The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Opera’s superb and sensual production of “Fellow Travelers” broke both hearts and new ground

February 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Walking out into the heavy snow last Sunday afternoon, The Ear left the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” – done in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – feeling sad and moved, but also satisfied and proud. (Below is the full cast in a party scene. All performance photos are by James Gill.)

He was proud that the Madison Opera chose this 2016 work by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce — based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon — for its annual winter staging of a modern or contemporary opera.

It was a brave choice.

For one, it focuses on a same-sex love affair in the oppressive political environment of the McCarthy era with its Lavender Scare, which, during the larger Red Scare, tied gays to communists and tried to purge and ruin them lest they be blackmailed.

In addition, the opera speaks to today’s politics of smear and fear, as practiced by President Donald Trump and conspiracy theory proponents on the far right. The Madison Opera wasn’t afraid to point out possible parallels in the program notes.

But the real affirmation of the opera’s contemporaneity came from the first-rate quality of this memorable production.

The cast of nine made a tight ensemble in which each member proved  equally strong in singing and acting.

The two leading men who played federal government workers – tenor Andres Acosta (below right) as the young Timothy Laughlin and baritone Ben Edquist (below left) as the older Hawkins Fuller – turned in outstanding performances from their first meeting on a park bench, through their sexual encounters, to the final breakup.

Particularly moving were the same-sex love scenes and moments of casual affection. Perhaps there are precedents in the history of other Madison Opera productions, but no one seems to know of any.

The two men in bed — wearing only boxer shorts while kissing and caressing each other — seemed like another brave first for the Madison Opera. The explicit scenes of the two men being intimate were tasteful but also sensual and realistic, erotic as well as poignant. (Below are Andres Acosta, left, as Timothy Laughlin and Ben Edquist, right, as Hawkins Fuller.)

Acting seems the real fulcrum of this chamber opera, with the appealing music underscoring the scenes and the acting rather than standing on its own. Yet the two men proved to be powerful singers, especially in their solos and duets. (You can hear Andres Acosta sing an aria in the Minneapolis production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The haunting music was always accessible and atmospheric, disproving the notion that music in new operas is always discordant or hard to listen to. True, The Ear heard no tunes to take away from the opera, no earworm arias from a first hearing. But the singing by all the cast members was uniformly strong.

John DeMain’s conducting exuded both control and subtlety. He maintained a balance from the Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the pit and never overwhelmed the singers.

DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) knew exactly when to pull the music into the background and create a context for the action; and then when to push it to the foreground to accompany the singers or set a scene.

Stage director Peter Rothstein (below), who also staged the opera for the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis with some of the same cast, kept the show moving at a brisk and engaging pace.

The 16 scenes moved quickly throughout the two-hour show, thanks in part to the austere and portable but convincing sets.

The atmosphere of the 1950s, for example, was believably evoked by a simple office setting — a desk, a few filing cabinets, an American flag and a portrait of President Eisenhower. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.)

Particularly effective and disturbing was the interrogation scene, from the embarrassing questions about whether Hawkins Fuller walks or talks like a homosexual to the lie detector test. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Stephen Hobe as the Technician and Alan Dunbar as the Interrogator.)

One outstanding performance involved the resonant and expressive Sidney Outlaw (below) as Tommy McIntyre, the bureaucrat who knows all the secrets in the office of Senator Charles Parker (played by Andrew Wilkowske) and how to use them in order to get his way. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.)

Another outstanding performance came from Adriana Zabala (below) as Mary Johnson, the secretary who finally quits her job and leaves Washington, D.C., to protest the treatment of Timothy by the aptly nicknamed “Hawk” Fuller and the government inquisitors. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.

Throughout the entire opera, the audience proved amazingly quiet, rapt in their attention as they laughed out loud at humorous moments and openly cried at the heart-wrenching plot.

At the end the audience — gay and straight, men and women, old and young – gave the singers and orchestra players a prolonged standing ovation and loud applause.

And walking out, you heard many people talking about the opera in the most positive and approving ways.

The underlying irony, of course, is that an opera with this much insight into both the human heart and the exploitative politics of oppression could never have been staged in the same era it depicts.

At least on that score, we can say we have made some progress in confronting and correcting the injustices and bigotry we witness in “Fellow Travelers.”

