The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Magic Flute” proved enjoyable, opulent and superb

April 25, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friend and opera veteran filed this review:

By Larry Wells

I attended last Sunday’s matinee performance of the Madison Opera’s production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” (Performance photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.)

The opera’s mystifying combination of fairy tale and Masonic ritual has been better explained by others, including the legendary Anna Russell. Those who know her only through her analysis of Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle should seek out her lecture on “The Magic Flute, which is accompanied on the CD by an equally humorous look at Verdi’s “Nabucco.” A search through the iTunes store will easily yield these treasures.

The scenery and costumes (below), which were borrowed from Arizona Opera, were superb. I was captivated by the clever set, the opulent costumes and the amazing props.

The choice to have the spoken dialogue in English, while the sung parts remained in German with supertitles in English, was a smart move and helped move the ridiculous plot lines along.

The playing by members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor from the Juilliard School, Gary Thor Wedow, (below) was, as usual, brilliant.

And the singing was, for the most part, first-rate.

Special mention should be made of Andrew Bidlack (below top) as a consistently arresting Tamino and Amanda Woodbury (below, right, with Scott Brunscheen as Monostatos) as a crystalline Pamina. Their first act duet was perfection.

Likewise, Caitlin Cisler played the Queen of the Night (below center) and her vocal fireworks were spectacular, plus she was a delight to watch in her bizarre winged costume. (You can hear the Queen of the Night’s astonishing and virtuosic aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I enjoyed Alan Dunbar’s Papageno (below). He has a gift for comedy.

And probably my favorite characters, the three ladies (below, from left, with Tamino) portrayed by Amanda Kingston, Kelsey Park and Anna Parks were brilliantly sung and acted.

UW-Madison graduate Anna Polum (below) did not disappoint in the smaller role of Papagena, and we will be fortunate to hear her again soon in Johannes Brahms’ “German Requiem” with the Madison Symphony Orchestra next month.

The three spirits, sung by local schoolboys, were fun to watch with their steampunk attire and props, but they were vocally rather thin.

Nathan Stark’s Sarastro tested the limits of his vocal range. It’s a difficult role in any event since Sarastro has the unfortunate habit of stopping the opera’s action in its tracks whenever he appears.

The audience loved the whole thing, laughing at the comic absurdities and applauding whenever the music paused. But I cannot help wondering why “The Magic Flute” is such a popular opera. Its plot is basically incomprehensible, its second act goes on a half hour too long, the Queen of the Night’s downfall is never satisfactorily explained, and despite a number of memorable tunes, there are, in my mind, many more musically satisfying operas.

Next season we can look forward to yet another of the countless performances of Bizet’s “Carmen” and yet another Mozart opera “The Abduction from the Seraglio.” Madison does seem to love its Mozart. But we will also be hearing the late Daniel Catan’s lush, Puccini-esque “Florencia en el Amazonas,” for which I give praise.

I got to thinking about what other lesser performed operas that are not 200 years old might please the Madison crowd and quickly came up with: Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Consul”; Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide”; Douglas Moore’s “The Ballad of Baby Doe”; Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa”; and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Sir John in Love.”

Each of these is as melodic as “The Magic Flute” and each has certainly more compelling storylines.

What are your suggestions?


Classical music: Mozart’s music requires the rhythms of both speech and dance, says maestro Gary Thor Wedow, who will also restore lost libretto text when he conducts two performances of “The Magic Flute” this weekend for the Madison Opera. Here is Part 2 of his interview with The Ear.

April 19, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute this Friday night, April 21, at 8 p.m. and this Sunday afternoon, April 23, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center. (Production photos are courtesy of the Arizona Opera from which the Madison Opera got the sets and costumes for its production.)

Yesterday’s post was the first of two parts. It has a plot synopsis and links to more information about the cast and production.

Here is a link to Part 1:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/04/18/classical-music-mozart-masterfully-melds-the-sensual-and-the-cerebral-says-maestro-gary-thor-wedow-who-will-conduct-two-performances-of-the-magic-flute-this-weekend-for-the-madiso/

The opera runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.

Tickets are $18 to $130.

“The Magic Flute” will be sung in German with English supertitles.

