Held’s Wotan towers in Wagner program at Miami Music Festival

By David Fleshler

Alan Held and Janice Watson performed xx Saturday night at the Miami Music Festival. Photo: Mitchell Zachs

Alan Held and Linda Watson performed in Act 2 of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” Saturday night at the Miami Music Festival. Photo: Mitchell Zachs

South Florida’s opera companies steer clear of Richard Wagner, whose works require huge orchestras, stentorian singers and a willingness to set aside the composer’s anti-semitism.

But the Miami Music Festival has been unafraid to perform the music of one of history’s towering composers, and on Saturday the festival presented one act each from Lohengrin and Die Walküre. Again the festival demonstrated the impressive results that could be produced by students and young professionals in challenging repertoire.

A full-sized symphony orchestra took up most of the stage at New World Center in Miami Beach, indicating the leading role the orchestra plays in Wagner’s dramas. Under conductor Michael Rossi, the student ensemble produced a real Wagner sound, dark, surging, with great warmth in strings and woodwinds.

The spidery, sinister Ring theme, the shining motif of the sword and the other musical figures used to express plot and character came off with rich colors and a strong sense of their significance in the drama. There were a few more wrong notes than you’d hear from a professional orchestra, and there were moments when more force, emphasis and shaping seemed needed, but the orchestra turned in a more than worthy performance.

The novelty of the evening–aside from the performance of any Wagner at all in South Florida–was the involvement of a direct descendent of the composer. Antoine Wagner, a visual artist from suburban Chicago and the composer’s great-great-grandson, directed and designed the staging for the second act of Die Walküre. Using video projectionsabove the stage, he created an evocative Nordic landscape of cloud-shrouded mountain peaks, forest and ruined stone buildings.

Although the cast was primarily composed of budding professionals, two veteran Wagnerian singers were brought in for leading roles, the soprano Linda Watson, who sang Brünnhilde, and the bass baritone Alan Held in the role of Wotan.

Appropriately enough for his role as ruler of the gods, Held gave a performance that towered over the rest, his mastery of the role apparent in every word and gesture. Even in soft passages, his cavernous, intimidating voice exuded power, and in his threats to Brünnhilde or fury at himself, he achieved a level of force and authority rarely heard on South Florida’s stages. Even at moments when he was speaking more than singing, his articulation of the German words exuded meaning. Just hearing him snarl the name of the evil dwarf Alberich, coming down hard on the first syllable, was worth it.

Watson displayed a similar authority as Brünnhilde, although her voice showed signs of strain, with a wide vibrato, especially on high notes. But she inhabited the role convincingly and displayed deep feeling in her solemn dialogue with Siegmund, as she tells him of his approaching death.

All the young singers in the other roles turned in strong performances. As Fricka, the mezzo-soprano Vivien Shotwell brought rich tones, deep expressivity and the power to stand up to Held’s Wotan. As Sieglinde, the soprano Helena Brown expressed her character’s agitation and desperation, while producing velvety tones and liquid, effortless high notes. The tenor Dominic Armstrong was an aggressive, heroic Siegmund, singing with deep emotion as he tells Brünnhilde he will not follow her to Valhalla. As Hunding, the bass baritone Eugene Richards, exuded brutish menace.

The vocal performances were not quite on the same level in Act 2 of Lohengrin, but the production was still a respectable one.

Of the singers, the most impressive was the soprano Amanda Zory as Ortrud. With powerful high notes and an easy legato, she gave a subtle performance of coiled evil in a role that can inspire campy exaggeration. With a glance at her weak-willed husband, she established who was in charge.

As Elsa, the soprano Megan Nielson sang with tones that were a bit too steely for what should be her ethereal opening. But as she defended Lohengrin, the music seemed to suit her voice better and she sang with deep emotion and impassioned tones. The tenor Jon Janacek lacked the vocal heft and gleam for the role of Lohengrin. As Telramund, the baritone Peter Bass sang with grim energy as he expressed his character’s humiliation. Eugene Richards was an imposing Heinrich der Vogler.

The chorus sang with depth and expressivity, although under Rossi’s direction the singers were too often covered by the orchestra. From the solemn opening in cellos and then woodwinds, the orchestra again turned in a fine performance. At moments of exaltation, expressing the pomp of the court or the joy of the impending marriage, the orchestra opened up and performed with great animation, energy and sonority.

The Miami Music Festival continues 8 p.m. Sunday with a free chamber music concert at Barry University’s Andy Gato Gallery. miamimusicfestival.com

The next opera performed in the Miami Music Festival will be Puccini’s La Rondine, performed July 26 and 28 at Barry University’s Shepard & Ruth K. Broad Performing Arts Center. miamimusicfestival.com 

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Sun Jul 15, 2018
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