The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: The Madison Savoyards’ FREE performance of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s “The Zoo” this afternoon at the Henry Vilas Zoo is a end-of-summer must-see.

August 21, 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, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. 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

The 50-year dedication of the Madison Savoyards to the 13 surviving operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan has extended also to the two short one-act farces that Sullivan wrote with other librettists, before his collaboration with Gilbert got fully under way. The one in question Savoyards gave once before in August 1980.

“The Zoo” (1875) was written in collaboration with one “Bolton Rowe,” the pen-name of B. C. Stephenson, one of the numerous hacks of the London theater.  His words cannot match the wit or inspiring impetus of Gilbert, but they are actually quite serviceable, while the jolly score by Sullivan (below) reveals his early accomplishment in theatrical writing.

Never mind the silly plot of “The Zoo.”  It is full of clichés — disguised identities, class consciousness, virtue triumphing over silly mistakes.  It is actually quite amusing, especially when it can be brought to spirited life by the clever direction of Terry Kiss Frank (below). This is a “staged reading”, with discreet costumes and a reasonable amount of action from the soloists, while the chorus sings from scores, all to David Sytkowski’s piano accompaniment.

While the chorus includes a lot of Savoyards veterans (below, in this summer’s production of “Utopia Limited), all five of the lead singers are bright younger and newer members of the troupe — with the exception of long-time John Hyland, bask as a sneering villain, Mr. Grinder. As the amorous but suicidal apothecary, Aesculapius Carboy, Josh Sanders displays a clear high tenor range and dramatic nuance.  Baritone Justin Wilder as Thomas Browne (really a peer in disguise, you know), shows real promise as an actor as well as singer. As his beloved, Eliza Smith, Molly Spivey is mellow-voiced and endearing. As Carboy’s beloved, Laetitia Grinder, Caitlin Miller musters a real powerhouse of a mezzo voice.

About to celebrate its own 50th anniversary, the Savoyards has joined forces with the Henry Vilas Zoo, to take part in its centennial celebration — with Terry’s husband Boris Frank representing the zoo itself.

Ideas about presenting the performances amid the appropriate zoo displays themselves proved impractical. Instead, the venue in the hall of the zoo’s Visitor Center turns out to be ideal. The room is modest enough so the audience is close to the performers, whose honed diction brings out the words with consistent clarity.

I attended the Saturday afternoon free performance at 3 p.m., and there was an overflow audience during a very busy day at the zoo in general. Another performance Saturday evening (with a $10 admission charge) will be followed by another free afternoon one today, Sunday, Aug. 21, at 3 p.m.

It is one of those little publicized summer events that is really very much worth catching.

Posted in Classical music

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