Miami Music Festival artists make a strong case for Puccini’s “La Rondine”

By Lawrence Budmen

Kathryn Grumley and JeongMin Huh in Puccini's '"La Rondine" Thursday night at the Miami Music Festival.

Kathryn Grumley and JeongMin Huh in Puccini’s ‘”La Rondine” Thursday night at the Miami Music Festival. Photo: Angelica Perez

Giacomo Puccini’s La Rondine has never achieved the repertoire status of  his major crowd pleasers La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, Tosca or Turandot. The 1917 work is definitely not a masterpiece. It was originally conceived as a Franz Lehar-style operetta and certain elements of that genre remain in the second act. Still, second-tier Puccini is superior to the work of most other Italian composers in the post-Verdi era.  

On Thursday night the adventurous Miami Music Festival opened a two-performance run of La Rondine in a skillful production of this lyric rarity at Barry University in Miami Shores. There is much lovely music in this fragile tale of a kept woman finding real love, only to reject it to protect her lover’s honor. 

A consistently strong first-night cast of the MMF presentation made a strong case for this work. The conflicted heroine Magda gets the opera’s best arias and Kathryn Grumley had the hall-filling spinto voice to float Puccini’s phrases with ardor as well as subtlety. “Che il bel sogno di Doretta” was spun as one long melodic reverie and “Ore dolci e divine” (Magda’s recollection of her first romance) was sung with just the right touch of lilting enchantment. 

Dramatically, Grumley dominated the stage, owning every scene from the rise of the curtain. She impressively rose to Magda’s rejection of the infatuated Ruggero with full, rich tones and power at the top range. This gifted soprano, who has sung secondary parts with regional companies, clearly has the vocal and dramatic goods to handle leading roles.

As Ruggero, JeongMin Huh was no less a discovery. His robust tenor combines a baritonal lower register with high notes that have real ping. In the heartbreaking final act, Huh brought supple phrasing to Ruggero’s declaration of love and dreams of familial happiness. Grumley and Huh’s voices were finely balanced in duets. 

The opera’s secondary couple show the score’s genesis as an operetta. Magda’s maid Lisette and the poet Prunier are mismatched lovers who constantly quarrel but cannot let go of each other, providing some comedic contrast to the ill-fated romance of the protagonists.  

Samantha Lax was a coquettish Lisette with a winning soubrette voice and scene-stealing charm. Robert Reynolds Turnage, a faculty member at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, artfully deployed his light tenor as the high-minded Prunier. The second act quartet, was perfectly blended, producing a moment of true operatic magic.

Matthew Bishop Burn projected stiff, upper- crust snobbery as Rambaldo, Magda’s keeper. He made the most of the role’s limited opportunities with a warm, firm baritone. As Rambaldo’s companions, Cristina Gallo, Alexis Aimé and Lindsey Greene had the bright timbres and saucy theatrics for colorful background cameos. David Sauer and William Casper brought strong vocalism and rough-hewn characterizations to two students at the nightclub. Margaret Ann Zentner was a standout in multiple roles.

The student orchestra played with precision and potent sonority under Andrew Altenbach’s direction. Altenbach captured the score’s emotional turmoil and moments of light-hearted charm while keeping momentum during the less-inspired moments.

Corine Hayes’ staging flowed wonderfully with the characters and venues well delineated. She utilized the Broad Auditorium’s aisles and exits, expanding the limited stage space to dramatic effect.

From the art-bedecked salon of the opening act to the bawdy Parisian night spot and the projection of the sea on the Riviera as backdrop to the inn of the final act, Alyiece Moretto-Watkins’ sets and Josieu Jean’s projections were rich and eye-filling. Patricia Hibbert’s multihued array of costumes for the second act nightclub scene (lit in smoky tones by Becky and Herman Montero) provided one of the most wonderfully gaudy and colorful stage displays seen locally in many a season.

There is one remaining performance with an alternate cast of this infrequently performed Puccini work. Opera aficionados should not miss the opportunity to catch this fine, opulent production.

The Miami Music Festival repeats La Rondine 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Barry University in Miami Shores. Xueyan Fan sings Magda and David Sauer is Ruggero.

MMF presents The Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

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Fri Jul 27, 2018
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