The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Stage Director Norma Saldivar talks about Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” The Madison Opera gives three performances of it this coming weekend.

February 2, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will present its first-ever production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” by Stephen Sondheim (below) this coming weekend on Friday and Saturday nights and on Sunday afternoon in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center for the Arts.

The company has built a new production of this American masterpiece — which is so popular that it was made into a 2007 film by director Tim Burton that starred Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman and Helena Bonham Carter. The powerhouse cast, Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra all promise to bring a very operatic theater score to life.

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The show tells of the barber Sweeney Todd, who returns to the gas-lit streets of Victorian London after 15 years of unjust imprisonment to claim vengeance on those who wronged him. He is aided in his murderous activities by Mrs. Lovett, maker of some rather tasty meat pies.

One of Sondheim’s most renowned works, “Sweeney Todd” has a stunningly inventive score containing drama, macabre humor, lyrical purity and an unforgettable final scene.

“I love this piece,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “It’s a true American classic, with a story that is simultaneously dark and comic, and music that ranges from beautifully lyrical songs like ‘Not While I’m Around’ (at bottom in a YouTube video ) to vaudevillian turns like ‘A Little Priest,’ all with some of the wittiest lyrics ever written.”

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Although it premiered on Broadway in 1979 – winning eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical – “Sweeney Todd” has been a staple of opera companies since 1984, when Houston Grand Opera first staged it, followed a few months later by New York City Opera. With a score that is almost entirely sung, it has been described by Sondheim as a “dark operetta.”

That first Houston Grand Opera production was conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera, who will conduct these performances.

“For me, it is a brilliantly composed work for the musical theater that has marvelous melodies, incredible lyrics, a unique and thrillingly fascinating story, and a climax that is the stuff of grand opera,” says DeMain. “I can’t wait to conduct our stunning cast in this masterwork for the lyric stage.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Corey Crider (below top) and Meredith Arwady (below bottom) make their Madison Opera debuts as the vengeful barber and the ever-practical Mrs. Lovett. Crider has sung leading roles with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Arizona Opera, and the Castleton Festival. Arwady has sung leading roles with San Francisco Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Santa Fe Opera.

Corey Crider

Meredith Arwady

In the role of the mysterious Beggar Woman, Emily Pulley (below) makes her Madison Opera debut after recent performances at the Metropolitan Opera, Central City Opera, and Opera Theater of St. Louis.

tEmily Pulley

Returning to Madison Opera are former Madison Opera Studio Artist Jeni Houser as Johanna, Sweeney’s daughter; Daniel Shirley as the young sailor Anthony Hope; and Thomas Forde as the evil Judge Turpin. Three tenors round out the cast. Joshua Sanders, who has been singing with Madison Opera since high school, plays the innocent Tobias Ragg. Jared Rogers makes his debut as the menacing Beadle Bamford. Robert Goderich, a local theater and opera favorite, plays Sweeney’s rival barber, Adolfo Pirelli.

Performances are on Friday, at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

The production will be sung in English with projected text.

Tickets are $25-$110 with group discounts available. Contact the Overture Center Box Office,
201 State St., Madison, WI. You can also call (608) 258-4141 and email www.madisonopera.org

Madison Opera is building a new production specifically for the Capitol Theater. Stage director Norma Saldivar, set designer Joseph Varga, costume designer Karen Brown-Larimore, and lighting designer Hideaki Tsutsui are creating a world set in an Industrial Age factory, with the orchestra on stage to bring the action even closer to the audience.

“Building a new production allows us to take advantage of the Capitol Theater,” says Smith. “The gorgeous venue is ideally suited to this piece and it is exciting to create something new.”

Stage Director Norma Saldivar (below, in a photo from Madison Magazine) is Executive Director of the UW-Madison Arts Institute and a professor in the Theater Department, recently granted an email interview to The Ear:

Norma Saldivar color

Could you briefly introduce yourself to readers?

I’m Norma Saldivar, and I am the stage director for the Madison Opera’s production of “Sweeney Todd.”

How does directing an opera differ from directing a play?

I know that you’d like me to say that there is some real difference in directing opera or straight theatre productions – and there are distinct differences. However, the work of the director remains the same.

I am a storyteller, a chief creative leader of a team of people who bring the story to life and three-dimensional form. There are differences in working with music that obviously involve expressing the intention of the composer, which means working with a conductor who brings to life and secures the intention of the composer and lyricist.

But ultimately, we all work to bring the story to an audience and to engage and entertain them.

In the case of “Sweeney Todd,” how does such a grim and gory or grotesque plot – about murdering men by slitting their throats and then baking their bodies into cannibalistic meat pies –- end up being an enjoyable and entertaining opera? Does being so over the top help or offer special challenges?

The story predates Sondheim and began in “penny dreadfuls” — these stories of suspense were very popular and connected to their audience in a way that so many contemporary suspense and horror stories do now for our audience.

I think there is a great deal of suspense in the story, in that as it unfolds an audience can’t believe their eyes or ears. The audaciousness is surprising and tantalizing –- and then there is also humor, heartbreak and love in the story. It is a different take on an age-old story of revenge.

What does Stephen Sondheim do in the libretto and music to overcome that kind of inherent handicap?

I don’t see the aspects of the genre — suspense and horror – as handicaps. There are other musical pieces – “Phantom of the Opera” is one – that make for great drama.

The music is the added character to the story.

Sondheim writes in one of his books that he was inspired by the movie music of Bernard Hermann – his work in horror films by Alfred Hitchcock fueled Sondheim’s work on Sweeney. But Sondheim is so brilliant that he integrates other musical genres in the piece to create a very specific effect. There are intricate pieces that pull us momentarily away from the suspense. Like any good storyteller, his music takes the audience on an unexpected ride.

