The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: “Into the Woods” proved a complete, first-rate theatrical experience

February 26, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – the very experienced Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog  – attended two performances of “Into the Woods” at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and filed this review. (Photos are by Beau Meyer for the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama.)

By Larry Wells

The University Theatre and University Opera’s recent joint production of “Into the Woods” was a feast for fans of Stephen Sondheim (below). It was a complete theatrical experience with excellent singing, a nuanced orchestral accompaniment, skilled acting and enchanting staging.

The nearly three-hour work is an amalgamation of several well-known fairy tales exploring themes such as parent-child relationships, loss of innocence, self-discovery, the consequences of wishes being fulfilled, and death – but all in an amusing, literate, fast-paced kaleidoscope of witty dialogue, catchy music and sophisticated lyrics.

The production employed an attractive, ever-changing set, designed by John Drescher, that was vaguely reminiscent of Maurice Sendak.

Stage director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio) utilized the large cast and what had to be an equally large number of backstage crew members in a captivating succession of ensemble pieces and solo numbers. I was never aware of the passing of time. Not looking at my watch is my acid test of a production’s success.

Among the many standout performances, Bryanna Plaisir (below) as the Witch was comical in her delivery and quite amazing in the physicality of her performance. There were a number of times when she flew, and each time I was taken by surprise at her effortlessness. Her initial song, accompanied mostly by percussion, was mesmerizing.

There were two roles that were double cast: Elisheva Pront and Miranda Kettlewell (below) as the Cinderellas; and Meghan Stecker and Zoe Bockhorst as the two Little Red Riding Hoods.

Both Pront and Kettlewell possess excellent voices.

Stecker was the more girlish of the two Red Riding Hoods, whereas Bockhorst (below left) portrayed a slightly more canny character.  Both were very funny in their encounter with Cobi Tappa’s Wolf (below right).

Tappa is a physical actor whose tall lankiness conveyed the Wolf’s lupine nature flawlessly. He also portrayed the Steward, and I was completely captivated by his performance, as was the appreciative audience.

Joshua Kelly (below) was the narrator and also played the baker’s father.  His was a professional quality performance from beginning to end – enunciating so clearly that he was completely understandable throughout.

Jack was played by Christian Michael Brenny. His portrayal of a simple-minded boy was touching, and his singing was outstanding.

Emily Vandenberg (below left) as the wife of the baker (played by Michael Kelley, below right) was another outstanding performer – an excellent comic actress and an accomplished vocalist.

Mention must also be made of Rapunzel and Cinderella’s princes, Tanner Zocher  and Jacob Eliot Elfner. Their two duets, “Agony” and “Agony Reprise,” were enthusiastically received by the audience not only for their delivery but also for such lyrics as “…you know nothing of madness ‘til you’re climbing her hair…”.

Sondheim’s way with words continues to amaze me. In describing a decrepit cow, Jack’s mother gets to sing “…while her withers wither with her…”.  The Wolf gets to sing the line “…there’s no possible way to describe what you feel when you’re talking to your meal…”

Chad Hutchinson (below) conducted the orchestra in a finely shaded performance – never overpowering and always supportive.

There were many other excellent performances and memorable moments. Suffice it to say that altogether cast, crew, artistic and production staff created a show that I enjoyed on two consecutive evenings. In fact I was completely entranced both times.

Postscript: The first evening I sat in front of a person who coughed more or less continually the entire first act.  Mercifully she left at the intermission. Next to me was a woman who alternated between audibly clearing her throat and blowing her nose — when she wasn’t applying moisturizer to her hands — throughout the entire show. Stay home if you’re sick. And remember that you are not at home watching your television.  You are in a theater.


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s “A Little Night Music” proved totally satisfying as both music and theater

February 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear – went to both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center last weekend by the Madison Opera of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and filed the following review. Photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

Although I was familiar with the recording, my first experience seeing “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim (below) was in London 25 years ago. I remember it as a theatrical experience – it featured Judi Dench and was performed at the National Theatre – more than as a musical event.

