Miami Music Festival scores with chamber operas by Purcell and Menotti

By Lawrence Budmen

Pussy ad dick in Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Medium" at Miami Music Festival.

Grace Canfield and Matthew Bishop Burn in Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Medium” at Miami Music Festival. Photo: Javier G. Herrera

The Miami Music Festival continues to fill the summer operatic void in South Florida. Now in its fifth year, the festival has produced seldom-played repertoire, spotlighting its student vocalists and orchestral players. 

On Thursday night this year’s opener was a typically ambitious double bill of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium. For once, the small orchestra pit at the Broad Performing Arts Center on the Barry University campus in Miami Shores was not overcrowded. Both operas require chamber forces and the hall’s resources proved near ideal for these intimately scaled works.

Purcell’s opera is the story of the love between the Carthaginian queen Dido and the Trojan warrior Aeneas. In this version, their union is felled by the machinations of an evil sorceress, resulting in Aeneas’ departure and Dido’s suicide.  

Some of the most eloquent music in the score falls to Dido and Jessica Moss imbued the queen’s regal phrases with expressive emotion. In her great final aria “When I am laid in earth,” Moss captured the pathos of Dido’s farewell in rounded mezzo tones.

The role of Aeneas is less fully dramatized but Matthew Bishop Burn’s matinee-idol stage persona and sonorous baritone made each of his scenes theatrically riveting. Amanda Nelson’s nimble coloratura and astute sense of Baroque style embellished the arias of Dido’s attendant Belinda (who sings some of the score’s most felicitous melodies). As her associate, Sarah Sims’ high soprano gleamed in duet with Nelson. 

Zita Bombardier-Touet’s deep mezzo and dramatic projection brought the Sorceress’s utterances to vivid life. Greta Groothius and Leah Torres as her fellow witches snarled yet charmed the ear. The Sorceress’s elf, disguised as the god Mercury, bids Aeneas to leave Carthage and Niko Murakami’s decisive declamation made this brief vignette into a scene stealer. 

Conductor Steven Gathman’s moderate pacing and the well-rehearsed, precise orchestral playing brought out the colors of Purcell’s instrumental writing. The six-member chorus was consistently strong as courtiers, a laughing chorus of evil spirits and Aeneas’ sailors. Indeed the rollicking sailors’ chorus may well have been the first sea shanty ever notated. 

In an opera that can seem dramatically stilted to modern audiences, director Jacquelyn Mouritsen’s staging was pitch perfect. From the stylized choreographic gestures for the Sorceress’s retinue to the final scene as Belinda and the court mourn over the lifeless body of the queen, Mouritsen created a series of striking stage images. At the conclusion, as Carthage goes up in flames, she had the Sorceress and her witches appear to celebrate their triumph. Designer Daniel Gelbmann’s formal columns on each side of the stage and multihued projections of the queen’s court, a forest for the hunt, Aeneas’ ship and the witches’ den were eye filling, matched by Patricia Hibbert’s cinematic costumes and the shaded tones of Stevie Agnew’s lighting.  

It was a wide leap from the Baroque formality of Purcell to Menotti’s The Medium, a one-act 1946 thriller.  The opera is a hardbitten tale of Madame Flora, a liquor-drenched phony medium who conducts fake séances with the dead and makes a living off of parents of departed love ones who are only too willing to believe that they have seen and heard their dead children. She is aided in these bogus dramatizations by her kind-hearted daughter Monica and the helpless mute Toby who Flora continually abuses, verbally, physically and psychologically. Menotti was a master musical dramatist and, from the first crashing chords, he paints this lurid story in strains alternately shocking and lyrical.

The role of Baba, the faux Madame Flora, is a musico-dramatic tour de force. (Marie Powers, the role’s originator, literally made a whole career out of it.) From her first ominous lines, Celina Cox was scary and crazed. She tore up the stage with the scenery-chewing fury of a Bette Davis. Her final drunken mad scene was chilling as she killed Toby, thinking he was an intruder, and proclaimed “I killed the ghost” with an unhinged laugh. She bathed Baba’s ranting and moments of lucidity in a rich mezzo that easily encompassed the role’s high and low extremes.

As Monica, Grace Canfield’s opulent lyric soprano took wing in the long spun melodic phrases of “The Black Swan” and “Monica’s Waltz.” Her empathy with the silent Toby of Matthew Bishop Burn was palpable. By gestures alone, Burn painted a compassionate portrait of the young man’s desperate plight. 

In their cameos as Madame Flora’s fleeced clients, June Napoli, Kristina Brost and Justin Colón created compassionate portrayals of individuals blinded by love and unworthy trust. Brost was particularly impressive in Mrs. Gobineau’s narrative of her young son’s drowning which was beautifully vocalized without overt histrionics. 

Conductor Gathman struck the right balance between taut drama and dark lyricism, keeping a well delineated balance between singers and orchestra. 

Mouritsen staged Menotti’s shocker though the moody lens of a film noir, keeping the drama moving at tight pace. Agnew’s eerie lighting for the séance and Gelbmann’s squalid set for Baba’s dilapidated home added atmosphere to Menotti’s tonal colors.

These two operas are unlikely to be seen in South Florida again anytime soon. There is one remaining performance tonight with some changes in the cast.

The Miami Music Festival repeats Dido and Aeneas and The Medium 7:30 p.m. Friday at Barry University in Miami Shores.



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Fri Jun 22, 2018
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