Soprano Christine Goerke thrills in a rare Wagner night in Miami

By Lawrence Budmen

Christine Goerke sang music of Wagner at a Miami Music Festival concert Saturday night at New World Center. Photo: Arielle Doneson

Christine Goerke sang music of Wagner at a Miami Music Festival concert Saturday night at New World Center. Photo: Arielle Doneson

The music of Richard Wagner is rarely heard in South Florida. It has been decades since Florida Grand Opera produced a Wagner opera and fifteen years since Palm Beach Opera’s production of Tannhäuser. There doesn’t appear to be any Wagner offerings from either of the region’s professional companies on the horizon anytime soon.

All the more credit then to Michael Rossi, artistic director of the Miami Music Festival, for organizing the festival’s Miami Wagner Institute. Dedicated to coaching and nurturing the next generation of Wagnerian singers, the institute presented a debut concert on Saturday night before a nearly full, highly enthusiastic house at the New World Center in Miami Beach. Headed by star soprano Christine Goerke and veteran vocal coach and conductor Kathleen Kelly, the project displayed some promising vocal talent at its initial public outing.

The evening got off to an unpromising start with a less-than-lustrous performance of the Suite from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier by the Miami Music Festival Symphony Orchestra. From the initial anemic oboe solo and numerous brass slips, it was all too obvious that this was a student effort. The string playing was frequently ragged as well, lacking the full, plush tone that Strauss’ score thrives on. A fine, rounded trumpet solo stood out amid the loud, lackluster playing. Rossi’s straight-laced conducting missed the schmaltz and charm of these Viennese waltzes as well.

Turning to Wagner, the orchestra’s performance improved markedly with rich playing from the lower strings and more secure brass and wind solos making their mark. Rossi proved an efficient Wagner conductor, capably supporting his singers and keeping a firm reign on orchestral balances.

Tracy Cox, an alumna of the Domingo-Coburn-Stein young artist program at Los Angeles Opera, displayed a voluminous voice and idiomatic command in “Dich, teure Halle” from Tannhäuser but her upper register was not always under firm control. Rebecca Wilson’s voice rode over the orchestral climaxes of the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde. Despite strong high notes, her timbre sounded more mezzo than soprano. (Some mezzos have sung the role.)

Rehanna Thelwell’s rich, deep contralto and striking vocal presence illuminated “Weiche, Wotan, weiche” from Das Rheingold, the initial opera of Wagner’s Ring cycle. She made the earth goddess Erda’s warning to Wotan to flee the ring’s curse come alive. Thelwell showed superb vocal control and expressive power, and is a singer to watch.

Part of the scene between Siegmund and Sieglinde from Act I of Die Walküre, the second installment of the Ring, was shared by two pair of singers. Opening with “Ein Schwert…Der Männer Sippe,” Brent Turner brought a sizable vocal instrument and real drama to Siegmund’s narrative of helplessness and redemption through love. Like many Heldentenors, however, he sounded edgy on top. Jennifer Root, a 2014 member of the Glimmerglass Festival’s young artist program, seemed slightly undersized vocally for Sieglinde’s outbursts. Despite a basically lustrous sound, her low tones were not always audible and high notes could turn to shrillness.

Matthew Opitz brought a more refined tenor to Siegmunde’s “Winterstürme,” propelling the aria’s lyrical and heroic aspects to fine effect. Elizabeth Rosenberg was wanting in “Du bist der Lenz,” her voice also too light, lacking support and the requisite radiant tone. Wagner may not be the best fit for her voice.

The evening’s second half featured the main vocal attractions, Goerke and baritone Alan Held in a semi-staging of Scenes 1 and 2 from Act III of Die Walküre.

As the evening’s star, Goerke did not disappoint. Scheduled to sing Brünnhilde in upcoming Ring cycles at the Met and Lyric Opera of Chicago, Goerke unfurled a voice that can cut like steel through the full instrumental and vocal ensemble but also project radiance and warmth. By sheer force of personality, she brought Wotan’s fearless daughter to vivid life.

Projections of a darkened sky and flashing lightning heralded the entrance of Alan Held as Wotan, dressed in black leather with a patch over one eye and carrying a spear. While his is not the most beautiful baritone, Held’s forceful declamation, fierce projection of the text and authority conveyed Wotan’s anger and rage.

Cox sounded less than comfortable as the beleaguered Sieglinde. Jillian Yemen, Stephanie Newman, Lauren Frick, Molly Burke, Rosenberg, Wilson, Thelwell and Root were the sonorous Valkyrie sisters, their surround sound from the rear and sides of the hall making the “Ride of the Valkyrie,” a widescreen experience, deftly coordinated by Rossi.

Rossi alertly maintained momentum as the musical palette changed from the excitement of the sisters’ ride and arrival to Wotan’s consternation over Brunnhilde’s attempt to save Siegmund’s life. Orchestral volume and balance were well adjusted.

Utilizing the hall’s multimedia capacities, Yee Eun Nam’s projections were often eye-filling, evoking galloping horses to reams of fire. Mark Humberger’s costumes (from Washington National Opera) mixed contemporary black workout outfits for the Valkyries to a more traditional look for Brünnhilde and Wotan. Director Dan Wallace Miller ably made the limited acting space in front of the large orchestra an asset, bringing the warrior maidens’ combat and the initial confrontation between Brunhilde and Wotan close to the audience.

One hopes that Rossi will present the remainder of the act in a future concert. The more tender scene between father and daughter, “Wotan’s Farewell” and “The Magic Fire Music” are some of Wagner’s most inspired pages and with artists of Goerke and Held’s stature, the performances should be exciting.

Vociferous cheers, yelps and applause brought a final encore from Goerke–the concluding section of Brünnhilde’s “Immolation Scene” from Götterdämmerung, the final Ring opera. Her heroic timbre and the gleam of her middle register potently projected Brünnhilde’s self immolation and destruction of the gods’ Valhalla.

As the strings played the new dawn theme, projections of running water signaled the ever present river and the eternity of nature. Goerke’s future Wagner performances promise to be highly anticipated events. Hopefully some of them will take place in Miami.

The Miami Music Festival presents Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday at Barry University in Miami Shores.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Soprano Christine Goerke thrills in a rare Wagner night in Miami”

  1. Posted Jul 17, 2016 at 5:45 pm by Arthur Perry

    WOW! I have disagreed with Budmen before but this review wins the prize! This was one of the best all around concerts I have been to! How can you actually write “Alan Held is not the most beautiful baritone”

    Have you actually heard him sing anything other than this scene when he is full of rage? I am pretty sure you have not as I heard the WNO ring, and his “Wotan’s Farewell” was one of the most beautiful moments in opera I have every experienced.

    Alan and Christine, if you ever read this, don’t get put off by this idiot. Miami has not had singing like this in decades!

    FYI, that oboe solo was gorgeous by that “student” … isn’t this a “student” festival!!!!!!!!!!!

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Sun Jul 17, 2016
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