Frost Opera Theater takes a delightful trip to Paris

By Lawrence Budmen

Jeffrey Buchman directed the performances of Frost Opera Theater's "Lully to Debussy" Friday night at Clarke Recital Hall.

Jeffrey Buchman directed the performances of Frost Opera Theater’s “Lully to Debussy” Friday night at Clarke Recital Hall.

French opera is this season’s major focus of the enterprising Frost Opera Theater. A production of Massenet’s Cendrillon is planned for April.

On Friday night “Lully to Debussy,” a ninety-minute program of excerpts from two hundred years of Gallic lyric drama opened a two-performance run at the Clarke Recital Hall on the University of Miami campus in Coral Gables. While such thrice-familiar scores as Carmen, Faust and Tales of Hoffman were represented, the musical Cliff Notes survey also traversed rarities from the Baroque and romantic eras.

The towering figure of Jean-Baptiste Lully was central to Jeffrey Buchman’s clever staging. As played by Stephen Pitters, the elegantly costumed composer and driving force behind extravagant operatic spectacles at the court of the Sun King Louis XIV, appeared sporadically throughout the production, seemingly oblivious to the performing artists but clearly a major historical influence on the music they were singing. Lully began and ended the production by tapping his walking stick three times in period fashion. Buchman’s production utilized every inch of available space in the intimate theater including the hall’s side isles and rear and spotlighted some highly promising vocal talent in the enthusiastic student cast.

The program opened, appropriately, with an aristocratic aria from Lully’s operatic treatment of Moliere’s La Bourgeois Gentilhomme, winningly spun by soprano Cathryn Lovett. Danting Xia sang the page Stephano’s “Que fais-blanche tourterelle” from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette with style and flair in darkly vibrant mezzo tones. Lindsey Coppens brought real passion and emotional power to Siebel’s aria from Faust.

While the mezzo contingent was indeed strong, the sopranos were not to be outdone. Stunningly bedecked in a black gown, Leslie Zapiain concluded the evening with a rapturous “L’anné en vain chasse l’année” from Debussy’s scène lyrique L’Enfant Prodigue. Zapiain’s rich instrument and superb control were nothing short of stunning. The mock heroics of La Folie in Baroque master Jean-Phillipe Rameau’s Platée were voiced in grande diva fashion by Laura Modglin, her wide range encompassing everything from mezzo lows to fizzy high coloratura. Mia Tamburrino’s more edgy sound was suggestive of Antonia’s illness in the ill fated singer’s aria from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann.

Andrés Lasaga deserves a special award for sheer theatrical aplomb beyond the call of duty for singing an aria from Platée while being wrapped in cellophane, representing the title nymph’s lake. His well-schooled lyric tenor encompassed the trills and roulades adroitly. Coburn Jones’ baritone had plenty of resonant heft for Hamlet’s rousing drinking song from Ambrose Thomas’ operatic version of the Shakespeare play but he also vividly suggested the Danish prince’s madness. Cameron Sledjeski conveyed lightness and spirit for Lescaut’s Cour-la-Reine ditty from Massenet’s Manon.

Among ensembles and duos, a beautifully sung Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Hoffmann was assayed from opposite sides of the hall by Julia Chen Myers and Amanda Arguello while the stage was filled with partying Venetians. Emily Ennis and Emmalouise St. Amand’s timbres nicely blended for the Flower Duet from Delibes’ Lakme with the stage strewn with flowers which were collected by the singers as the program proceeded.

Maya Davis had the firm and resonant mezzo for Bizet’s Carmen but the drama was low voltage as the gypsy foresees her pending death in the card scene. Elle Knowlton and Melissa Martinez were her able cohorts. There was  real charm in the trio from André Grétry’s  Zémire et Azor through the well-matched voices of Jennifer Thompson, Sophia Formella and Madison Dougherty.

Music director Alan Johnson splendidly conducted, bringing out the divergent lightness and drama of the excerpts in the pit. Nura Carrasco designed Lully’s elaborate, eye-popping costume with Emily Malin’s period wig. All of the singers were both tastefully and appropriately costumed, mixing period styles with contemporary hipness.

There is one remaining performance of this appealing compilation. Admission is free, which makes this French-tinged showcase a holiday musical gift indeed.

The Frost Opera Theater repeats “Lully to Debussy” 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the UM Clarke Recital Hall in Coral Gables. The Frost Opera Theater presents Massenet’s Cendrillon with the Frost Symphony Orchestra 7:30 p.m. April 12 and 14, 2018 at UM Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables.


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Sat Dec 16, 2017
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