Frost Opera Theater presents an evening of supernatural opera scenes

By Lawrence Budmen

Alan Johnson conducted and directed Frost Opera Theater students in “Supernatural Scenes” Thursday night at UM’s Clarke Recital Hall.

The University of Miami Frost School of Music’s once-moribund opera program has been revitalized in recent years. Since the appointment of Alan Johnson as director of  Frost Opera Theater, a series of inventive productions of twentieth-century operas and Mozart classics have enlivened Miami’s staid operatic diet. Last year an imaginative pastiche of scenes from operas based on the Orpheus legend offered a riveting evening of music theater. Johnson has followed up that outstanding effort with a program of “Supernatural Scenes” but Thursday night’s presentation by Frost students proved less cohesive and polished.

The intimately scaled production in the university’s Clarke Recital Hall marks Johnson’s debut as stage director.  Aided by Sherri Tan’s eye-popping unit set that combines scenes of a forest, church and drawing room from six excerpted operas, Johnson utilizes the venue’s limited stage space adroitly. Eschewing the stilted clichés of traditional opera production, the singers enact the scenes of demonic seduction, murder and madness with the naturalistic fervor of theater and cinema. Through a scrim, the characters from the various excerpts act as a sometimes masked Greek chorus.

The ninety-minute show gets off to a weak start with the scene in the woods from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. Alissa Roca, a substitute Gretel, has an attractive light soprano but her top turned harsh and edgy under pressure and Charlotte Urshela offered a wobbly and cartoonish Sandman. Katherine Wiggins’ honeyed mezzo and expressive musicality complemented the boyish physicality of her Hansel. The reduction of Humperdinck’s Wagner-sized orchestration to two pianos and flute robbed the music of richness and warmth.

That same instrumentation was perfect, however, for Ravel’s enchanting score for L’Enfant et les Sortileges, the dance rhythms of the Teapot and Chinese cup played with the energy of a Piazzolla tango. Punishing the child of the opera’s title for his naughtiness, Hillary Trumpler’s Fire was scary with darting coloratura flights to match.

The dated Germanic romanticism of Heinrich Marschner’s  Der Vampyr sounded like second-rate Weber but provided a splendid showcase for Jeffrey Williams’ deep, manly baritone and theatrical charisma as the murderous protagonist.  Raquel Rubi brought movie-star glamour and a strong lyric soprano to Emmy, his victim.

Rebecca Henriques’ richly colored soprano and sure dramatic sense dominated two excerpts from Gounod’s Faust, including the usually omitted Marguerite-Siebel scene with Wiggins vocally and dramatically outstanding in the trouser role. In the church scene, Claudio Valverdi’s Mephistopheles tormented Henriques’ poignant heroine in deep, black tones.

Justin Moniz’s refined lyric tenor and superb acting conveyed the madness of Tom Rakewell in the final scene of Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress. Barbee Monk’s attractive vocalism adorned the hapless Anne Trulove as she tried to comfort Rakewell’s deluded assumption of Adonis, the scene touching in Johnson’s vivid staging.

The final encounter between Don Giovanni and the stone statue of the Commendatore from Mozart’s opera was an unsatisfying conclusion to the evening, too brief to make an impact out of context. With the libertine guzzling wine from a bottle and contemporary dress, the scene suggested Peter Sellars’ Harlem version. Carl Dupont’s warm baritone and commanding stage presence was under-utilized in the few lines of the Don and Rakewell’s Gatekeeper.

Despite the small instrumentation, Johnson brought a sure sense of pulse and theatrical savvy to the myriad musical styles, providing momentum from the podium.

The Frost Opera Theater repeats “Supernatural Scenes on Stage” 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the University of Miami’s Clarke Recital Hall. Admission is free but tickets are required. 305-284-4940;

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Fri Nov 16, 2012
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