The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Magic Flute” proved enjoyable, opulent and superb

April 25, 2017
8 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friend and opera veteran filed this review:

By Larry Wells

I attended last Sunday’s matinee performance of the Madison Opera’s production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” (Performance photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.)

The opera’s mystifying combination of fairy tale and Masonic ritual has been better explained by others, including the legendary Anna Russell. Those who know her only through her analysis of Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle should seek out her lecture on “The Magic Flute, which is accompanied on the CD by an equally humorous look at Verdi’s “Nabucco.” A search through the iTunes store will easily yield these treasures.

The scenery and costumes (below), which were borrowed from Arizona Opera, were superb. I was captivated by the clever set, the opulent costumes and the amazing props.

The choice to have the spoken dialogue in English, while the sung parts remained in German with supertitles in English, was a smart move and helped move the ridiculous plot lines along.

The playing by members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor from the Juilliard School, Gary Thor Wedow, (below) was, as usual, brilliant.

And the singing was, for the most part, first-rate.

Special mention should be made of Andrew Bidlack (below top) as a consistently arresting Tamino and Amanda Woodbury (below, right, with Scott Brunscheen as Monostatos) as a crystalline Pamina. Their first act duet was perfection.

Likewise, Caitlin Cisler played the Queen of the Night (below center) and her vocal fireworks were spectacular, plus she was a delight to watch in her bizarre winged costume. (You can hear the Queen of the Night’s astonishing and virtuosic aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I enjoyed Alan Dunbar’s Papageno (below). He has a gift for comedy.

And probably my favorite characters, the three ladies (below, from left, with Tamino) portrayed by Amanda Kingston, Kelsey Park and Anna Parks were brilliantly sung and acted.

UW-Madison graduate Anna Polum (below) did not disappoint in the smaller role of Papagena, and we will be fortunate to hear her again soon in Johannes Brahms’ “German Requiem” with the Madison Symphony Orchestra next month.

The three spirits, sung by local schoolboys, were fun to watch with their steampunk attire and props, but they were vocally rather thin.

Nathan Stark’s Sarastro tested the limits of his vocal range. It’s a difficult role in any event since Sarastro has the unfortunate habit of stopping the opera’s action in its tracks whenever he appears.

The audience loved the whole thing, laughing at the comic absurdities and applauding whenever the music paused. But I cannot help wondering why “The Magic Flute” is such a popular opera. Its plot is basically incomprehensible, its second act goes on a half hour too long, the Queen of the Night’s downfall is never satisfactorily explained, and despite a number of memorable tunes, there are, in my mind, many more musically satisfying operas.

Next season we can look forward to yet another of the countless performances of Bizet’s “Carmen” and yet another Mozart opera “The Abduction from the Seraglio.” Madison does seem to love its Mozart. But we will also be hearing the late Daniel Catan’s lush, Puccini-esque “Florencia en el Amazonas,” for which I give praise.

I got to thinking about what other lesser performed operas that are not 200 years old might please the Madison crowd and quickly came up with: Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Consul”; Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide”; Douglas Moore’s “The Ballad of Baby Doe”; Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa”; and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Sir John in Love.”

Each of these is as melodic as “The Magic Flute” and each has certainly more compelling storylines.

What are your suggestions?


Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society opens with a Big Bang and makes The Ear look forward to Weekend 2 this coming weekend. You should too.

June 17, 2015
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Every year, the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society chooses a theme to unify their three-weekend season.

This year’s theme is “Guilty as Charged” and you can read about its rationale in a previous post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/06/09/classical-music-the-madison-based-bach-dancing-and-dynamite-society-gets-its-24th-three-week-summer-season-called-guilty-as-charged-underway-this-coming-weekend-here-i/

BDDS poster 2015

But of course the theme is really just a pretext.

What really matters is the fine and eclectic repertoire that the BDDS chooses to perform and the undeniably first-rate performances they consistently turn in by using outstanding local and guest performers.

And boy, did the BDDS ever deliver the goods!

