The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera gives completely satisfying and nearly perfect performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci.” Here are four reviews

November 8, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the Madison Opera and filed this review, with performance photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

I attended performances of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” presented by the Madison Opera at Overture Hall last Sunday afternoon.

Each of the operas is an hour and a quarter long. At least for “Cavalleria” (below), the time flew by while I was captivated by the good singing, excellent playing and charming staging. The opera is tightly constructed and the production flowed effortlessly to its dramatic conclusion.

The feckless mama’s boy Turridu was ably portrayed by tenor Scott Piper (below top) who sang beautifully throughout. His nemesis, Alfio, was sung by baritone Michael Mayes (below bottom). Mayes has an excellent voice and terrific musicianship, but he tended to overact.

The star of the show was soprano Michelle Johnson (below) as Santuzza.  Her big aria “Voi lo sapete” and her duets with Piper were rapturously dramatic. Her supple and nuanced performance had me uncharacteristically leaping to my feet and shouting “Brava!” as she took her curtain call. Hers is a voice I hope to hear again soon.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra shone throughout the performance, ably led by guest conductor Joseph Mechavich (below). I cannot recall hearing before such subtle control of its orchestral voices, and the ensemble glimmered in the well-known intermezzo. (You can hear that famous and beautiful Intermezzo, used in the film “The Godfather” and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

The set and costumes, the bravura singing by the chorus, and the lighting were all above expectations. It was a completely satisfying experience.

“Pagliacci” is a more troublesome work for me. It has moments of lyrical genius but also what to me seems like filler – the chorus going on too long about getting to vespers, for example.

Mayes (below) portrayed the villainous Tonio in this opera.  Although his prologue was beautifully sung, his creepy overacting was a bit too much. For example, when Nedda spat at him in contempt, he wiped the spittle from his face and then licked his hand. His final utterance “La commedia e finita” was overly dramatic and lacking irony.

Piper sang the clown Canio (below), and by the time he got to the showpiece aria “Vesti la giubba” I was nervous that he would not be able to hit all the high notes. He did hit the notes, but it will take a couple more years for this role to fit his voice comfortably.

Nedda was portrayed by sensational Talise Trevigne (below bottom). Her big aria “Stridono lassù” was sung beautifully, and the orchestra shimmered in its accompaniment. Her duet with her lover Silvio, ably sung by baritone Benjamin Taylor (below top), was another highlight of the production.

Once again, the orchestral interlude was beautifully played.

Altogether, this was almost a perfect afternoon at Madison Opera. There appeared to be a gratifyingly large number of younger people attending, which I took as a good sign for the future. (Below is the tragic final scene of “Pagliacci” with Robert Goodrich, Michael Mayes and Scott Piper.)

I look forward to the next production: Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” on Feb. 8 and 10. I saw it recently at Des Moines Metropolitan Opera, so I am interested to see how it will compare.

When all is said and done, I enjoyed “Pagliacci” but feel it is inferior to “Cavalleria.” Although both operas are frequently performed together, I have attended other pairings for “Cavalleria” including one with Puccini’s comic short opera “Gianni Schicchi.” That combination worked well. I wonder: Do readers have other suggestions for pairings?

Editor’s note: Everyone has an opinion. How did you and other critics find the Madison Opera productions? Leave your opinion in the COMMENTS section. And here are links to some other reviews:

Here is the review John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/music/satisfying-double-bill/

Here is the review, with a historical bent, that Greg Hettmansberger wrote for his blog “What Greg Says”: https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2018/11/06/madison-opera-goes-old-school/

 And here is what Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times newspaper: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/love-revenge-passion-violence-open-the-season-at-madison-opera/article_1c27e195-cc2f-5826-9502-00544b88fae6.html

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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: Madison Opera offers preview events leading up to performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “I Pagliacci” on Nov. 2 and 4

October 13, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following information to post:

The Madison Opera presents the classic double-bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, by Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo respectively, on Friday, Nov. 2 ,at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 4, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall.

“Cav and Pag” – as they are traditionally known because they are usually presented together — feature some of the most emotionally dramatic music in the repertoire, these two operas offer the ultimate portrayal of passion and jealousy on stage.

Both operas are set in rural Italy and follow characters whose human emotions lead to tragic endings. (The sets, below, used in Madison, come from the New Orleans Opera.)

Cavalleria Rusticana (“Rustic Chivalry”) tells the story of Turridu, who has abandoned his lover, Santuzza, to rekindle an affair with his now-married former girlfriend. As Easter Sunday unfolds, Santuzza and Turridu engage in a battle of emotions that will end with violent consequences.

