The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Opera triumphed in Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” | November 28, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO), which will perform its fifth season next summer. He was recently named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has a website at (

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a review of last weekend’s production of Ludwig van Beethoven’s opera ‘Fidelio” by the Madison Opera at the Overture Center.

I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review of “Fidelio” by Mikko Utevsky (below):

Mikko Utevsky with baton

By Mikko Utevsky

The Madison Opera has done it again.

Perhaps it is a mark of Katherine Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) settling into her tenure as General Director.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Perhaps it is the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s continual growth and development as a regional orchestra of versatility and repute.

Perhaps it is the luck of discovering singers at the outset of promising careers, whose success has not yet priced them out of the range of smaller companies.

Whatever the reason, last Sunday’s performance in Overture Hall of Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera, the monumental “Fidelio,” was a true triumph for what can only be regarded as a company going places.

Briefly, “Fidelio” is the story of a woman, Leonore, who disguises herself as a boy — “Fidelio” meaning the “faithful one” — to infiltrate the prison where her husband Florestan is being wrongly held by his political rival, Don Pizarro.

When the King’s minister (Don Fernando sung by Liam Moran) announces a surprise visit, Pizarro (sung by Kelly Markgraf) decides to have Florestan killed to avoid the awkward explanation. At the last moment, Fidelio intercedes, and the arrival of Don Fernando saves the day.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra under artistic director John DeMain (below), in its usual reduced string complement, shone forth from the pit in more than its usual splendor this Sunday, with a firm, centered string sound and particularly powerful playing from the horns.

John DeMain conducting 2

Above it soared a cast of creditable balance, with a veritable jewel in the center: Alexandra LoBianco, in the title role of Leonore/Fidelio.

LoBianco, in her first turn as the titular trouser role of Fidelio/Leonore, was beyond reproach in every way. Her captivating Verdian soprano that seemed equally at home in every moment of the opera, rendered with proper dramatic heft the imposing vocal challenges of the part, including a powerful lower register.

The moment when she steps forward at last to defend her husband from the evil Don Pizarro sent chills down my spine. It is hard to believe she has not sung this before; given how completely the role fit her.

Alexandra LoBianco as Fidelio-Leonore by James Gill

Of the others, Clay Hilley’s (Florestan) powerful tenor sometimes substituted steel for warmth in navigating Beethoven’s punishingly high writing — a forgivable flaw in a role whose characterization leaves little room for luxury. His opening scene (“Gott! Welch Dunkel hier” or “God! How dark it is here!”) at the start of Act II was nevertheless absolutely spellbinding.

Clay Hilley as Florestan CR James Gill

The chorus (below top and at the bottom, conducted by James Levine, in a YouTube video) was superbly prepared by Chorus Master Anthony Cao (below), who has brought the group’s performance level up considerably in recent years. A timid beginning to the famed prisoner chorus “O welche Lust” was quickly surmounted, and more than made up for by the rousing “Heil sei dem Tag” in the second act.

Fidelio prisoners' chorus James Gill

Anthony Cao

Sensitive lighting by Christopher Maravich relieved some of the potential for monotony in a visually subdued staging, which featured sets from Michigan Opera Theater and costumes from the Utah Opera.

Both the sets and the costumes relied mostly on hues of brown. The sky showing above the walls of the prison shifted subtly to reflect the passage of time and the mood of the ensemble, providing as well a glimpse of the freedom held at arm’s length from most of the characters. The darkness of Florestan’s prison at the start of the second act was also evocatively rendered.

Fidelio set James GIll

The scene change from dungeon to daylight before the final scene was distractingly long — could we have had one of the three other overtures Beethoven wrote to this opera to fill the silence? Certainly the orchestra was one of the stars of this production; let them play on!

The staging by director Tara Faircloth (below), in her Madison Opera debut, maintained interest and rewarded careful attention with choice details, though the melodrama and confrontation scenes in the dungeon were rather weak.

