The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear blogs live during ‘Carmen’s 2nd intermission

November 7, 2009
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here I am again.

It’s the second intermission of “Carmen.”

By now we are two acts down with two acts to go, including the bullfighting arena (below, in a rehearsal photo by James Gill for the Madison Opera) and the smugglers’ camp.


This time, the loudest applause went the tenor for Don Jose’s “Flower Song.”

But the dancing on the tavern table and the stage business with the soldiers and then the smugglers also drew loud approval.

Is there consistently high quality throughout the roles and the various scenes and acts? Yes, and it continues in a cast that is well matched and well balanced, and in a staging that is effective, unpredictable and at times even daring.

It all makes for art that is entertaining, which is exactly what Bizet had in mind when he wrote the work as a comic opera. The lightness, so French, carries it.

Uh-oh. The chimes are ringing again.

It’s time to go.

This time it’s the final two acts, and we’ll get to see people betrayed and maybe a bull vanquished.

In fact we’ll see pretty much everyone who is important vanquished.

That’s usually how opera goes.

Life too.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: The Ear blogs live during ‘Carmen’s 1st intermission

November 7, 2009
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By Jacob Stockinger

This is The Ear again.

An hour of “Carmen” sure goes by faster than a Mahler symphony.

It’s the first intermission right now. (There will be one more in this three-hour, four-act production of Bizet’s “Carmen.”)

We have seen the colorful depiction — red and yellow hues, underscoring the desire and lust and sex — of Seville, Spain, where the opera takes place in circa 1830. The audience applauded when the curtain rose and we saw the sumptuous set rented from the Utah Opera Company.  carmen_16

We have settled into the strongly physical staging by director Candace Evans, a Madison native making her local debut, which will help carry this love story from a simmer to a full boil.

We have met the gypsy woman Carmen (given a spellbinding vocal and dramatic portrayal by mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner, seen at right dancing near Don Jose (tenor Adam Diegel) in a rehearsal photo taken by James Gill for the Madison Opera.)

We have seen how torrid and seriously flirty she is — please overlook any gypsy stereotypes for the moment — exuding strong hints of danger as other women exude an exotic, irresistible perfume.

Does working in a tobacco factory suggest her earthy appetite and sensuality, her sin and even fate? It probably did back at its premiere in 1875 and it sure does these days.

Just as hanging around with the well played soldiers and guards does.

“Love is a rebellious bird” Carmen sings in the famous “Habanera,” a musical favorite that was performed to perfection and with torchy, catchy rhythms from Goeldner and the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera Chorus under the baton of John DeMain, who earned loud applause. It’s a bona fide showstopper, that’s for sure, in an opera filled with so many familiar show-stopping arias and choruses.

Along with the flower that Carmen gives to Don Jose — Charles Baudelaire’s “flowers of evil” come immediately to mind — it’s an important moment, a justifiable musical highlight that sets the production’s tone and the listeners’ expectations.carmen_08

Tonight, you sense, both will be high, very high.

We have also met other major characters: the peasant girl Micaela (soprano Elizabeth Caballero, at right, with Don Jose in a another James Gill rehearsal photo) ), and Zuniga (baritone Harold Wilson). It is a strong, even cast that has been assembled. The singing is terrific and the acting so far seems convincing, not forced.

And the orchestra is playing sharp and tight but also lyrical, drawing lots of applause.

“They’re playing to the audience,” says John W. Barker, rightly citing the show-stopping stage business with the children in the Madison Youth Choirs.

It all looks so easy–but, as my favorite opera friend points out, it is not. Yet the whole point of virtuosity in anything is to make the difficult look easy.

In that sense, whether you look at the sets, costumes and lighting; listen to the singing and instrumental playing; or take caught up in the acting — this enjoyable production is thoroughly virtuosic.

It has juice.

But the warning chime is ringing.

Intermission is over.

It’s time to get back to the opera.

After all, when we left her, Carmen was on her way to escaping from going to prison while her co-plotter Don Jose has been arrested.