I Pagliacci (“The Clowns”) tells of a small theatrical troupe arriving in a village for a performance.  Nedda, wife of the troupe’s leader Canio, agrees to run off with her lover, Silvio, that evening.  Another troupe member, Tonio, tells Canio, who responds violently.

But the show must go on, and as Nedda and Canio enact the play-within-a-play, reality bleeds over onstage and tragedy follows. (You can hear the famous aria “Vesti la giubba” sung by Luciano Pavarotti in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“When people think of the phrase ‘Italian opera,’ it’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci that often come to mind,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a  photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director.  “The intense emotions of both the characters and the music they sing has never been equaled. I vividly remember the first time I saw Cavalleria and was overwhelmed by the power of it. I am so delighted to produce these operas in Madison for the first time in over 30 years, with this fantastic cast and production team.”

Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni (below) was written for a one-act opera competition in 1890. Based on a short story and play of the same name, it was an immediate smash hit, with 185 productions around the world within three years, making Mascagni an international icon of Italian music.

Ruggero Leoncavallo (below) wrote I Pagliacci two years later in direct response, hoping for a similar success with a one-act opera about real people caught up in an emotional web. Like Mascagni, he had an immediate success, and the two operas have been paired together intermittently for much of the 20th century.

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts.

Making her debut in the role of Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana is soprano Michelle Johnson, who has been praised for her “extraordinary breath control and flawless articulation.”

Also making her Madison Opera debut is soprano Talise Trevigne in the role of Nedda in Pagliacci; Trevigne has received acclaim for her “luxuriant vocalism [and] unwavering commitment to character.”

Returning to Madison Opera are tenor Scott Piper(below top) in the dual roles of Turridu/Canio and baritone Michael Mayes(below bttom) in the dual roles of Alfio/Tonio. Piper was last seen in Madison as Cavaradossi in the 2013 production of Puccini’s Tosca; Mayes returns to Madison after his electrifying performance as Joseph De Rocher in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking in 2014.

Rounding out the Cavalleria Rusticana cast are Kirsten Larson as Lola and Danielle Wright as Mamma Lucia, both in their Madison Opera debuts.

Pagliacci will also feature baritone Benjamin Taylor in his Madison Opera debut as Silvio and Madison favorite Robert Goodrich as Beppe.

Kristine McIntyre (below) returns to direct, after her highly acclaimed production of Daniel Catan’s Florencia en el Amazonas last season.

Conducting this production will be Joseph Mechavich (below), who made his Madison Opera debut with Mozart’s Don Giovanni and most recently conducted Opera in the Park 2017. Says Mechavich, “Seeing Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci is the ultimate in an Italian operatic experience.  Audiences will have a visceral reaction to synthesis of music and drama.”

Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci both have magnificent choral writing, from the celebrated Easter Hymn in Cavalleria Rusticana to the Chorus of the Bells in Pagliacci, as well as sumptuous orchestral music.

Rounding out the musical forces are the Madison Opera Chorus, members of the Madison Youth Choirs, and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Events leading up to the opera can help the community learn more about Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. Community preview will be offer an entertaining look at “reality opera” – the “verismo” school, which produced works like Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci.

Cinematheque and Madison Opera will co-sponsor a showing of the 1928 silent film Laugh, Clown, Laugh on Oct. 22.  Opera Up Close provides an in-depth discussion of the operas, including a cast roundtable, on Oct. 28.

RELATED EVENTS

Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928); Saturday, Oct. 20, 7 p.m.; UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall (http://cinema.wisc.edu)

FREE and open to the public; doors open 30 minutes before showtime

Lon Chaney (below), the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” plays Tito, a smiling-on-the-outside circus clown heading for heartbreak after he becomes smitten with the fetching Simonetta (Loretta Young). This reworking of the Pagliacci story offers a great showcase for the two leads and talented director Herbert Brenon. The silent film will feature live piano accompaniment by David Drazin and will be preceded by Acrobatty Bunny (1946), starring Bugs Bunny.

Opera Up Close; Sunday, Oct. 28, 1-3 p.m.; the Margaret C. Winston Opera Center, 335 West Mifflin Street

$20 general admission; free for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers

Join Madison Opera for a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci.  General Director Kathryn Smith will discuss the composers and the history of these two pieces. Principal artists, stage director Kristine McIntyre and conductor Joseph Mechavich will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on these masterpieces.

Pre-Opera Talks: Friday, Nov. 2, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 4, at 1:30 p.m. in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, free to ticket holders. Attend an entertaining half-hour introduction to “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” one hour prior to curtain.

