The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Candid Concert Opera’s two free performances this week “Barber of Seville” are well worth attending

December 5, 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

Madison audiences are becoming more and more aware of the work of Candid Concert Opera — or they should.

For two years now, Codrut Birsan (below) has been leading the group in free opera performances in concert form. The action is outlined by a narrator, but the bulk, if not all, of the score is sung from memory by singers who employ some acting and minimal interaction.

For more information including the group’s history and other productions, artist biographies, reviews and photos, visit:

At first, there was only piano accompaniment, but gradually Birsan has been building a small instrumental ensemble.

For this latest production (photos below are by Helen Wong), of Rossini‘s ever-popular comedy, “The Barber of Seville,” he is able to field a string band of 12 players plus piano.

The score is trimmed down a bit. The familiar overture and the storm music, purely orchestral pieces, are bypassed. A few vocal items are dropped, along with all the recitatives — which are replaced by Tom Kastle’s narration. Otherwise, most of the concerted numbers are offered, so that both musical and dramatic continuity is maintained. The opera is sung in Italian with English supertitles.

Working on a very limited and tight schedule, Birsan brings off a kind of miracle. The instrumentalists are largely locals, mainly students from the UW School of Music. Backed by a male chorus of five locals, the cast is comprised of six singers, mostly from the Chicago area, where Birsan himself is based.

These singers are all young. (They are, I am told, not paid save in the experience they gain from working with their roles.)


Two of the roles (Rosina and Almaviva) are double-cast. The singers I heard in the first performance, on Saturday evening, Dec. 3, at Oakwood Village West, were particularly excellent.

Lindsay Metzger displays strong vocal confidence, excellent projection, and an already-developed sense of style. Scott Jason Brunscheen has a clear, secure, lyric tenor voice that he uses with intelligence. Both of them have a good feeling for comic characterization. That is an important point in considering the problems of presenting opera in concert form.

Just how far should some degree of “acting” be added to the music? There is a very fine and tricky line between deftness and clowning. Metzger and Brunscheen were able to toe that line very ably.

There was a range of results in other directions, however.

Baritone DaRell Haynes (below) has a strong voice and a lot of personality, but does not yet convey Figaro’s commanding flamboyance. (To be sure, his shaving — below — of Bartolo was done amusingly.)

The two basses, Dan Mackey and Roberto Quintanilla (below) pushed their acting to counterproductive excesses. Dr. Bartolo (denied his entrance aria) is transformed from a bumbling senior into a bellowing monster. The conniving and corrupt Don Basilio is made into almost something of a vampire.

These are new singers, of course, and it is perhaps unfair to judge them too harshly just yet. Still, it is exactly at this point in their careers that they should give careful thought as to how to convey character without distortion — whether in concert or onstage.

Yes, care should be taken not to be hypercritical of young talent. And, I admit, I came to this first performance of the program straight from the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” presentation of Stephen Wadsworth’s absolutely superb staging of Handel’s “Rodelinda,” with a cast headed by René Fleming and Andreas Scholl (below, in a photo by Ken Howard) with Stephanie Blythe.

But Candid Concert Opera should not be dismissed because it may not be of Met calibre. Birsan’s venture stands on its own merits in giving young singers the opportunities to work toward Met-level stardom, while it gives audiences the chance to expand their own familiarity with, and enjoyment of, operatic works.

The performance at Oakwood Village also served to maintain the love of opera in those who are no longer mobile enough to travel to public performances.

Birsan is already planning his next production, no less than “the other” Beaumarchais-based masterpiece, Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” on April 27 and 28, respectively at Oakwood Village West and at the Capitol Lakes Retirement Center — admission FREE as always. And there are bolder efforts being planned beyond that.

Meanwhile, there are the two remaining performances (again, admission is FREE) of this “Barber” production, at Capitol Lakes Retirement Center, 333 West Main Street, this Friday evening at 7 p.m. and at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 2126 North Sherman Avenue, on Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m.

Despite competition from so many other things this month, attention should be paid.

Posted in Classical music

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