A star soprano pulls out, but the show goes on at Miami Summer Music Festival opener

By Lawrence Budmen

Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5 was performed at the Miami Summer Music Festival Saturday night in Miami Shores.

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 was performed at the Miami Summer Music Festival Saturday night in Miami Shores.

A large audience was on hand for the opening concert of the Miami Summer Music Festival Saturday night at Barry University. Unfortunately soprano Deborah Voigt, who  was clearly the draw for many of the listeners, cancelled earlier in the day due to illness.

Faced with a difficult situation, artistic director Michael Rossi commandeered six cast members from the festival’s upcoming production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The hastily rehearsed student singers deserve high marks for exhibiting poise and professionalism in an improvised program which included five of Voigt’s eight originally scheduled selections. The concert took place in the surprisingly clear acoustic of the Broad Performing Arts Center.

Betsy Diaz inherited the toughest assignment with Voigt’s signature Wagner and Strauss repertoire. A student of Miami pedagogue Manny Perez and a recent alum of Florida Grand Opera’s young artist program, Diaz unfurled a large soprano voice with a penetrating high register. She scaled the heights of “Dich, teure Halle” from Wagner’s Tannhauser and conveyed the passion of Sieglinde’s “Du bist der Lenz”  from Die Walküre in lustrous tones, the voice clear and secure. Her version of Strauss’ “Zueignung” was more lyrical than many performances but no less impressive for its intimacy and directness. Diaz is a gifted young singer with great potential.

Among the other vocalists, Rebecca Henriques and Allison Lonstein were standouts. Recently a delightful Despina in the second cast of Florida Grand Opera’s production of Così fan tutte, Henriques had been consistently impressive in a opera productions at the UM Frost Opera Theater. She enacted the role of the shy peasant girl Zerlina in an elegantly turned “La ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni with bass-baritone Clayton Matthews. Henriques’ gorgeous timbre and patrician musicality suggest this Miami native is ready for major engagements.

Lonstein’s light soprano and sense of  Broadway style propelled “I Could Have Danced All Night” from Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady. Lonstein seemed a music theater natural, which could not be said for Megan Barrera whose rendition of Cole Porter’s “So in Love” from Kiss Me Kate was too operatic and overblown.

The male singers fared less well. Despite an attractive lyric tenor, Todd Barhill’s singing was stiff and effortful in the high tessitura of Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace.” Matthews, a former baseball player, brings vociferous delivery and commanding stage presence but uncertain intonation. His renditions of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” were undercut by jazzy slides that sometimes strayed from pitch.  Caren Levine, a vocal coach who worked with the singers, accompanied Matthews with the swing of a born stride pianist. Rossi drew strong playing from the festival orchestra in the operatic selections.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 comprised the concert’s second half. Despite a committed effort by the musicians, there was no disguising that this was a student performance. The strings were the ensemble’s consistently strongest asset, particularly the richly sonorous cellos,  but brass and winds were often overtaxed.

Under the circumstances one could not expect the inspiration of a Bernstein, Tilson Thomas or Levine in this music but Rossi’s vigorous leadership brought its own artistic dividends. Gradually he traced the outlines of the symphony’s massive arc, and the playing improved as the performance progressed.

The opening chords of the Scherzo had an edgy sense of terror, the brass climaxes blazing in impact. Rossi avoided bathos in a well-played Adagietto, the tempo flowing with a sense of forward motion. Much of the finale’s martial joy emerged and the contrapuntal writing was cleanly articulated. A supportive audience awarded the players a standing ovation.

The Miami Summer Music Festival continues with a recital by pianist Francesco Libetta featuring works by Strauss, Debussy, Beethoven, Villa-Lobos and Liszt 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Barry University’s Gato Gallery in Miami Shores. Grzegorz Novak conducts the Festival Orchestra in Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben plus soloists from the festival concerto competition 7:30 Friday at the Broad Performing Arts Center. miamisummermusicfestival.com; 800-838-3006.

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Sun Jul 12, 2015
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