Post-Opera Q&A: Friday, Nov. 2, and Sunday, Nov. 4, following the performance in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, free to ticket holders

You’ve seen the operas and loved them. But are you perhaps wondering about …?  Join General Director Kathryn Smith immediately after the performances to ask questions about what you have just seen.

More information — including a blog that has interviews with the cast members — is available at www.madisonopera.org


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Classical music: The third annual Madison New Music Festival features three world premieres and 25 composers, and takes place this weekend with three concerts

August 7, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

It has been a good year for new music in Madison, which has often seemed inhospitable to that music in the past.

Among major contributors have been the LunART Festival of contemporary women composers; programs by the UW Symphony Orchestra and other UW-Madison groups and individuals; the Madison Opera; the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society; the Willy Street Chamber Players; and the Oakwood Chamber Players. Plus, The Ear is sure there are many other contributors he is overlooking.

But the largest share of the credit has to go to a three-day annual festival of living composers that will take place for the third year this coming weekend. (Photos from last year’s well-attended festival are by Max Schmidt.)

Here is an announcement from the festival with the details:

The third annual Madison New Music Festival will take place this coming Friday, Aug. 10, Saturday, Aug. 11, and Sunday, Aug. 12.

The Madison New Music Festival is an annual weekend-long concert series dedicated to strengthening Madison’s cultural vitality through the celebration of fresh classical music from our lifetimes.

Founded by Madison native composer Zachary Green (below bottom), the festival presents new works by some of the world’s leading living composers, shines a spotlight on new music created in Wisconsin, and shares underplayed music of the 20th and 21st centuries with the Madison community.

Every concert will also have a world premiere of music that has never been heard before. On the opening night, Conduit is performing a new piece by Kyle Tieman-Strauss called Abject. The next day, organist Tyler Jameson Pimm premieres his new piece Psalm 22. Then on Sunday, listeners get to hear the premiere of They’re Still Here by BC Grimm, featuring music for nine different instruments (all of which will be played by Grimm himself).

Over the course of three concerts around town, we are featuring a total of 17 musicians playing the works of 25 composers, all of which were written in the last 50 years.

Though each concert has a different theme, every performance features music by Wisconsin composers, composers of color, and both men and women.

Fifteen of our musicians were born, raised or currently reside in Wisconsin, but we’re bringing several back to town just for the festival. They include members of the Madison, Milwaukee and Quad City symphonies; and graduates of Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music, Mannes Conservatory, Northwestern University, and, of course, the UW-Madison.

We invite you to join us for the following three concerts:

CONCERT 1: Sounds of the ‘60s and Beyond – Friday, Aug. 10, at 7:30 p.m.

Hear sounds born out of the ’60s counterculture with works exploring minimalism, social and political engagement, and electronic experimentation, as well as the music they inspired for decades to come. There will be a cash bar, as well as opportunities to explore the exhibits.

Where: Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMOCA), 227 State Street

Who: Caitlin Mead, soprano; Heather Zinninger Yarmel, flute; Kristina Teuschler, clarinet; Jeremy Kienbaum, viola; Alex Norris, violin, and Zou Zou Robidoux, cello; and Conduit (below, Zach Manzi, clarinet and Evan Sadler, percussion).

Program: Music by Melissa Dunphy, Angelica Negron, Evan Williams, Steve Reich, Gilda Lyons, Anna Meadors, Kyle T. Strauss, David Lang and Andy Akiho

CONCERT 2: Sounds of Reflection – Saturday, Aug. 11, at 2 p.m.

The festival continues with an afternoon program invoking spirituality, morality and reflection. Organ interludes will be interspersed throughout the program of vocal and instrumental music.

Where: Bethel Lutheran Church, 312 Wisconsin Ave.

Who: Greg Zelek, Madison Symphony Orchestra organist (below); Jeremy Kienbaum, viola; Satoko Hayami, piano; Tyler Pimm; organ; Kristina Teuschler, clarinet; Alex Norris, violin; Micah Cheng, cello; Caitlin Mead, soprano; and Scott Gendel, piano.

Program: Music by Toru Takemitsu, Trevor Weston, Morton Feldman, Daniel Ficarri, John Weaver, Tyler Pimm, Tania Leon, John Musto and Scott Gendel

CONCERT 3: Festival Closing Party 2018 – Sunday, Aug. 12, at 7:30 p.m.

Kick back a drink as local musician BC Grimm plays his original works for instruments from cello to Chinese Guqin zither, followed by a set of music for solo strings. Then, the musicians from all three concerts come together for a performance of the 1973 piece “Stay On It” — heard in the YouTube video the bottom — by Julius Eastman (below).

