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This summer I will direct Cunning Little Vixen, Dead Man Walking, and Act 1 from Die Walküre.

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South Florida Classical Review: Miami Music Festival reaches the heights with a powerful “Crucible”

by Lawrence Budmen

Friday July 29, 2016

In recent seasons, operas by American composers have belatedly been getting produced on South Florida stages, thanks in large part to the University of Miami’s Frost Opera Theater and Florida Grand Opera. The Miami Music Festival took up the cause Thursday night with an impressive staging of Robert Ward’s The Crucible at Barry University.

A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1962, Ward’s opera is based on Arthur Miller’s 1953 play about the infamous witch trials of 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts. Written during the heyday of McCarthyism and the ‘Red and Pink Scares’ of the 1950′s, Miller’s play deals with a theocratic society consumed by hysteria and paranoia, seemingly immune to truth and reality. The drama remains compelling and painfully relevant today in an era of violence and hate perpetrated in the name of religious and political fanaticism.

Ward was one of the major opera composers of the 20th century. A pupil of Aaron Copland among others, he brought a strong sense of theatricality to his stage works. While Ward eschewed atonality and serialism, he forged an edgy, often astringent musical embodiment of Miller’s drama, tempered by moments of lyricism and folk tinged Americana.

(Florida Grand Opera presented The Crucible in 1974. That production was planned by interim director Lorenzo Alvary, conducted by Emerson Buckley and included three artists from the New York City Opera premiere– Chester Ludgin, Frances Bible and Joy Clements.)

The opera’s four concise acts are tightly drawn and Ward’s dramatic instincts are unerring. For example, the hymn at the end of the first act is accompanied by dissonant chords in the orchestra, an ironic comment on the fixation with witchcraft that is sweeping the community. Ward is a greatly underrated composer and his other operatic and orchestral scores deserve exploration and revival.

The festival’s production team, large student cast and orchestra rose to the occasion, serving Ward’s intense music drama well.

Anthony Zoeller was the opera’s fulcrum, a pillar of rectitude as the protagonist John Proctor. Proctor is a flawed character, a principled husband and father who has had an affair with Abigail Williams, a former employee in his home. Accused of being in league with the devil and sentenced to death, he refuses to sign a false confession to save his life.

Zoeller vividly encompassed Proctor’s contradictions, giving a dramatically stunning portrayal. His firm baritone, strongly resonant from his first appearance, gained strength throughout the opera. Real tension was palpable in his scenes with Molly Burke as his wife Elizabeth and Chelsea Seener as the treacherous Abigail.

Burke’s secure mezzo and intense declamation captured Elizabeth’s strength and heartbreak. She rose with nobility to the final scene, urging her husband to remain faithful to what is right, no matter the cost.

Seener was a real discovery. As the jealous, conflicted Abigail, her every utterance was riveting. Abigail’s Act III aria “John, I knew you would come back to me,” one of the score’s high points, soared, her high range free and velvety. She projected real desperation in her final attempt to save Proctor’s life and escape with her. Seener is a singing actress to be reckoned with, of great potential.

Corey McGee brought a bass-baritone of depth and expressiveness to the pious Reverend John Hale. He potently conveyed Hale’s gradual realization that Abigail’s accusations are fraudulent and that he has played a role in massive injustice. Morgan Middleton was a scene stealer as the slave Tituba. Her rich, deep mezzo and fine projection propelled Tituba’s narrative of her conversations with the devil. Her folk-like prison lament was poignant and powerful.

Rachel Sigman was a frightening Ann Putnam; her aria about the children’s possession by the devil was delivered at fever pitch. Daniel Noone’s piercing tenor and dramatic intensity aptly suited the unyielding Judge Danforth. Katti Jane Muschler projected the servant Mary Warren’s fear with strong theatrical instincts and a lovely lyric soprano voice.

As the condemned Rebecca Nurse, Erin Alford made every brief appearance a highlight of the evening. Her final line before Rebecca’s hanging “another judgment awaits us all” rang with conviction. Nicolas Wagner’s agile Giles Corey, Cody Arthur’s incisive Reverend Samuel Parris and Robert Nunez’s conniving Thomas Putnam rounded out the cast with vibrant cameos.

Despite the crowded Broad Auditorium pit, Bradley Moore led a surging performance that scaled both the moments of lyrical beauty and taut drama. Ward’s orchestral soundscape was finely captured, with the players strong in all sections.

Director David Carl Toulson’s updated production avoids the Puritan aesthetic of the play. Set in an unspecified era that is not quite contemporary, there was a naturalistic feeling to Toulson’s staging and Camilla Haith’s costumes that served the drama well. Toulson managed to imbue his staging with a vivid depiction of a community gripped by fear, hate and distrust. Ron Burn’s lighting, Yuki Izumihara’s sets and particularly Yee Eun Nam’s projections offered striking depictions of Proctor’s farm and fields, the stoical courtroom and the bleak gallows.

The Crucible is the finest offering to date of The Miami Music Festival. There is only one performance remaining with a partially alternate cast. Those who care about opera as a living art form should not miss this opportunity to see this gripping work.