ALERT: The UW-Madison Chamber Orchestra, under its director James Smith, will give a FREE performance on this Wednesday night at 7:30 in Mills Hall. The program features the Divertimento for Strings by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara; the Divertimento, by Bela Bartok; and Elegy (string orchestra version), by the late American composer Elliott Carter.
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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 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
Among the works of the prolific American composer Conrad Susa (1935-2013) were five operas. The last of them (1994) was The Dangerous Liaisons, after the scandalous 18th-century French novel by Choderlos de Laclos.
Susa’s first, Transformations (1973), was utterly different, a true novelty. He called it a “chamber opera” but one might wonder if it is really an opera at all, by conventional standards of lyric theater.
(NOTE: The last performance of the University Opera’s current production of “Transformations” is TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall. Admission is $25 for the general public, $20 for seniors and $10 for students.)
To begin with, the work has no real libretto, but rather represents Susa’s settings of eight of the poems in a collection of the same title published in 1971 by the brilliant but mentally troubled Anne Sexton (below, 1928-1974). Her book contained 17 poems, each representing a reframing of one of the Grimm folk tales.
Of those 17, Susa (below) selected 10 for his Transformations, setting them as they stand and putting them in his own sequence.
The work is scored for eight singers, supported by an ensemble of eight instrumentalists.
Sexton’s saucy texts are both reflective and narrative, but they do not create consistent “roles.” Through solos and ensembles, the singers give out those texts, with selective opportunities for character representation.
The vocal writing is often quite daring, always very clever and witty, but hardly melodic in traditional ways, while the instrumental contributions are spikey, often provocative, and sometimes allusive. There is not a single melody to remember, but the effect of this “ensemble opera” is consistently absorbing, and entertaining.
Transformations has been Susa’s most successful and widely performed work. This 2016 production is in fact the third to have been given by the University Opera at the UW-Madison. The first was mounted under Karlos Moser in 1976, there years after the premiere performance by the Minnesota Opera and it was the second new production anywhere. Moser repeated it in 1991.
Now we have had the realization of it by interim University Opera director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio).
In the Minnesota Opera production, the successive episodes are launched in a set representing an insane asylum. Moser studiously avoided that in his productions.Ronis has used instead an urban office or room that serves as a space for a kind of group therapy session.
At first thought, it seems an unnecessary imposition. (Yes, Sexton, who is represented in the piece, did spend some time in mental institutions, before the last of her suicide attempts was successful.) In point of fact, however, little is made of such a setting as the production progresses, so it does not much matter one way or the other.
What marks this production, however, is Ronis’ unflagging resourcefulness in devising movements and gestures for his singers to constantly point up details in the story-telling.
And he has a simply wonderful cast of young singers to carry out his direction. Because of inevitable weekend schedule crunches, I had to attend the Sunday afternoon performance, at which Cayla Bosché was the robust portrayer of Sexton and some problematical mothers.
High soprano Nicole Heinen (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) represented Snow White and numerous princesses or virginal types. Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Beuchel was particularly delightful as the Witch to Hansel and Gretel.
Tenor Dennis Gotkowsky was deliciously arch as Rumpelstiltskin, and tenor William Ottow (below, lying down, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) cleverly represented a number of princes. Tenor Michael Hoke, baritone Brian Schneider, and bass Benjamin Schultz were all admirable in their varied assignments.
Under the leadership of conductor Kyle Knox (below), a gifted and busy graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, the instrumentalists gave pointed support throughout.
Not a big-hit item, then, as the rather thin attendance on Sunday afternoon suggested—not something for those who seek Mozart, Verdi and Puccini.
But it is a very enjoyable novelty that really does warrant presentation, as this new production amply demonstrated.
In this photo by Michael R. Anderson, cast members include Brian Schneider, Rebecca Buechel, Cayla Rosche (foreground, as Anne Sexton), William Ottow, and Nicole Heinen in Transformations.