Soloists take flight in Palm Beach Opera’s Beethoven Ninth

By David Fleshler

It was unusual enough for the Palm Beach Opera to open its season with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony rather than, say, Carmen or La Traviata. But at a straitened economic time when opera companies across the country are trimming back their seasons, Palm Beach Opera is not immune. The company is offering three productions this year instead of the usual four, with this weekend’s pair of Beethoven concerts a cost-effective alternative to a full-scale opera staging.

Yet the performance Friday night was striking in another respect: This was truly an opera company’s Beethoven, one in which the most effort and attention went into the singing.

The company spent some money to bring in four first-class soloists, a list headed by the well-known soprano Ruth Ann Swenson, a regular in leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera, but also including the formidable bass Morris Robinson, whose sonorous voice provided some of the greatest moments of the evening.

The opera company’s fine orchestra, under its excellent artistic director Bruno Aprea, has long been one of the dependable highlights of its productions. For this performance the orchestra was augmented with extra players, resulting in a gain of tonal weight but a loss of precision, particularly in the violins. There were some botched horn passages. And from a strictly symphonic perspective, this was a highly uneven performance. There was a lack of bite and intensity in much of the first and second movements, although the slow movement flowed with an easy lyricism.

It was in the fourth movement that the performance hit its stride. From the quiet statement of the Ode to Joy melody in cellos and basses, Aprea led a long, masterful crescendo into the joyous, full-throttle playing of the theme.

Morris Robinson

When Morris Robinson, a massive physical presence who had been an All-American football lineman in college, rose to his feet and declaimed with stunning power, O Freunde, nicht diese Tone, the moment provided the jarring halt Beethoven intended. Morris continued with a voice that was deep and rich, yet with a brilliant gleam not often heard in the bass, with his sharp pronunciation of the German consonants giving fire to the words.

Tenor Clifton Forbis, who has tackled such demanding roles as Otello and Tristan, joined in with a sharply articulated voice that never lost vocal beauty. Swenson and mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens had less chance to shine individually, but the unforced power and lyricism of their voices easily carried over the orchestra and chorus, with Swenson’s high notes soaring effortlessly over the massed forces on stage.

The chorus, prepared by chorus master Greg Ritchey, was a powerful ensemble consisting of the combined forces of the Palm Beach Opera Chorus, Palm Beach Atlantic University Oratorio Chorus, Masterworks Chorus of the Palm Beaches and The Robert Sharon Chorale.

After repeating the Beethoven symphony 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center, Palm Beach Opera will continue its season with more conventional fare, Otello, Don Giovanni and Carmen. With its emphasis on first-rate vocal work, Friday’s performance was a promising start to the season.; 561-832-7469

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Sat Dec 12, 2009
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