The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: University Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” is a musical treat despite its outdated story. Performances remain this afternoon and Tuesday night

March 1, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – the very experienced Opera Guy for this blog – took in the University Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” Friday night at Music Hall on Bascom Hill and filed this review. (Performance photos are by Michael R. Anderson.)

By Larry Wells

I attended the opening night of University Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” (So Do They All or Such Are Women).

Considered a musical masterpiece, the opera features a cast of six singers who participate in a comedy about love and fidelity. (Below, from left, are Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi, Benjamin Hopkins as Ferrando, James Harrington as Don Alfonso, Kelsey Wang as Despina, Kevin Green as Guglielmo and Chloe Agostino as Dorabella.)

In director David Ronis’ attempt to make the story more timely, the action took place in a vaguely early 20th-century setting – the Roaring Twenties, to be precise — suggested by the women’s costumes and the art deco set.

Two of the men, who are called off to war, brandished swords, which I believe were not widely used in World War I. (Below, from left, are Benjamin Hopkins as Ferrando, James Harrington as Don Alfonso and Kevin Green as Guglielmo in the opening scene from Act I.)

In any event, an attempt to make an historic artifact with its incumbent unenlightened views of women relevant to the 21st century may be fruitless, and I believe that audiences today recognize the archaic attitudes expressed therein as comic and dated.

That sexist manipulation needs to be discussed today, as suggested in the director’s notes, and that women’s “agency” — to quote an overused academic term — remains an issue today is the tragedy. This comedy goes only a small distance in helping us realize that some things have not changed, even though many have.

But on to the performance.

The three female characters (below) included the vocally stunning Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi. Her “Come scoglio” was a showstopper. (Below, from left, are Chloe Agostino as Dorabella and Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi in their Act I duet.)

Chloe Agostino’s sweet soprano perfectly reflected her Dorabella, and Anja Pustaver’s comic turn as Despina revealed an interesting voice that reminded me of Reri Grist’s Oscar in the Erich Leinsdorf recording of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” – which is a compliment, albeit possibly obscure.

Kevin Green as Guglielmo grew on me as the evening progressed and as he became more confident. But the standout was James Harrington as Don Alfonso. I feel that he is a major talent in our midst. (Below in the foreground are Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi and Benjamin Hopkins as Ferrando; in the background are James Harrington as Don Alfonso and Kevin Green as Guglielmo.)

Green and his partner, Benjamin Hopkins’ Ferrando, had to don disguises in order to tempt each other’s intended. In the libretto they disguise themselves as Albanians.

In what I can only hope was a nod to political correctness in order to spare the feelings of our Albanian brothers, they disguised themselves in this production as lumberjacks clad in flannel shirts and denim jeans — which was incongruously absurd but amusing at the same time. (Below,Kelsey Wang, left, as Despina examines Benjamin Hopkins as the Albanian Ferrando in a fake medical examination during the finale of Act I.)

The vocalists shone most in their many ensembles – duets, trios, quartets and sextets. The blendings of the various voices were always harmonious. The trio “Soave sia il vento” (Gentle Be the Breeze) — featuring Rosché, Agostino and Harrington (below) — was sublime and worth the price of admission on its own. (Below, from left, are Chloe Agostino as Dorabella, James Harrington as Don Alfonso and Cayla Rosché  as Fiordiligi in the famous Act I trio “Soave sia il vento,” which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The UW Symphony Orchestra was ably and nobly led by new conductor Oriol Sans (below) whose hiring proved to be a major coup for the university. Everything I’ve heard him conduct so far has been excellent, and this performance was no exception.

The harpsichord continuo by Thomas Kasdorf (below) was captivating in its nuance and effortlessness – very impressive.

I enjoyed the abstract unit set designed by Joseph Varga and complemented by the effective lighting designed by Zak Stowe.

In all, it was an evening primarily in which to close one’s eyes and listen.

Repeat performances, with alternating cast members, take place this afternoon – Sunday, March 1 – at 2 p.m. and again on Tuesday night, March 3, at 7:30 p.m. Running time is about 3 hours with one intermission. The opera is sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Tickets are $25, $20 for seniors and $10 for students. For more information about the opera, the cast and the production, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/2020/02/10/cosi-fan-tutte/

 


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Classical music: Weekends are a good time to explore music and listen to it. So today The Ear starts a “2020” series for the new year.

January 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s a new year and the first weekend of the new year. And The Ear wanted to find some kind of organizing principle to explore recorded music in the coming weeks and months.

Turns out the year 2020 – with its symmetry of numerals and suggestions of excellent vision — held a certain appeal.

So he checked out musical works that were either Op. 20 or No. 20. They could even occur together, like, say, a Prelude that is Op. 20, No. 20.

What he found was more than he expected: Dozens of composers and works that qualify as interesting and of suitable quality.

Some are well known, but many are rarely performed live or are neglected in recordings.

They come from all periods and styles, from early music to contemporary music.

And they come in all kinds of genres from vocal and choral music to chamber music, solo instrumental music and symphonic music.