But in the end the opera tells us to keep traveling.

You can see what other critics thought of “Fellow Travelers”:

Here is the review that Jay Rath wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/arts/stage/forbidden%20love/

And here is the review that Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/opera-review-fellow-travelers-is-a-certain-kind-of-wonderful/article_0ebc5a83-afbe-5f50-99eb-51e4baa4df0e.html

What did you think?

Leave your own review or reactions in the Comments section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Excellent singing, acting, orchestral playing, sets and costumes combined to make Verdi’s “La Traviata” one of Madison Opera’s best ever productions

November 6, 2019
7 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

The experienced Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of Verdi’s “La Traviata” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

During the first few moments of the Overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” — on Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall — I had a feeling that this would be a special performance. Members of the Madison  Symphony Orchestra sounded full and alive and attentive to artistic director and conductor John DeMain.

(You can hear the haunting overture or prelude, performed at the BBC Proms by the Milan Symphony Orchestra under Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Presented by Madison Opera, this performance will remain in my memory as one of the best I have attended here.

The traditional production was well staged by director Fenlon Lamb with beautiful sets (below) designed for Hawaii Opera Theater and provided by Utah Opera. The sets provided a sense of spaciousness and perspective as befits grand houses in 19th-century Paris.

Likewise, the costumes were spectacular, particularly in the masquerade scene (below) in the second act where almost everyone was in opulent black.

The three principal characters were all well portrayed, although tenor Mackenzie Whitney’s Alfredo (below left) seemed rather youthful to be proclaiming he was being reborn by his love for Violetta (below right).

Both Whitney and baritone Weston Hurt (below right), who portrayed Alfredo’s father Germont, sang perfectly well.

But all of my notes seem to have focused on soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez’s portrayal of Violetta (below left, with Mackenzie Whitney as Alfredo). One aria, duet and ensemble after another was remarkably sung with her pure and crystalline voice.

Lopez is also a talented actress who convincingly conveyed the emotions of the heroine in their wide gamut from care-free courtesan to love-struck woman to abandoned consumptive.

I was close enough to the stage to see the changing emotions flicker across Lopez’s face, and I was very impressed, and ultimately moved, by her performance.

All three of the main characters could sing, but Lopez could really sing and act as well. It was an outstanding performance that left me quite affected.

The chorus sounded wonderful, and the choristers did not overact, for which I was grateful. Their contribution to the finale of the second act made that ensemble heartbreaking. Likewise, the final ensemble at the end of the opera left me bereft.

Altogether conductor, orchestra, singers, chorus, set, costumes and lighting combined to create an unforgettable afternoon. I pay tribute to Verdi for creating an enduring work of art and to John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) for an amazing performance.

For more background about the real-life story and inspiration of the opera and more details about the production and the cast, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/10/28/classical-music-the-madison-opera-performs-verdis-la-traviata-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-in-overture-hall/

Unfortunately, I was seated behind an older couple. The woman was obviously very ill and apparently was unable to lift her head high enough to see the stage, let alone read the supertitles. Her partner — I assume it was her husband — patiently whispered a summary of the supertitles throughout the performance.

I believe that people feel that they are inaudible to others when they whisper to their neighbor, but we all know that this is not the case.

I mentioned this to friends during the intermission, and they said that I should say something. However, my Midwestern niceness kicked in and I just endured it. I thought that perhaps this would be the last opera she would ever attend.

Yet I could not help feeling that I would not have enjoyed someone whispering in my ear while music was being performed; and I would have perhaps prepared in advance so that I knew what I would be hearing.

Additionally, I darkly mused that perhaps “La Traviata” is not an appropriate opera to bring someone who is critically ill to.

Readers’ thoughts on this matter would be appreciated.


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Classical music: Looking for serious fun? The thoroughly successful opening concerts by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society bode well for the upcoming second weekend

June 19, 2019
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

After 28 summers, going to a concert by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society still feels like attending a family reunion – the best kind of family reunion where everyone is familiar and friendly, where everything is fun, and where you always leave glad that you went.

That’s not by chance.

The first thing that co-founders and co-artistic directors Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes did last Friday and Saturday nights was to thank the loyal audience. And the audience, full of longtime fans, returned the favor by being attentive to and appreciative of the first-rate music-making as well as responsive to the horseplay and antics – such as the surreal scene of virtuoso Axel Strauss playing “The Skater’s Waltz” on his violin while rollerblading around the stage (below).

