Somewhere along the line, as he put together what he wanted to offer in his summer music festival in Miami, Michael Rossi hit upon a very smart idea.
That was to set up a special training environment for singers to be coached for the operas of Richard Wagner, which for their length and epic natures, require voices with stamina and color in a way unlike the music of any other composer. Last year, the Miami Music Festival offered its first concert of the Wagner Institute’s existence, featuring a memorable multi-Valkyrie performance by some of the young women in the program.
This year, the festival did that one substantially better by presenting the entire first act of Die Walküre in a semi-staged concert format at the Knight Concert Hall in the Adrienne Arsht Center in downtown Miami. Although there were other excerpts from other operas in the concert, the most notable event of the night was that Walküre act.
And that was because of its three singers, and its two men, tenor Dominic Armstrong and bass Soloman Howard in particular. Armstrong, who as Siegmund has the lion’s share of the singing in that exposition-heavy act, was simply wonderful, with a voice that had presence, thrilling coloration and endurance without being specifically a Heldentenor voice. It has more of an Italianate cast than it does the bronze quality of the heroic Wagnerian tenors of the past, but somehow that made it even better.
What we had with Armstrong, who only very briefly in the middle of the act appeared to husband his strength for a minute or two, was a more conversational, more approachable voice for this character, without in any way sounding like a Puccini lyric tenor who’d wandered onto the stage by mistake. There was something relatable about his big, radiant voice that made Siegmund more appealing than he often is. He is a singer of considerable intelligence and musicality as well; he sang all that text with real variety and sensitivity. His is an instrument of real beauty, skillfully deployed.
As Hunding, Howard unleashed a voice that is a force of nature; it is a huge, gorgeous bass to which Howard brings the standout virtue of absolute clarity. There was never any doubt as to the words he was singing, and when he told Siegmund he’d be fighting for his life the next day, he filled those lines with a power that beautifully evoked the sense of ancient tribal pride, grievously wounded.
Howard is also an impressive physical specimen, which made his appearance even more striking. Clearly a devotee of many a strenuous workout, he came across with tremendous authority and unimpeachable stature. It’s a voice that needs to be heard at much greater length than Hunding offers, but it’s exactly the kind of rock-solid sonic force that Wagner was looking for.
Soprano Elizabeth Baldwin, as Sieglinde, was somewhat overshadowed by the two men, but she sang with strength and majesty regardless. Hers is a big voice, too, one that had no difficulty trading those athletic passages of erotic promise with Armstrong, and which demonstrated that she, too, could go the distance for a full Walküre if an enterprising house wants to put one on. Baldwin has a voice of substantial weight that is smooth through all its registers, which is what Wagner singing needs to be effective over the long haul.
Rossi, an assistant conductor at the Washington National Opera, led a fine Miami Music Festival Symphony Orchestra that comprised the two student orchestras at this festival, one for orchestral performances and the other for opera. The low brasses had a somewhat rough time of it, often falling short of the precise intonation down in the depths that is vital for making the leitmotifs come across clearly, and the hornist unfortunately badly muffed the beginning of Siegfried’s horn call.
But overall, it was a thrill to hear the full first act of this opera, for the first time in Miami since a run at Florida Grand Opera in 1989. The audience at the Knight Concert Hall loudly acclaimed it, not just after the performance, but at the full curtain call at the end of the night, when Armstrong, Baldwin and Howard were brought back on.
The Walküre first act was followed by an excerpt from the end of Act III, as Brunnhilde persuades Wotan to protect her with the magic fire as she sleeps on the rock, awaiting a hero. Rossi brought in two veteran singers for this, soprano Christine Brewer and bass-baritone Alan Held.
Held, making a return appearance at the festival, was an excellent Wotan, a singer whose voice is holding up admirably well in middle age. He sang with strength and muscularity, imbuing his work with an unchallengeable authority.
Brewer’s voice was quite a bit thinner at first, though it filled out somewhat as she kept singing. Her deep knowledge of the role and of Wagner in general helped her bring a compelling sense of urgency to her interaction with Wotan, but her voice was not in stellar shape Saturday night.
The evening opened with three students from the Institute – Julia Benzinger, Rehanna Thelwell and Megan Nielson — as the three Norns in the first scene of the prelude to Götterdämmerung, the final opera in the tetralogy. The three came out in gray cloaks festooned with rope, and carried a large rope with them for the scene, which ends with it snapping, and robbing them of their eternal knowledge.
All three of these young women sang well, and each had a distinctively different voice, and not just because the registers are different. Benzinger’s deep mezzo was tonally distinct from Thelwell’s, which had real heft, and Nielson’s soprano was fresh and nimble without being lightweight. These are quality singers who handled the music deftly, and who had a good rapport on stage despite not being surrounded by a gigantic set.
Two other Wagner selections were heard after the Norns scene, starting with “Weiche, Wotan, weiche!” the earth goddess Erda’s warning about the fate of the gods from Das Rheingold. Mezzo Kristine Dandavino was persuasive in this music, with a good sepulchral cast to her large, dark voice that would suit her well in a full performance of this role.
Tenor Matthew Arnold closed out the first half with an aria from a non-Ring work, the well-known “In fernem Land,” from Act III of Lohengrin. Arnold has a very attractive tenor and in large measure he gave a good echt-Romantic reading of this aria. But he also had a couple moments of vocal trouble, and it sounded at times as though he was pushing his instrument.
A word should be said here for the six-person team that used the Knight Concert Hall for the semi-staging, including director David Carl Toulson. Costumes by Patricia Hibbert were well-thought out for minimalist purposes, and so were the sets by Yuki Izumihara and Yee Eun Nam, which made smart use of a sweep of metal prongs to suggest a tree where Nothung awaited Siegmund.
Katerina Pagsolingan deserves credit for finding such a good sword for that purpose, as well as believable armaments for Wotan and Hunding. And lighting designer Ronald Burns flooded the mezzanine behind the stage with red light as Wotan wandered through the seats, summoning Loki and the magic fire.
As was the case last year, the Wagner Institute fills an important educational function not just for the singers, but the large corps of instrumentalists who are given vital acquaintance with this crucial repertoire. And for us listeners, it remains balm to the ears to get to hear this music at length, and reacquaint ourselves with the structures Wagner originally designed for his writing, which did so much to set the stage for the artistic tumult of the coming 20th century.
The Miami Music Festival concludes with performances of two operas, Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, in its South Florida premiere, tonight and Saturday night at the Broad Performing Arts Center on the campus of Barry University in Miami Shores, and on Friday night and Sunday afternoon, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. For more information, call (305)482-3793 or visit miamimusicfestival.com.