For more about the production and cast, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/the-magic-flute/

And also go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/the-magic-flute/cast/

Here is Part 2 of The Ear’s recent email interview with conductor Gary Thor Wedow (below, conducting in an orchestra pit):

Are there certain “tricks” or “secrets” that you try to bring to conducting Mozart? Have you conducted “The Magic Flute” before? Do Mozart’s operas in general and this opera in specific present challenges? Where do you place the opera musically, both compared to other operas in general and in regard to its place in Mozart’s work?

I feel keenly that Mozart and all 18th-century music (probably continuing to this day) is either based on a rhetorical idea or a dance form; that music is either speaking or dancing. This style of music is “pre-French Revolution,” so No Two Notes are Created Equally! The lilt of language or the buoyancy of the dance has to infuse every moment; hierarchy and shape prevail.

I’ve been fortunate to have conducted The Magic Flute frequently, in many varied productions; it’s always been a part of my musical life. Because it’s a fairy tale, it lends itself to inventive and imaginative productions. Stage director Dan Rigazzi’s production (below) for Madison Opera is a whimsical one, influenced by the surrealist painter Magritte, steampunk and more, all rolled into one beautiful show.

Mozart was fascinated with German Singspiel, as it was opera in the language of the people. The Magic Flute is his masterpiece in this genre, though there are earlier works. There is the early Zaide – incomplete, but filled with gorgeous, innovative music –and also the more mature, sumptuous and comic The Abduction from the Seraglio; they are both rich and entertaining pieces.

The Magic Flute, I feel, has a special place in the opera repertoire for several reasons: its Masonic connections that were very important to Mozart, the drama, and its central themes that trace themselves back to ancient Egypt.

It also is a brilliant combination of comedy and deep spiritual drama in the guise of a heroic rescue tale. It uses an incredibly wide range of the most beautiful music written in every major genre: sacred music, opera seria, bel canto, folk song and complex Baroque counterpoint.

What would you like listeners to pay special attention to in the music of “The Magic Flute”?

I would say “Hang on!” Whatever style of music we are in, we are going to switch gears in a fairly short time. It’s a roller coaster, an Ed Sullivan Show, American Idol, and the Barnum and Bailey Circus all rolled into one.

This is your third time conducting at Madison Opera. Do you have an opinion about Madison musicians and audiences?

My previous two experiences in Madison have been the Opera in the Park concerts in 2012 and 2016 (below). These have been among the most sublimely satisfying moments of my musical life: a cornucopia of music played by this brilliant symphony orchestra with great singers.

The audiences have been magically focused and involved; the players are magnificent, dedicated musicians, and the community is very supportive of Madison Opera. It’s electric.

Is there anything else you would like to say about the music or this performance?

Magic Flute devotees might be startled to hear some new text in these performances, particularly in Tamino, Pamina and Sarastro’s arias and the duet with Pamina and Papageno. “Bei Männern” is now “Der Liebe.” (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Let me explain by telling you a mystery story. After Mozart died, Constanze was desperate for money. Mozart’s Flute manuscript conducting score belonged to Schikaneder, the librettist and producer, but it seems that Constanze had another original score: the first original manuscript, which she then sold to a nobleman who eventually allowed it to be published.

This must have been a “composing score” that Mozart wrote first, before making the conducting score with the help of his assistant. The text deviates in several sections in notable ways. Probably Schikaneder, perhaps assisted by his Masonic brothers, “improved” the text, but Mozart had already shaped his music to the first text.

In most sections the differences are minimal and the new text was indeed an improvement. But in some cases I feel the original text was what inspired Mozart to write and orchestrate the way he did. Our marvelous singers have generously agreed to make the changes and I think we will all see how it fits the music so much better.

Sadly, Constanze’s manuscript was lost in the wars, but many scholars had already seen it and considered it to be genuine. I love how it shows how fluid the creative process is and how it spurs us to look anew at Mozart’s creative process.

On with the show!


Classical music: Madison Opera announces its 2017-18 season

April 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera has announced its 2017-18 season, which features a classic popular opera and two Madison Opera premieres.

