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: “Into the Woods” is a big deal in many ways for the UW-Madison. There are five performances at the Memorial Union between this Thursday night and Sunday afternoon

February 20, 2019

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By Jacob Stockinger

Make no mistake.

The modern musical and theatrical retellings by Stephen Sondheim (below) of well-known childhood fairy tales do not offer your usual versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Prince Charming, Cinderella and Rapunzel among others.

Moreover the local production of the acclaimed 1986 Broadway musical “Into the Woods” – the woods being a dark, adult and disturbing Freudian metaphor of deeper meanings — is literally a big deal. (You can hear a sample of Sondheim’s music and supremely clever lyrics, taken from the 2014 movie version by Walt Disney, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It involves both the University Opera and the University Theatre and Drama Department. The ambitious joint production – the first in a dozen years – took almost two years and involves over 90 people.

You can see the promising results for yourself in five performances starting this Thursday night in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights; and at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Happily, there are a lot of ways to check out background and prepare for the show, which faced its own trials.

You’ll notice, for example, that  the rehearsal picture below —  taken by Beau Meyer of Elisheva Pront (Cinderella) with Jake Elfner (her Prince Charming) — was taken with no costumes, even though such photos were planned. But during the recent deep freeze and big thaw, Vilas Hall got hit with flooding from broken pipes and the costumes got clobbered, so such photos are delayed.

Still, the show must go on — and did.

Here is an interview with David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio), the prize-winning director of University Opera and other members of the production team and actors:

Here is more information, including a plot summary, a cast and ticket information from the University Opera:

Here is a story from the Department of University Theatre and Drama, including interviews with the two women who play Cinderella:

From the Wisconsin Union Theater, here is the complex and complete ticket pricing information ($10-$40):

And here is a complete list of the student cast, who will sing under the baton of UW-Madison professor Chad Hutchinson (below)  who will conduct the orchestra:

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Classical music review: “Cinderella” goes to Hollywood as the Madison Opera shows how Rossini got rich by writing the TV sitcoms and romantic comedies of his day.

May 1, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

So, there I was, heading off to the opera, wondering about two things:

What did ordinary  people do before movies and television for entertainment? Surely it wasn’t all reading books or playing music at home, since as amusement they probably didn’t have a sufficiently high quota of triviality, lightness and laughs.

And: What accounted for such commercial success that the 19th-century opera composer Rossini (below) could retire for the rest of his life into Parisian decadence and self-indulgence at age 37.

I found my answers — it turns out they are related to each other — Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall.

Enter the Madison Opera’s thoroughly enjoyable production of Rossini’s “Cinderella” (La Cenerentola), the first-ever production of this well-known classic work by the local opera company.

The first thing to know is that stage director Garnett Bruce (below) updated the work to Depression-era Hollywood in the 1930s and that the search for a princess became a search for a star – or was it a wife? Well, it WAS confusing in the opera. But then it also IS confusing in real life since many movie moguls end up marrying their Leading Ladies. Or make Leading Ladies of their wives.

Still, though people who know other productions of “Cinderella” (La Cenerentola) and opera purists may not approve of the re-working, the audience roared with laughter and gave the production a prolonged and enthusiastic standing ovation.

Much of the production’s appeal came from the very colorful, glitzy Busby Berkeley-type sets (below in a photo by James Gill) and the witty, stage business including using rolled R’s and explosive T’s a repetitive sextet and props such as the clever juggling of hat and an umbrella. The traditional royal castle became a Hollywood studio, and the glass slipper became a diamond bracelet. This production inhabited a world of metaphorical equivalencies. It worked for me.

True, at times the stage business, sets and costumes seemed over-the-top. But then what is opera or Rossini all about if not going over the top — kind of like TV sitcoms and Hollywood blockbusters.

But make no mistake, despite all the updating much of the production’s appeal also came from the original score.

Members of the pit orchestra, recruited from the Madison Symphony Orchestra and playing under the able baton MSO conductor and Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below), turned in a solid and precise performance. At no time did the singers and orchestra seem out of synch or out of balance.

And they captured that bouncy, upbeat, major-key Rossini sunny cheerfulness – soo-o-o—Italian – you know, that playfulness that relies so much on toodling winds and melodic strings as well as repetition and  the endless looping of musical themes and words.

But the major credit, of course, goes to the singers.

Singing the title role, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack (below, in a photo by James Gill) just soared above the rest of the cast. A standout, she possessed the whole package: tone, diction, range and power – astonishing Ethel Mermanesque power. Plus, her acting was very good, too. This was her Madison debut – not counting Opera in the Park — but The Ears says: Sign her again, the sooner the better. Bring her back.

Mack was well matched with tenor Gregory Schmidt (below, in a photo by James Gill) who played the Prince/Director of Palace Pictures’ Don Ramiro and who has sung three times with the Madison Opera. His strong voice was clear and his acting was convincing, if sometimes it seemed just a bit less than whole-hearted, as in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance steps. But all in all, he proved as reliable keeper, a real find who should also sing the title role if they ever do an opera called “Mr. Speaker: The John Boehner Story.”

