The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: A concert of rarely performed French Baroque chamber music with voice is this Sunday afternoon

May 19, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m., a concert of French Baroque chamber music will take place.

Performers are UW-Madison alumna and current graduate student, soprano Chelsie Propst (below top); baroque violinists Nathan Giglierano and Laura Thompson; Eric Miller (below middle) on baroque cello and viola da gamba; and organist Sigrun Franzen (below bottom).

The concert will be performed at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below, exterior and interior), 1833 Regent Street, on Madison’s near west side.

Admission is $10.

The program includes “Médée” (Medea) by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault; “La Sultanne” by François Couperin (below in a YouTube video); “La mort de Didon” (The Death of Dido) by Michel Pignolet de Montéclair; and “Ditemi, o piante,” HWV 107, by George Frideric Handel.

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Classical music: The Opera Student Showcase concert this Sunday afternoon will introduce David Ronis as the new director of University Opera and spotlight University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate soprano Shannon Prickett.

September 12, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a the press release for the University Opera’s Student Showcase that will take place this coming Sunday afternoon and will preview the talent and productions of the upcoming season:

“A concert of favorite melodies by Vincenzo Bellini, Giuseppe Verdi and others -– mostly operatic but one clearly comic -– will be presented by students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music’s opera program.

The concert will take place this Sunday afternoon, September 14, at 3 p.m. in the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s Landmark Auditorium (below) at 900 University Bay Drive.

FUS1jake

Directing the concert and this year’s University Opera program will be David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio), currently on leave from the Aaron Copland School of Music at City University of New York, and Hofstra University. He is serving as the interim successor to longtime director William Farlow, who retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison last spring. (At bottom is a YouTube video of the work that the versatile Ronis recently did at Queens College with an early music version of Luigi Rossi’s opera “Orfeo.”)

Here is a link to a press release, issued by the UW-Madison School of Music when David Ronis was chosen from a nationwide search last spring, with Ronis’ impressive background:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2014/07/11/school-of-music-announces-david-ronis-as-visiting-director-of-opera/

David Ronis color CR  Luke DeLalio

Most of the singers will appear in this year’s productions of Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring this fall and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute in the spring.

Here is a link to information about the upcoming season of the University Opera:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/opera/

But one singer -– soprano Shannon Prickett (below top) – is an alumna returning from her current work as Resident Artist at the Minnesota Opera.

While in Madison from 2011 to 2013 and working on her Master’s of Music degree, Prickett performed lead parts in Puccini’s La Bohème, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Luigi Cherubini’s Medea, Pietro Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz, and Verdi’s Requiem.

In the Showcase concert, she will sing arias from Verdi’s I Lombardi, Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, and a dramatic duet from Verdi’s Aïda with new mezzo-soprano doctoral student Jessica Kasinski, below bottom. (The Ear has no word on specific works to be performed.)

Shannon Prickett head shot

Jessica Kasinski

Other singers will take on arias by Mozart, Donizetti, Bellini, Richard Strauss and even Flanders and Swann: That number requires good humor as well as pianistic skill from the accompanist, and will provide a treat for fans of the multi-talented and critically acclaimed Thomas Kasdorf (below), another graduate of the UW-Madison.

Thomas Kasdorf

The concert is a benefit for the University Opera that sponsored by Opera Props, which supports the University Opera. Admission is a contribution of $25 per person, $10 for students. A reception follows.


Classical music: Medea remains a fierce and timely heroine for women in today’s society and politics in America.

November 18, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review-essay written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the MadisonEarly Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

It was just after I filed my review last week for Isthmus on the University Opera’s production of Luigi Cherubini‘s 1797 opera “Medea that I recognized some startling implications for our time in the popular story of the formidable mythic sorceress.

Here is a link to that review:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=38262

Even if I had thought of them before finishing the reviews, there would have been no space for such thoughts.

But perhaps The Ear can find a little niche for them now.

Most people have some inkling of the most famous part of Medea’s story.  You know, spurned by her husband Jason, she destroyed his new bride and murdered her own children in revenge.  (Sorcery scenes; blood and gore; escape in a fiery chariot — that sort of thing.)

But the full mythological story of Medea (below, depicted in a historical painting) was, in fact, a very complicated and multi-faceted one. It survives to us piecemeal in ancient Greek sources, and is embodied essentially in four phases. First, when the heroic Argonauts, led by Jason, came to her homeland (Colchis, in the Caucasus), Princess Medea fell in love with him, defied her father to help Jason steal the fabled Golden Fleece, and killed her own brother in escaping with Jason.

Upon their arrival in Thessaly to claim his reward, recovery of his throne, Jason was cheated out of it by his uncle, whom Medea promptly killed through her magic wiles.