Where: Robinia Courtyard, 829 East Washington Avenue

Who: BC Grimm, Jeremy Keinbaum, Aaron Yarmel, and All Festival Performers

Program: BC Grimm, Philip Glass, Ursula Mamlok, Aaron Yarmel, and Julius Eastman

All individual concerts are $15 for general admission, $5 for students. You can also subscribe to all three concerts for $35.

For more information, please visit our website http://madisonnewmusic.org or find us on Facebook (@Madison New Music Festival) or Instagram (@madisonnewmusic).


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Classical music: Two new memoirs and a new recording are revealing but uneven in marking the centennial of Leonard Bernstein

July 28, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

We are only a month away from the centennial of the birthday of conductor, composer, educator and pianist Leonard Bernstein, which will be celebrated on Saturday, Aug. 25. Larry Wells, who is The Opera Guy for The Ear, recently assessed three of the many works – two new books of memoirs and one new recording — reexamining the life, career and legacy of Leonard Bernstein.

By Larry Wells

During this year commemorating the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell), one need only consult https://leonardbernstein.com to find a day-by-day calendar of performances of his works.

As well as world-wide opportunities to hear his works -– even in Madison — there have been two recent books about Bernstein and a new recording of his final opera, “A Quiet Place,” that might be worth your time.

“A Quiet Place” was premiered in Houston as a sequel to his earlier opera “Trouble in Tahiti.” These first performances were conducted by our own John DeMain, the longtime artistic director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Madison Opera.

This nearly two-hour one-act opera dealing with incest, bisexuality, alcoholism and psychosis did not please the critics either for its libretto or for its music.

Soon thereafter Bernstein refashioned the opera by inserting “Trouble in Tahiti” in the middle and cutting some music. His subsequent recording has always baffled me because the music is so uninteresting and the casting is so haphazard.

The new recording on the Decca label (below) is of yet another version devised by Garth Edwin Sunderland. Reducing the orchestration to a chamber ensemble of 18 players, removing “Trouble in Tahiti,” and restoring some of the cuts, this recording by Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra allows us to hear most of the original version of the opera.

(To read Sunderland’s analysis of his edition, check https://leonardbernstein.com/uploads/pages/files/PFR_2013_FW.pdf.)

The new recording is a valiant attempt by Nagano (below) to breathe some life into this dreary work, but I remain unconvinced that “A Quiet Place” is any more than a failed, final stab by a composer most of whose work I admire very much.

Charlie Harmon was Bernstein’s personal assistant, and his recent memoir ”On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius” (below) goes a long way in explaining the failure of “A Quiet Place.” (You can hear the Postlude to Act I of “A Quiet Place” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To hear Harmon tell it, by this time in Bernstein’s life the maestro depended on drugs to go to sleep, drugs to keep himself awake, and alcohol in excess.  He also had a penchant for younger men.

The picture he paints of a troubled genius is rather pathetic, and Bernstein comes across as thoughtless, self-centered and exasperating. When Harmon (below, on the right with Bernstein) writes of his shock at being groped by Bernstein, I had to wonder what else he had expected. Still, it is an entertaining read.

Bernstein’s daughter Jamie Bernstein has recently published  “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” (below) Here we get a glimpse into Bernstein’s family life. The portrait of his troubled relationship with his long-suffering wife Felicia Montealegre is particularly interesting.

I heard Jamie Bernstein (below) speak recently in Tucson, and she told amazing anecdotes about Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and William Schuman.

Little of that appears in the book. She assumes that the reader is interested in her own love life and her failed pop music career. I would have preferred to read more about the many fascinating people who surrounded Bernstein and less about her privileged and entitled life.

I have always been a big fan of Bernstein. I admired him as a conductor, teacher and composer. Anyone who has even a nominal interest in the man will find both of the recent memoirs at least diverting. The recording of “A Quiet Place,” however, is only for the true devotees.


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s FREE 17th annual “Opera in the Park” takes place this Saturday night in Garner Park

July 16, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Madison Opera’s annual Opera in the Park (below) celebrates its 17th year on this coming Saturday night, July 21, at 8 p.m. in Garner Park on Madison’s far west side, near West Towne Mall.

The annual FREE and family-friendly concert of opera and Broadway favorites closes the company’s 2017-18 season and provides a preview of the 2018-19 season.

A Madison summer tradition that often attracts over 15,000 people (below, in a photo by James Gill), Opera in the Park is an evening of music under the stars that features selections from opera and Broadway.

This year’s Opera in the Park features four soloists: soprano Elizabeth Caballero; soprano Brenda Rae; tenor John Lindsey; and baritone Levi Hernandez.

Caballero (below top) and Hernandez (below bottom) recently starred in Madison Opera’s acclaimed production of “Florencia en el Amazons” last spring.