Fidelio Tara Faircloth

Neither of these sapped the sheer power of Leonore’s unveiling, or of the 11th-hour trumpet call announcing the arrival of Florestan’s savior (below left, with Don Pizarro below right)  — moments that were absolutely electrifying and worth the price of admission on their own — but they did slow the pace of the act.

Fidelio     left Don Fernando and right is Don PIzarro CR James Gill

Unfortunately, the staging seemed to dodge the political difficulties of the plot, focusing merely on the abstract notion of “freedom” without exploring the implications of Don Fernando’s benevolent proclamations in the final scene.

In the current political climate, I would have hoped for a stronger thesis here — surely Beethoven (below) the revolutionary would have something to say today!

Beethoven big

For the most part, these are quibbles with an overwhelmingly excellent production of which the Madison Opera can be justifiably proud. I left the hall feeling uplifted, and I look forward to the rest of the season.



  1. two or three months ago I had the opportunity to see Fidelio in Santa Fe with the “continuous education group ” of the U of W.
    The production brought Fidelio into the time of the dictatorship of Hitler in Germany
    The New York Times had an appropriate Critique

    My congratulation and admiration to all the participants of the production of FIDELIO in Madison

    Emy Gartzke and friends Mary Ellen Hughes and Manfred Bernhardt

    Comment by Waltraud Emy Gartzke — November 29, 2014 @ 2:44 pm

  2. Not Tin, but too rapid. Skim milk is not as rich as whole milk, and I skimmed too far, too fast.

    Comment by 88melter — November 29, 2014 @ 10:32 am

  3. 88melter: Sounds like you had your ideas preconceived before writing (and reading) the review in question, especially with your little story about the jazz review. Although the posted review here was largely positive, as Steve Rankin pointed out (using the language of the review) it was hardly hagiography. Hard to see how anyone who had actually read the review would have missed all of that! Maybe you have a “tin eye”!

    Comment by fflambeau — November 28, 2014 @ 8:41 pm

  4. Good! I am glad that you have pointed out I missed or “ran over” those lukewarm to negative parts. That does help considerably. Will read it again, of course. Had a jazz reviewer take me to task for calling him on making a CD review so impossibly glowing that any listener was bound to be disappointed.
    So, my point is clear, and, if it does not apply nearly as much here as I thought, all the better!

    Comment by 88melter — November 28, 2014 @ 6:41 pm

  5. A review that is totally positive is always suspect in my mind as being seriously promotional, or else biased by personal involvement with the subject or its sponsoring institution.

    I / we get that you really liked, even reveled in the production, Mikko. To find something that could be improved, something that worked less than perfectly on a technical or artistic level, or even something that was humourously amiss would leaven the total hagiography presented here.

    I have not listened to a ton of opera, but when I was with my former partner, we had it on at home a lot, and did have season tickets to the Lyric on Chicago. There is no such thing as a vocal performance. or any musical performance, for that matter, that would be beyond any reproach.

    If you thought it was excellent, I am good with that. If you thought it was a step up from where the company had been performing at earlier, I am good with that as well. This review is not the writing of a music critic, because it is not critical. It is an excellent promotional writeup for the company, but, unless there is some indication of something that can be improved, or someplace where the artists involved can grow as interpreters, the review has no other value.

    Good writing is good, and informed praise has its place, but criticism is more than structure, form, usage and grammar. It is a deeper insight into how the subject can continue to improve, or how it has missed an important element, or why it matters a lot, or mattered very little.

    Comment by 88melter — November 28, 2014 @ 10:42 am

    • I don’t think 88melter read the same review I read. “Distractingly long”, “rather weak”, “timid beginning”, “unfortunately the staging seemed to dodge…”, “I would have hoped for a stronger thesis”, “substituted steel for warmth” do not sound like “hagiography” to me. Perhaps you need to read more carefully.

      Comment by Steve Rankin — November 28, 2014 @ 6:04 pm

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