The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Puccini makes us all bohemians. Madison Opera scores a big heart-rending success with “La Bohème.” The final performance is this afternoon.

November 15, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Rankin Utevsky. The young violist, baritone and conductor is a senior at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm, plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra, and sings with the University Opera.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO – www.MAYCO.org), which will perform its sixth season this summer. He also directs a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest preview review of this past weekend’s performance of “La Bohème” by the Madison Opera.

I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, has done other opera reviews and who blogged for this post when he was on tour with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below):

new Mikko Utevsky baton profile USE

By Mikko Rankin Utevsky

Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème” is perhaps the most beloved of all operas, adored by newcomers and veterans alike for its richly Romantic melodies, subtly shaded score and sheer vocal magnetism. (Performance photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.)

This weekend’s production anchors Madison Opera’s writer-themed season, which continues with Mark Adamo‘s “Little Women” in February and Jacques Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffman” (The Tales of Hoffmann) in April.

The famous numbers in “La Boheme” — the first-act arias “Che gelida manina” by the poet Rodolfo (Mackenzie Whitney) and “Si, mi chiamano Mimi” by Mimi (Eleni Calanos), and the following duet “O soave fanciulla” in particular — are familiar showstoppers, and were well sung Friday night. (You can hear Jussi Bjorling and Renata Tebaldi sing the arias and duets in the YouTube video at the bottom. Can you not be moved?)

Boheme Madison Opera USE Mimi and Rodolfo GILL

But the indisputable star of this production was Maestro John DeMain (below in a photo by Prasad), whose flexible leadership in conducting united a remarkably even cast and the Madison Symphony Orchestra, whose lush, supple sound filled Overture Hall to the rafters with a powerful reading of Puccini’s rich and colorful score.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

One was struck by the tightness of composition. For a composer often accused of pandering to popular tastes, sacrificing musical integrity for cheap emotional tricks, the score to “La Bohème” is densely motivic and self-referential.

As in Mozart or Verdi, the orchestra often represents the subtext or the emotional undercurrents of the scene, with snatches of remembered melody drifting throughout the drama. The only complaint must be that we sometimes heard a bit too much of this lovely orchestra, to the detriment of balance with the singers.

Among the cast, the sense of camaraderie between the members of the male quartet — Marcello, Rodolfo, Colline and Schaunard — was palpable, by turns rowdy and rambunctious and in the fourth act deeply moving.

Madison Opera Boheme cafe sceneJames Gill

Whether this was the result of some special chemistry between the singers (Dan Kempson, Mackenzie Whitney, Liam Moran, and Alan Dunbar) or something drawn out by director David Lefkowich (below), it brought the ensemble scenes to life marvelously, and drew the audience into the lives of the four friends quite powerfully.

David Lefkowich 2013

Dan Kempson (below) deserves special praise as the painter Marcello, a somewhat unsympathetic role, both for humanizing the jealous lover and for his rich and warm singing throughout the evening.

Madison Opera boheme Rodolfo GILL

Tenor Mackenzie Whitney brought a clear and smooth tone to the role of Rodolfo, shining brightest in ensemble singing.

Evan Ross, in the buffo roles of Benoit and Alcindoro, brought humor, but not enough sound to be consistently heard over the orchestra, leaving the audience chuckling at his mannerisms and the supertitles rather than what he actually sang.

Soprano Emily Birsan (below), a favorite of local audiences and a UW-Madison graduate, who recently graduated out of the Ryan Center at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, made an excellent showing as the flirtatious Musetta, whose gentle side in the fourth act was extraordinarily poignant.

Emily Birsan MSO 2014

And Eleni Calenos’ Mimi (below, second from right) was both credibly fragile and vocally excellent, with warmth to spare and the ability to draw the audience into the intimate final moments of her life.

Madison Opera Boheme death scene

Sets from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City made subtle but evocative use of perspective, drawing the eye where it needed to be without drawing attention away from the action. (I was particularly fond of the Cafe Momus.)

Madison Opera Boheme outdoor scene GILL

The city beyond the garret was subtly shaded by Connie Yun’s lighting design. And Anthony Cao’s chorus, together with the Madison Youth Choirs, brought the necessary sense of spectacle to the outdoor scenes in Act II.

Madison Opera Boheme outdoor 2 parade GILL

All in all, despite some balance issues early on, the gorgeous playing of the orchestra alone makes this a production worth hearing, and the largely young cast brings Puccini’s “verismo” (realistic) masterpiece vividly to life.

It’s another feather in the caps of artistic director John DeMain and general director Kathryn Smith of the Madison Opera.

It is sung in Italian with projected English supertitles. The final performance, with two intermissions, will be this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center.


Classical music: The Madison Opera’s premiere production of Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment” (The Daughter of the Regiment) hits all the high notes, figuratively and literally. And other local critics also give it raves.

