The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Despite overly traditional staging, the Madison Opera’s “Carmen” beguiled and bewitched through the outstanding singing

November 7, 2017
16 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy attended Sunday’s sold-out performance of “Carmen” by the Madison Opera and filed the following review, with photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

When I learned that Madison Opera was going to produce Bizet‘s “Carmen,” I was not surprised. It is annually one of the most frequently performed operas internationally, and it is a surefire vehicle for filling seats. It is safe.

On the other hand, once one watches repeated performances of an old favorite, the appeal can diminish. One advantage of an opera is that novel approaches to the production can prevent a warhorse from becoming stale.

I would love to say that the approach both musically and dramatically to this production of “Carmen” broke new ground, but it did not. In fact, the production was as traditional as could be. (Below is the main set, rented from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.)

I attended a performance of “Carmen” in Tucson a couple of years ago, and the conductor Keitaro Harada breathed new life into the familiar music through interesting tempi and finely nuanced dynamics.

Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo  by Prasad) conducted the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a perfectly fine and occasionally uplifting manner, but there was little new to learn from his approach. The purely instrumental entr’actes shimmered, but during the rest of the opera the singing was at the forefront.

Maestro Harada (below), whom Madison should be actively courting, is currently conducting “Carmen” in Sofia, and the accompanying publicity clip in the YouTube video at the bottom (bear with the Bulgarian commentary) shows that the production is unconventional in its approach although it clearly is still “Carmen.” I would have enjoyed something other than the ultra-traditional staging and sets experienced here in Madison.

At times the production was so hackneyed and hokey that I chuckled to myself – ersatz flamenco dancing, the fluttering of fans, all of the cigarette factory girls with cigarettes dangling from their lips, unconvincing fight scenes, annoying children running across the stage, dreary costumes that hardly reminded me of Seville. And I could go on.

Yet “Carmen” has a way of drawing one in despite oneself. The music is marvelous, and the singing was uniformly excellent.

The four principals were luminous both in their solo pieces and ensembles. Cecelia Violetta López as Micaëla (below right) was lustrous in her two arias as well as in her duet with Sean Panikkar’s Don José (below left).

Panikkar started the performance off with little flair, but from the time he became besotted with Carmen toward the end of the first act he was on fire. He then maintained a high degree of passion and zest in his vocal performance.

Corey Crider (below right) was a wonderful Escamillo, singing his toréador role with great élan despite his unfortunate costumes.

And Aleks Romano (below) as Carmen made the most of her complex character. Her singing was luscious, and her acting – particularly her use of her expressive eyes – was terrific.

Likewise, the lesser roles – Thomas Forde as Zuniga, Benjamin Liupaogo as Remendado, Erik Earl Larson as Dancaïre, a radiant Anna Polum as Fransquita, and Megan Le Romero as Mercédès – were equally well sung. The ensemble work in the quintet at the end of Act II and in the card scene was outstanding.

The chorus (below) sounded terrific throughout, although the women’s costumes and the stage direction made the choristers appear ludicrous as times.

When all is said and done, “Carmen” still beguiled me by drawing me into its characters’ complex psychologies and motivations. Likewise, its music still bewitched me in much the same way as Carmen inexplicably bewitched hapless Don José (below).

But I seem to always wish for more – more compelling productions, more daring music making, more risk-taking.

I do look forward to this coming spring’s production of “Florencia en el Amazonas.” The recording is captivating, and the opera’s performances have pleased a wide variety of audiences by all accounts. And it is something new. Hallelujah!

Did you go to “Carmen”? 

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: Madison Opera’s festive and fun 16th annual Opera in the Park is this Saturday night

July 17, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

It serves as a preview of the indoor winter opera season.

But one of the summer’s major events in Madison is primarily a fun time unto itself — with outdoors picnicking and socializing, and lots of outdoor music making, some of it with the audience helping to “conduct” with glow-in-the-dark light sticks.

The Madison Opera’s annual FREE Opera in the Park concert will take place this coming Saturday night starting at 8 p.m. in Garner Park, on Madison’s west side near the junction of Mineral Point Road and Rosa Road. (You can get a taste of the event in the YouTube video from 2010 at the bottom.)

The park opens at 7 a.m. Blankets, chairs, food and beverages are allowed. The rain date is the next day — Sunday, July 23.

Here is what Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), the general director of Madison Opera, has to say about the event:

“Opera in the Park has become a Madison summer tradition since the first concert in 2002. When the weather is good, we have over 15,000 people in the audience, which is the highest per-capita attendance of any such opera event in the U.S.

“I think there are many reasons for its success, from the beautiful music to the beautiful park, and the fact that our community enjoys spending time together outside in the summer.

“We don’t make massive changes each year, but it is of course a new set of singers and a new program, so it’s a fresh musical experience.

“This year, for example, we have two arias from zarzuelas or traditional Spanish musical comedies,, including the zarzuela version of “The Barber of Seville” – which will be complemented by an aria from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” naturally.

“Audience members might also choose to vary the contents of their picnic basket each year – perhaps with Bizet’s “Carmen” and “The Barber of Seville” on the concert, they might want to include Spanish foods.

“I try to invite principal artists from our upcoming season when possible, so that audiences can get to know singers they can then hear in full roles later in the year.

“This summer our singers include soprano Cecilia Violetta López (below), who will be in “Carmen” in November;

tenor David Walton (below), who will be in Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” in February;

and mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala (below), who will be in Daniel Catan‘s “Florencia en el Amazonas” in April.

“Baritone Will Liverman (below) is not in the upcoming season, but he has had major success here as “The Barber of Seville” and in last season’s “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” so I’m delighted he is able to join us this summer in the park.

“Putting on Opera in the Park is a complex production, from renting the generators and the stage to coordinating with the City Parks Department and the Madison Police.

Full Compass Systems and Bag End donate the sound system and their services to run it every year, and there are hundreds of people involved, from our production team to our volunteers, from the IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) stage crew to the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra.

“I often say that Opera in the Park is the most important thing Madison Opera does, and I think everyone involved believes that as well.

Now if only the weather will cooperate …”

For more information about Opera in the Park, including the times; the complete concert program that includes selections from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” on the occasion of the composer’s centennial; detailed biographies of the soloists and the guest conductor Joseph Mechavich (below); reservations for the supporters’ Prelude Dinner at 6:30 p.m.; rules about reserving seating in the park; and how to become a volunteer, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/park/


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