specifically the kind associated with St. Valentine's Day. With the production "Isn't it Romantic?," Florentine director William Florescu hopes to seize the Feb. 14 holiday by its chocolates with the first of what he hopes becomes an annual musical ode to romance.

The production is billed as a celebration of love songs "from Vienna to Broadway." It's designed as a light  Valentine confection that shines the spotlight on the company's studio artists in the intimate confines of Marcus Center for the Performing Arts' Vogel Hall on Feb. 10-12.

"One could argue that most operas have love as part of their theme," says Florescu, who is directing the performance. "We want to take hold of this holiday in the same way that 'Nutcracker' and 'Christmas Carol' have taken hold of Christmas."

The performances feature the works of everyone from Franz Lehar, famed for his early 20th-century operettas, to the great songwriting teams of Broadway. Love is the central theme of the evening, of course, but other considerations went into choosing the material, Florescu says.

"We certainly considered the specific voices in our program, as well as making sure to give the audience a wide stylistic and thematic palette," he says. "But at the end of the day I chose the music that I love, and I hope the audience will love it, too."

Lehar's "The Merry Widow Waltz" was a logical choice, Florescu says. But so were Rogers & Hammerstein's "If I Loved You" from "Carousel," Lerner & Loewe's "If Ever I Would Leave You" from "Camelot" and, of course, Rodgers & Hart's "My Funny Valentine" from "Babes in Toyland."

"We certainly have included songs strong in the 'ahh' factor, but I think the real gems may be "I'll See You Again" from Noël Coward's "Bittersweet" and "Meine Lippen" from Lehar's 'Giuditta,'" he says. "I think the audience will love those."

Some of the singers are familiar to Florentine Opera fans. Soprano Erica Schuller, mezzo-soprano Kristen DiNinno, tenor Matthew Richardson and bass-baritone Dan Richardson sing in various combinations, accompanied by pianist Eileen Huston. Schuller and Richardson are both in their second seasons of the Florentine Opera Studio Artists program, while Richardson is in his first season. DiNinno was most recently a Gerdine Young Artist with The Opera Theater of St. Louis. 

The Florentine, which had success in November with "Golden Days,' a similar musical revue, would like to make the Valentine's Day program an annual event. Florescu says there are many more songs to explore in the future, including many in the Great American Songbook.

"There is such a wide variety of available material, that in certain years we may have a different focus," he says. "There are composers featured this year like Jerome Kern, who fits both the musical theater and songbook tag, but we really wanted a program that satisfied the audience whether they are deeply steeped in this repertoire or are just first-timers."

A dash of chocolate wouldn't hurt either.