South Florida Classical Review » » Miami Beach Classical Music Festival Ends With A Worthy “Orfeo”

“Orpheus and Eurydice.” Painting by Frederic Leighton, 1864.

The Miami Beach Classical Music Festival continued its ninth season with Claudio Monteverdi The Orfeo, played Saturday afternoon at the Faena Forum.

Created in 1607 in the Ducal Palace of Mantua, The Orfeo is the first example of the genre of opera that is currently performed regularly around the world. The plot of this five-act opera is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus who descends into the underworld, Hades, to bring back his wife, Euridice, from the dead.

Monteverdi incorporates elements of musical interludes that were popular between scenes and acts of plays in the transition from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. He masterfully assembles dramatic recitatives, strophic songs, lyrical and virtuoso airs, choral and dance numbers, and playful instrumental interludes. With great ease he weaves into the texture moments of complex polyphony, as in the duets of La Musica and La Speranza, and the canonical entries of the different choral parts.

The use of instrumentation in Monteverdi’s day was often left open to what was available and what suited the needs of the production. And so, in this way, the orchestra of the institute was a small chamber ensemble with strings, synthesized harpsichord, trumpet, English horn and harp. Conductor Sandra Lopez Neill (lecturer in vocal performance at the Frost School of Music), who also worked with the singers on their vocal preparation, led the ensemble and singers in a stylistically sound performance.

His choices of tempo, his ornamentations and his gestural articulations corresponded to the various requirements of the dramatic development of the scenario. Sometimes the cadential points of recitatives accompanied by the harpsichord were slightly rushed, not allowing the phrases to fade properly. With limited instrumental forces however, the musicians were able to achieve contrasting shades of color, especially when accompanying the pastoral scenes of Thrace versus the hellish ones of Hades.

Orfeo would prove a difficult role for any professional, and as a young singer, Russell Spence did quite well in the title role. There was enough range in her performance to oscillate emotionally between the lightheartedness of marriage or pastoral scenes versus the harrowing darkness of her journey in and out of Hades.

Even though the timbre of his voice is quite light, he captured well the essence of Orfeo’s heartbreaking plea to Caronte in “Possente Spirito”. Unfortunately, clarity of diction was lacking due to Spence’s cloudy enunciation, with overly open vowels and shallow vocal projection.

In the roles of Caronte and Plutone, bass Benjamin Elliot showed good control of moody phrases and projected assertive vocals. He managed to switch his demeanor between Caronte’s devilishly contorted moves and Pluto’s stoic stance.

Two other standout soloists were Gabrielle Haigh in Euridice and Katherine McKay in The Messenger. Haigh’s voice had a layered sweet tone with just enough vibrato for the style. Her voice floated softly in the surrounding space, while the melodic flourishes were spun with clarity and agility.

Soprano McKay was particularly captivating in the second act, as she announced that Euridice had died in her arms from the bite of a poisonous snake. She carried the weight of this news in the inflections of the lyrics, favoring suspensions to accentuate the pain these words inflicted on Orfeo.

The remaining soloists also contributed with strong performances: Brandon Flores as Apollo and Willow Macol as Prosperina both displayed rich vocals and appropriate portrayals of their characters. Diana Bodie as Ninfa collaborated well in the ensemble numbers. Allyson Clare Twohy (La Musica) and Megan Jacobs (La Speranza) had a few moments of hesitation in their duets, and their solo fragments were delivered with confidence if not always with clear diction.

The staging by Corinne Hayes, with costumes by Paulina Lozano, was to resemble an ancient Greek amphitheater where the audience is as much a part of the work as the performers. The production matched the minimal nature of the space, while the closeness to the audience in this circular setting was overall effective and engaging.

The Orfeo will be repeated Sunday at 5 p.m. with the second performance of Britten’s Dream of a summer night at 2 o’clock in the afternoon miamimusicfestival.com

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Gerald R. Schneider