February 9, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, where he studies the viola with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, which will perform its fourth season next summer. He has was recently named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has an out-of-date website here (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest review of this weekend’s two performances on Friday night and Sunday afternoon of Gaetano Donizetti’s light “bel canto” opera “La Fille du Regiment” (The Daughter of the Regiment) by the Madison Opera in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center. The production, a first for the Madison Opera, sounded very promising from the preview I posted earlier this week, which was an interview with tenor Javier Abreu. Here is a link:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/classical-music-how-hard-is-it-to-sing-nine-high-cs-tenor-javier-abreu-talks-about-the-feat-he-will-perform-in-the-madison-operas-premiere-production-of-donizettis/

I immediately took Mikko up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below):

Mikko Utevsky with baton

By Mikko Utevsky

Drumroll, please!

Gaetano Donizetti’s popular “Daughter of the Regiment” is classic “bel canto” opera — a simple, almost corny plot, improbable love, show-stopping arias and high notes, lots of high notes.

And in the hands of the Madison Opera, it is a rousing success. (Production photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.)

madison opera 5 witness party set Virginia Opera CR James GIll

The romantic plot is simple enough.

Marie, an orphaned girl raised by the 21st Regiment of the French army, meets and falls in love with a civilian, Tonio, who joins the regiment to marry her.

Their romance seems thwarted by her long-lost “aunt,” the Marquise of Berkenfeld, who sweeps her away to be married to a noble Duke, but her regiment swoops in (below, played by the Madison Symphony Chorus) at the last second to intervene, and she and Tonio are reunited at last.

Everyone ends up happy in this tale.

madison opera daughter 6 chorus, abreu, cislin, apple, Douglss Swenson as Hortensius James Gill

The production marches merrily along, buoyed by brilliant singing from Appleton-native and UW-Madison-educated Caitlin Cisler (below left) in the title role as Marie. Cisler’s sparkling sound and agile coloratura make her ideal for the part, a tremendously difficult one replete with high Cs and beyond (several Ds and more than one F!).

Caitlin Cisler 2

Her girlish demeanor in the first act is both charming and entirely suited to the character. There is no profound depth to the role, but a great deal of fun, and Cisler certainly seems to enjoy it — as do we!

Singing opposite her is one of the best tenors the Madison Opera has hosted in recent years, Puerto Rican-born Javier Abreu (below).

Javier Abreu color mug 1

As Tonio, he boasts a light, lyric voice capable of the necessary acrobatics for such a famously challenging role – in particular, his Act 1 aria “Ah, mes amis!” (which demands no less than NINE high Cs in the space of about a minute and a half, as demonstrated by Juan Diego Florez in a YouTube video at the bottom). Below, Tonio steals kiss from Marie.

madison opera Daughter 1 Javier Abreu (Tonio) and Caitlin Cislin (Marie) CR James Gill

As the commander of Marie’s regiment of adoptive fathers, Nathan Stark (below, recently heard as the Commendatore in 2013’s Don Giovanni) is excellent as well. His acting is at least as solid as his powerful bass voice, both of which are again wonderfully suited to the role.

He is compelling as the most fatherly of the soldiers, moved to support his daughter’s romantic aspirations by his own. The comic chemistry he and Cisler have enlivens the whole show, making their early scenes possibly my favorite part of the whole evening.

madison opera daughter 2 Nathan Stark (Sulpice) CR James Gill

Also appearing is Madison contralto Alisanne Apple (below), alternately and appropriately outraged by Marie’s antics and embarrassed at her own as the Marquise (and whose true contralto guts are displayed early in the opera, to great amusement).

Alisanne Apple BW mug

madison opera daughter 4 allisanne apple marquise CR James Gill

As her butler Hortensius, bass Douglas Swenson (below) projects a hilariously palpable air of self-importance at every moment.

Douglas Swenson

Director David Lefkowich’s blocking is frequently hilarious (though the silly shuffling “quick march” of the soldiers was distracting and absurd), and helps bring the characters to life admirably.

David Lefkowich 2013

The sets by the Virginia Opera and the costumes from the Opera Theatre of St. Louis Opera livened up the stage, particularly in the first act where the soldiers’ bright red uniforms stood out sharply against distant hills and misty mountains.

As always, John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) leads musicians of the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a capable and flexible pit ensemble, with good attention to balance.  The Madison Opera Chorus, solidly prepared by Chorus Master Anthony Cao, also featured two small, well-sung solo spots for Robert Goderich and Christopher Apfelbach.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The production is sung in French with projected English supertitles, with a small amount of (sensibly) English dialogue. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes including one 20-minutes intermission.

The last performance is today, Sunday, Feb. 9 at 2:30 p.m. the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center. Tickets are $25-$107. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.

And maybe you would like to see what other reviewers had to say:

Here is a link to the rave review by John W. Barker (below) rave review for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42027&sid=ee9c4f61ce09fdf1d9cc5e1c40f29f2c

John-Barker

Here is a link to the very favorable review by Greg Hettmansberger (bel0w) for Madison Magazine’s blog “Classically Speaking”:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/February-2014/A-Daughter-We-Can-All-Adopt/

greg hettmansberger mug

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