MMF’s admirable “Armide” brings French Baroque opera to Miami

By Lawrence Budmen

Gabrielle Timofeeva Lopéz and Cody Arthur (center) as Armide and Renaud in Jean-Baptiste Lully’s “Armide,” presented by the Miami Music Festival. Photo: Angelica Perez

If Italian Baroque opera is a rarity in South Florida, the music theater of the French Baroque has virtually never been seen on a local stage. 

The enterprising Miami Music Festival remedied that neglect Saturday afternoon with a scaled-down version of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide at the Miami Beach Woman’s Club.

Lully  (1632-1687) was  court composer to the Sun King Louis XIV at the palace of Versailles. His final completed opera, Armide was composed in 1686. (The tale of the mortal rivalry and romantic attachment between the sorceress Armide  and a knight of the Crusades has also been given operatic treatment  by Handel, Haydn, Rossini and Dvorak.) 

Lully’s operas were impressive spectacles with large choral scenes and many ballet sequences. Director Robert Dundas’ pint-sized version could not begin to reproduce that grandeur in the limited space of the club’s main room. 

Still, the intimacy of the venue and its acoustical clarity offered a fine platform for the cast of young, mostly student singers. With the seven-piece instrumental ensemble on the main platform, Dundas effectively utilized almost the entire length and width of the room, with the audience surrounding the performers. 

Gabrielle Timofeeva Lopéz and Cody Arthur were exceptionally gifted singing actors in the pivotal roles of Armide and Renaud. Their love scenes generated heat and allure and their contrasting vocal palettes melded in duet to enchanting effect. Lopéz’s sizable voice combines penetrating top notes with a richly colored mid-range. In recitative, her declamation cuts through with power and astringency. Lopéz was most compelling in the final scene. As she pled with Renaud not to abandon her, the amber beauty of her voice came into full focus. In the concluding recitative and aria, hate, despair and rage were vividly conveyed in grandly tragic terms.

Arthur brought noble presence to Renaud and he could shape Lully’s long melodies with an aristocratic line. His lyric tenor was deployed with sweetness and subtle dynamics in solo moments. Arthur displayed deft timing in Renaud’s scene with two fellow knights sent to rescue him. His final farewell brought a touch of the heroic to his light sound.

Among the large supporting cast, Yingjie Zhou and Alyssa Barnes were standouts as  Phénice and Sidonie, Armide’s confidantes. In duo their voices floated winningly, their intonation especially well focused. 

After some initial tremulousness, Sophie Caplin and Conor Murphy White coped skillfully with the high soprano range of Glory and Wisdom’s solos in the Prologue. Lauren DeLucia was striking in a long black and red cape as La Haine (Hate). The depth of her low tones and fierce declamatory power made her failed attempt to make the heroine forget love and return to battle a highlight of the performance. 

As multiple knights, Liam Shannon’s strong baritone was impressive, making the most of brief appearances. Luisa Hidalgo as the Danish Knight proved an energetic force. After defeating the furies’ attempts to cast a spell on Shannon as Ulbade, she gave a very contemporary sign of victory (as if at a sports event). Although Hidalgo’s basic sound was bright and attractive, her high register was not always under control. Stephanie Chee, Olivia Knutsen, Rachel Silverstein, Elizabeth Bowersox and Yu Pan offered worthy, well schooled vocalism in minor roles.

The sorceress Armide’s demons (with painted faces) strode the space in slinky movements. Dundas staged the scenes between Armide and the crusader Renaud with immediacy and a strong sense of tension. From Armide’s cohorts casting a spell on the warrior to his resolute determination to leave, there was a persistent suggestion of one-upmanship as war, faith and romance seemed to constantly change focus. While the more spectacular elements of Lully’s vision were jettisoned, costume coordinator Rachel Silverstein filled the scenes with multicolored outfits that fit Dundas’ clever staging.

Lully’s score abounds in lilting melodies and conductor Mary Kauffman brought delightful rhythmic lift to the choral and instrumental writing. The crisp articulation of the overture set the pace for a well-coordinated ensemble effort. Kauffman also accompanied the recitatives adroitly on an electric keyboard with Zachary Foster’s cello providing excellent continuo support.

 The vigorous choral singing was astutely balanced and distinguished by finely gauged unanimity of attack. An a capella female demon’s chorus was one of the production’s charming surprises.

The Miami Music Festival deserves plaudits for its dedication to staging works from the Baroque era. One hopes future seasons will bring more elaborate, mainstage productions of these important early operas. 

Armide will be repeated 6 p.m. Sunday at the Miami Beach Woman’s Club, 2401 Pine Tree Drive in Miami Beach. Lauren DeLucia plays Armide.   miamimusicfestival.com

Posted in Performances


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Sun Jul 28, 2019
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