The Well-Tempered Ear

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: Madison Opera’s “Seraglio” stood out for its singing and staging, its local sets and costumes, and provided a crowd-pleasing comic romp in trying times. Plus, Friday brings FREE piano and viola da gamba concerts

February 15, 2018
3 Comments

FRDAY ALERTS: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features Eric Miller playing the viola da gamba in a recital of early baroque music by Marais, Forquery, Sainte-Colombe, Abel, Hume and Ortiz. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

Then on Friday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the critically acclaimed guest pianist Marina Lomazov will perform a FREE recital of all-Russian music that includes “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky. Lomazov’s recital is part of a larger event, “Keyboard Day,” that has a French focus and takes place all day Saturday at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. See tomorrow’s post for more information about Saturday. For more about Lomazov, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/guest-artist-marina-lomazov-piano/

By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy filed this review of last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera:

By Larry Wells

On Sunday afternoon, I attended the second and final performance of Madison Opera’s production of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

This comic romp utilized a beautiful set and wonderful costumes designed and constructed in-house. (Below, Matt Bueller as Osmin peers out the door of the palace, or seraglio, at David Walton as Belmont.)

The orchestra, drawn from the Madison Symphony Orchestra and ably led by maestro John DeMain, was situated backstage. This was an effective novelty, although the sound was somewhat muffled, at least from where I sat in mid-orchestra.

The dialogue was in English while the singing was in German with English supertitles. I looked over the lengthy original libretto and was thankful that it had been heavily abridged for this two-hour production.

It had also been updated to be both hip and politically correct about Islamic culture and Turkey, where the story takes place. But it made me idly wonder what the reaction would be if the music had been likewise updated to be more in tune with the times.

The production was all about the singing.

David Walton’s Belmonte (below right, with Amanda Woodbury as Konstanze) was beautifully sung, particularly in the second act. He has a Benjamin Britten tenor voice with remarkable breath control.

Eric Neuville’s Pedrillo was also admirably sung. Neuville is an accomplished comic actor, as well.

Ashly Neumann’s singing as Blonde (below center, with women of the Madison Opera Chorus) was clean, clear and bell-like.

Amanda Woodbury as Konstanze (below right with Brian Belz as Pasha Selim)  was virtuosic. She displayed vocal fireworks several times and was especially effective in her lament toward the end of the first act.

This quartet’s ensemble work in the second act was a vocal high point. (You can hear the quartet from a different production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But to me the most impressive singing and comic acting belonged to Matt Boehler as Osmin. His bass was simply majestic. (Below, from left, are Brian Belz as Pasha Selim; David Walton as Belmonte; Matt Boehler as Osmin; Eric Neuville as Pedrillo; Ashly Neumann as Blonde; and Amanda Woodbury as Konstanze.)

The well-prepared chorus appeared briefly in each act, adding some color and motion to the production.

Musically and visually the production was a success. The audience responded with 19 ovations during the performance – yes, I counted. Every time the orchestra reached a cadence and paused, the audience members applauded as if they were at a musical. With the incessant coughing throughout the performance, I felt like I was at a performance of “South Pacific” in a tuberculosis ward.

The audience leapt to its feet at the end, and this made me wonder what it was that they found so praiseworthy. The story itself is inconsequential and has little relevance to life today.

The singing was very good, but this is not La Scala.

The music itself, with the exception of a couple of sublime moments, does little more than foreshadow the mature Mozart of “The Magic Flute.”

I concluded that the opera is unalarming, unthreatening, and simple. This is perhaps what people long for in these trying times.

I do look forward to the Madison Opera’s production of Daniel Catan’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” this spring. Based on repeated hearings of the recording, I guarantee that Madison will be in for a treat. And there is nothing threatening or alarming or complex about the music, despite it being a work of the late 20th century.


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