Two years ago, I saw it performed by Des Moines Metro Opera, and although it was “operatic” it was also sabotaged by a confusing, even chaotic, production designed by Isaac Mizrahi.

I finally experienced the complete package with the recent performances by the Madison Opera. It was a totally satisfying combination of acting, music and theatrical design.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Little Night Music” concerns itself with mismatched lovers who are eventually properly paired or else reconciled.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the carryings-on are amusing, the dialogue is witty, and the lyrics are sophisticated.

One of the earliest numbers in the show — the trio of songs “Later,” “Now” and “Soon” — set the tone for the evening musically. Each was performed individually by three fine singers – Quinn Bernegger, Jeni Houser (below left) and Daniel Belcher (below right).

In a musical tour-de-force, the three songs ultimately combined into one. Houser’s clear tone, Benegger’s intense passion, and Belcher’s suave lyricism promised an outstanding musical experience to come. Special praise must go to Bernegger (below) who sang while comically, but skillfully, miming playing a cello.

One show-stopper was Sarah Day’s “Liaisons” which was really perfect in its world-weariness. Day (below) — from American Players Theatre in Spring Green — half-declaimed and half-sang such memorable lines of regret as, “What once was a sumptuous feast is now figs. No, not even figs. Raisins.” Or amusing internal rhymes like “…indiscriminate women it…”.  (I am completely taken by Sondheim’s clever use of language.)

Likewise, the singing of “Miller’s Son” by Emily Glick (below) was a good old Broadway rendition – no operatic pretense – and the audience, and I, loved it.

Charles Eaton (below left) as a puffed-up dragoon and Katherine Pracht (below right) as his long-suffering wife were both outstanding vocally and deftly comic.

The center of most of the activity was the character Desirée Armfeldt portrayed by Emily Pulley (below). At first I thought she was overacting, but then I realized that, of course, she was portraying a veteran stage actress – a matinee idol type – who had internalized theatrical gestures into her own character. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, and the lyrics finally made sense to me. (You can hear the familiar Judy Collins interpretation in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I would have to say that the star of the show was the chorus, a quintet of excellent voices – Stephen Hobe, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, Emily Secor and Cassandra Vasta. They waltzed through the action while sliding the panels and frames that comprised the set, moving props, and commenting on the action.

Never obtrusive but always necessary, I thought they were a delight. The three women got to sing a brief round “Perpetual Anticipation” that is another wonder of Sondheim’s musical imagination.

As mentioned, sliding panels, along with dropping frames and panels, comprised the set. The continuous changing of the panels, the blocking and the movements of the quintet were the creative product of stage director Doug Schulz-Carlson (below). There was often a whirlwind of activity, but I was never distracted.

The costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore seemed straight out of Edward Gorey – which is a good thing.  And altogether I felt it was the best production of the musical I’ve seen.

The orchestra was situated on stage behind the set, which made additional seats available close to the stage. People seated in those rows had to bend their necks to read the supertitles, but the diction was so consistently excellent that I rarely needed to even glance at the supertitles.

Praise is due for members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and particularly conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). I heard subtleties in the music that had heretofore eluded me, and that is always a reward for attending a live performance and is a tribute to the maestro.

I was happy to see a younger audience, particularly Friday night. Let us hope that they were enchanted enough to attend the upcoming production on April 26 and 28 of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”

This is an opera I have never seen; and until recently, I was familiar only with one of its arias, the so-called “Song to the Moon.”

But now that I have a recording, I realize that it is a musical treasure that should not be missed. I suppose the reasons it is not so frequently performed are that it is in Czech and its plot involves water sprites. But don’t let that stop you. The music is wonderful.


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Classical music: This Saturday the critically acclaimed new production of Francesco Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” is featured in cinemas in “Live from The Met in HD” satellite broadcasts and on Wisconsin Public Radio. Read a rave review

January 10, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday afternoon, Jan. 12, brings the fifth production of this season’s “Live From the Met in HD” series: Francesco Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur.”