Another well matched pair were Cinderella’s sisters, played by local favorites mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck  (below right, in a photo by James Gill) and by soprano Amy Mahoney (below, left). These two often stole the show with their sisterly bitchiness and outsized ambition to beat the plain, sincere and kind-hearted Cinderella to stardom. Brava! And Brava!

Much of the fun came especially the second act, much tighter and shorter than the first, in which the valet Daniel Belcher (below, center ) turns into some witty meteoritical or self-referential commentator on the script and production.

Cinderella’s ambitious father, baritone Steven Condy (below), stole quite a few scenes, less by his able singing that by his acting and stage business, and by his gift for projecting a comic and confused gruffness combined with endearment.

All in all, this opera production went down easily and smoothly, with the enjoyable, if forgettable or predictable, fun of a romantic comedy with, say, Julia Roberts or Cary Grant. Or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It was, in short, a romp.

Opera started as a populist art form for the people, not for critics or scholars. And that is exactly how this production found its success: With ordinary people.

If you want to explore the deeper meaning of the fairy tale “Cinderella,” you might look at other productions or psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s study “The Uses of Enchantment.”

Me, I was happy just to flee a cloudy, cool and rainy Sunday afternoon and end up in such an enchanting, charming and escapist production.

I suspect Rossini enjoyed his retirement very much. And I suspect he would have loved the excesses of Hollywood every bit as much as he loved the depraved charms of Paris.

And here’s the secret that the composer knew: Cinderella was a man.

The real rags-to-riches Cinderella was none other than Rossini himself.

Here is what some others thought of the production.

Here is a link to the review by John W. Barker for Isthmus:

Here is the review by Lindsay Christians and West High School student Elena Livorni for 77 Square, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal:

Here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and the blog “Classically Speaking”:

Here is Bill Wineke’s review for WISC-TV and

Classical music Q&A: Stage director Garnett Bruce talks about updating Rossini’s opera “Cinderella” to Hollywood in the 1930s Depression for the Madison Opera.

April 23, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, the Madison Opera will close its current season with its first-ever production of Rossini’s “Cinderella” (La Cenerentola), which has been set in Depression-era 1930’s Hollywood.

“Cinderella” will be sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Tickers run $18-$116.

For more information, call (608) 258-4141 or visit:

Bel canto magic meets a beloved fairy tale as the beautiful maid Angelina quests for true love and the talented film director Ramiro sets out to find his next leading lady.

The production (below in a photo by Cory Weaver for Austin Lyric Opera)  features glittering sets and costumes and a cast of unforgettable characters.

Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill) conducts the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra. Stage director Garnett Bruce returns to direct the lavish production, an original interpretation that incorporates showgirls, soundstage, and Busby Berkeley production numbers.

Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, who appeared at Opera in the Park 2011, sings Angelina, the ill-treated Cinderella who dreams of happiness. Tenor Gregory Schmidt, last on the Madison Opera stage as the ghostly Peter Quint in Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw,” sings Don Ramiro, the weary film director at Palace Pictures Studios whose hunt for a starlet awakens his heart. Baritone Steven Condy sings Don Magnifico, the washed-up vaudevillian searching for a ticket back to stardom with his two scheming daughters. Daniel Belcher makes his Madison Opera debut as Dandini, Ramiro’s driver, who
changes places with him to great comic effect. Alan Dunbar also makes
his Madison Opera debut in the role of Alidoro, the clever studio head
at Palace Pictures.

They are joined by Jamie Van Eyck and Amy
 Mahoney as the two amusingly wicked stepsisters, Tisbe and Clorinda.

“Cinderella is one of Rossini’s most delightful operas,” says Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith. “It’s both very funny and very genuine— we laugh at the comedy, while strongly rooting for everyone to live happily ever after. The music is full of vocal fireworks that are thrilling to hear and we have a stunning cast that makes it all sound easy.”

Stage director Garnett Bruce (below) recently agreed to talk to The Ear about his updating of the production:

Are you generally a fan of re-setting or updating operas? Why or why not? How do you think opera fans will react to what you have done?

I believe in good story telling. Sometimes, the original period is NOT helpful  (think of BALLO set in Boston, or TRAVIATA in the Baroque era) — and while this is not the case with CINDERELLA, we wanted to find a new way into the central ideas of the piece, while still honoring the text and music and structure from Rossini.

When a director has made mince-meat out of a piece, rehashing ideas and reusing music for his/her own points of view, I often wonder if that energy would be better spent writing a NEW piece rather than tinkering with someone who can no longer collaborate!  And, if the update distracts (a Planet of the Apes RIGOLETTO or Spaceship BOHEME) then we have not only failed the composer but also the audience.

I hope that our choice of 1933 Hollywood will invoke happy memories of those B&W movies for our audience, and give them a handle into Rossini’s deeper emotional music once the flash and dazzle of the patter sequences has died down.  Somehow, corsets and fans and petticoats and white wigs feel a bit formal for the fun I feel when I hear this score.  But what might have been avant-garde in 1817 is merely a passing antique in 2012.  I want the story to be invigorating.

