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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Music education: Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras present their spring concerts and concerto winners this Saturday and Sunday afternoons

May 18, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) will present its third and final concert series of the season, the Eugenie Mayer Bolz Fa­mily Spring Concerts, on this Saturday, May 19, and Sunday, May 20.

The concerts will take place in Mills Concert Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, 455 North Park Street, in Madison. 

Programed pieces include works from Felix Mendelssohn, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Dmitri Shostakovich, Arturo Marquez, Aaron Copland, Jacques Offenbach, and more.

For a complete repertoire list, go to:https://www.wysomusic.org/eugenie-mayer-bolz-family-spring-concerts-repertoire/

The concert weekend features four concerto performances from the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Youth Orchestra members, and the final concert by Mark Leiser (below), who will rertire as conductor of WYSO’s Sinfonietta orchestra after 25 seasons.

Each year, WYSO hosts a concerto competition for members of the Youth Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Concerto competition winners performing during the spring concerts this year are Ellen Zhou, a seventh-grader at E.G. Kromrey Middle School in Middleton, and a member of Philharmonia Orchestra; Ava Kenney, a seventh-grader at Saint Maria Goretti School, and a member of Philharmonia Orchestra; Morty Lee, a junior at James Madison Memorial High School, and a member of Youth Orchestra; and Isabelle Krier, a junior at Oregon High School, and a member of Youth Orchestra.

Ellen Zhou (below top) will perform Zigeunerweisen by Pablo de Sarasate, and Ava Kenney (below bottom) will perform the first movement of the Violin Concerto by Felix Mendelssohn with Philharmonia Orchestra on Saturday.

Morty Lee (below top) will perform the first Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich; and Isabelle Krier (below bottom) will perform the third movement of the Violin Concerto in D Major by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky with the Youth Orchestra on Sunday.

Sinfonietta conductor Mark Leiser (below, conducting) will give his final concert on May 19. Leiser has been the sole conductor of Sinfonietta since its inception 25 years ago. His son Kenny Leiser, a WYSO alumnus, will sit in with the orchestra during their performance of Astor Piazzolla’s “new tango” piece Oblivion.

WYSO students travel from communities throughout southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois each weekend throughout the concert season to rehearse on the UW-Madison campus.

Each orchestra performs three concerts per season, with additional performance opportunities available to students, including ensembles and chamber music groups.

Concert admission is $10 for adults, and $5 for youth 18 and under, with tickets available 45 minutes before each performance at the door on the day of the concerts.

For a full concert repertoire, and to learn more about WYSO, visit https://www.wysomusic.org

Here is a schedule of events:

Eugenie Mayer Bolz Family Spring Concerts

SATURDAY
1:00 p.m. – Harp Ensemble (below top), Concert Orchestra, Sinfonietta
4:00 p.m. – Percussion Ensemble (below bottom) and Philharmonia Orchestra

SUNDAY
2:00 p.m. – Opus One and Youth Orchestra


Classical music: Madison Opera travels to the jungle for the local premiere of the Spanish opera “Florencia en el Amazonas” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon

April 23, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Opera travels to the jungle to present the Madison premiere of Florencia en el Amazonas (with sets from the production by the Arizona Opera, below) by Daniel Catán on Friday night, April 27, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 29, at 2:30 p.m. in the Overture Hall at the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State Street.

The opera will be sung in Spanish with English supertitles. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.

Tickets are $18-$130 with discounts available for students and groups. For more information about tickets and the production, go to www.madisonopera.org

Mexican composer Daniel Catan’s lush and accessible orchestral soundscape brings the Amazon River to life in this magical and mystical journey.

Set in South America at the turn of the 20th century, the story begins when Florencia Grimaldi, a famous opera singer, embarks anonymously on a voyage down the Amazon River to sing a concert in Manaus, Brazil.

She is traveling to the concert incognito; her real hope for the journey is to be reunited with the lover she left behind, a butterfly hunter.

On the boat with her are a young journalist, Rosalba, who is writing a biography of Grimaldi; a couple feeling the strain of their long marriage, Paula and Alvaro; the boat’s captain; the captain’s restless nephew, Arcadio, who falls in love with Rosalba; and a man who is a rather mystical presence, Riolobo.