Some works are short, some are medium and some are long.

For the longer ones, which are often divided up into smaller movements or other sections, it seems better to post the whole piece and let the reader decide how long they want to listen at a time rather than to post one part at a time and limit or force the reader.

Anyway, here is the first installment.

It is a wonderful solo piano piece that is too often overlooked, even though it is by a great composer who wrote it in his prime when he was writing many of his other more popular piano works.

It is the Humoresque, Op. 20, by the German Romantic composer Robert Schumann (below). It lasts about 29 minutes but is divided into other sections.

And the performance, often praised as outstanding or even definitive, is by the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu (below, young and old, the latter by Roberto Serra), the 1966 first prize-winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition who recently retired because of ill health.

Here is a link to a detailed biography of the distinguished and somewhat reclusive and enigmatic 74-year-old pianist:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radu_Lupu

Here is YouTube video of Radu Lupu playing the Schumann Humoresque in a live recording from 1983:

Let The Ear know what you think of this piece and this idea for a 2020 series.

A long playlist for future 2020 postings – including works by Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and others — has already been compiled.

But if you have a favorite or suggested “2020” piece, leave word in the comment section.


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Classical music: Today is the Winter Solstice. It’s a good time to listen to Schubert’s “Winterreise” (Winter Journey)  — this year in English translation

December 21, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Winter starts today – Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019 – when the Winter Solstice arrives tonight at 10:19 p.m.

That means tonight — the longest night of the year — we turn the corner. The days start getting longer and the nights shorter.

It is also the day when The Ear likes to listen to the best winter music ever written: the cycle of 24 songs called “Winterreise” (Winter Journey) by Franz Schubert (1797-1828).

Over the years, The Ear has heard many fine versions. Among his favorite singers are Ian Bostridge, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Matthias Goerner and Thomas Quasthoff.

Next year, you can probably expect to see a new release of the performance this past week by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and the pianist-conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

But this year, he is listening – even as he writes – to a 2018 version by the critically acclaimed British baritone Roderick Williams (below top) with pianist Christopher Glynn (below bottom) on the Signum Classics record label.

The real and unusual appeal is that all the songs are sung in English — not the original German.

And The Ear finds it very appealing not to have to read translations but instead to sit back and listen directly to the meaning of the stories in the songs — all sung with excellent diction — in the austere, subtle and outstanding translation by theater director and writer Jeremy Sams (below).

It makes The Ear want to hear more Lieder or art songs sung in English translation — both live and recorded — just as he likes the translation, used by the Metropolitan Opera, done by the late American poet J.D. “Sandy” McClatchy of Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute”

Try it and see what you think.

Here is the first song on YouTube, where the audio proceeds through the remainder of the 70-minute cycle after the end of each song.

Enjoy. And let us know what you think of the English translation:

 


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Classical music: There was so much to like about the Grand Tour finale of the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival. But where were the high notes in Allegri’s legendary “Miserere”?

July 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Fair is fair.

Before he talks about last Saturday night’s conclusion of the successful 2019 Madison Early Music Festival – which marked its 20th anniversary — The Ear has a confession to make: He generally prefers later Baroque music and he generally prefers instrumental music to vocal or choral music.

That said, he nonetheless had a memorable and very enjoyable time on the “Grand Tour” during the well-attended All-Festival concert. There was so much to like and to admire.

The concert used the conceit of a Grand Tour by a composite 17th-century traveler going to London, Venice, Rome, Naples, Paris and Dresden to take in the local sights and local music, and included lesser-known composers such as William Lawes and William Child as well as such famous figures as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli , Jean-Baptiste Lullyand Heinrich Schütz.

Like most journeys, this one – once again assembled in an ingenious scissors-and-paste job by early music specialist Grant Herreid (below) – had many entertaining and uplifting moments.

But it also had one big disappointment.

The Ear really looked forward to hearing a live performance  of the famous “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri (below) as a high point. But those haunting, ultra-high descant notes that give you goosebumps and that you never forget hearing just never materialized.

Maybe it had to do with the different ornamentation that the MEMF forces used. Maybe it was based on a different manuscript or score. Maybe there was no one capable of singing those spellbinding and unforgettable high notes.

Whatever the reason, The Ear’s hope for a live performance of the dramatic and iconic work were dashed and the famous, even classic, recorded versions – the 1980 recording by the Tallis Scholars is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — remain for him the unsurpassed standard.

The evening also had its ironies. That same night on the NBC TV news The Ear saw a story about “overtourism” in Europe and China. Venice, for example, has now shrunk to only about 50,000 unhappy residents who put up with some 20 million tourists a year.

But centuries ago, travel was a rare and exotic luxury of the wealthy and well-educated, not an affordable indulgence or curiosity by ever-expanding middle classes. And this metaphorical trip proved an ideal vehicle to sample 16th- and 17th-century music in England, France, Germany and Italy.

Combining high culture and low, Herreid chose witty and detailed travelogue texts that gave the audience the rich flavor of various cultures at the time.

