The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Opera stages its first-ever production of Dvorak’s fairy tale opera “Rusalka” next Friday night and Sunday afternoon. A preview roundtable is this Sunday afternoon

April 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage its production of Antonin Dvorak’s luxurious masterpiece Rusalka on Friday night, April 26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 28, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Running time is 3 hours with two intermissions, and will feature projected supertitles with English translations of the original Czech that will be sung.

Tickets are $18-$131 with discounts available for students and groups. Go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

Inspired by the classic fairy tale The Little Mermaid, the story travels from a mythical forest to a palace and back again. Its lush score includes the famous “Song to the Moon.” (You can hear Renée Fleming sing”Song to the Moon” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Set in a mythical realm, Rusalka is about a water nymph who falls in love with a human prince. She tells her father Vodnik that she wishes to become human and live with the Prince on land. Horrified, Vodnik tells her that humans are full of sin, but reluctantly suggests she enlist the help of Jezibaba, a witch. Jezibaba agrees to make her human, but cautions that Rusalka will lose her power of speech. Further, if the Prince betrays her, she will be cursed forever.

The Prince falls in love with Rusalka and plans to marry her, but her silence unnerves him, and a Foreign Princess interrupts the wedding festivities with evil intent. Rusalka returns to the lake as a spirit that lures men to their death – and the Prince follows her.

Rusalka is one of the most gorgeous operas in the repertoire,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director (below, in a photo by James Gill). “I fell in love with it when I first saw it over 20 years ago, and listening to the score is a pure pleasure. I am so delighted to share this opera with Madison, so that everyone can learn how brilliant an operatic composer Dvorak was, and experience an opera that is justifiably popular around the world.”

Rusalka’s story was inspired by multiple sources, including Slavic mythology and the fairy tales of Karel Jaromir Erben, Hans Christian Andersen, and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.

The opera premiered on March 31, 1901 in Prague and quickly became a massive success, hailed as Dvorak’s masterpiece.

But it was not initially widely performed outside of Czech territories; the first U.S. performance was in 1975. But in recent decades, the opera by Dvorak (below) has become a regular part of the opera repertoire, due to its beautiful music and lovely story.

This production is not only a Madison Opera premiere, but also the company’s first-ever opera in Czech.

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

Soprano Emily Birsan (below) returns to Madison Opera in the title role, following successes here as Gounod’s Juliet and Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème. Last month, she sang Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Chicago Tribune has praised her singing for her “amazing clarity of diction, accuracy of intonation and fineness of expression.”

Tenor John Lindsey (below) returns to Madison Opera as The Prince, after singing in last summer’s Opera in the Park.

Making their debuts with Madison Opera are soprano Karin Wolverton as the Foreign Princess, contralto Lindsay Amman as the witch Jezibaba and bass William Meinert as Rusalka’s father, Vodnik. Emily SecorSaira Frank and Kirsten Larson play the three wood sprites; Benjamin Liupaogo sings the Hunter.

The Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra round out the musical forces, all under the baton of John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), Madison Opera’s artistic director.

Keturah Stickann (below) directs her first opera for Madison Opera; she has directed both traditional and contemporary repertoire across all of the U.S., most recently for San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera.

This production originated at Minnesota Opera and features projections (below) by Wendall K. Harrington, who has been described as “the godmother of modern projection design.”

In reviewing the Minnesota production, theTwin Cities Arts Reader praised “the stunning visuals on display, which only serve to enhance and elaborate on the action and the music.”

Madison Opera’s production of “Rusalka” is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Kay & Martin Barrett, Millie & Marshall Osborn, Sally & Mike Miley, Kato Perlman, Charles & Martha Casey, John Lemke & Pam Oliver, and The Ann Stanke Fund.

RELATED EVENTS

You can learn more about “Rusalka” at the events leading up to the performances.

Opera Up Close will take place this Sunday, April 21, 1-3 p.m. at the Margaret C. Winston Opera Center (below) 335 West Mifflin Street, $20 general admission; free for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers.

This event features a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Rusalka. General director Kathryn Smith will discuss Antonin Dvorak and the history of his fairy-tale opera. Principal artists, stage director Keturah Stickann and conductor John DeMain will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on this masterpiece.

Pre-Show Talks by Kathryn Smith take place on Friday, April 26, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 28, at 1:30 p.m. at Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

Post-Opera Q&A’s are on Friday, April 26, and Sunday, April 28, immediately following the opera in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

More information — including cast biographies and a blog with Q&A interviews with some cast members — is available at https://www.madisonopera.org and https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/rusalka/.


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Classical music: “Creature Quartet” by UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger will be premiered by the JACK Quartet this Friday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

May 5, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from Laura Elise Schwendinger (below), a prize-winning professor of composition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. (You can hear a sample of her chamber work “High Wire Act” in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Creature Quartet,” composed by University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Laura Elise Schwendinger (below), will be premiered by The JACK Quartet on this Friday, May 8, at 8 p.m. in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Laura Schwendinger 2

For more information, including ticket prices and reservations as well as other works on the program and the JACK’s concert to be played in the dark on this Thursday, go to:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/Season14-15/jack-quartet-creaturequartet.html

Schwendinger, a Guggenheim winner and the first composer recipient of the Berlin Prize, wrote the Creature Quartet, a one-movement work for string quartet, with “portraits in music” of extinct, mythological or endangered creatures.