Over the course of the journey, the passengers encounter a storm, piranha, and ultimately cholera.

Florencia en el Amazons is simply gorgeous,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s General Director.  “I heard only wonderful things about it following its 1996 premiere, and when I saw the opera 10 years ago, I realized why audiences love it so much.

“The music is ravishing, the setting is physically beautiful, and the characters are fascinating. I am delighted to be presenting it in Madison, as part of our vision of sharing operas from all time periods and in all languages.”

Florencia was the third opera composed by Daniel Catán (below, in a photo by Gina Ferazzi for the Los Angeles Times) and the first Spanish-language opera to be commissioned by a major U.S. opera company. Houston Grand Opera premiered the work in 1996; it has since been performed across North America and Europe, with companies like Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle producing it multiple times due to audience demand.

The opera’s libretto, while an original story, was inspired by the writings of the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez (below) author of 100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. Librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain was a protégé of Márquez; according to Catán, he and Fuentes-Berain would show García Márquez parts of the libretto as they were finished. Elements of the author’s trademark magic realism pervade many parts of the opera.

Catán’s music was acclaimed for its lush writing.  The New York Times said, “Mr. Catán’s writing for the voice is luxuriously lyrical; and he orchestrates with skill.” (You can hear the opera’s opening scene in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Catán wrote two more operas before dying at age 62 of a heart attack. At his sudden death in 2011, Plácido Domingo called him “one of the great opera composers of our time, beloved by audiences and especially by the musicians who had the privilege of performing his incredible work.”

“I am so happy to have the opportunity to perform this absolutely gorgeous opera,” says John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), Madison Opera’s Artistic Director. “I had the pleasure of knowing Daniel Catán, and commissioned an orchestral suite from this opera for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which we performed in 2003.

“We all were struck by the power and sweep of the music. This story of the power of love and music in all of our lives will be sung by a great cast of singers, and the orchestral fabric will lift audiences out of their seats and transport them to the magical world of the Amazon. This is an opera written in our time, with a musical score that will leave audiences wanting to hear it again and again.”

Madison Opera’s cast features a number of returning favorites. For revealing 10-question interviews with cast members, go to the MadOpera blog at: http://madisonopera.blogspot.com

Elizabeth Caballero (below) sings Florencia Grimaldi, a role she has sung for New York City Opera and Nashville Opera. The Cuban-American soprano debuted with Madison Opera at Opera in the Park in 2007 and returned in Carmen, La Traviata,and Don Giovanni. Last month, she sang Mimì in La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera.

Rachel Sterrenberg sings the journalist Rosalba; she debuted in Charlie Parker’s Yardbird here last season.

Adriana Zabala (below), who sang in The Tales of Hoffmann and at last summer’s Opera in the Park, sings Paula, a role she has also sung at San Diego Opera and Arizona Opera.

Nmon Ford (below, in a photo by Guy Madmoni), who sang Scarpia in Tosca with Madison Opera in 2013, sings the mysterious Riolobo.

Mackenzie Whitney, who debuted as Rodolfo in La Bohème with Madison Opera in 2015, returns as Arcadio, the Captain’s nephew. Levi Hernandez, who debuted in The Magic Flute here in 2005, returns as Alvaro. Bass Ashraf Sewailam (below) makes his Madison Opera debut as the Captain of the El Dorado.

Kristine McIntyre (below) returns to direct this Madison Opera premiere. She has directed many successful productions for Madison Opera, including Dead Man Walking and The Tales of Hoffmann. Recent work includes productions at Pittsburgh Opera, Utah Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, and Kentucky Opera.

The production prominently features members of Kanopy Dance Company, playing spirits of the river.  Lisa A. Thurrell, co-artistic director of Kanopy, has created choreography for her dancers and this production.

The set (below) comes from Arizona Opera, with costumes designed by Madison Opera’s Karen Brown-Larimore, who designed the costumes for The Abduction from the Seraglio in February.

As always, the opera features the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Madison Opera’s production of “Florencia en el Amazons” is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Thompson Investment Management, Inc., Carla and Fernando Alvarado, Thomas Terry, the Ann Stanke Fund, Kennedy Gilchrist and Heidi Wilde, and Charles Snowdon and Ann Lindsey.


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