Details mattered to the four sharp-eyed travelers on which this tour was based. So as “our hero” wandered, we got to hear about the “libidinous ladies” of Naples and the musical talented courtesans of Venice as well as the richly attired archbishop of Paris attending a feast day service in the newly finished Notre-Dame cathedral.

Such descriptions were well delivered by unnamed narrators (below) from the chorus and proved a refreshingly earthy and entertaining counterpoint to the more serious spiritual and religious music of the era.

Another big satisfaction was the exceptional quality of the ensemble playing – exhibited even in large amounts of less interesting music — by the many singers and instrumentalists on the stage of Mills Hall, and, at one point, in the hall’s balcony.

Whether the players and singers were conducted by Herreid or by assistant conductor Jerry Hui — a UW-Madison graduate who is now a tenured professor at UW-Stout — the music sounded tight, authentic and expressive.

As for more superficial pleasures, it is great visual fun watching such early versions of modern string, wind and percussion instruments being played — trombone-like sackbuts, oboe-like shawms, flute-like recorders and lute-like theorbos. (Below are cello-like viols.)

The players, both faculty and students, were particularly convincing on their own in the sound painting done to depict battle scenes and political upheaval. And who will ever forget the surprise of loud foot-stomping by all the performers and conductor?

Herreid was absolutely spot-on to keep the program to about 80 minutes with no intermission. It helped the audience stay in the spirit of the Grand Tour and added cohesion to the program.

The Grand Tour, in short, proved outstanding in concept and excellent in execution.

But was The Ear alone in missing to those high notes?


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Classical music: In Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” the Madison Opera demonstrated how beautiful music and convincing stagecraft can overcome a weak story

May 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of “Rusalka” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Sunday afternoon performance of Antonin Dvorak’s opera “Rusalka” presented by Madison Opera in Overture Hall. Until then I had only heard recordings of this lushly orchestrated work.

The opera is a fairy tale involving a rather dithering water sprite (below right) who does not follow her father’s wise advice not to pursue a mortal prince (below left) and to stick to her own kind. She ignores his advice, and this leads to her eventual unhappiness and to the death of her prince.

That she also becomes mute when in the presence of the prince adds to everyone’s woes, and it seems a peculiar device to have the lead soprano not be able to sing for most of the second act of the opera.

Her inability to communicate naturally leads to the prince’s frustration, and my companion suggested that she could simply have used paper and pencil to communicate. But since she had been brought up in a river, perhaps she never learned to read and write.

Nevertheless, common sense did not seem to inhabit either Rusalka or her prince. As my companion also pointed out, love isn’t always logical.

In any event, the production and the music made up for the libretto’s shortcomings.

The set featured beautiful projections, from the Minnesota Opera, of forest, water and woodlands during the first and third acts.

The second act took place at the prince’s palace. It appeared to be an International Style palace in the manner of architect Mies van de Rohe, which must have also been disconcerting for Rusalka. Nonetheless, the set was very striking and beautifully lit.

Tenor John Lindsey (below top) portrayed the prince and William Meinert (below bottom left, with Emily Birsan) was Rusalka’s father, a water goblin. Both sang well, although Lindsey had the distracting habit of casting his chin and eyes downward as he sang.


But the stage belonged to the women.

Emily Birsan (below) as Rusalka was a study in subtle shadings of her expressive soprano voice (below, singing the famous  aria “Song to the Moon”). She is a powerful singer and convincing actress who was engaging to watch and to hear.

Lindsay Ammann (below) as the sorceress Jezibaba was powerful in voice and in her command of the stage. Her third act aria was sensational, and her calling Rusalka a “empty little water bubble” was so apt it made the audience titter.

The villainous Foreign Princess portrayed by Karin Wolverton (below, standing over John Lindsey) seemed to be the only sensible character in the opera. She likewise commanded the stage and displayed a powerful voice with passionate commitment to her role.

Three water sprites – portrayed by Kirsten Larson, Saira Frank and Emily Secor (below, in order from left) – provided Rhine maiden-like commentary and gorgeous vocalizations despite having to wander around the stage at times seeming to be fascinated by twigs.

A shout-out goes to tenor Benjamin Liupaogo (below), still a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, who only sang a couple of lines but sang them very beautifully. He is someone to watch!

The Madison Symphony Orchestra was conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). The strings and winds sounded particularly good that day, and DeMain brought out all of the interesting Bohemian folky gestures Dvorak included in the score. I found Dvorak’s orchestral score engaging throughout the performance. (You can hear the opening Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Altogether it was charming afternoon of beautiful music, excellent singing and fetching staging of a strange tale.

Madison Opera has announced its upcoming season offerings, which are Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” (Nov. 1 and 3), Gregory Spears’ “Fellow Travelers” (here Feb. 7 and 9, it has already hit Chicago and Minneapolis and is slated for Tucson next season as well), and Jacques Offenbach’s comic “Orpheus in the Underworld” (April 17 and 19).

It seems a very interesting season, and subscription tickets will go on sale in early May. For more information, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org


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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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