So here, in a series of mini-reviews — one-liners or maybe two-liners — are five reasons why The Ear loved the opening concert and is looking forward to the second series of concerts in Madison, Stoughton and Spring Green this coming weekend, which you can check out at the following link:

http://www.bachdancinganddynamite.org

WHAT THE EAR LOVED

  1. The inventive and unobtrusive backdrop by artists Dianne Soffa and Thomas Kovacich, with broken rearview mirrors and luminous colors in abstract shapes, adds visual beauty to sonic beauty. It greets you and enlivens the performance stage by adding a certain entertainment and class to the otherwise bare stage:

BDDS 2015 backdrop

  1. UW-Madison School of Music graduate soprano Emily Birsan (below) who, after completing further training at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, came to sing a wonderfully poignant and moving aria “Steal Me, Sweet Thief” by Gian Carlo Menotti (you can hear Dawn Upshaw singing the Menotti aria in a YouTube video at the bottom) as well as wonderful solo arias and duets by Johann Sebastian Bach plus Irish and Scottish folk songs arranged by – YES — Ludwig van Beethoven:

BDDS 2015 Emily Birsan

  1. Bass-baritone Timothy Jones, who is superb and who returned to BDDS to sing solo and with Birsan in music by Bach and Beethoven:

BDDS 2015 Timothy Jones

  1. The breezy chamber music by Franz Joseph Haydn, a divertimento for flute (BDDS co-founder and co-artistic director Stephanie Jutt), violin (Katarzyna Bryla) and cello (Parry Karp), substituting the cello for the outdated baryton that Haydn’s longtime patron Prince Esterhazy played and favored:

BDDS 2015 Haydn divertimento

  1. UW-Madison and Pro Arte Quartet cellist Parry Karp and BDDS co-founder and co-artistic director Jeffrey Sykes in an impressively virtuosic, vivacious and sensitive performance of the Cello Sonata No. 2 by Felix Mendelssohn. Loved that slow movement based on a Bach chorale!!

BDDS 2015 Mendelsson Cello Sonata

I was not alone in my enthusiasm.

The audience in The Playhouse at the Overture Center jumped to its feet as soon as the Mendelssohn cello sonata ended.

BDDS 2015 audience

And here is the rave review that veteran critic John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

http://www.isthmus.com/arts/stage/bach-dancing-opener-is-smashingly-diverse/

 


Classical music: On Christmas Day, YOU MUST HEAR THIS – “The Shepherd’s Farewell” chorus from the oratorio “L’Enfance du Christ” by Hector Berlioz.

December 25, 2014
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Christmas Day, 2014.

As this year’s gift, The Ear wants to share something special.

It is a work that usually gets drowned out at Christmas time by more familiar works — from “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel, the “Christmas Oratorio” by Johann Sebastian Bach, “The Nutcracker” by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, “Amahl and the Night Visitors” by Gian Carlo Menotti and the “Christmas Concerto” by Arcangelo Corelli.

The work I am talking about is the “Shepherd’s Farewell” to the infant Jesus whose family — Virgin Mary and father Joseph — must flee its homeland in face of the death threats posed by King Herod.

It comes from “L’Enfance du Christ” (The Childhood of Jesus) by the early French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz (below). The story goes that he was bored at a dinner party and sketched it out on a linen napkin.

berlioz

True story or not, the music is gloriously beautiful, calm and reassuring — in an appropriately pastoral way. This neglected chorus -– in fact, the whole neglected oratorio — deserves to be a much more integral part of Christmas celebrations.

Maybe in future years, Hector Berlioz’ “L’Enfance du Christ” could be performed, in part or in its entirety, by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union and UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra. It would make a wonderful holiday addition, or even tradition.

Anyway, you listen and you decide.

Then tell us what you think in the COMMENTS section.

The Ear wants to hear.

So here is the music, in a YouTube video at the bottom, running just under 5 minutes.

Enjoy.

And MERRY CHRISTMAS!


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