By Jack M. Firestone

The Miami Beach Classical Music Festival presented the Florida premiere of Wagner Das Rheingold Saturday night at Temple House in Miami Beach. Photo: Mitchell Zachs

Temple House, a redeveloped synagogue on Euclid Avenue, turned Bayreuth South on Saturday night for a Wagner performance Das Rheingold. The immersive performance, presented by the Miami Beach Classical Music Festival, is likely the Florida premiere of Wagner’s opera, the opening work of his epic four-part tetralogy “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”

Michael Rossi, the ambitious founder of the festival, conductor and guiding light, has now re-enacted half a Ring cycle in Miami. (He previously presented the three acts of Die Walkure in separate performances.)

On Saturday, Rossi fulfilled his dream of finally producing the first Das Rheingold in south florida153 years after its first Munichwith young professional singers mainly from his American Wagner Project. Broadcast almost three years ago and canceled twice by Covid-19, the performance was played to sold-out crowds in a multimedia performance.

With a cast of fourteen soloists and a large orchestra, Rheingold is a colossal undertaking for any company. While the orchestra has been scaled down to fit the confines of the pitless room, the sound of the space envelops the listener in the essence of ‘surround sound’.

Rossi and his colleagues had an impressive evening, despite unnecessary acoustics which made balancing difficult and created early coordination problems. We would have liked a greater dynamic range too at times, but the orchestra largely sounded remarkable and captured the essence of the score. Rossi kept the energy flowing and the performance never dragged on, despite an inserted intermission. The young musicians are proud, especially the brass who, although they do not have access to the Wagnerian tubas, manage an imposing transversal of the score.

Das Rheingold begins the epic tale with the story of Alberich, the cunning dwarf rejected by the Rhinemaidens, who steals their gold and renounces love to gain immense fortune and power, turning his treasure into a golden ring . Wotan, king of the gods, admires his new fortress Valhalla, but must face its builders, the giant brothers Fasolt and Fafner who take his sister-in-law Freia hostage for her refusal to pay for their work. Advised by the cynical fire god Loge, Wotan steals the Rhinegold from Alberich, who curses the ring and all who possess it to death and destruction forever. Warned by Erda the earth goddess, Wotan reluctantly surrenders the ring to the giants and Alberich’s curse immediately claims its first victim when Fafner kills Fasolt. The gods enter Valhalla, while the Rhinemaidens lament the loss of their treasure.

The soloists were from the Miami Wagner Professional Institute. The singers are not students but more or less experienced young professionals, each at the start of their career. In some cases the singers have already sung Wagner, but generally their work has been in smaller roles with regional companies. Vocal preparation was done in cooperation with the American Wagner Project and coaches Delora Zajick, Luana DeVol and John Parr.

While the young singers were clearly pulling out all the stops in the performances, the meaning of the words – so important to Wagner – was often lost, and the production would have been better served with more emphasis on the sung text.

Photo: Mitchell Zachs

There were two stars in the young cast.

As Fire God Loge, Jon Janacek proved to be an enthusiastic foil between the Giants and Wotan. Her agile voice has fluidity with power to spare when needed, and her singing was a constant joy to hear.

Erda, the earth goddess who warns Wotan of impending doom, was sung by the wonderful Canadian mezzo, Jillian Yemen. A veteran of previous Wagner festivals, his voice is earthy (rightly so) and primordial expressing just the right colors.

As Wotan, Eugene Richards dramatically captured Wotan’s masterful quality. He sang with great dignity and will hopefully grow in seriousness and vocal weight in future roles. Rebecca Sacks’ Fricka would have been better served with more focused vocals and a lusher tone.

Geoffrey Di Giorgio was Alberich. He rose to the occasion with his most intense and powerful chant as the wicked dwarf cast a curse on the ring and all who wear it.

The three Rhine maidens were Melanie Spector as Woglinde, Lyndsey Swannn, Wellgunde, and Taryn Holback as Flosshilde, who we first meet frolicking in the water. Their costumes included a wing-like fabric, which they used to effectively create the illusion of their swimming.

Freia, the goddess of youth, was elegantly interpreted by Stephanie DePrez. As Donner, the God of Thunder, Hunter Enoch proved a dramatic presence, and William McCullough displayed a clarion voice as Frohe.

As giant siblings – walking on stilts and dominating their gods – Virdell Williams was a hulking Fasolt and Joe Chappell a sensitive Fafner. Character tenor Scott Wichael etched a worthy cameo as the abused Mime.

More than a dozen synchronized projectors gave a 360° view of Wagner’s Prologue or “Preliminary Night” of his tetralogy. Two large platforms with sets of stairs in plain black were the only sets in Maura Gergerich’s profitable production. The visual effects consist of exquisite projections of Josieu Jean and assistant Kacey Koploff creating the four different scenes. This performance lacked little of what we expect to see and hear in Rheingold. Director, David Toulson, kept the action moving, which was complemented by costumes by Paulina Lozan.

Prior to the performance, Mayor Dan Gelber welcomed the audience and Rossi honored the late John Pohanka with a video tribute set to music by Tannhauser. Pohanka and her family foundation served as major underwriters for the Miami Wagner Institute.

The Miami Beach Classical Music Festival continues with Bizet Carmen 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday.

Jack M. Firestone, is President and Founding Partner of Firestone Capital Management. He has served as general manager of the Albany Symphony Orchestra, Louisville Orchestra, Florida Philharmonic and PACE Concerts.

Wagnerian and opera lover since always, he remains active in Miami cultural affairs.

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