The season opens in November with Carmen by Georges Bizet, followed by The Abduction from the Seraglio by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in February, and then Florencia en el Amazonas by Mexican composer Daniel Catan (1949-2011) in April. The season concludes with the 17th annual Opera in the Park in July.

“I am delighted with this new season,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “Carmen was the piece that made me fall in love with opera in high school, so I always look forward to sharing it with our audience. The Abduction from the Seraglio has some of Mozart’s most virtuoso vocal writing, with an innate charm and comedy that is perfect for winter. Florencia en el Amazonas is quite simply ravishing, both in its music and its story. The season truly has something for everyone in it.”

The company’s 57th season begins in November with Georges Bizet’s Carmen in Overture Hall. One of the most popular operas in the world, Carmen was a flop when it premiered in Paris in 1875, but within a few years was widely acclaimed.

The story of a Spanish gypsy determined to live a life on her own terms, Bizet’s masterpiece blends passion, seduction, jealousy, dance, and even a little law-breaking, all set to one of the most famous scores ever composed.

Aleks Romano makes her Madison Opera debut in the title role; Cecilia Violetta López makes her debut as Micaëla. Sean Panikkar (Opera in the Park 2014) returns to Madison Opera as Don José, the soldier who falls in love with Carmen; Corey Crider (Sweeney Todd) returns as Escamillo, the toreador. E. Loren Meeker directs this traditional staging in her Madison Opera debut, with John DeMain  conducting members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

February brings the Madison Opera PREMIERE of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, the composer’s first major operatic success, done in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center. Set in the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century, the opera starts with a Spanish nobleman arriving at a pasha’s palace to rescue his fiancée, who was captured during a shipwreck.

Together, they find that different cultures need not always clash, and romantic longings come in many forms. Comedy blends with the underpinnings of the Enlightenment in a masterpiece that is the perfect blend of humor and humanity.

Mozart’s brilliant score calls for virtuoso singing in every role. Caitlin Lynch (Don Giovanni) returns to sing Konstanze; the soprano has sung major Mozart roles at the Metropolitan Opera and English National Opera this season.  Also returning are Matt Boehler (below, Fidelio, Don Giovanni) as Osmin and Eric Neuville (Little Women) as Pedrillo.

Making their debuts are Ashly Neumann as Blonde and David Walton as Belmonte. Alison Moritz makes her Madison Opera directorial debut; John DeMain conducts.

Florencia en el Amazonas by Daniel Catán (below top), who also turned the movie “Il Postino” into an opera, concludes the MainStage season in Overture Hall.

 Inspired by the writings of the Colombian Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez (below bottom), Catán’s gorgeously lyrical opera was the first Spanish-language opera to be premiered in the U.S. and has been performed worldwide since its 1996 premiere. (You hear the accessibility of Catan’s music in the opening scene that is in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Set in the early 20th century, the story tells of Florencia Grimaldi, a famous opera singer, as she embarks anonymously on a voyage down the Amazon River, hoping to be reunited with her lover she left behind.  On the boat with her are a young journalist; a couple feeling the strain of their long marriage; the boat’s captain; the captain’s nephew, who falls in love with the journalist; and a man who is a rather mystical presence.

Returning to Madison Opera in the title role is Elizabeth Caballero (below, Don Giovanni, La Traviata), who was acclaimed for this role at New York City Opera. Nmon Ford (Tosca) returns as the mysterious Riolobo; Rachel Sterrenberg (Charlie Parker’s Yardbird) sings Rosalba, the journalist; Adriana Zabala (The Tales of Hoffmann) sings Paula; Mackenzie Whitney (La Bohème) sings Arcadio, the captain’s nephew; and Levi Hernandez (The Magic Flute in 2006) sings Alvaro. Ashraf Sewailam makes his Madison Opera debut as the Capitán.

Kristine McIntyre (below, The Tales of Hoffmann, Dead Man Walking) returns to direct this unique-to-Madison production, which features members of Kanopy Dance and choreography by Lisa Thurrell.  John DeMain conducts.

Subscriptions for the 2017-18 season will be available in late April at madisonopera.org and by phone at (608) 238-8085. Subscribers save up to 15% off single ticket prices.


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