This 1902 opera – the only well-known one by this Italian composer (1866-1950) — seeks to capture the Baroque era’s richness of Paris and the French court in 1730. It is based on a real-life French actress who captured the public with her on-stage and off-stage passion.

The Metropolitan Opera’s new production, directed by Sir David McVicar, features superstar soprano Anna Netrebko as Adriana while the acclaimed tenor Piotr Beczala plays Maurizio, who is as smitten with Adriana as she is with him. (You can hear their duet from Act I in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The conductor is the acclaimed and much in-demand Gianandrea Noseda (below), the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and a frequent conductor at the Met.

Mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili (below) has also received critical acclaim for her powerful singing in the production.

The hi-definition broadcast of the live performance from the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City starts at 11:55 a.m. and runs until 4:15 p.m. with two intermissions. (It will also air at noon on Wisconsin Public Radio.)

The encore HD showings are next Wednesday, Jan. 16, at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

The opera will be sung in Italian with supertitles in English, German, Spanish and Italian.

Tickets for Saturday broadcasts are $24 for adults and $22 for seniors and children under 13. For encore showings, all tickets are $18.

The cinemas where the opera can be seen are two Marcus Cinemas: the Point Cinema on the west side of Madison (608 833-3980) and the Palace Cinema (608 242-2100) in Sun Prairie.

Here is a link to the Marcus website for addresses and more information. You can also use them to purchase tickets:

https://www.movietickets.com/movies

Here is a link to the Metropolitan Opera’s website where you can find the titles, dates, casts, production information and video clips of all 10 productions this season, which includes operas by Bizet, Wagner, Donizetti, Saint-Saens, Puccini, Verdi and Poulenc plus a new work, “Marnie,” by Nico Muhly: https://www.metopera.org/season/in-cinemas/

Here is a rave review of “Adriana Lecouvreur” by senior classical music critic Anthony Tommasini for The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/01/arts/music/review-adriana-lecouvreur-metropolitan-opera.html

Here is a link to a synopsis and cast list: https://www.metopera.org/globalassets/season/in-cinemas/hd-cast-sheets/adriana_usglobal.pdf?performanceNumber=15136

Here is a link to other information about the production of “Adriana Lecouvreur,” including photos and audiovisual clips: https://www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/Adriana-Lecouvreur/

And here is a Wikipedia history of the broadcast series that gives you more information about how many cinemas it uses, the enormous size of the worldwide audience – now including Russia, China and Israel — and how much money it makes for The Met.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Opera_Live_in_HD


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Classical music: University Opera’s “Poppea” proves engaging, satisfying and timely. Performances remain this afternoon at 2 and Tuesday night at 7:30 

November 18, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the University Opera and filed this review, with rehearsal photos of students, who alternate roles in different performances, by Michael R. Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The only other time I attended a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” (1643) was in the early 1980s at The San Francisco Opera. Despite the appearance of Tatiana Troyanos as Poppea, I remember being baffled by both the static nature of the music and the grandness of the production of what seemed should be an intimate opera.

That memory, in addition to my being a fan of 20th-century music, made attending the opening performance of University Opera’s performance Friday evening fraught with foreboding.

Despite the production being a lengthy three hours, I must praise the ensemble and director David Ronis — who never disappoints — for keeping my attention throughout the evening as I witnessed an intimate retelling of the passion between Nero and Poppea (portrayed below by Benjamin Hopkins and Anja Pustaver).

The opera was staged in Music Hall on a semicircular platform with the small instrumental ensemble directly to the front side of the audience. Stunning lighting and beautiful costumes made up for the minimal set. I was seated in the center of the first row of the balcony and must say that the sightlines and the sound were superb, even though it was very hot up there. (Below is the coronation scene with Hopkins and Pustaver in the center.)

The ensemble was conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below) whom I had heard conduct the UW Symphony Orchestra the night before in a rousing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The plucked instruments – harp, guitars, theorbo (I had to look it up, too) and harpsichords – were the backbone of the accompaniment. Strings and recorders completed the orchestra, and they were a delight to the ear – totally delicate and restrained.