What is your approach to staging it? Are there special things in this production that you would like the audience to take notice of?

I am a very visual director. I love that Sondheim himself talks about this piece being a movie for the stage. What a great challenge for the stage director to try and interpret quick cuts and split screens, or changes in time and location on stage. We have a great design team that provides me the tools and background to work with the singers to support the musical story and to work in visual harmony. Without the design team and singers — well, I wouldn’t have much.

The challenge with this piece in particular is the length of the story. It moves quickly, spans months of time, and exists in a theatrical and psychological platform all at once. It’s a terrific challenge for a director, production team and performers. All the nuances that have to play to make the story clear is what makes the challenge really interesting.

Is there anything else you would like to add or say about this work and this production of it — the cast, the sets, the costumes — for The Madison Opera?

It has been a pleasure to work with the extraordinary John DeMain and the entire Madison Opera family. From the administration to the designers to the principal artists to the lovely chorus to the folks building the show — what more can a director ask for? Everyone is top-notch and devoted to giving everyone the best show. I feel honored to be working with them — really honored.

 


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra turns in a two-fold triumph with a Madison’s first live Bruckner symphony and a darkly elegant Mozart piano concerto with Shai Wosner as soloist. Moreover, the WCO plans on another Bruckner symphony (No. 2) next season.

March 25, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Is this a case of saving the best for last (or next to last) ?

Probably not, as most performing groups want to put their best foot forward all season long.

But now there can be no doubting that the smaller David took on the bigger Goliath (the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra vs. the Madison Symphony Orchestra, though they are really friendly competitors, not enemies) for the honor of presenting live Bruckner symphonies in Madison first – and won. Moreover, the ambitious and accomplished WCO has programmed Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2 for next season while the MSO has once again taken a pass.

So some history was made, and much beauty was created at last Friday night’s concert in the Overture Center‘s Capitol Theater by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top) under its longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below bottom).

WCO lobby

andrewsewell

The evening started off with the Israeli-born and now New York-based pianist Shai Wosner (below) once again substituting for a missing Anne-Marie McDermott in Mozart’s dark and dramatic masterwork the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor. K. 491.

Wosner is a master of clarity, elegance and rounded tone with a great gift for playing quietly, with understatement.  His scales remain strings of individual pearls — not a choker. Trained as a composer, Wosner also played his own cadenzas in the first and last movements, and provided his own variations and ornamentation in the second movement when the theme gets repeated five times.

Shai Wosner Photo: Marco Borggreve

Most of all, Wosner displayed in abundance what great Mozart concertos – which are  difficult to bring off because of their transparency – require. Both Wosner and the WCO played the concerto as chamber music, holding dialogues with the various sections of the chamber orchestra.

The effect was magical and moving. It was an enthralling performance, and makes one hope to hear more of the Wosner-Sewell partnership in more Mozart piano concertos as well as other repertoire. There are, after all, 27 piano concertos by Mozart, of which at least 12 or 18 are undeniable masterpieces. And Wosner told The Ear that is looking into recording piano concertos by Haydn and Ligeti. Madison could be a test run.

The audience appreciated the Mozart performance so much that they elicited from Wosner a perfect encore: a Schubert miniature, the haunting “Hungarian Melody,” which Wosner plays on his all-Schubert CD for the Onyx label. (Below is a YouTube video with Andras Schiff playing part of it.) The audience was hushed and spellbound by the entrancing beauty played so subtly, so fluidly and so warmly.

It sure makes one hope that someone – perhaps the Wisconsin Union Theater or Farley’s House of Pianos – brings Shai Wosner back for a solo recital.

Then, after intermission, came the historic Bruckner.

This is officially his “Zero” or “Nullte” Symphony, as good a place as any to start a Bruckner quest. And once again the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Sewell showed their respective talents in this long and difficult, if early, score by the deeply religious and solitary Austrian Bruckner (below):

Anton Bruckner 2

All the sections  — strings, brass, winds, percussion — performed superbly with sharp attacks and even sharper silences.

To be clear: This is certainly not Bruckner’s greatest symphonic work. But it is well worth playing and hearing, and it proved a wonderful first introduction to hearing live Bruckner symphonies in Madison.

I loved especially the first movement, with its haunting violin opening that made one wonder if the sophisticated movie composer and orchestrator Bernard Hermann had listened to it or had it in mind while he was writing the edgy score for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

Compare the opening minutes of the two works with the sharp, jagged violins and judge for yourselves:

The slow movement proved lovely, and the Scherzo, which looks forward and is perhaps the most Brucknerian movement, proved by turns forcefully dramatic and songfully lyrical.

All in all, this was one of the finest and most impressive pairings – of both the programming and the performances – of this season. It was on par with the outstanding concert of an early Mozart Violin Concerto and a late Shostakovich symphony that the Madison Symphony Orchestra performed only two weeks ago. Are we in Madison not lucky? One can only hope for more concerts like these two.

Of course, we are all critics. And you should know that The Ear is not alone is his very positive regard for the WCO concert with Wosner and Bruckner.

Here, for example, is the review by John W. Barker, a frequent guest blogger for this blog, that appeared in Isthmus and briefly explores the contrasts between Bruckner and Mahler, who are so often mentioned together:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=39478&sid=c7a301311ba6864c6009c653492cee4f

 And here is a review by Greg Hettmansberger for the “Classically Speaking” blog he writes for Madison Magazine:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/March-2013/Wisconsin-Chamber-Orchestra-Two-Great-Halves-Equal-One-Spectacular-Evening/


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