Lindsey (below) is making his debut, and will return to the company as the Prince in Antonin Dvorak’s Rusalka in April, 2018.

Rae (below) is also making her Madison Opera debut. She did her undergraduate work at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music before going on to the Juilliard School and an international career. She is singing Cunegonde in Candide at Santa Fe Opera this summer, and is performing at Opera in the Park in between performances there.

The four soloists are joined by the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top, in a photo by James Gill), conducted by Gary Thor Wedow (below bottom), who has guest conducted Opera in the Park before.

The evening is hosted by Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith and WKOW-TV’s 27 News co-anchor George Smith (below).

Opera in the Park  is the most wonderful and most unique performance we give at Madison Opera,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill). “We have beautiful voices performing music from many centuries in many languages, while thousands of members of our community relax together under the same night sky. It truly shows how music and opera can connect us. I am so grateful to all of our supporters for enabling us to produce this free concert every summer, harnessing the community-building power of music.”

Opera in the Park 2018 features arias and ensembles from Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, which open the 2018-19 season in November; Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, which will be performed in February; and Antonin Dvorak’s Rusalka, which will be performed in April. (You can hear the beautiful “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka — a signature aria for superstar soprano René Fleming — sung by Frederica von Stade, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The program also includes selections from La Bohème, Turandot, La Sonnambula, The Marriage of Figaro, El Niño Judío, La del Soto del Parral, My Fair Lady, Candide, On the Town, and more. For a complete list of repertoire on the program, which is subject to change, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/oitp/

As always, this evening will include one number conducted by the audience with light sticks (below).

Garner Park is located at 333 South Rosa Road, at an intersection with Mineral Point Road. Parking is available in the CUNA Mutual Group and University Research Park lots across the street.

Attendees are encouraged to bring picnics, blankets and chairs. Alcohol is permitted but not sold in the park. On the day of the concert, Garner Park will open at 7 a.m. Audience members may not leave items in the park prior to this time.

The rain date for Opera in the Park is Sunday, July 22, at 8 p.m.

While Opera in the Park is free to attend, it would not be possible without the generous support of many foundations, corporations and individuals.

Sponsors of Opera in the Park 2018 are:  the BerbeeWalsh Foundation, the John and Carolyn Peterson Charitable Foundation, Full Compass Systems, the Raymond B. Preston Family Foundation, University Research Park, Colony Brands, the Evjue Foundation – the charitable arm of The Capital Times, Hooper Foundation, MG&E Foundation, Johnson Bank, National Guardian Life, Wisconsin Bank and Trust, the Wisconsin Arts Board, Dane Arts and the Madison Arts Commission.

Madison Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, Magic 98, and La Movida are media sponsors for this community event.

RELATED EVENT: Prelude Dinner at Opera in the Park 2018 is on Saturday, July 21, at 6 p.m. in the park under a tent.

This annual fundraiser to benefit Opera in the Park helps support Madison Opera’s free gift to the community. The event includes dinner catered by Upstairs Downstairs, VIP seating at the concert, a complimentary light stick, and a reception with the artists following the performance. Tickets are $145 per person or $1,100 for a table of eight. More information is available at www.madisonopera.org

Madison Opera is a non-profit professional opera company based in Madison, Wisconsin. Founded in 1961, the company grew from a local workshop presenting community singers in English-language productions to a nationally recognized organization producing diverse repertoire featuring leading American opera singers and emerging talent.

A resident organization of the Overture Center for the Arts, Madison Opera presents three annual productions in addition to the free summer concert Opera in the Park and a host of educational programming.


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Classical music: This Sunday, Beverly Taylor retires as associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Kyle Knox will succeed Taylor starting this fall.

June 29, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) has announced that Associate Conductor Beverly Taylor (below) will retire from her current position after 22 years, effective this Sunday, July 1.

Taylor will continue to serve as Director of the Madison Symphony Chorus (below, in a  photo by Greg Anderson).

She will also continue as the Director of Choral Activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where she conducts many groups including the Choral Union (below) and the Concert Choir.

Kyle Knox (below) will become the MSO’s new Associate Conductor, effective in the 2018–2019 season.

“I am delighted that Beverly will continue to work with the Madison Symphony Chorus. The chorus has improved steadily under her direction and will sing some very difficult music in the coming seasons,” said MSO music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). “I also want to thank Beverly for the outstanding help she has given me in the preparation of our concerts over the years.”

“I’ve loved my time as associate conductor of the symphony, and will continue as chorus director,” says Taylor. “But I’m looking forward to more time for guest conducting, visiting friends and family and finishing the two books I’m at work on. I also have a grant to write a basic conducting textbook, and I’m finishing a handbook on how to develop a musical interpretation.”

