The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Mozart’s “Figaro” opens Madison Opera’s 50th anniversary season on a high note

November 9, 2010
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Leave it to Mozart to get the Madison Opera’s 50th anniversary season off to a great start with a big sparkling toast to the marriage of like minds, hearts and voices.

Indeed, Mozart’s music is exactly like the great champagne used in a festive toast – fine ingredients and great skill go into making it, but it goes down so easily and smoothly and leaves you feeling oh so good.

At least that is what happened at the Madison Opera’s outstanding production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”  (below) this past weekend.

I’m not the only one who thought so, apparently. Friday’s night performance sold out Overture Hall and Sunday afternoon’s performance had a 93 percent house, according to general director Allan Naplan.

And if you care to compare critics, here are two other positive reviews.

First, John W. Barker’s for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=31168&sid=33c771bbadd53e43e0a405d681db0220

And second, Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Local Sounds Magazine:

http://magazine.localsounds.org/2010/11/07/madison-opera-“figaro”-proves-marriages-work-with-commitment/

So what did I like and what did I not like?

Here’s a summary:

WHAT I LIKED

I liked conductor John DeMain’s upbeat performance of the deservedly famous Overture, which showed we were going to get a Mozart that moved and lived and wasn’t brittle.

I liked – OK, loved — the music. Who else but Mozart (below) can turn simple strings of notes into a necklace of perfectly matched pearls? Is there anything better or more moving than the Countess’ pathos-filled aria at the begging of Act 2, or the letter duet, or the Forgiveness aria at the finale at the end of Act 4? They are heart-stoppingly and otherworldly beautiful. They are, in short, perfect music.

I liked how terrific the singing was overall, although I give a slight advantage to the female leads over the male leads. All the soloists’ voices were strong and clear with fine tone and excellent articulation. The singers also seemed particularly well cast and well matched as couples -– Figaro (Jason Hardy) and Susanna (Anya Matanvic, below), and the Count Almaviva (Jeff Matsey) and Countess Alamaviva (Melody Morre). Clearly, Team Naplan-DeMain knows how to find great affordable voices and place them in the right roles.

I liked conductor DeMain’s ability to maintain an ideal balance between the soloists and the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera Chorus. The singing never seemed too loud or too weak. DeMain (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot)  once again proved the ideal accompanist or collaborator: He always took us back to the music, so you could hear the individual parts, whether they were singers or strings or woodwinds. Clarity and precision are the hallmarks of great Mozart playing, and they were present in abundance.

I liked the staging by director A. Scott Parry (below). It emphasized the comic elements with simplicity and cleverness, and didn’t overreach — very Mozartean.  His onstage playfulness reminded me of the sophisticated lustiness and class-conscious comedy of plays by Marivaux and of novels by Henry Fielding (the movie version of his classic novel “Tom Jones” with Albert Finney comes to mind). This was intelligent direction that is not overly ambitious or conspicuous, but rather sensible, restrained and subtle.

I liked the harpsichord continuo by UW alum  and composer Scott Gendel (below). It’s hard to do that non-stop. Yet at all times it was fluid and crisp, but never tedious. And it never intruded on the music.

I liked the relatively simple set (below) from the Glimmerglass Opera with all its hidden doors. It proved a good, practical setting for all the playful deception going on and reminded one of slapstick Hollywood movies. (Stan and Ollie would have been right at home.) There was a big room with a smaller room and a garden – that’s it. So the chair scene, the closet scene and the garden scene worked all the more simply, smoothly and effectively.

I liked the acting, which again seemed believably human and yet never undercut the music or became a parody of the serious side of 18th-century farce. Some go to the opera for the story; I go for the music and think that’s what the acting should serve. Here it did just that.

I liked most of the secondary characters a lot, especially the Marcellina of Melissa Parks and the Dr. Bartolo of Jeffrey Michael Gallup. They bring to mind Stanislavski’s dictum: “There are no small roles, only small actors.”

I liked that the opera was done in period costumes (from the Utah Opera) and didn’t stretch to become “relevant” is some visually modern or contemporary way. Love and jealously, loss and reunion, are always relevant. And so is beauty.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE

I hate it when this happens, and it did repeatedly: The surtitle screen goes blank, and you don’t know if it’s because of a mistake or a technical glitch, or because the lyrics are being repeated (not that that matters since if you didn’t understand the Italian the first time, why would you get it the second time?) Whenever words are coming out of the characters’ mouths, words should be up on the screen. End of sermon.

I thought Cherubino was very well sung by Emily Lorini, but her voice had a bit too much vibrato for my taste. Still, I very much liked her acting and her way of projecting the androgyny of a female singing a male character disguised as a female. Bending gender is not just a pomo (postmodern) phenomenon.

Oh, that Wolfie!


Posted in Classical music

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