The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: “Long Love the King!” Madison Opera’s successful production of Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” is an auspicious beginning to the tenure of its new general director Kathryn Smith. But the opera needs some Great Moments. | October 30, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

You could view the Madison Opera’s decision to stage Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” as a great choice for Halloween week, when disguised truth is celebrated. You could also view the Verdi opera, full of political intrigue and betrayals, as an apt choice during a presidential election  campaign.

But surely the best way to see it is as an auspicious beginning to the tenure of the company’s new general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill). True, she was here for last season, but that was to implement the plans draw up by her predecessor Allan Naplan.

With this successful production we now get to see Smith as her own woman.

And clearly Smith is interested in taking the Madison Opera level to a new level. Why else would she open the season with the Madison Opera premiere, in half a century, the neglected Verdi opera, which she says is one of her favorites? And why else would she slate the Madison Opera’s premiere production of a Handel opera (“Acis and Galatea”) for January? Smith is out to leave her mark.

The houses from the performances Friday night and Sunday afternoon crowds were smaller than expected or hoped for, but they were very enthusiastic. A company spokesperson said that probably had to do with so many other activities going on and with the political season upon us.

Still, there was much to like about the production, and I, like so many others, had fun. (All production photos below are by Madison photographer James Gill, taken for the Madison Opera.)

Here are do some things about “A Masked Ball” that appealed to The Ear.

I liked the pre-opera background talk given by Kathryn Smith. In the Promenade Hall of the Overture Center, she told a packed house about the place of “A Masked Ball” in Verdi’s output and traced the struggle by Verdi (below) with political censors to arrive at a plot that would satisfy them. After all, regicide – the killing of a king — was not something that the royal houses of Europe took lightly, encouraged or forgave shortly after the French Revolution.

I liked the excellence and evenness of the cast. All of the leads and secondary roles, including the energetic servant Oscar (played by Caitlin Cisler) and the fortune-teller Ulrica (Jeniece Golbourne) showed strong voices with excellent pitch, wide ranges, fine diction and power to project. But most of all, they showed balance. And evenness is something to cherish in an ensemble production.

William Joyner (below), who also sang in the Madison Opera’s production last season of Philip Glass‘ “Galileo Galilei,” excelled as the Swedish King Gustav III:

Here he is in a pivotal scene, getting his fortune told by Ulrica:

Hyung Yun (below left) was terrific as the king’s friend and betraying assassin Anckarstrom, while Alexandra LoBianco (below right) was terrific as the courtier’s wife and would-be adulterous Amelia:

I liked the staging by Metropolitan Opera veteran Kristine McIntyre (below). Her idea was clearly to serve the opera, not some bizarre idea of novelty. So the stage direction matched the sets, the costumes and the score. It did not call attention to itself, which is another of way of saying it served the opera, not dominated it.

I liked the sets from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the costumes. They were luxurious enough to capture the sense of an 18th century royal court, but also simple enough and period or historical enough not to push the production into some postmodern meaningfulness. (The photo below is by Douglas Hamer for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.)

I especially liked the gallows set.  Its contrasting Gothic starkness played well as a context for the theme of a betraying love and the doom it entails. Love can indeed be a deadly noose (below), as King Gustav and Amelia will soon discover:

I found myself listening closely and paying special attention to the orchestra and I liked the way the orchestral accompaniment was superbly handled by players from the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below). It was precise and balanced. Never did the pit overwhelm the singers.

Most of all, especially in its solo passages I found myself impressed with Verdi’s instrumental writing. Verdi possessed a command of counterpoint and orchestration, punctuated with sharp rhythms and converging lines. He knew exactly how to achieve the effects he wanted. I realized just why the “Force of Destiny” Overture and other orchestral excerpts by Verdi are popular. Take away the voices — not that you would want to — and what is left is still great music.

I liked the way the Madison Opera Chorus handled the crowd scenes. They seem blended and just as even as the secondary soloists and leads. I did find some of the hip-hoppy choreography by Madisonian Maureen Janson a bit awkward – I almost always do – but I really couldn’t tell whether that was because of period-appropriate dance steps; because the dancers simply felt a bit awkward; or because the choreography was a bit contrived and self-conscious.

While I liked the singing, I still came away more a fan of Puccini (below) than of Verdi. A day later at home, I can’t recall a tune from “A Masked Ball.” The score always seemed promising, but the Great Moment never materialized. In that respect, evenness was unfortunate, not laudable. The opera needed some stand-outs. It needed memorable tunes, the kind you hear and remember from “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly,” “Tosca” and “Turandot.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t like the plot. If this opera were just a play or movie, it would B-grade, too predictable and even stereotypical. Verdi was smart in other operas when he borrowed from Shakespeare, a master of human psychology, or even Victor Hugo for his librettos.

But that’s show biz — and the prolific but reliable Verdi.

Local critics universally praised the Madison Opera’s production of “A Masked Ball.” But each one discovered different points to make. That speaks well for the production.

Here is a sampling:

Here is a link to John W. Barker’s review, which makes an excellent point about smaller regional opera companies, for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=38122

Here is a link to Greg Hettmansberger’s review for his Madison Magazine blog ”Classically Speaking”:

http://iwww.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/October-2012/Madison-Opera-Has-a-Ball-Unmasking-Verdi/

Here is a link to Rena Archwamety’s review on www.madison.com for 77 Square, The Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/reviews/concert-review-madison-opera-s-a-masked-ball-elegant-understated/article_eb6f680c-204a-11e2-a29e-001a4bcf887a.html

Here is a link to the review by Mike and Jean Muckian for their Brava magazine blog “Culturosity”:

http://culturosity.wordpress.com/2012/10/29/madison-operas-a-masked-ball-is-masterful/

Now you be the critic and tell us what you thought.

The Ear wants to hear.


3 Comments »

  1. I agree that Joyner was fine in “Galileo” last year, but he was notably weak in Friday’s performance of “A Masked Ball.” The Madison Opera has a bad habit of using too large a chorus which creates staging problems. The dancers were lost in the too-crowded ballroom. The assassination sequence was poorly executed, too, with so much business on stage that the essential action was nearly lost. I see that our reviewers are traditionalists and I’m OK with that in the case of “A Masked Ball” — 19th century melodrama that risks going over the edge.

    Comment by Michael — October 30, 2012 @ 7:45 pm

  2. Jake, I felt that on Friday night the tenor was largely missing – by the end of the opera you had to imagine/hear in your mind what the high notes might have sounded like. Which performance did you go to?

    Comment by Kathy McElroy & David Newby — October 30, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

    • Hi Kathy,
      We went to the Sunday afternoon performance.
      By the end, tenor William Joyner was indeed a bit weak and thin, especially in the high notes.
      But he started in strong voice and kept it for most of the performance.
      Maybe was recovering from a cold.
      I have heard him before in Madison (last season as Galileo) and thought he was fine.
      What did you think of that production and role if you went to you?
      Cheers!
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 30, 2012 @ 12:18 pm


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