John DeMain says he looks forward to Knox joining the MSO. “I think Kyle Knox is a natural to step into the associate conductor position. He has distinguished himself in the past few years with his work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison Opera and the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by John W. Barker). He also successfully led the MSO in last year’s Concert on the Green.

“His recent appointment as Music Director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) is a testament to his brilliant talent and will dovetail easily with his duties with the MSO. I so look forward to our working together and welcome him to our Madison Symphony Orchestra family.”

Knox is also very pleased with his appointment.

“My history with the MSO goes back a few years and I have long admired the work of Maestro DeMain and this wonderful group of musicians,” he says. “It is an honor to have been selected for this opportunity and I look forward to happy years of service and collaboration.”

BACKGROUND BIOGRAPHIES

Beverly Taylor has been the Associate Conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Director of the Madison Symphony Chorus since 1996 and Director of Choral Activities at UW-Madison since 1995.

Prior roles include conductor of the Boston Bar Association Orchestra, Music Director of the Back Bay Chorale, and Associate Director of Choral Activities at Harvard University.

Taylor has been a guest conductor at the Arthur Rubinstein Philharmonic Orchestra in Poland, the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, the Vermont Symphony, the Harvard Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the U.S. Air Force Band and Orchestra, the Harvard Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, and the Wellesley Chamber Singers.

She graduated from the University of Delaware and Boston University School for the Arts and received a fellowship with Chorus America and an orchestral fellowship at Aspen.

Kyle Knox will take over the dual positions of Music Director of WYSO and Associate Conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra beginning in the 2018–2019 season.

Past and upcoming conducting credits include Mark Adamo’s Little Women with the Madison Opera; Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw, and Transformations; with UW-Madison’s University Opera; the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s 2017 Concert on the Green; Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers and H.M.S. Pinafore with the Madison Savoyards; as well as UW Music Clinic’s High School Honors Orchestra.

Other concerts include Carousel, Sunday in the Park with George, and Sweeney Todd (2018) with Middleton Players Theatre, Jon Deak’s The Passion of Scrooge with Oakwood Chamber Players, as well as regular appearances with the Middleton Community Orchestra.

He was formerly a clarinetist with Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Santa Fe Opera and Philadelphia Orchestras, and was on the faculty at UW-Milwaukee. Festivals credits include Tanglewood, Spoleto (Italy), Santa Fe Chamber Music, and Bowdoin College, among others. His debut album, the first commercial recording of Conrad Susa’s chamber opera Transformations, will be released in the summer of 2018 on iTunes. He holds degrees from Juilliard School and the UW-Madison. He  is married to MSO concertmaster Naha Greenholtz. 


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Classical music: What should — and shouldn’t — the #MeToo movement mean for women in the opera world?

June 16, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

It is clear now that just about all aspects of life and culture in the United States are being affected more and more by the #MeToo movement that seeks to expose, punish, correct and prevent sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, sexual assault, sexual abuse and gender inequality in general.

But what does that mean specifically for the notoriously patriarchal and misogynistic opera world – meaning for the operas themselves and their themes, plots, characters and composers as well as for the people who put them on?

How, for example, should one now think of “Don Giovanni” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? (The womanizing Don Juan is seen below in a production of “Don Giovanni” by the Metropolitan Opera.)

A recent discussion on National Public Radio (NPR) covered many dimensions of the problem, and The Ear found what was said fascinating although he didn’t agree with everything.

One Italian production went so far as to change the ending of a famous and popular opera – Bizet’s “Carmen” — in order to redeem the doomed heroine.

That seems excessive to The Ear, something that recalls the 17th-century writer Nahum Tate who rewrote the tragedy “King Lear” by Shakespeare to give it a happy ending. (You can hear the original ending of “Carmen” in the YouTube video at the bottom. The 2009 production by the Metropolitan Opera features Roberto Alagna and Elina Garanca.)

It brings up the question: How far should one go in imposing contemporary values on the past? And does rejecting an artist also mean rejecting that artist’s work?

Read the edited transcript or listen to the entire 8-minute discussion for yourself. Besides the female host (Lulu Garcia-Navarro), three women – two singers (Aleks Romano and Leah Hawkins) and one administrator (Kim Witman) – ask questions and give their opinions and thoughts.

Here is a link to the story that was posted on the NPR blog “Deceptive Cadence”:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/05/27/614470629/my-voice-should-be-heard-metoo-and-the-women-of-opera

Then decide what you think you would like to see done to address the concerns of the #MeToo movement in the opera world, and what is allowed and not allowed to you.

