By Lawrence Budmen 

A South Florida cultural tradition opened in high style on September 24 when Festival Miami 2005 presented an evening of “Gems and Baubles.” World renowned soprano (and part time Miami resident) Helen Donath joined conductor Thomas Sleeper and the University of Miami Symphony Orchestra for the commencement of the 22nd edition of the Frost School of Music’s annual multicultural extravaganza. 

Sleeper conducted a lively performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol as a curtain raiser. With its scintillating combination of trumpets and castanets, this Russian vision of Spain proved utterly irresistible. Concertmaster Domagoj Ivanovic sizzled through his rapid fire violin solos. The cello section reveled in Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral wizardry. 

The imposing soundscape of Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No.5 was an overly ambitious choice for the hard working student musicians. Too often intonation was approximate and musical precision was (in the words of Ira Gershwin) a sometime thing. Yet Sleeper brought unflagging momentum and rapt intensity to this Finnish symphonic epic. The monumental grandeur of the finale really had visceral impact.

The program’s second half belonged to Ms. Donath. With her soaring lyric soprano voice and multi-hued vocal palette, she is an American cultural treasure. Sleeper led the Entr’acte to Act III of Bizet’s Carmen (with an evocative flute solo) as a prelude to Ms. Donath’s vibrant performance of Micaela’s Aria. The audience was spellbound by her exquisite high notes and ruminative, lyrical line. Shimmering strings with rhapsodic harp obbligato dominated the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Ms. Donath offered a rapturous traversal of O mio babbino caro from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi that was pure vocal velvet. Her version Vissi d’arte from Tosca was a model of superb musicianship and fervent artistry. While Ms. Donath’s lyric soprano is light for the dramatic perorations of Puccini’s heroine, her deeply felt, passionate delivery carried the day. (In the past such lighter voiced sopranos as Licia Albanese and Dorothy Kirsten have portrayed Floria Tosca.) 

Viennese operetta has long been a Donath specialty. Her rendition of Vilja from Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow was pure vocal magic. Ms. Donath’s gorgeous legato line and ethereal soft tones were mesmerizing. (She asked the audience to join her in the choral refrain which added to the fun.) Her elegantly stated, wonderfully giddy version of I Could Have Danced All Night from Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady was like icing on the cake. It was a pleasure to hear the superb original orchestration by Robert Russell Bennett – the master arranger for such Broadway legends as Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Ms. Donath brought bluesy, idiomatic emotion to Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s immortal Over the Rainbow. Except for some glitches in the horns in the Carmen aria, Sleeper and the orchestra gave her musically subtle accompaniments.

In response to the audience’s standing ovation Ms. Donath offered Elisabeth’s greeting to the Hall of Song from Wagner’s Tannhauser. This was a vocal stretch for her finely spun vocal instrument but she sang it with tremendous passion and musical radiance. A splendid exclamation point to a delightful musical party! 

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