The plot of the opera involves love triangles and political intrigue. The supertitles created by David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Dalalio) were amusing and colloquial. So much of the political posturing by Nero, whose main motivation is consistently self-interest, seemed to be pertinent to our time.

Nero was sung by countertenor Thomas Aláan who has a voice of great agility and expressiveness. His lover, Poppea, who yearns to be his empress, was sung by Talia Engstrom. Hers is a voice of great suppleness and flexibility. Throughout the evening she acted and sang with great subtlety, and I admired her performance very much.

I had been primed for the opera’s very final duet (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) to be the most sublime moment of the opera, but I was much more aroused by the farewell duet between Nero and Poppea toward the end of the first act. It was highly charged vocally and erotic in its beauty and delivery.

Other characters included Seneca, portrayed by bass Benjamin Galvin (below left front, surrounded, from left to right, by Eliav Goldman, Jack Innes, Jiabao Zhang, Jake Elfner and Noah Bossert.) The lower range of his voice is profound and impressive.

Kevin Green (below right with Pustaver) portrayed the hapless Ottone, and his baritone voice shows promise.

It was, however, a night for the female singers. Cayla Rosché’s Ottavia was beautifully sung. She was completely believable as the spurned wife of Nero. Likewise Kelsey Wang’s Drusilla, Ottone’s second choice, was also wonderfully sung.

In the first scene we were introduced to Fortuna, Virtù and Amore who shone vocally. Throughout the remainder of the opera they silently hovered in the background as visual reminders of the forces driving the plots. Love, portrayed by Emily Vandenberg, eventually triumphed and got to sing a bit more.

There were moments of humor sprinkled throughout the production. I do not know how historically informed they were, but they did help to lighten the heaviness of the political intrigue and amorous complexities.

Some were perhaps unintentional – particularly the absurdly amusing wig that Fortuna wore. But Professor Mimmi Fulmer, in the small role as Nutrice, had a moment of complete hilarity. Her performance – both vocally and as an actress – underlined the contrast between earnestly serious, focused students and a relaxed, confident professional. (Below is the final scene with Nero and Poppea).

Altogether, it was a surprisingly engaging evening. There remain chances to see it this afternoon and Tuesday evening. It is not a brief or light evening of entertainment, but it is wholly engaging, thought provoking, timely and certainly something out of the ordinary.

Two more performances take place in Music Hall: today at 2 p.m. and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. For more information including how to get tickets – adults are $25, seniors are $20 and students are $10 — go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-monteverdis-the-coronation-of-poppea/


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Classical music: University Opera stages a compelling and fully engaging cabaret of Kurt Weill songs

October 29, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friend and colleague, The Opera Guy, has filed the following review.

By Larry Wells

I attended a nearly full-house opening of University Opera’s “A Kurt Weill Cabaret” Friday night in Music Hall on Bascom Hill.

The 90-minute show was comprised of about 20 numbers from the body of works by Weill (below, in a photo from the German Federal Archive. The ensembles, solos and duets were arranged into three sections with a loose narrative structure linking the pieces.

Throughout the evening I was unaware of the passage of time, which is one of my acid tests for a good performance. Likewise, I felt fully engaged.

Many of the numbers will be familiar to Weill’s fans. The well-known “Whiskey Bar/Alabama Song” was the opening solo for Sarah Kendall, who performed it more as a Puccini aria than as the world-weary, boozy Jenny. It was a novel and strangely compelling interpretation.

(Kendall performing “Whiskey Bar” with the company, is below in a photo by Michael R. Anderson, who took all the performance photographs)

More convincingly conveyed was “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” performed by the sprightly and clear-voiced Emily Weaver. “My Ship” sung by Miranda Kettlewell (below right, singing the Ice Cream Sextet with Alec Brown) was perfectly enunciated and movingly sung.

Since there were no supertitles, clear enunciation was a problem in a couple of the performances.