BDDS players really mean it when they say that their audiences are in for something different, something they won’t find elsewhere and won’t forget.

Last weekend that meant the return of two longtime guest performers: San Francisco cellist Jean-Michael Fonteneau and Montreal violinist Axel Strauss (below, with pianist Jeffrey Sykes). Neither disappointed as they performed very varied music by Franz Joseph Haydn, C.P.E. Bach, Johannes Brahms, Gabriel Faure, Lili Boulanger, Maurice Ravel and Ned Rorem. And as always, the amazing  pianist Jeffrey Sykes proved a chameleon who blended masterfully into the style of each period and each composer.

But for The Ear, the unexpected standout last weekend was guest accordion player Stas Venglevski from Milwaukee. Born in Russia and trained at the Moscow Conservatory, he is a virtuoso player, a sensitive arranger and a convincing composer – all done with good humor and a charismatic stage presence.

The Ear never thought of the accordion – the Russian bayan, to be specific – as an instrument for chamber music. But he does now, after hearing Venglevski play serious Russian, French and Latin American music that ran the gamut from a graceful waltz and a sprightly polka to torchy tangos. And then there were his flying fingers punching out “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” a real crowd-pleaser.

The large audience responded on both nights with wild applause and a standing ovation every time that Venglevski (below) played, and Jutt promised the audience that he will be back.

“As you can see, we have fun here,” Jutt deadpanned.

She is not exaggerating.

Which bodes well for the second weekend of three that will happen this coming weekend.

The second weekend — two programs in three venues — celebrates Jutt and Sykes, plus two of BDDS’ favorite guest artists: violinist Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio and Madison pianist Thomas Kasdorf.

Kasdorf (below) and Sykes are both featured in a program called “Rock the Sykes-o-delic Kas-bah.” Kasdorf is featured in Brahms’ Horn Trio with guest horn player Karl Kramer Johansen, and in the appealing and accessible Café Concertino by the contemporary Australian composer Carl Vine.

Sykes will perform another chamber transcription of a Classical-era symphonic work, which over the years has become a welcome specialty of BDDS. In this case it is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s snappy and appealing Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major, K. 271, the “Jeunehomme” concerto. (You can hear the irresistible last movement of the piano concerto, used in the film “Amadeus,” in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Sykes will also perform in Robert Schumann’s “Fairy Tales” for clarinet and viola.

A Madison native, cellist Alison Rowe (below) — an artist from the Dynamite Factory, which is BDDS’ program for emerging talent — will be featured in the Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Major by Johann Sebastian Bach.

“Rock the Sykes-o-delic Kas-bah” will be performed at the Stoughton Opera House on Friday, June 21, at 7:30 p.m. Braisin’ Hussies Food Cart will be parked outside the Opera House prior to the performance. The program will also be performed in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater, Sunday, June 23, at 2:30 p.m.

Jutt (below top) and Sant’Ambrogio (below bottom, in a photo by Stephanie Ann Boyd) worm their musical way into the most unexpected places in the other program, “Steph Infection.” The Nocturne for flute, violin, horn and piano of Franz Doppler opens the program, which continues with Jutt’s own arrangement of Antonin Dvorak’s popular “American” String Quartet, with a flute substituting for one of the two violins.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Five Pieces for flute, clarinet and piano add spice to the program, and the evening concludes with Ernst von Dohnanyi’s epic Sextet for clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello and piano. A work that ranges from stormy and turbulent to tender and funny, it features an all-star cast including audience favorite clarinetist Alan Kay, horn player Karl Kramer Johansen, violist Carol Cook (principal at the Lyric Opera of Chicago), and Madison’s own cellist of the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet, Parry Karp (below).

“Steph Infection” will be performed at The Playhouse, Overture Center for the Arts, Saturday, June 22, at 7:30 p.m.; and in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater, Sunday, June 23, at 6:30 p.m.

And of course there could also be some unannounced surprises – more door prizes, perhaps a mystery guest, or more shenanigans and antics that correspond to the “Name Dropping” pun theme of the programs.

For tickets ($43-$49) and more information, go to: https://bachdancing.org


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