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Frost Opera Theater serves up outstanding performances in Puccini double bill

Fri Feb 27, 2015 at 1:26 pm

By Lawrence Budmen

Following a series of outstanding productions of Mozart operas and contemporary works, the University of Miami’s Frost Opera Theater  has turned to two of the one-act operas that form Puccini’s “Il Trittico”—the comedy Gianni Schicchi and the tragic Suor Angelica.

Puccini’s music is synonymous with Italian opera and represents a formidable challenge for vocal students. The double bill’s opening performance on Thursday night was a triumph for the gifted young singers and a top-notch production team headed by director Jeffrey Buchman.

While Puccini intended Gianni Schicchi to be the final work in his original three-opera evening, the Frost production reversed the order. Presenting Suor Angelica last generated emotional sparks in the best verismo tradition.

Gianni Schicchi is a light-hearted farce, based on a character in Dante’s Inferno. When the wealthy Buoso Donati dies, his family finds that he has left most of his fortune and property to the church. Eventually, they summon the wily Gianni Schicchi to play a dying Donati and dictate a new will. He leaves the fortune and Donati’s home to himself while clearing the way for his daughter Lauretta to marry Rinuccio, Donati’s nephew.

With Laurie Olinder’s sun-drenched projections of Florence as backdrops, Buchman filled the Gusman Concert Hall stage with a scheming rogue’s gallery of relatives, constantly in motion almost like a silent film comedy. In the title role, Max Moreno was a terrific visual comic with a buoyant character baritone to match. When playing Donati in a raspy voice, his rapid declamation and mock dying persona registered that he was a much better schemer than his greedy clients.  Zaray Rodriguez was the sassy, high spirited cousin Zita, her mezzo strong and assertive with a cutting edge.

Ana Collado’s lovely soprano winningly spun Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro.”  Only Mario Almonte seemed out of his element as Rinuccio, his light voice better suited to character roles. While Almonte sang Rinuccio’s paean to Florence accurately, he was often inaudible over the orchestra.

The comedic high jinks were a prelude to a splendidly conceived and deeply moving Suor Angelica. This opera is the tale of a woman from a noble family who is sent to a convent as punishment for bearing a child out of wedlock. After seven years her aunt brings news that the child had died and that Angelica must continue to atone for her sin and renounce her inheritance. Devastated, Angelica takes her life.

The opera can seem saccharine in some productions but Buchman avoided the libretto’s pitfalls. Instead of having Angelica leave during the lyrical orchestral interlude to fetch the poisonous herbs for her suicide, Buchman kept Angelica onstage, the deadly roots around her neck as if she had considered ending her agony for some time.

The opera’s ending is an enigma. Angelica prays for forgiveness, seeing a vision of the child as she dies signifying redemption. Is this a miracle or merely the nun’s wishful thinking or the poison working on her confused mind? Instead of having a child walk on stage as in many literal stagings, Buchman merely projected the outline of a baby on the backdrop, an effective conclusion that avoided hokey cliché.

As Angelica, Mia Rojas was vocally and dramatically distinguished in a role that has eluded many experienced operatic veterans. The scene between Rojas and Rodriguez as the aunt bristled with tension, Rodriguez’s vocal power matching her cold, haughty demeanor.

Rojas’ glistening lyric soprano and dark lower register turned the fervent “Senza mamma” into an agonizing soliloquy, devoid of melodramatic excess. With a free, silvery top register, Rojas’ voice gleamed in Puccini’s melodic flights and she acted the tortured young woman filled with longing to superb effect.

Individually and in chorus, the nuns were excellent, Jennifer Voigt’s light voice was a standout as the former shepherdess Sister Genovieffa.

Members of the Frost Symphony Orchestra gave outstanding readings of Puccini’s beautiful scores. Alan Johnson’s pacing was near-perfect. He highlighted the witty wind writing in Gianni Schicchi and drew shimmering string sonorities in Suor Angelica‘s moments of darkness and hope.

Frost Opera Theater repeats Gianni Schicchi and Suor Angelica 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the University of Miami Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables. Vindhya Khare plays Suor Angelica at the Saturday performance.; 305-284-2400.

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