Frost Opera Theater offers an array of Britten’s stage works

By Lawrence Budmen

Alan Johnson conducted an evening of Britten's opera music Thursday night at UM's Frost Opera Theater.

Alan Johnson conducted an evening of Britten’s opera music Thursday night at UM’s Frost Opera Theater.

The University of Miami’s Frost Opera Theater celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten with “Britten and Beyond in Great Britain,” a generous sampler of the British master’s opera scores.

While the harmonic complexities of Britten’s orchestral writing cannot be totally recreated in two-piano reductions, the spare instrumentation enhanced the intimacy of the presentation Thursday night at Clarke Recital Hall. The continuous series of excerpts and scenes traced Britten’s operatic journey from the 1941 American curio Paul Bunyan to the 1960 adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Frost vocal program continues to produce some gifted young singing actors. Throughout the fast-paced evening, the singing was consistently strong, obviously the work of excellent coaching and rehearsal.

Inevitably there were some standouts. Ryan Townsend’s strong lyric tenor and theatricality dominated the Act 1 scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream in which Lysander turns from loving Hermia to Helena after being put under a magic spell. Townsend’s virile declamation was nicely matched by Laura Jarasek’s lyrical Hermia and Mia Rojas’ saucy and volatile Helena.

Hillary Trumpler, a brilliant Queen of the Night in Frost’s fine production of The Magic Flute last season, vividly conveyed the anxiety of the young Governess as she arrives at a remote estate in The Turn of the Screw. The high vocal line held no terrors for the soprano. In the piano scene from the same opera, Jennifer Voigt was a lighter, more vulnerable Governess with Mary Claire Curran a resilient housekeeper Mrs. Grose, the two soaring in duet.

Andrew York was deeply moving in Billy Budd’s final monologue as he accepts his fate before execution. York’s warm, full baritone conveyed the character’s realization of his destiny. Anthony Krupp’s rough-hewn Captain Vere proved comfortable in the wide-ranging registers of this difficult role, his diction admirable in the text’s subtle word play.

Paul Bunyan remains a strange amalgam of Britten’s mature style and the musical theater sound of Kurt Weill, set to a witty but incoherent libretto by W.H. Auden. Three excerpts found Townsend and Sam Sharkey hamming it up in the Gilbert and Sullivan patter of the cooks’ duet and Amit Chakrabarti bringing poignancy to the Inkslinger’s narrative. The “Chorus of the Defeated,” sung with rousing exuberance, suggested the irony of Weill-Brecht.

Erin McConnell’s booming bass-baritone dominated the Moot Hall scene from Britten’s 1945 masterpiece Peter Grimes, an interlude of bright merriment before the impending tragedy. Vindhya Khare was a sympathetic Ellen Orford, rising to tragic heights as she discovered the jersey of Grimes’ apprentice. Ryan Craig brought firm, resonant vocalism and emotional power to the kindly Captain Balstrode.

Three scenes from The Rape of Lucretia may have been the evening’s high point. Often considered a problematic work, some of Britten’s most tragically powerful writing winds through this 1946 parable of ancient Rome. Staged with a dramatically striking sense of continually impending doom by vocal faculty member Robynne Redmon, Chakrabarti’s strong dramatic tenor and Trumpler’s firm high voice fulfilled the Greek narrative of the Male and Female Chorus. Marissa Simmons’ deep, evenly produced mezzo and theatrical magnetism dominated the stage as the victimized noblewoman Lucretia. Emanuel Fluck was a shade too charming, his baritone almost too velvety as the evil centurion Tarquinius.

The Tytania-Bottom scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream concluded the evening, encored from the recent Festival Miami Britten tribute. Again Alissa Roca’s ethereal coloratura encompassed the vocal stratosphere with ease and Carl DuPont offered wit and firm low tones as the weaver turned donkey.

Anastasiya Naplekova and Takako Tokuda worked magic at the keyboards, playing with sensitivity, dramatic power and elegance. Frost Opera director Alan Johnson conducted with a firm hand and strong affinity for Britten’s distinctive musical voice. Once again Johnson has produced a compelling evening of music drama.

“Britten and Beyond in Great Britain” will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the University of Miami’s Clarke Recital Hall in Coral Gables. 305-284-2400;

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Fri Nov 15, 2013
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