Likewise, mention should be made of Emily Vandenberg’s haunting rendition of “Surabaya Johnny.” (You can hear the legendary Weill interpreter Lotte Lenya sing “Surabaya Johnny” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

My favorite performances of the evening included “‘Youkali” by Talia Engstrom. My notes simply said “Perfection.” And my perennial favorite Courtney Kayser (below) did not disappoint with “J’attends un navire” and “Denn wie man sich bettet.” She is an excellent actress, possesses outstanding musicianship, and commands a clearly focused voice.

The women singers seriously overshadowed the men’s solo performances. I was wondering why that might have been. One possibility is that the men, who are trained operatically, find that they need to scale back their vocal projection for lighter vocal fare and in doing so sound constrained.

(Below, from back to front and left to right, are: Alec Brown, Jeff Larson, Jake Elfner, Sarah Kendall, Talia Engstrom, Matt Chastain in the “Benares Song.”)

Having said that, I thought Matt Chastain’s “Oh the Rio Grande” from the not well-known “Johnny Johnson” was both well sung and amusing to watch.

My companion admired the voice and acting of Alec Brown, and we both believed that Tim Emery is a dead ringer for a young Jimmy Stewart.

Some of the most compelling moments were the ensembles from Weill’s heavier works. “The Benares Song” highlighted Weill’s gravitas as a composer as did “Zu Potsdam unter den Eichen” from “Das Berliner Requiem.”

The cast members’ acting and vocal skills came to the forefront in these ensembles. (Below is “Zu Potsdam unter den Eichen” with Matt Chastain, Miranda Kettlewell, Alec Brown, Tim Emery, Emily Weaver, Eliav Goldman and Jeffrey Larson in the foreground).

Daniel Fung (below top) heroically provided the piano accompaniment without slacking for even a moment. Kudos to him. He was joined by a string bass and drum all conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below bottom) with unflaggingly appropriate tempi and dynamics.

This was the seventh production by David Ronis (below in a photo by Luke Delallio) for University Opera at the UW-Madison, and his consistently novel approach to the productions has made each one a joy. His commitment to quality and novelty is admirable.

I am eager to see what Ronis has in store for us this coming spring with “La Bohème” to be staged at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

I highly recommend attending “A Kurt Weill Cabaret,” which will be repeated this afternoon at 3 p.m. and Tuesday evening (Halloween night) at 7:30 p.m. Admission for the general public is $25; $20 for seniors; and $10 for UW students.

For more background and information about getting tickets, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/10/23/classical-music-the-university-opera-performs-a-unusual-and-original-kurt-weill-cabaret-this-coming-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-and-next-tuesday-night/

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2017/09/27/university-opera-presents-a-kurt-weill-cabaret/


Classical music: If you are saddened by the deaths of Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall, YOU MUST HEAR THIS: Johann Sebastian Bach’s keyboard transcription of the slow movement from the famous oboe concert by Alessandro Marcello.

August 14, 2014
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Not a lot of words today.

I feel like hearing music, not talking or writing.

Maybe I feel like hearing soulful and quiet music because of the sad news about the deaths of comedian Robin Williams (below top) and actress Lauren Bacall (below bottom), two losses — the first a suicide, the second natural — that make my world smaller, less beautiful and less fun.

Robin Williams

Lauren Bacall

So here, in a popular YouTube video at the bottom, is the French pianist Alexander Tharaud (below, in a photo by Marco Borggreve)  – an artist I really like, especially in Baroque repertoire like the Johann Sebastian Bach, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Francois Couperin and Domenico Scarlatti works that he has recorded.

Here he is playing the transcription that Johann Sebastian Bach made of the profoundly beautiful slow movement from the Baroque oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello. He has also recorded it on CD for Harmonia Mundi. Such beautiful music, and not so hard to play, at least technically.

Alexandre Tharaud  Marco Borggreve Virgin Classics

Mr. Bach (below) knew a good thing when he heard it and wasn’t afraid to transcribe this wind and orchestra work to the keyboard, which was his forte. Bach was no purist.

Bach1

So enjoy as you will.

And leave your own suggestions, with a link if you can.


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