The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: ‘Music By the Lake’ in Lake Geneva can be proud of this year’s production of Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’

July 27, 2010
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By John W. Barker

Today’s posting is an opera review by guest critic John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known and highly respected classical music critic who writes for Isthmus in Madison and the American Record Guide.


LAKE GENEVA, WIS. — Right in the middle of the triangle formed by the cities of Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago, sits Lake Geneva — reasonably accessible from any of the three, yet somehow beyond the orbit of each and not noted as a cultural center itself.

Yet George Williams College, a satellite campus of Aurora University in Illinois, has a tradition of presenting important concert events going back to the 1950s, under the heading of Music By the Lake, as overlooking scenic Williams Bay.

Here is a link: http://www.musicbythelake.com

These summer festivals were renewed in 2001, offering varied fare. 2002 saw the launching of annual performances of popular operas and operettas.

Initially, these were concert events. But last year Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” was given a fully staged presentation, in the original Italian. This year, it was followed by Verdi’s “La Traviata” on July 24 and 25.

The performances are given in a large covered pavilion (below), with open sides, commanding a lovely view over the bay, and amid the campus’ rich foliage. Neither the pit nor the stage is very deep, but the best is made of them.

For this Verdi production, elegant decor and sets — moveable units artfully manipulated — were rented from the University of Colorado Opera.

Artistic Director and conductor Christine Flasch (below), herself a professional singer of long-standing, is a dab hand at organizing coherent musical performances. And stage director Carin Silkaitis created action wisely fitting just what Verdi’s libretto and music portray.

The chorus of 22 members sang with admirable discipline and dramatic engagement, while the 31-member orchestra gave secure and able support.

The cast, mainly of young singers gathered from far and wide, was a vocally outstanding one. Rochelle Bard (below) is a lovely woman and a fine actress. Her soprano voice is a bit heavy, but she could handle well the juxtaposition of dramatic and lyric singing that the role of Violetta demands, and by the end she was genuinely moving.

As her lover, Alfredo, tenor Joel Burcham (well-known to Madison audiences and pictured below in a different opera) provided full-throated singing and a good characterization of an ardent provincial bumpkin.

Baritone Jacob Lassetter made Alfredo’s father, Germont, less a caricature of bourgeois stuffiness and more a figure of understandable dignity, even sympathetic. The other roles were all handled with equal effectiveness.

There were a few cuts in the score, in Act II. Dropping Germont’s cabaletta at the end Scene 1, is still common; but the excision of just the Gypsy episode in the danced divertissement in Scene 2 was difficult to understand.

Of course, the necessary evil of outdoor performances nowadays is amplification. The soloists used body mikes, and the exaggerated volume made things rather overblown — though not as harsh as sometimes happens. But the offstage carnival singers in Act III were a perfect disaster.

The use of projected surtitles in English is now standard practice, quite effective here for evening conditions, but the sunlight of the matinee performance made the titles virtually unreadable.

The operatic aspect of Music By the Lake still has some refining to do. But it is definitely here, and it is now a distinctive feature of the ever-growing cultural life of southeastern Wisconsin summers.

Where else in our broad area can one find fully staged and handsomely sung opera in the middle of summer?

Music director Flasch can justly be proud. Aurora University deserves our thanks for supporting this project, and our musical public should be aware of such valiant activity.

Have you been to Music by the Lake?

What is your opinion?

Do you recommend it?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Posted in Classical music

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