Young Ensemble Mines Wagnerian Nuggets In Enterprising ‘Rheingold’

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Michael Rossi conducting the Miami Beach Festival production of ‘Das Rheingold.’ (Photos by MagicalPhotos.com / Mitchell Zachs)

MIAMI — Das Rheingold arrived at Miami Beach on July 16 in an innovative production by the Miami Beach Classical Music Festival (aka Miami Music Festival), a training program for young singers and orchestral musicians founded in 2014 by Michael Rossi, a charismatic and tenacious young musician who serves as the festival’s artistic director and conductor. This is believed to be the opera’s Miami premiere.

During the eight-week session,participants get private voice lessons, master classes, movement coaching, and performance opportunities in the festival’s fully staged operas (four this summer: Das Rheingold, Carmen, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo) and in various concerts.

Rossi, it must be said, is a real modern-day impresario. As he explained in an interview, “I learned opera playing in the Washington National Opera orchestra,” where he became second trumpet at the age of 22. “With the Wagner operas, we get a lot of rests, so I was able to study the scores in detail — the pit is the best seat in the house for learning a score. Performing Wagner’s music every day and having the best singers in the world right above me, I fell madly in love with it. I met all the singers, and one day I said, ‘I want to do this!’ I came out with the Wagner program, which launched the institute [the Professional Miami Wagner Institute, ultimately became part of the Miami festival], and I was able to get benefactors to support it.” Along the way, Rossi became a conductor, studying with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, David Zinman, Robert Spano, and Kurt Masur, among others.

‘Das Rheingold’ was performed at the Temple House in Miami Beach on July 16, 2022.

Starting a new music festival without any kind of institutional support — the festival has no relationship to the New World Symphony or to Florida Grand Opera, though it has rented their facilities in past seasons — might seem wildly ambitious. And keeping it going despite challenges like the Covid pandemic (the festival was fully virtual in 2020, returning last season with some of the initial training done virtually) is something of a feat. Rossi had realized that there was a significant pool of young singers who could benefit from this kind of training and experience during the summer, and he found a supportive environment in Miami Beach.

This performance began with a welcome from the mayor, Dan Gelber, and the county has funded an extensive program for local high school students during the school season. A gifted fundraiser, Rossi has used donated income to keep costs affordable for the singers, who constitute the majority of the approximately 300 students enrolled in the summer programs. Sixty or so are orchestra musicians, and they get full scholarships, including room and board. The orchestra players range in age from 18-33, and most are in conservatory or university music programs. And while most of the singers are in that age range as well, those in the Wagner program are older, currently 30-45, looking for opportunities to learn the Wagner roles.

In previous seasons the festival has staged excerpts of Wagner operas using faculty to fill major roles, including Alan Held, Linda Watson, Christine Brewer, and Christine Goerke. A staged performance of Der fliegende Holländer in the summer of 2021 was the festival’s first complete Wagner opera, featuring Roman Ialcic in the title role and Elizabeth Baldwin as Senta. With Das Rheingold, “for the first time we don’t have a faculty performer because we were able to cast the young artists for all the roles,” Rossi said.

William McCullough as Froh, Stephanie DePrez as Freia, Hunter Enoch as Donner, Eugene Richards as Wotan, and Jon Janacek as Loge.

The nearby New World Center is currently undergoing renovations, so this summer the operas are being performed at Faena Forum, a striking new performance space designed by Rem Koolhaas. The exception is Das Rheingold, which took place at Temple House, a relatively intimate former synagogue renovated into an event space. With a high-vaulted ceiling and computer-linked projectors, this space enabled Rossi to carry out his vision of 360-degree video projections surrounding the audience in every direction, including the ceiling. A platform was built for the stage, and the 70 musicians (current players and some program alumni) were seated just in front of the audience, leaving room for only 200 guests. Not surprisingly, the single performance sold out quickly to an enthusiastic, stylishly casual audience.