And let us know in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: This weekend kicks off the 27th annual summer season of Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society concerts with the theme of musical works as toys to be “played” with for serious fun

June 7, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Four performances on this coming Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday afternoon and Sunday night will open the 27th annual summer concert series of the critically acclaimed but always informal and light-hearted Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society (below and in the YouTube video at the bottom).

There will be six programs in 12 concerts performed in three venues over the next three weekends.

The venues are: The Playhouse in the Overture Center (below top) at 7:30 p.m.; the Stoughton Opera House (below middle) at 7:30 p.m.; and the Hillside Theater (below bottom) at Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright compound in Spring Green, at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m.

Ticket prices are $43, or $48 if you want a prime seat at the Overture Center. For more information, go to: http://bachdancing.org/tickets/season-tickets/

This opening weekend features a lot of flute music and a lot of string music plus some unusual arrangements or transcription and music by unknown women composers.

As usual, BDDS has lined up a series of impressive local talent as well as favorite guest performers, including the critically acclaimed soprano Emily Birsan (below top) and bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below bottom).

Also on the schedule is a Madison-based hip-hop dancer and choreographer, Blake Washington (below), for two pieces during the second weekend: Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” and Francis Poulenc’s “The Masked Ball.” In addition, four players from the BDDS Dynamite Factory – the apprentice school of BDDS for emerging performers – will take part.

Again, as always, there is a unifying theme to the season. This year it is “Toy Stories,” playing off the idea of “playing” pieces of chamber music.

Here is a background and overview story that appeared this week in The Wisconsin State Journal: http://host.madison.com/wsj/entertainment/music/bach-dancing-and-dynamite-gets-playful-with-toy-stories/article_918d38c4-1eba-5196-822e-2b2616eddb75.html

Here is an explanation from UW-Madison graduate and San Francisco-based teacher and pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below left), who co-founded, co-directs and performs in the series with retired UW-Madison and Madison Symphony Orchestra principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below right):

“When we were kids, we would ride our hobby horses around the back yard pretending to be knights on a quest. We’d race our Slinkies down the stairs, cheering their contorted yet gymnastic moves. We made crazy cyborgs with our Mr. and Mrs. Potato Heads. The cyborgs would fight for world domination, and then they’d sit down to tea with our dolls. We cuddled our stuffed animals as we prepared for bed, confessing our deepest dreams and aspirations to them. How easily those toys sparked our imaginations and transported us to fantastic realms!

“I’m a grownup now, sort of, and while I might get a short-lived bang out of newfangled tech toys, I’ve mostly left behind the dolls, bears and rubber ducks (below) of my childhood. The “toys” that really light my fire are incredible pieces of chamber music that have their own personalities; that delight me, surprise me, cry with me, and laugh with me.

CHAMBER

“Performing chamber music is called “playing” for a good reason. Ask any artist who joins BDDS for our festival: chamber music is a magical way to recapture the spirit of imaginative play that came to us so easily as kids.

“We cherish favorite old toys — the great chamber works of Bach, Mozart, and Brahms, for example. Yet we can also delight in the new toys that come our way — the music of Gabriela Lena Frank (below top), Paul Wiancko (below middle) and Kevin Puts (below bottom).

“Whether these new playthings become favorite old friends, who’s to say? One thing’s for sure, we’ll never know unless we play with them.

“BDDS’s 27th season theme is TOY STORIES, and co-artistic director Stephanie Jutt and I have organized each of our programs around a quirky take on iconic toys.

“To celebrate the festival’s age, we’ve also scattered various “27s” across our programs. In the spirit of imaginative play, rather than spell ing everything out, here are some clues to what you’ll hear this June.

TEDDY TALKS. Just change the motto “ideas worth spreading” to “music worth hearing” and you have our modus operandi. In this case, we have all sorts of Teddies talking to us through their music: I wonder what they’ll say.

AMERICAN GIRLS. Proud and multi-ethnic, they have been coming on strong as composers for a hundred years, and here’s the proof!

PLAY DO(H). C Major is the most malleable of keys.

GI JOE. War is no game, but it has inspired some seriously imaginative music.

RUBBER DUCKY, YOU’RE THE ONE. Sesame Street’s beloved Ernie adored his bath toy: see who else jumps into the tub.

TRANSFORMERS. I’m amazed how a couple of twists and turns can transform a few unassuming blocks into something breathtakingly complex.

“Join us June 8-24 for TOY STORIES in Madison, Stoughton, and Spring Green. We’ll play together with some irresistible toys and have ourselves some serious fun.

“With a bang!”

