The Well-Tempered Ear

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: WQXR radio names 19 musicians to watch in ’19. What do you think of the choices? Who would you add?

January 28, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

What will 2019 bring in the way of classical music?

What and who should we be looking at and paying attention to?

WQXR — the famed classical radio station in New York City – recently published its list of 19 to watch in ‘19, with detailed reasons for and explanations of their picks.

It seems like a pretty good choice to The Ear, although there is always something of a parlor game aspect to such projects.

Nonetheless, the list covers a fine variety – instrumentalists and vocalists, young and old, American and international, the well-known and the up-and-coming such as the opera singer Devone Tines (below, in a photo by Nikolai Schukoff).

Some names will be familiar to Madison audiences – such as pianist Inon Barnatan, violinist Nicola Benedettti, the JACK Quartet and cellist Steven Isserlis — especially through their live appearances at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and the Madison Symphony Orchestra plus broadcasts on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Here is a link to the list: https://www.wqxr.org/story/wqxr-presents-19-19-artists-collaborations-upcoming-year/

The Ear can think of some other musicians that he would add to the list.

An especially deserving one of them is the young American virtuoso pianist George Li (below, in a photo by Simon Fowler).

Born in China and brought as a child to the United States by his parents, Li attended Harvard and just finished his master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music. (At the bottom, you can hear Li play virtuosic music by Liszt and Horowitz in the YouTube video of a Tiny Desk Concert at National Public Radio or NPR.)

Li won the silver medal in the 2015 at the 15th Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow and had a lot of people talking about the energy and excitement of his playing. He was praised for both outstanding technical prowess and deep expressiveness.

He then took first prize at a piano competition in Paris.

Ever since, he has been steadily booked. At 23, the amiable Li has already toured China, Japan and Russia and seems to have a very busy schedule ahead of him, judging by his posts on Instagram.

He has also released his first recording on the Warner Classics label, a fine CD that received many positive reviews from critics, including this one.

The program includes Haydn’s Sonata in B minor, Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor “Funeral March,” Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a Theme of Corelli,” and Consolation No. 3 and the popular Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Franz Liszt.

Given all the concertos he is now performing, it would not surprise one to see his next recording be a concerto, possibly the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto N. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, which brought him instant acclaim.

Here is a link to his website: http://www.georgelipianist.com

And here is a link to his entry in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Li

Keep your ears and eyes on George Li.

What do you think of the choices made by WQXR?

Who would you add to the list of musicians to watch in 2019, and why?

If possible, maybe you can include a YouTube link to a performance, live or recorded, in your comment.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: What makes this weekend’s performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” classically Italian operas and especially inviting for beginners?

October 30, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will open its new season this weekend with two performances of Pietro Mascagni’s  “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s ”Pagliacci.”

Details about the productions in Overture Hall on Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. appeared in a previous posting that includes information about the cast and the tickets ($18-$131):

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/classical-music-madison-opera-offers-preview-events-leading-up-to-cavalleria-rusticana-and-i-pagliacci-on-nov-2-and-4/

https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

But Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), the general director of the Madison Opera, recently agreed to a Q&A with The Ear to discuss the two operas more specifically and at length. Here are her comments:

A veteran opera-goer told the Ear that he considers these two works ideal operas for people new to the art form.  Do you agree?

I think almost any opera is perfect for someone new to opera – supertitles make it possible to understand the words, so one can just sit down and enjoy the show.

That said, “Cav and Pag” are definitely what many people think of when you say the words “Italian opera”: elemental stories of love, hate and jealousy that lead to tragedy.

Cavalleria Rusticana, which means “Rustic Chivalry,” tells about a woman named Santuzza who had been seduced and abandoned by a man named Turridu. On Easter Sunday, she attempts to get Turridu back, then tells the husband of his new lover about that affair, resulting in a duel.

Pagliacci, which means “Clowns,” tells about a traveling theater troupe. Nedda, the wife of the troupe’s leader, Canio, wants to run away with her lover Silvio after the evening performance. Canio finds out, but goes on with the show even though his heart is breaking. He then snaps during the performance and kills both Nedda and Silvio.

The music in both operas ranges from glorious choral music (the Easter Hymn in Cavalleria Rusticana is one of the most famous opera choruses of all time for good reason) to famous arias (particularly the aria “Vesti la Giubba” from Pagliacci, or at least the line “Ridi, Pagliaccio!”), to orchestral music that is well-known in its own right, such as Cavalleria’s intermezzo, which plays an integral role in the final scene of “The Godfather” film trilogy. (You can hear that famous Intermezzo used in “The Godfather” film in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They are also compact: Each opera lasts about 70 minutes, so a lot gets packed into a short amount of time. (Below is the set of “Pagliaccio” rented from the New Orleans Opera.)

What are the shared elements that make the two operas so compatible that they are often presented together?

Pagliacci was written in response to Cavalleria Rusticana:  Ruggero Leoncavallo (below top) saw what a hit Pietro Mascagni (below bottom) had his 1890 one-act opera about real people propelled by love and revenge, and wrote his own version that premiered just two years later, in 1892.