The quartet will be accompanied by an evocative animation by the gifted French artist, Pauline Gagniarre. The animation depicts the creatures in the quartet, and was commissioned by Memorial Union Concerts for this premiere

Each of the quartet’s movements feature different creatures such as extinct birds, like the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, the Passenger Pigeon (the last surviving Passenger Pigeon died 100 years ago this year), the marvelously funny looking Dodo Bird, as depicted in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as well as mythological creatures like the Yeti, Chupacabra, and the famous “sea monster” Nessy.

Here are more details from program notes:

The Creature Quartet is a one-movement work for string quartet, played without break, comprised of 12 short movements, each a paean or character portrait in music to an extinct, mythological, or endangered creature. It is my personal response to the current mass extinction that we are facing.

The work starts with a “hymn for lost creatures,” which comes back in various forms between the sections or movements devoted to each animal.

Musical relationships exist as well, between the various movements, for instance, the repeated pattern of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (below) in Movement I, played in pizzicato (plucked string) then col legno (or with wood of the bow) comes back in the movement VII. the Javan Rhinocerous, but in a triple-forte fff (very loud) and much more aggressive, grumpy manner, and then again in movement XI. The Thalycine (or Tasmanian Tiger), but this time a little more active and agile yet still fearsome.

ivory-billed woodpecker

The music heard in movement II. Passenger Pigeon (below), is characterized by tremolando figures (trembling string with shifting bow), which represents the evocative yet mysterious flight of the large flocks of birds that were known to fill the skies. This music is also hinted at, through chromatic transformation, and string tremolando, in movement IV. Yeti, where it is introduced now pianisissmo (very, very soft), but when the Yeti is finally seen, turns and growls ffff (very, very loud). This tremolando music is referenced and developed in the longest of the movements VIII. Mustang, when the tremolando moves with the energy of running horses.

passenger pigeon stuffed

Movement III — the sad and poignant music of the Dodo Bird (below), expressed in the solo viola, with awkward pizzicato accompaniment and reflecting the funny image we have of this charming large, flightless bird — is referenced again in inversion (upside down) in movement X. Lowland Gorilla, this time with the solo cello moving from the instrument’s majestic lower register through a higher singing line, and again with a combination of awkward pizzicatos and more aggressive tremelandos, all leading to a final fff (very loud tremelando) as the Gorilla beats his chest.

Dodo bird

Movement V. Chupacabra, has its own distinctive creepy, yet harried character, captured in trills, the piercing red of the animal’s eyes in the night heightened with harmonic notes that jump out of the frenzied texture. This chilling character is amplified for movement IX. Tasmanian Devil, when the strings play frenzied lines in sul ponticello (over the bridge for a sharp and piercing string sound), and finally just loud growling sounds, made by the bows being played behind the bridge, literally sounding like the voice of the Taz Devil.

The music of Movement VI. Nessy (below), is captured in a rolling string figure that reflects the undulating motion of the waves of the deep and mysterious lake waters of Loch Ness, the melody itself dark and mysterious. This music returns, yet brighter and more open sounding, for movement XII. the Northern Right Whale.

Loch Ness Nessie

These relationships give the work a sense of symmetry and balance. The animals are part of a musical “ecosystem” as it were, and organically lead from one to another, with only the hymn in between to remind us of their sad fate.

The hymn too, starts to reflect the character of the animal that precedes or follows, as the tremelandos of the Thalycine and Mustang and Gorrilla,for instance, sit somewhere in the quartet, not yet freed from its setting and sometimes in the cello, as a grumpy echo of the animal that still lingers.

Nessy is featured in the trailer by Pauline Gagniarre’s for the Creature Quartet. https://vimeo.com/118388679.

Also depicted is the adorable yet irascible Tasmanian Devil (below), famously portrayed in the Looney Tunes cartoons, and the Tasmanian Tiger, a fearsome yet elegant animal, the last of which died in captivity in 1936.

tasmanian devil

Pauline Gagniarre has created fantastic animated video that introduces the audience to each creature as each movement of music starts, in order to help the listener visualize each animal.

The JACK Quartet (below) is arguably one of the finest string quartets performing today, and one of the best interpreters of new music.

Jack Quartet 2015

As winners of numerous awards for adventurous programming, JACK has performed premieres to critical acclaim internationally at venues such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Wigmore Hall in London, The Venice Biennale, the Lucerne Festival, the Bali Arts Festival (Indonesia) and the Cologne Philharmonic.

Jack Quartet

The quartet has commissioned and premiered new works with such composers as John Luther Adams, Chaya Czernowin, Brian Ferneyhough, Beat Furrer, Georg Friedrich Haas, György Kurtág, Helmut Lachenmann, Steve Mackey, Steve Reich, Wolfgang Rihm, Salvatore Sciarrino and John Zorn.

 

 

 


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