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Streaming review

Artistry of Frost Opera Theater singers comes across in “Masquerade 2021”

Sat Mar 06, 2021 at 1:22 pm

By Lawrence Budmen

Frost Opera Theater singers perform Paul Hindemith’s Hin und Zurück (There and Back) in “Masquerade 2021.” Photo: Jenny Abreu

Finding ways to perform opera and vocal music in the current pandemic situation can be challenging but the University of Miami’s Frost Opera Theater offered a creative solution with” Masquerade 2021,” a program of five short operas livestreamed from UM Gusman Concert Hall on Friday night. 

The varied menu of musical theater was produced and staged with imagination and flair. Singers wore both face masks and theatrical masks yet, surprisingly, the masks did not seem to impede their vocal projection.

Les Malheurs d’Orphée (The Sorrows of Orpheus) by Darius Milhaud was the evening’s opener and most substantial offering. Milhaud was a prolific composer whose catalogue numbered more than 400 works. His three-act, 35-minute setting of the Orpheus legend, which premiered in 1926, mixes neo-classicism with French chanson and suggestions of contemporary popular culture typical of the fusion composer group Les Six (of which Milhaud was a member).

Armand Lunel’s libretto presents Orpheus as a healer of animals rather than a musician with a lyre. He has fallen in love with Eurydice, a gypsy who has run away from her angry family to be with her beloved. The couple seek refuge in the mountains where they are protected by the animals Orpheus has tended. He finds himself powerless, however, to help Eurydice when she succumbs to a mysterious illness.  Orpheus is visited by three of her sisters who have come to avenge her death.  Longing to join her in another world, he allows them to kill him. As Orpheus dies, the sisters are heard saying, “He loved her.”

Milhaud’s score matches the scenario with music that mixes bucolic and tragic arias. Jeffrey Buchman’s superb staging placed Orpheus on a platform around which the action revolved. Eurydice’s gypsy family was present throughout in the background as observers. The final tableau, as the sisters extended a rope around the protagonist was stunning.

Nicholas Skotzko was outstanding as Orpheus. His mellifluous baritone etched the joy of love and despair at Eurydice’s death in potent vocal colors. Ashley Shalna’s flowing high register and Gallic grace of line painted Eurydice in emotional extremes. She conveyed the delicacy of a dancer as she circled Orpheus in the opening scene. The soprano’s farewell to Orpheus and the animals carried dramatic punch. 

Jiarui Yao, Abby Guido, Timothy Oliver and Thandolwethu Mamba were vocally characterful as the animals. Their finely balanced ensemble was especially impressive in the animals’ funeral cortege for Eurydice, one of the score’s most beautiful moments. Kevin Gwinn, Stefan Biller and Mamba sang with robust earnestness as workers who are friends of Orpheus. Olivia Rich, Nicole Plummer and Alexandra Colaizzi were scary and vocally fierce as the sisters. Alan Johnson’s pitch-perfect conducting brought out the vigor, pastel shading and ruminative darkness of the score’s changing aura, with first rate playing by members of the Frost Symphony Orchestra.

If the Milhaud opera was the meatiest presentation of the evening, the other four mini-operas were far from negligible. (Excerpts from The Four Note Opera by early minimalist composer Tom Johnson, presented outside of the hall during the two intermissions, was not part of the video stream.) 

Hin und Zurück (There and Back), a sketch with music by Paul Hindemith dates from the late 1920’s when Hindemith was one of the bad boys of German music. In a compressed ten minutes, the opera relates the tale of a husband coming home to greet his wife with flowers. He finds a letter from her lovers, flies into a rage, shoots her, and—saying “all desire for living has left me”—commits suicide. Then the action (and some of the music) is played backwards to achieve a happy ending. Hindemith’s music is brash and jazzy, reflecting the transatlantic cultural currents of the era.

As the wife Helene, Chloe Fuoco’s coloratura high jinks were appropriately flighty. Kevin Gwinn’s virile tenor depicted the husband Robert’s jealousy and remorse with emphatic boldness. Mamba and Skotzko were the mock solemn doctor and orderly. With the instrumental ensemble moved from the pit to the rear of the stage, Johnson conducted an energetic traversal while astutely balancing vocal and instrumental components. Buchman’s cinematic direction was gripping.

Leanna Kirchoff called her two-character vignette Scrapbookers a “micro-operetta.” A simple tale of two sisters getting together to put together a scrapbook for their parents’ wedding anniversary, Kirchoff’s unpretentious vocal writing suggests both the rapid energy of minimalism and Americana nostalgia. As Carol, the scrapbook pro, Mia Flora’s light soprano flowed in prime operetta fashion. Emily Finke as the reluctant Nicole brought a rich color palette to a remembrance of Christmas past. Pianist Olga Konovalova was alternately elegant and propulsive in the rapid-fire keyboard writing.

Opera 101, an “opera spuffa” by the late UM Frost School of Music faculty member Dennis Kam (1942-2018) is a clever sendup of operatic conventions. First performed by the Frost Opera Theater in 2009 in a program of mini-operas, the spoof is great entertainment. Sporting a blonde Marilyn Monroe wig and look, Molly Blumenfeld was musically agile and hilarious, singing “This is an aria.” Jessica Bass, Biller and Oliver contributed strong articulation and comedic sparkle in their takeoffs on mock operatic drama.

Samuel Barber’s A Hand of Bridge is a mini masterpiece of the 20th century opera repertoire. The libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti of this 1959 opus reveals the fantasies and sadness of four friends as they play their nightly bridge game. Barber’s trademark edgy romanticism encompasses the turmoil beneath the characters’ happy and friendly veneer. The nine-minute confection was part of the “Menotti Remixed” streaming program of music videos conceived by the singers that Frost Opera presented last fall.

Now fully staged by Buchman, the pathos of this music-theater cameo came through with impact. Emily Finke’s full-throated outburst underscored Geraldine’s unhappiness in marriage. Leah Torres caught Sally’s nervousness in firm tonal shadings. Bill’s musings on his mistress were admirably delivered by Christopher Alfonso with just the right light touch. Skotzko’s impressive baritone shone in David’s daydream of being a dandy in Palm Beach.

Camilla Haith’s costumes and Jeff Semerling’s masks filled the stage and screen with color. Stevie Agnew’s lighting provided the perfect temperature and mood for each work. All praise to Johnson and Buchman for devising an innovative way to produce an interesting and stimulating trip through the byways of 20th- and 21st-century opera.

The Frost Opera Theater repeats “Masquerade 2021” 7:30 pm. Saturday. Fox Fables by Peter Winkler replaces the Milhaud work.  Streaming on Youtube at youtu.be/Hgcqb9cAtuc

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