How and why did you come up with idea of using Hollywood in the 1930s as a setting for Rossini’s “Cinderella”? Do the text and the music support that updating?

In our examination of Hollywood, I needed to balance the poverty aspect of Magnifico’s life and also find a logic for the beggar disguise that Alidoro is wearing in the first scene of the opera.  Then, realizing that IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (below, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert) was filmed in 1933 (winning an Oscar in 1934), the studios were starting to move away from the dazzle of sound and extravaganza to human dramas.

Rossini is doing the same thing — and the humanity that Angelina sings in this score is as touching as anything from Mozart or Handel.  I would say 95% of the text works. We have to accept “Principe” a lot, and the “codice” of birth records gets a bit sticky — but if we got stuck on THAT, we’d miss the point of the fun, the fluidity and the point of the story:  The Triumph of Goodness.

In the Act I finale, Dandini as the “false Prince” is setting up his big event — and instead of “Andiamo a tavola” meaning the banquet, we make it refer to nightclub tables in the movie set.  No big deal.

Does Rossini’s own life – early retirement at 37 as a rich star composer, years of decadence and self-indulgence in Paris – play any part in making the revised setting a natural match or choice?

In 1817, Rossini (below) must have had a joie de vivre, but was only a fledgling success — many projects and commissions, but still unknown outside Italy.  BARBIERE would propel him to worldwide acclaim, but by 1817, that hadn’t quite happened.  So he was working VERY fast to be clever, to be charming, to be innovative – and retain his humanity.

By 1820-21 when the production was revived (with a better aria for Alidoro written by Rossini himself instead of an assistant), he was well on his way to being the toast of Europe.  But he didn’t tinker with CENERENTOLA or BARBER too much — confident in his early choices.

So, we took a confident approach to our visuals — and bringing B&W movies to color, we opted for bold statements to make the contrast between the dilapidated, soon-to-be-forgotton vaudeville world of Magnifico and the slick silver screen of Palace Pictures  (helping us at least reference “Palazzo” throughout the score !).

Is the Hollywood setting also apropos because the “fairy tale” story of so many movie stars and people who start out ordinary and then get discovered and make big in Hollywood is itself a kind of Cinderella tale? How is the Depression-era relevant and does it have anything to do with the recent Great Recession?

I certainly think movie magic and being “discovered” and made a star is as great a parallel as one might find between the fairy tale and our American history.  Every culture has taken a spin at the legend, and our hopes and dreams really DO pull us up and out of depression, fiscal and otherwise.

If the audience can engage and identify with the characters, then theater works a whole lot better!  We’ve certainly put a few layers on top of Rossini, but I suspect he’d be cracking jokes right along with the rest of us.

Anyone watching today who’s had to tighten their belt the past few years will understand how desperate folks might go be “make it big” and win the lottery – to show off their talent – to be rewarded for being themselves.

Our initial collaborators in Kansas City are still talking about the fun we had doing this production — and finding references even now.  The props mistress, for example, keeps her eye out for the right lamp, the right coffeepot, etc.

It’s been eight years since we started this concept, and every outing makes it fresh because every cast brings their experience to bear. Here in Madison, Daniela Mack and Danny Belcher have dance background; Steve Condy (below) is a veteran comedian who knows the Marx Bros./Abbott & Costello routines by heart, among many many others; Greg Schmidt has a vast knowledge of bel canto rep and spot on Italian — those high C’s are thrilling and in context !  Our Alidoro is actually conversant in philosophy.

So I hope this framework allows the music to come back off the page — and with our short rehearsal period, nearly as fast as Rossini wrote them down!  We have a dedicated chorus and crew of extras filling out the story with multiple characters and costumes and 17 scene shifts, some subtle, some grand, but all leading us to the joyous conclusion of “Non piu mesa” (at bottom, sung by Cecilia Bartoli).

There’s an entire box that travels with me for this production of photos and reference materials and we’re constantly pouring over them to find ideas, solutions and examples. What do you do with your hands? How can I stand? What makes me look glamorous? And then, this year, seeing not only HUGO, but also THE ARTIST, we had big-screen examples of stories from this era, too.  When I saw how some of the dancing moments play out in THE ARTIST, I could only smile at the coincidence.

What else would you like to say about this production in specific or about Madison, its audiences and your previous experience with the Madison Opera in general?

I’m honored by the care and intelligence Madison Opera, its general director Kathryn Smith and our conductor John DeMain have lavished on this concept!  They all believe in it, too, and have gone out of their way to support, defend, engage and tempt everyone to join in the fun. That’s so rewarding as a director, to see the energy we created in rehearsal not only leap across the pit and charm the audience, but to leap exponentially into the ether and the media and capture everyone’s attention.

I feel certain Rossini would have loved that. This music is the motor and the very foundation of our ideas – and if we can hear it from a fresh point of view, it comes to life.

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