The notoriously demanding Ring operas are almost never performed by student orchestras. Indeed, Rossi mentioned this as a major appeal of this program, which is highly competitive: “Where else are they going to get to play Rheingold?” And while this was clearly a serious ensemble, it would be unfair to hold them to the same standard as the orchestras of major opera companies. Rossi kept his tempi relatively slow and steady, and if there wasn’t a lot of dynamic nuance to be heard, coordination was generally good. The orchestra never overwhelmed the singers — a significant accomplishment given the sizes of some of the voices and of the orchestra. But the violins often struggled to be heard over the rest of the ensemble, and this is a work that leaves undisciplined horns cruelly exposed. That said, hearing Das Rheingold live in such an intimate space was thrilling, sometimes approximating Rossi’s own earlier experience of hearing the opera from the pit.

Jillian Yemen as Erda, Joe Chappell as Fafner, and Stephanie DePrez as Freia.

Das Rheingold is, of course, a one-act opera, but Rossi added an intermission, stopping the music awkwardly at the point where Wotan and Loge arrive at Nibelheim. As this wasn’t noted in the program, the audience was startled, initially unsure what was going on. Some failed to return.

The 14 cast members all sang their roles for the first time, and some were exceptional by any standard. Geoffrey Di Giorgio was an extraordinary Alberich, with a commanding and powerful voice. Progressing from greed and lust in the opening scene to the cruelty of Nibelheim and then to the outrage of the final scene, his acting was superb, and his curse was the vocal highlight of the evening. Watch this singer.

Eugene Richards sang Wotan with a tremulous bass-baritone, easily projecting confidence and swagger. His voice was especially strong in the middle and upper registers. He’s a work in progress but potentially headed to some of Wagner’s greatest roles. Jon Janacek was very impressive as Loge, his voice large and attractive. It’s easy to envision him singing this role on a much larger stage. Scott Wichael was likewise persuasive as Mime, his voice showing just the right balance between sympathy and caricature.

Jillian Yemen brought a rich, ringing mezzo-soprano to the role of Erda. Virdell Williams, as Fasolt, and Joe Chappell, as Fafner, were each imposing. The Rhinemaidens — Melanie Spector as Woglinde, Lyndsey Swann as Wellgunde, and Taryn Holback as Flosshilde — could sing these roles anywhere. Stephanie DePrez sang sweetly as Freia. William McCullough was a powerful Froh. Hunter Enoch was effective as Donner. Rebecca Sacks struggled with the role of Fricka.

A scene from the Miami Music Festival production of ‘Das Rheingold.’

The ingenious video design by Josieu Jean took the place of any sets. A planetarium effect worked nicely for the opening, then clouds arrived for the transition to the Rhine, surrounded by trees.

The descent to Nibelheim (a cave, of course) was especially effective due to the overhead projections, which added to the sense of downward travel. Valhalla, looming above the final scene, looked like the Disney World castle, appropriate for Florida but also for Wagner, since the Disney version was modeled after Neuschwanstein, built by King Ludwig II, Wagner’s patron. Costumes were traditional and frugal, with a Darth Vader collar for Wotan and the giants on stilts. David Toulson, the director, moved things around efficiently and elicited convincing performances from his singers.

There’s something quirky about having an audience of 200 for a one-night-only, fully staged performance of a Wagner opera with a large orchestra and professional cast. This was more of a workshop for the singers than a typical opera performance. For those fortunate enough to get seats, it was a singular event, gripping and memorable in the best Wagnerian tradition.

Joe Chappell as Fafner and Virdell Williams as Fasolt.

Like the Glimmerglass Festival, the Miami enterprise combines an intensive summer professional opera training program with opportunities for audiences. For the singers, this summer’s training and coaching staff include renowned mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, soprano Luana DeVol, and John Parr, a distinguished vocal coach who heads the music staff at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. This is an impressive new program in quality and scale.

After the welcome by the mayor, the performance was preceded by a video tribute to John Pohanka, a Wagner scholar and philanthropist who died in 2020 and whose funding has been critical to the festival. His foundation continues to be a major source of support.

While Das Rheingold was performed only once, the Miami festival continues until July 31. For tickets and information, go here.