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Opera review

Miami Beach Music Festival serves up a sparkling “Cendrillon”

Sat Jul 17, 2021 at 1:29 pm

By Lawrence Budmen

Cinderella (Victoria Tomasch) is watched by her fairy godmother La Fée (Caroline Jamsa) in Massenet’s “Cendrillon” at the Miami Beach Music Festival. Photo: Angelica Perez

[UPDATED]

For opera lovers who associate Jules Massenet with the heated romanticism of Manon or Werther, Cendrillon is like a glass of sparkling French champagne. 

The composer’s 1899 setting of the Cinderella story is an utter delight, a fairy tale set to effervescent music that hearkens back to the operas comique of Offenbach with a wit-infused wink to the Wagnerism that swept France in the nineteenth century. In recent decades, this unique creation has begun to enter the repertoire of both major and regional opera companies in North America and Europe. 

The Miami Beach Classical Music Festival’s production of this Gallic treat opened on Friday night at the Faena Forum, a venue that seemed made to order for the work’s blend of romance and fantasy.

David Carl Toulson’s production unapologetically presented the piece as a musical fairy tale. No modern-dress cable news reporters broadcasting from the prince’s palace or campy caricatures of the prince’s courtiers were allowed to intrude on Massenet’s enchanting adaptation of Perrault’s classic tale. With just a few chairs and props and the multi-hued colors of Paulina Lozano’s costumes, Toulson brought the characters to life in a briskly paced staging.

From the faux Baroque anthems of the Overture to Massenet’s sensuous love duets for  Cinderella and Prince Charming and the high-stepping finale, Aaron Breid conducted at a lively clip. He drew vigorous and well-coordinated playing from the large student ensemble and kept the tightly structured two acts moving while finely balancing vocal and orchestral forces.

Victoria Tomasch’s light, well-placed mezzo radiated the poignancy of Cinderella’s plight as servant to her arrogant stepsisters and the mean-spirited Madame de La Haltiere, her stepmother. In a stunning gold gown, she was indeed the star of the ball and her high notes were clear as a bell in Cinderella’s Act II remembrance of her dream evening.

Rachel Davies cut an elegant figure as the prince, her warm mezzo timbre initially somewhat edgy and tentative at the top but becoming more secure and strong as the opera progressed. She vocally and dramatically telegraphed the prince’s feelings of lonely emptiness at court. Tomasch and Davies’ voices soared in the love music and their reunion duo near the conclusion was replete with emotional passion.

As La Fée, the fairy godmother, Caroline Jamsa almost stole the show. The coloratura acrobatics that Massenet conceived for this role make the Mad Scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor seem like child’s play. Jamsa’s high range was pitch perfect and her gleaming vocal palette encompassed Massenet’s musical vision of magical powers. The female voices of her retinue of spirits were beautiful and evenly balanced, often singing softly from terraces around the stage area.

Julia Fertel was a haughty Madame Haltiere, her elegant attire and beefy mezzo masking her cruelty as she hurled invective at her husband Pandolfe with relish. Taewhan Kim was the hen-pecked spouse who, after being reticent for much of the opera, finally responded in kind, dismissing her with a vengeance. Kim’s smoothly produced baritone excelled in his tender scene with Cinderella, his voice melding beautifully with Tomasch.

Yingie Zhou and Maia Arumburu were the perky stepsisters Noemie and Dorothée in the best comic operatic tradition. Their trio with Fertel describing the Prince’s ball and its mysterious female star in derisive terms was one of the evening’s funniest moments. Walter Muñoz voiced the King’s commands with strength and force. As Haltiere’s servants and palace courtiers, the choral ensemble was outstanding, singing with vociferous immediacy. This Cendrillion is pure enchantment for children, young and old.

The festival appears to have found a winning venue for opera performances in the Faena Forum. Located in Miami Beach’s busy hotel and restaurant district, Rem Koolhaas’ multipurpose building has an exciting vibe and atmosphere that is appropriate for summer musical offerings. The main hall accommodates flexible stage arrangements and the acoustics are voice-friendly. Hopefully this pandemic reduced season will be the beginning of a fertile partnership between venue, artists and festival presenters.

The Miami Beach Classical Music Festival repeats Cendrillon 2 p.m. Sunday at the Faena Forum in Miami Beach.  miamimusicfestival.com

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The festival’s concluding performance of Cendrillon on Sunday afternoon introduced a new cast with the singers in the two principal roles differing in strengths and weaknesses from their opening night counterparts.

Skye Johnson’s lyric mezzo was the right voice type for Cinderella but her opening scene was vocally tentative and her top range could turn harsh. Johnson was more effective in the heroine’s narrative about her fraught flight from the ball. Running a huge emotional gamut from elation to despair, the scene allowed her to display her talents as a singing actress.
 
Johnson’s finest singing came in the duets with the Prince Charming of Rachel Moon. Noble in bearing, this exceptional young mezzo easily conquered the role’s high tessitura. Moon’s vocal production is even and bereft of strain at the highest and lowest extremes. Her mellow sound was perfect for the prince’s initial monologue of tormented loneliness. Blending to sonorous effect with Johnson in the love music, Moon provided the afternoon’s standout performance. She would be ideal for the Mozart-Strauss trouser roles.
 
Zoë Spangler was an animated La Fèe, spinning rapid, high coloratura roulades and radiating charm as the comforting fairy godmother. Chris Fistonich’s voluminous, beefy baritone commanded attention as Pandolfe. In his fatherly scene with Cinderella, Fistonich’s supple variation of dynamics brought out the besieged husband’s humane side. As his tormentor- wife Madame de La Haltiere, Annika Bell was a born comedienne in the best tradition of French farce with a husky, distinctive mezzo timbre to boot. Laura Forero and Julia Holomon were appropriately silly and awkward as the stepsisters, their voices lovely and articulation incisive. All of the opening night cast sang in the choral ensemble, lending extra heft to the choruses of servants and courtiers.
 
Despite the truncated nature of this year’s edition, the Miami Beach Music Festival, under director Michael Rossi, has grown in quality and diversity of offerings. With the new Faena Forum venue providing an inviting and festive atmosphere, one looks forward to future installments of this ambitious summer event. 

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