Fleeing, Jason and Medea took refuge in Corinth for 10 years, where she bore him two sons. Corinth provided the scene of the second phase. Tiring of his forceful wife, Jason renounced her, winning the daughter of Corinth’s king, Creon, as a bride. In revenge, the discarded Medea used her magic to destroy both the king and his daughter, completing her revenge by the calculated murder of both of her sons.

In her vengeance, Medea had come to an agreement with the aged King Aegeus of Athens to take refuge with him. In this third phase of the story, Medea married Aegeus and bore him a son, Medus, but lost out in competition for power with her stepson, Theseus, and had to flee with Medus.

For the fourth and final phase of Medea’s story, she and her son returned to Colchis, where she defeated her hostile relatives and installed Medus as king.

There is, too, an epilogue, in which we are told that the devastated Jason wandered the beaches by the ruins of his famous vessel, the Argonaut. One of its timbers fell off, striking him with a fatal blow.

Now, there is lots of meat in all these episodes. Over the centuries, dramatists of varying stripe have picked over it all. The fourth and final phase has tended to be ignored, but the medium of opera has witnessed treatments of the first three, some going back to the very earliest years of lyric theater.

The episode of Jason and Medea in Colchis had its first operatic treatment (a comic one) by Francesco Cavalli in 1649, and many followed thereafter for three centuries. The third phase, of Medea in Athens, has been given far fewer presentations in opera, the most important being Handel’s “Teseo” (1713).

It has been, however, the second phase, that of Medea in Corinth, which has by far inspired stage versions, making us particularly familiar with that part of Medea’s story.

That emphasis was first laid down by the classical Greek dramatist, Euripides (480-406 B.C), in his play “Medea.” On his model, the Roman writer Seneca (he of Monteverdi’s opera “The Coronation of Poppea”) wrote a simplified drama on the story in Latin, and this was what future centuries knew best of the dread sorceress. French dramatists were particularly influenced by Seneca’s version, and one of them a younger member of the famous Corneille family, wrote the libretto for one of the earliest operatic settings, Marc-Antoine Charpentier‘s “Médée” (1693). (Belwo is Medea from the film by Pasolini.)

That remains one of the best of all such, though that of a century later, Cherubini’s opera–which was the UW Opera presented–does stand out among close to 30 other treatments, their number still growing down to the present.  (Below, in a photo of the University Opera production by Brent Nicastro, is Also Perrelli, Shannon Prickett as Medea, and the UW Madrigal Singers in the back.)

What survives to some extent in our various operas is still best set forth at the outset by Euripides. An “issue” dramatist, Euripides liked to provoke his Athenian audiences with challenging and unconventional perspectives.

And in the personality of Medea, Euripides found issues that resound through the centuries, and are more than ever relevant today.

Consider. Yes, Medea is branded as a sorceress — all that nasty magic, bad stuff, we all know, disruptive to nature and to the normal order of things. She had a hair-trigger temper, and her revenge could be simply horrible when she was thwarted.  Bizarre character, you know. Someone you might think twice about becoming involved with, and certainly about crossing. (Below is the celebrated opera diva Maria Callas as Medea.)

But what makes Medea so perennially fascinating is the mix of those “negative” characteristics with other elements.  She was a wronged woman: betraying her family and abandoning her homeland for love of her man, she is in turn betrayed by Jason when he finds a more advantageous marriage with a young woman. 

Complicating her plight are two factors.  First, she is a woman in an utterly male-dominated society.  Second, in a smugly xenophobic society, she is an outsider, an alien, a “barbarian”, to be scored as something “other”.  (Might we say she was the “illegal immigrant” par excellence among the Greeks?)  Against both prejudices, she fought bravely, even desperately. Her resources were limited, but what she had she pushed to the extreme.  And, until the final phase of her story, she was constantly defeated or on the defensive.

Right now, in our American setting, the rights and opportunities of women are still in question.  Breaking through the “glass ceiling” remains a problem for women in the men’s world of business. So-called “women’s issues” are under attack up to the moment: politicians prattle about rape, propose outrageously intrusive gynecology, oppose contraception and sex education, politicize abortion, deny plans for maternity leaves, and assault women’s health care.

Here we have had an election that produced for the first time a total of five women in the U.S. Senate. Not that voting for female candidates must be based solely on gender, but certainly their access to public offices needs strengthening. And how much chance was U.S. Rep Tammy Baldwin  (below) first given against for Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson?

In sum, the situation of women touches on problems whose formulation can be seen as far back as Euripides. Have we learned anything? Perhaps the most provocative anti-war tract ever written was Euripides’ play “The Trojan Women.” And perhaps the best challenge to thinking about the place for women in our world is no less than the same dramatist’s Medea.

