The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Candid Concert Opera delivers the music without the staging – and does so wonderfully

May 13, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) 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. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

For years, the students in Wisconsin schools have been introduced to the delights of lyric theater by Opera for the Young.

But now we have Opera for the Grown-ups, in the form of Candid Concert Opera, which is free or  donation-only.

For more information, visit:

Organized by the versatile Rumanian-born pianist, conductor, and composer, Codrut Birsan (below top), CCO has been functioning since 2009, offering unstaged concert performances of operas in retirement and church venues, as relaxed but high-quality samplings of the literature.  They have done concert productions of Mozart’s “Così fan tutte,” Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore” and Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus” (below bottom).

Now, in this twilight zone between the end of the regular season and the launching of the summer season, the group has gone back to Donizetti, for his delightful “Don Pasquale.”

This current production still has two of four performances remaining. On Wednesday, it played at Capitol Lakes Retirement Center and on Thursday at Oakwood Village West.

Tonight at 7 p.m. it will perform at First United Methodist Church; and on Saturday, at 4 p.m. at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.

I am ashamed to say I have missed attending the group’s earlier productions, but I was certainly delighted to catch up with CCO this time. I was allowed to attend a rehearsal (below), and I persuaded my wife to join me for the Wednesday evening performance, which she loved as much as I did.

In the past, the presentations have been with piano accompaniment by Birsan (below), and even with a chorus. This time there is no chorus, but a group of four string players plus piano allow Birsan to stand forth and conduct.

There is, of course, some compression. The overture, and two choral numbers are cut, as are some four sections of recitative, while the Act III finale is considerably reduced.

The gaps are covered by a narrator, the folk/classical singer Tom Kastle.

The compact cast of four singers consists of remarkably fine locals. Brian Leeper, of the UW Whitewater faculty, is a deep-voiced buffo in the title role. As Dr. Malatesta, UW voice student Michael Roemer displayed a smooth baritone voice, while former UW student Ryan McEldowney has a light-tenor voice ideal for the role of the love-smitten Ernesto. (Photo below also comes from “Die Fledermaus.)

But the superstar of the occasion is another former UW vocal student, Caitlin Cisler (bel0w), who packs a beautiful and powerful high-soprano voice into a deceptively small frame. This is a singer who is going places! Her portrayal of Norina’s impish spunk is infectious, as she leads the others in expressions, gestures and movements that convey action and character, for all the unstaged nature of the production.

The players are accomplished, and Birsan brings a thorough command of the score to a lively, tightly organized, but finely inflected and lilting rendition.

The performances are in the original Italian, but with very well-managed English surtitles. Accessibility and pleasure are the watchwords throughout.

Whether you are already a seasoned opera-lover, or someone belatedly catching up with the genre, the CCO performances are most definitely worth taking advantage of in this production, or next December when they will deliver Rossini’s ever-popular “Barber of Seville.”

CCO is just one more facet of Madison’s seemingly endless musical dimensions!

Posted in Classical music

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