The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: UW Opera’s Puccini one-acts excel for student singers and instrumentalists

November 4, 2010
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A correction: The workshop by the JACK Quartet at the will be TUESDAY at 2 p.m. — NOT Monday — in Room 2531 of the UW’s Mosse Humanities Building..

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

By John W. Barker

Local lovers of lyric theater might easily fall into thinking that the offerings of Madison Opera, fine as they have become, are all there is in town. But consideration should also be given to the productions of the University Opera, which have worked their way up into a level of professional quality.

That point was made this past weekend by the campus company’s latest production, a Puccini double bill, in Old Music Hall (below).

Actually, it was two-thirds of a triptych. In his later years, Puccini (below) conceived the idea of creating a set of three distinct one-act operas. It was something no other important conductor had done, and none since. He called it “It Trittico” and gave it to the Metropolitan Opera for its premiere in 1918.

The UW production chose to omit the first of the three, “Il tabrarro” (“The Cloak”) a gutsy verismo picture of love, jealousy and revenge on a Parisian canal barge in the 19th century.

The other two items, both with librettos by Giovacchino Forzano, are perfect contrasts to each other.

Suor Angelica” (“Sister Angelica”) is about a nun of noble family, sent to a convent to do penance for bearing a child out of wedlock. When finally told by her cold aunt that her child had died, she commits suicide, in the process realizing that she is thereby guilty of a mortal sin. Puccini had a sister who became a nun and abbess, from whom he gained much insight into convent life.

The other opera is Puccini’s only comedy, “Gianni Schicchi,” a knock-off from Dante about the greedy family of a newly deceased rich man, foiled by a clever trickster, the title character, who, when brought in to forge a will, turns the tables on them to his own opportunistic advantage.

Just as Puccini’s “Tosca” was a tribute to actual scenes in Rome, “Schicchi” was a hymn to the rich history and culture of pre-Renaissance Florence.

Each opera offers challenges, and some strains were evident.

Company director William Farlow (below), and stage director for both of these operas, played “Angelica” quite straight — almost too much so. There was little movement to suggest the routines of the convent, as the nuns were made to stand about statically in a semi-circle most of the time. I think Farlow went too far in having the old Principessa break down in her confrontation with her niece, Angelica.

As for the finale, when the dying Angelica has a vision of redemption, most productions follow the stage directions and present redeeming apparitions of the Virgin Mary. There is something to be said for Farlow’s decision, instead, to have the vision seen only by Angelica; but then that could have been clarified by a better lighting effect on her.

For “Schicchi,” however, Farlow went in the other direction. First, with his propensity for re-setting operas, he placed this one in the 1950s. He pulled this trick in his recent production of Handel’s “Alcina,” transferring the sorceress’ island to 1950s Hollywood, with needless references to such movies as “Sunset Boulevard” and especially “All About Eve.”

In both that case and this, the transfer served to make no point whatsoever. Indeed, here it constantly rubbed up against the libretto’s references to details of Florentine life in the year 1299, references that hung up there on the surtitles. (There was even the needless change of the notary’s two witnesses from a cobbler and a dyer to a milkman and a butcher!)

About the only justification that might be made for this irrelevant transfer could be that it saved money on costumes (not all of which, by the way, were authentic to the 1950s).

Farlow continues, however, to have the good fortune of a wonderful crop of student singers at his disposal, and for operas each of which has a large cast: 16 in the one (all women), and 15 in the other, all different singers (save in one case).

Not one of them was weak, and many were really superb. The role of Angelica was double-cast. Lindsay Sessing, whom I saw in the final of three  performances on Tuesday night, was magnificent, with a lovely, clear soprano voice and acting that make her great monologue truly moving. But I am told that Celeste Fraser, who sang the middle of the three performances on Sunday was splendid in her own way.

“Schicchi” is even more of an ensemble opera. There were occasional rough moments in group coordination. And, while Farlow worked out a lot of clever movements and comic bits, there was just a bit too much of a dip into excessive slapstick for balanced lyric comedy.

Still, the mix of good singing, well-defined characters and a lot of just plain fun, made this overall an enjoyable show. In the title role, John Arnold showed himself a born comedian, as well as a sturdy singer. Local veteran Kathleen Otterson (below) was outstanding as the domineering auntie, Zita, among the relatives.

Playing also the other auntie, the old Principessa in “Angelica,” Otterson proved that, more than ever, she has become Madison’s counterpart to Stephanie Blythe.

But the “unsung” hero of the production was surely conductor James Smith (below). He has a reputation for working miracles with student musicians, and he was able to draw out of his pit force of a mere 54 musicians (from the UW’s Symphony Orchestra) a genuinely Puccinian sonority and color.

Those who want further demonstrations of the UW School of Music’s abundant vocal talent, should try catching the Opera Workshop performances on Nov. 23 and on March 8. And the company’s spring production, of Giancarlo Menotti’s “The Consul,” is particularly something to anticipate.

Posted in Classical music

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