And, Euripides might share some credit with the operas, too.  I was set to thinking about all this by Cherubini’s “Medea,” in its now “standard” Italian form, as presented by the University Opera’s wonderful student singers.

Overcoming the absolutely silly visual handicaps of set and costumes in William Farlow’s staging, these brave singers succeeded in bringing to vocal and dramatic life so much of what this complex heroine’s powerful story is really all about. (Below, in a photo by Brent Nicastro, is the UW production with, from left) Ariana Douglas, Erik Larson and Aldo Perrelli with the UW Madrigal singers in the background.)

So opera-goers, and everyone else: listen and enjoy, but think.


Classical music Q&A: Conductor Andrew Sewell explains why Cherubini’s opera “Medea” is a neglected masterpiece that deserves its production by University of Wisconsin students.

November 7, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

The weekend and early next week will see three performances of the opera “Medea” by Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) by the University Opera and the UW Chamber Orchestra at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Performances are in Music Hall (below), at the foot of Bascom Hill, on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m.;’ and Tuesday, Nov. 13, at 7:30 p.m.

Single tickets are $22 for general admission; $18 for seniors and non-UW students; and $10 for UW-Madison students.

Here is a link to the University Opera’s site:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/opera

Here is a link to the extensive program and production notes, with cast interviews, by the outreach and support organization Opera Props:

http://cpanel101.mulehill.com/~uwoperap/

The student cast promises to be outstanding, especially with soprano Shannon Prickett (below) who had won a stage of the famous Metropolitan Opera auditions and also picked up the People’s Choice Award for her efforts. Prickett also won acclaim when she sang the lead role of Mimi in University Opera’s 2011 production of Puccini’s “La Boheme” and with the UW Choral Union in its performance of Verdi’s Requiem last spring at the Overture Center. Here is a link to the news story about her and other Wisconsin singers:

http://www.jsonline.com/entertainment/arts/175137601.html

Here is a list of the rotating roles and performers: Cassie Glaeser (Nov. 9 and 13) and Shannon Prickett (Nov. 11) as Medea; Alex Gmeinder (9), Aldo Perelli (11) and Daniel Lopez (13) as Jason, leader of the Argonauts; Ariana Douglas as Glauce, daughter of King Creon; Bethany Hickman (9 and 13) and Amy Sheffer (11) as Neris; James Held and Erik Larson as rein; Lydia Eiche and Anna Whiteway as First and Second Handmaiden respectively; and William Ottow as Captain of the Guard.

Finally, this time the conductor is not the usual one, James Smith Instead, Andrew Sewell, the music director of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, which performs the popular Concerts on the Square in Summer and the outstanding winter Masterworks series, will be on the podium as a guest conductor.

Sewell (below) recently took time out from his very busy schedule of rehearsals for both the opera and upcoming performances by the WCO to answer an email Q&A about “Medea”:

You have the reputation for exploring neglected composers and repertoire. What would you like to tell the public about Cherubini; about his music in general; and his opera “Medea” in specific?

I think composers like Cherubini carried tremendous weight in shaping the styles of their contemporaries, and heavily influenced younger composers.  So much of his music sounds like Mozart, yet the dramatic fever of this plot, points to a later generation. Hence, it appealed to Beethoven and later Brahms.

The intensity of the three overtures and close connection between theatrical and musical events makes this opera so compelling emphasizing the conflict, and impending tragic result.  There is an underlying sinister element to Medea’s character, in contrast to the innocence and virtue of Glauce’s character for instance, that Cherubini (below) captures. The arias and choruses go at “full throttle” and don’t let up very often. (At bottom,the famed Maria Callas sings the finale.)

What would you like to say about the quality of the UW student players and singers?

The singers are well cast. Bill Farlow (below, the stage director for “Medea” and director of University Opera) has such a passion for this opera, and the singers have responded in kind.  The members of the chamber orchestra have been very engaged and are working hard.  It has been a pleasure for me to conduct them.

Does conducting an opera require any special skills beyond what you normally do with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra?

Yes, you have to have a different mindset. It requires a lot more give and take, and being prepared for anything that may come along. It’s particularly important in recitatives and making them work seamlessly.

You have worked with students before and you are often seen attending student performances. How do you view educational commitments compared to professional ones?

I enjoy working with students at any time, as you know, with the Side by Side concerts that we have done with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). With my own children going through WYSO (below), I’m very supportive of educational institutions.

This has been a great opportunity to work with the university students and the UW opera department. I’m happy to be a support to the UW School of Music and its faculty.

Is there anything else you would like to add or say?

Works like “Medea” by Cherubini should be heard, and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to conduct this neglected masterpiece. Earlier this season, the Chicago Symphony presented Cherubini’s Requiem under its new music director, Ricardo Muti.


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