The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Candid Concert Opera of Chicago pares down the stage business but delivers the musical goods in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.”

May 4, 2012
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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 Candid Concert Opera group has pursued this season a kind of Beaumarchais festival. In December, their program was devoted to a concert rendition of Rossini‘s “The Barber of Seville,” based on the first of the “Figaro” plays by Beaumarchais. And now, last Friday and Saturday, it has completed the set with Mozart‘s “The Marriage of Figaro.”

Codrut Birsan’s plucky little organization has matured steadily, in its goal of presenting free concert performances of opera with young singers, offered at Oakwood Village West and Capital Lakes Center. These venues bring opera to residents of these retirement institutions, but they are also open to the general public.

From the size of the audience I joined at Capital Lakes on Saturday, it was clear that the Madison public in general is catching on to these activities and filling out their audience quite considerably.

Following established CCO practice, the musical numbers were given context by a narrator, who summarized the recitatives and covered some sutures. There were cuts: the entire character of Barberina disappeared, along with the chorus; the Act III finale, with its march and dancing, was dropped, along with the standard omission of the Act IV arias for Marcellina and Basilio. Otherwise, all of the concerted numbers were presented.

From his base in Chicago, Birsan (below) is able to draw upon an extensive pool of rising young singers active in that area. They are no amateurs or raw beginners, but already of professional quality.

The women set the highest standards. Quite impressive was Leila Bowie, a seasoned singer with a soprano voice both beautiful and powerful. Chelsea Morris was a notch lower in power, but her lovely and sweet voice fitted the character of Susanna admirably. Lindsay Metzger’s mezzo voice is smallish, but she invested the “trouser” role of Cherubino with perky charm. Mezzo Robin Bradley, deprived of some of her music, still conveyed nicely the character transition from shrew to loving mother. 

The key role of Figaro was meant for a bass: Samuel Thompson lacks that lower-range strength, but his handsome baritone was nevertheless put to smooth and appealing use. With a more firmly bass-like voice, baritone DaRell Haynes aptly set the Count’s frustrations and deviousness within a firm façade of his aristocratic rank. Bass Neil A. Edwards as Bartolo was given rather little music, but made the most of what he had.

In the tenor roles of Basilio and Curzio, and in the bass-baritone part of Antonio, Ryan Douglas Wells and Eric Mason created vivid little character vignettes out of their brief roles.

Beyond their merits as individual singers, this team built a lot of its success on real engagement with their own and each others’ characters.

There was some limited action, while facial expressions and body language contributed a lot. This was a “concert” rendition with a genuine theatrical feeling.

Birsan has slowly been building up his “accompanying” forces. This time he could field a balanced band of eight string players, with a piano taking the wind parts. At times the piano did overpower the strings in volume, but generally the combination had a legitimate Mozartean feel to it.

I fear that Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” has become so popular and so frequently performed that it risks slipping into warhorse status. Nowadays, I face attending a performance of it with, if not dread, at least jaded expectations.

But it was not long into the evening when Mozart’s magic caught me up in a spell. This was due to the quality of the singing, but also the unique situation of the CCO at this stage of its development. Without a full orchestra intervening, and with the singers unusually close to the audience, they allowed me to experience the vocal writing with new appreciation. And not only the gorgeous, ravishing arias, but those miraculous ensembles, melting in their beauty and humanity. (Mozart, below, said that the Act III sextet, at bottom, was the best music he ever wrote, and I think he was right.)

I don’t know when and if I shall hear (or hear of) any of these singers again. I hope so, and I warmly wish them well in their careers. For now, I want to salute them for giving me an evening of deeply rich satisfaction.

Take note, Madison: CCO is not “opera for dummies” or opera on the cheap. It has become a provider of quality opera offerings with their own individual merits. This group’s performances should be watched for and savored.

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