For the schedule of performances, with times and places, go to: http://bachdancing.org

For the full programs, including the many new or neglected composers and works to be performed, go to: http://bachdancing.org/concerts/festival-concerts/

For a complete list of performing and helping personnel, go to:

http://bachdancing.org/concerts/cast-crew/

And for a complete and impressive list of BDDS repertoire throughout the years, listed in alphabetical order by the composer’s last name, go to:

http://bachdancing.org/about/repertoire-through-the-seasons/


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” took listeners on an enchanting and moving voyage into love and fine singing of Puccini-like lyricism

May 1, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the Madison Opera and filed this review, with photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

I looked forward enough to Madison Opera’s premiere production of Daniel Catán’s Spanish-languageFlorencia en el Amazonas” that I attended both performances at Overture Hall this past weekend.

Based on repeated hearings of the recording and numerous favorable reviews of other productions, I was fairly certain that I would be in for a treat. I was not disappointed.

The action takes place on a boat on the Amazon heading for Manaus where the title character Florenica (below), an opera singer of high repute, is to perform.

Other passengers (below), unaware of her presence onboard, also have the opera house as their destination in order to hear her sing.

Rosalba, her unauthorized biographer, and Paula and Alvaro, a bickering older couple, are joined onboard by the Captain, his nephew Arcadio, and a Puckish character Riolobo, who acts as narrator and supervises the magic in this tale of magical realism.

Below, starting at the top and moving clockwise, are: Kanopy Dancers, Ashraf Sewailam (The Captain), Mackenzie Whitney (Arcadio), Rachel Sterrenberg (Rosalba), Elizabeth Caballero (Florencia Grimaldi), Adriana Zabala (Paula), Levi Hernandez (Alvaro) and Nmon Ford (Riolobo)

The boat (our life) floats along the Amazon (life itself) in this parable of longing, regret, the fickleness of love, love lost and regained, and transformation.

Aiding in the unfolding of the tale are water sprites, referred to at times as Amazons. Six willowy dancers from the Kanopy troupe did not seem particularly Amazonian, but their waving of billowy fabric evoked the river and their retrieving twice from the water careless Rosalba’s precious manuscript added to the magic.

Riolobo and the sprites also bring Alvaro back to life after he appears to drown during a storm.  (We should be attentive to water sprites since Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” which also features these denizens, is on the schedule for next year’s season.)

And, in the end, just when you think that all conflicts have been resolved and love is at hand, the boat reaches Manaus only to find it impossible to make landfall due not only to cholera but also to rabies, scurvy, leprosy and beriberi. Florencia’s transformation into a butterfly (below) ends the voyage.

This odd but magical plot is a vehicle for lush, rhapsodic music by a Mexican composer whose life ended too soon. The orchestral and vocal writing featured soaring melodies, which at times reminded me of Puccini had his life extended further into the 20th century. The orchestral writing continually evokes the river and flowing water, reminding me of music of the Impressionists.

John DeMain ably led the wonderfully sounding Madison Symphony Orchestra.  He once again proved himself to be a master of pacing, tempo and dynamics.

The opera was very evenly cast. Nmon Ford (below top on right), as Riolobo, had a rich baritone voice and an impressive physicality. His transformation at the end of the first act into a feather-clad river spirit (below bottom) was hypnotic.

As Rosalba, Rachel Sterrenberg (below, top right), who made a memorable appearance last season as the wife Chan in “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” was a soprano of great flexibility who rendered her character’s opulent melodic lines with mounting ecstasy. Hers was a thrilling performance.

Her foil, full-voiced tenor Mackenzie Whitney (below, bottom left) as Arcadio, produced some of the most Puccini-like moments of sheer soaring lyricism.

Their duets, including a rather dark anti-love duet, were  highlights of the work. Catán’s writing for mixed voices is inspired, and all of the ensemble numbers – duets, a quintet, a septet – are entrancing.

Baritone Levi Hernandez as Alvaro and mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala as his wife, Paula, had moments of bickering and moments of tenderness. His robust vocalization perfectly complemented the creamy richness of hers. Zabala’s second act lament was very touching.

Bass Ashraf Sewailam, in his debut appearance with Madison Opera, produced some of the best singing of the show. He was both profound and lyrical with a total lack of affectation. His acting was subtle, and his outstanding performance demands his return.

Elizabeth Caballero as the diva Florencia Grimaldi was impassioned, focused yet fluid, sumptuous and rapturous. Her ravishing singing, particularly during her metamorphosis — heard in another production in the YouTube video at the bottom — was truly moving.

The set, lighting, projections and costumes were all understated and perfectly blended. The only false step was what appeared to be coffins flying through the air out of Manaus. It took me a moment to realize they were intended to be floating in the river.

The audience seemed enchanted and moved by the opera. I was, too. Let’s have more works like this.


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