There are some obvious parallels: both take place in small Italian villages, both take place on religious holidays, and both involve love triangles that end with someone dead. Plus the last line of each opera is spoken, not sung.

They also have musical similarities, as both have full orchestrations, large choral segments, and a style of vocal writing that calls for dramatic, expressive singing. As a result, the combined pairing makes a satisfying night of Italian opera, rather than being simply two operas that happen to be done on the same night.

Does one usually overshadow the other or are they equals?

It very much depends on the tastes of an individual audience member. When the operas were new, Cavalleria was definitely the more popular of the two – even Queen Victoria wrote in her diary that she preferred it.

To modern eyes, Pagliacci may be more dramatically satisfying because more happens in it, such as the entire play-within-the-opera, which adds an element of humor to the high stakes of reality. But both are masterpieces in their own right, and the audience gets to enjoy them both.

Why do you think these verismo operas are still powerful today?

“Verismo” comes from the word “vero,” which means “true.” Cav and Pag tell stories about real people caught up in their lives, with all the emotional messiness that can entail – and those emotions are still driving people today.

Above all, the music of both operas is so powerful that it strikes to the heart of what opera can be. It can be thrilling, it can be moving, it can be funny – all in one night.

Is there something else you would like to say about the two operas and your production of them?

We have wonderful casts in each opera. Scott Piper (below top), who was last here as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, sings both Turridu and Canio; and Michael Mayes (below bottom), who was last here as the lead in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, sings both Alfio and Tonio.

We have two extraordinary sopranos making their debuts with us:  Michelle Johnson (below top) as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana and Talise Trevigne (below bottom) as Nedda in Pagliacci.

The Pagliacci cast is completed by Benjamin Taylor making his debut as Silvio and Robert Goderich singing Beppe; the Cavalleria cast is completed by Danielle Wright as Lucia and Kirsten Larson as Lola.


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Classical music: Two performances of a FREE family concert for young children of “Beethoven Lives Next Door” take place this Saturday morning at the Goodman Community Center  

May 17, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday, young children and their families can experience the world of classical music through the eyes and ears of Ludwig van Beethoven.

Beethoven will be portrayed by Whitney Derendinger (below) of the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama.

Two performances of the FREE concert will combine music, storytelling and learning for the whole family as Beethoven and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, with help from students from the University of Wisconsin’s Mead Witter School of Music, bring to life the compositional journey of the infamous theme and first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – heard in the YouTube video at the bottom that has more than 53 million views — which closed the WCO season last weekend.

Here are the details:

WHERE: Goodman Community Center, 149 Waubesa Street, on Madison’s east side

WHEN: Saturday, May 19, 2018

CONCERT 1

9:00 a.m. | Preconcert Activities

9:30 a.m. | Performance #1 (40 minutes)

CLICK HERE to get tickets to Concert 1

CONCERT 2

10:45 a.m. | Preconcert Activities

11:15 a.m. | Performance #2 (40 minutes)

CLICK HERE to get tickets to Concert 2

The WCO’s Family Community Concert Series is a new, free-of-charge but ticketed educational program for children ages 4-10 and their families.

A unique format will encourage audience members of all ages to interact with classical music and each other like they never have before and serve as a new way for parents to introduce their children to classical music.

WCO will use music to inspire connections within families and communities and to foster a love for music that spans generations.

Families can also help prepare children for the experience. For more information and a preparatory study guide, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/education/wco-connect-family-concerts/concert-experience

The event is sponsored by CUNA Mutual and Findorff Construction.


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.


Classical music: Listen to live “eclipse music” during today’s solar eclipse

August 21, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the day a lot of people have been waiting for for a long time.

The United States will experience a solar eclipse (below).

By now you’ve heard enough about not looking directly at the sun because of the severe damage you risk doing to your eyes.

But indirectly you can watch and also hear it unfold from about 11:15 a.m. CDT for three hours. And you can see it and hear about through any number of media, including television, radio and the Internet. Just Google it and take your choice.

What you may not know is that the entire eclipse in the U.S, will be accompanied by the famed and always adventurous Kronos Quartet (below top) playing an ingenious score – which uses the energy from the sun during the eclipse to create notes  — written especially for this occasion by the contemporary San Francisco composer Wayne Grim (below bottom) especially for this occasion.

You can hear a sample of Grim’s music for another scientific project at the Exploratorium in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Here are links to the stories on National Public Radio (NPR) and the web, which feature a link to the live-streamed performance from the Exploratorium in San Francisco:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/08/18/544417454/kronos-quartet-plays-a-duet-with-t-the-sun-the-moon-and-a-string-quartet-kronos

https://www.space.com/37845-kronos-quartet-serenades-total-solar-eclipse.html

And for good measure, here is a link to a story about the first photograph ever taken of a solar eclipse – the one that appears above. The daguerreotype dates from July 28, 1851 and was taken by Johann Julius Friedrich Berkowski.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/kionasmith/2017/08/20/behold-the-first-photograph-of-a-solar-eclipse/


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