And we’ll hear the famous “Toreador Song” — sung by the bullfighter Escamillo (baritone Hyung Yun) who wants to steal away Carmen — awaits. Stealing is a unifying theme — be it goods or love.


Posted in Classical music

Classical music experiment: The Ear blogs live at Madison Opera’s ‘Carmen’

November 7, 2009
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carmen_14By Jacob Stockinger

It’s Friday night around 7.

I am sitting at a table in the lobby of the Overture Center in downtown Madison, plugged into the power strip for juice and signed on to the wi-fi for posting.

(I’m pleased that no texting or computer filing will be allowed from inside the auditorium out of respect to the performers and other audience members.)

The Ear is set to go.

It is the Madison Opera‘s sold-out opening night of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen,” one of the most popular operas ever composed. (Some tickets, $16-$112 with affordable student prices, remain for the Sunday afternoon show at 2:30 p.m. Call the Overture Center box office at 608 258-4141.)

Almost always, “Carmen” is a hit with audiences and critics. Even before you actually see and hear it, it sounds and looks enticing. Just look at two of the main characters Carmen (Katharine Goeldner) and Don Jose (Adam Diegel) who appear above in a rehearsal shot taken by James Gill for the Madison Opera.

I’ll begin blogging now, before the show starts in about an hour. Then I will blog during the two intermissions. Then sometime tomorrow I will file a finished review.

In the meantime, my hope is to give the word to others who normally don’t see their comments in print or on-line. The Madison Opera hopes that I and the half-dozen other bloggers who are participating in its first-ever Bloggers Night  will reach traditional audiences with new media and new audiences with a traditional art form.

The pre-show activities are well planned, fully in keeping with the colorful, passionate opera itself, known for its gorgeous music and its dramatically earthy and accessible Franco-Spanish sensuality that provides a different take on realism than Italian verismo opera does. Bizet

As audience members drift in, they are greeted by Madison’s Tania Tandias Flamenco Dancers, complete with colorful costumes and castanets, who are about to start clicking their heels on a mini-stage set up in the Overture lobby, which is quite resonant. A crowd gathers.

At the beginning, I should note the ironies of “Carmen.” It was given its world premiere in Paris on March 3, 1875 in Paris. But you’d never guess it was a failure, and that free tickets had to be given away to keep it from being closed.

Then, three months later to the day, the composer Georges Bizet (right), a supremely gifted musician, died at 37. He never knew how popular and successful “Carmen” would become, just three months after his death when a new production opened in Vienna. Had he lived longer, one suspects, the immensely talented Bizet, who had a great ear for tunes, might well have eclipsed other famous French composers from Rameau and Couperin to Saint-Saens, Faure, Debussy and Ravel.

That kind of history alone makes one anticipate the opera in which the intoxicatingly fragrant and melody-laden  music seems to go down so effortlessly — like sangria to the ear, a hearty Spanish red wine cut with the bittersweet and pungent  fruitiness of citrus.

Not that the opera doesn’t present difficult challenges to overcome for the singers, the orchestra players, the chorus and the production people. Ruining “Carmen” for the public can no doubt be done, but history suggests it is harder to do it with “Carmen” than with many other operas.

So why did tonight’s audience members come? And what do they think of it?

That’s the libretto for tonight’s blogs.

I hope to have them check back during intermissions. We’ll see how that plan works out.

Have you seen “Carmen” before? Then make a comparison of productions for me.

A first-timer? What are your reactions and impressions? What do you like and what don’t you like? Why?

Lucky me! I find a novitiate. He is Michael Cothroll who has come all the way from Milwaukee for his first “Carmen.”

One “Carmen” veteran, fellow critic John Barker of Madison, has already lamented to me that this opera, great as it is, has overwhelmed our appreciation of Bizet’s other music. “Too bad,” says the veteran.

The audience applauds loudly at the end of the first Flamenco song and dance. The atmosphere is ripe with Spain. The music is infectious among the audience members, some in suits and expensive dresses, others dressed much more casually.

It’s almost time to go in.

The first intermission should be around 8:50 p.m. Standard Central; the second intermission about 10.

Check back then.

I’ll be here.

Posted in Classical music

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