The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Tosca” is a MUST-SEE and MUST-HEAR production that ends this afternoon.

November 3, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, which will perform its fourth season next summer. He  was recently named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has an out-of-date website here (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

When Utevsky offered The Ear to be a guest reviewer of the opening performance Friday night of the Madison Opera’s production of “Tosca,” I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below):

new Mikko Utevsky baton profile USE

By Mikko Utevsky

The Madison Opera opened its season Friday night with a performance of Giacomo Puccini‘s ever-popular “Tosca” that can only be described as seriously good. (Below is the final scene in a photo by James Gill for the Madison Opera.) This tale of politics, love and revenge requires a solid cast, intelligent direction and a powerful orchestra. The Madison Opera proved that it has all three.

tosca on ramparts mad op

The Madison Symphony Orchestra‘s first two concerts of the new season have effectively demonstrated the power of that ensemble, and the ability of maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) to draw out first-rate playing from an orchestra still on the rise 20 years into his tenure. In the pit (trimmed down slightly) they were no less impressive, with subtle colors and a lush, full-bodied sound. While the orchestra in Puccini is seldom in the spotlight, they certainly deserve to be.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The focus in this opera is naturally all on the singers, and the cast did not disappoint.

Baritone Nmon Ford (below in the back, in a photo by James Gill) gave a menacing and sharp-edged performance as the police chief, Baron Scarpia.

His malevolent presence in the overpowering Te Deum (at bottom from “Opera in the Park” in a YouTube video) of Act I lent power to one of the strongest scenes the Overture Hall stage has seen in years, and his rapacious desire in Act II was compelling both in the singing and raw physicality, revealing the true fire behind the imposing facade he displays in the first act. Vocally, he brought a little more edge and a little less bottom to the role than ordinarily heard, but it was compelling all the same.

scarpia and tosca mad opera

Tenor Scott Piper was slow to warm to his role as the painter Cavaradossi (below, with Tosca, in a photo by James Gill), though warm he did. Particularly in the first act his upper register felt forced, with tension and volume substituting for a clear and refined tone, and his acting was somewhat wooden (though the third act was a marked improvement).

However, Piper brought considerable power to the role, and earned the applause he got for “E lucevan le stelle” as he awaits his execution.

tosca and cavaradossi mad op james gill

The true star of the evening, in the title role, was soprano Melody Moore as Tosca (below right in a photo by James Gill). Madison audiences may remember her as the excellent Countess from 2010’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” but her performance here is on a completely different level.

From her stunning high notes to her impressive acting to her show-stopping rendition of Act II’s “Vissi d’arte” — rewarded with a thunderous ovation Friday night, which only stopped when maestro DeMain brought the orchestra back in —  Moore is the real deal.

Her characterization of Tosca as youthfully, playfully capricious (rather than as the self-absorbed diva she so often becomes) goes a long way toward explaining her behavior in the opera, and allowed her a great deal of freedom onstage.

tosca and cavaradossi

Director A. Scott Parry shaped the stage business of “Tosca” with intelligence and the attention to detail we have come to expect from him. The second act was particularly powerful (though the massive “Te Deum” from Act I cannot be forgotten), brought off with aplomb by Ford and Moore.

Completing the picture, magnificent sets (below) from the Seattle Opera laid out a majestic cathedral from inside and out in the first and third acts, the latter with a delightfully sensitive sunrise from lighting designer John Frautschy, and the singers were costumed in similarly appealing ensembles, also from Seattle (Scarpia’s stark black-and-white apparel was particularly effective).

tosca set 1 mad op

All in all, this is a “Tosca” not to be forgotten — or missed in its second and final performance on today, Sunday afternoon, Nov. 3, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center.  (It runs 2 hours 45 minutes, with two intermissions, and it is sung in Italian with projected English supertitles.)

For information about tickets plus a plot synopsis and a complete cast list, visit:

http://madisonopera.org/performances-2013-2014/tosca/index.aspx


Classical music Q&A: What makes for a good villain? Baritone Nmon Ford talks about playing Scarpia this weekend in the Madison Opera’s production of Puccini’s “Tosca.”

October 29, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Few villains in opera are as villainous and hated by audiences as Baron Scarpia in Giacomo Puccini’s  ever popular “Tosca.” (At bottom is a very popular YouTube video  with over one million hits, that features soprano Angela Gheorghiu singing the opera’s most famous aria, done by Tosca, “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amor” (I lived for art, I lived for love).

So The Ear thought it might be interesting and informative to ask baritone Nmon Ford what it takes to play a good villain on stage. He plays Scarpia, who tortures and kills for love, in this weekend’s two performances of the Madison Opera’s production of “Tosca.” (Below is a YouTube video of the “Te Deum” aria from “Tosca” that Ford sang at the Madison Opera’s “Opera in the Park” preview last July.)

Performances are in Overture Hall at the Overture Center on this Friday night at 8 p.m. and this Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. “Tosca” will be sung in Italian with English surtitles. Maestro John DeMain will conduct members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The stage director is A. Scott Parry, who returns to the same company where he directed acclaimed productions of Philip Glass’ “Galileo” and Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”

Soprano Melody Moore sings the title role of Tosca, and tenor Scott Piper sings the role of her lover Mario Cavaradossi.

Tickets are $18-$121. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141 for information and reservations. The show runs 2 hours 45 minutes with two intermissions. For more information about the production and the entire opera season, visit:

http://madisonopera.org/performances-2013-2014/tosca/index.aspx

It is a special production as it will also give Madison audiences their first chance to sample Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith in her first foray here into Puccini, one of the great staples of the opera repertoire.

The handsome  articulate and charismatic Nmon Ford (below) – whose robust and unabashed physicality is featured regularly on the blog “BariHunks” — generously gave The Ear an email interview that comes after a link to his own website with details of his biography and career:

http://www.nmonford.com/home.html

Nmon Ford

What is it like to play The Bad Guy or The Villain? What is the best part and what is the least favorable part of playing such a role, the part you like and the part you dislike?

It’s a great deal of fun because I gravitate toward proactive characters that energize plot development, which the Bad Guy generally does. He’s usually the source of conflict, and therefore the source of forward motion in the story.

The best part is that the roles are written to reflect this sort of dramatic propulsion, which makes them vocally and dramatically more substantial; there’s more meat on the bones, so to speak.

Since villains normally aren’t constrained by rules, the roles themselves involve more freedom of interpretation, whereas a romantic lead is pretty much onstage the way he is the book, script, play, or score.

Moreover, my personal sense of justice is always served since most villains end up dead by the end of the opera, so I feel even more liberated to take their evil natures as far outside the box as possible.

The worst part is … well, as long as the role is reasonably well-written, there really isn’t a bad part.

Nmon Ford half face BW evil

Are there other singers or stars whose bad guys you admire? Do you have a special personal take on Scarpia for this production?

Joe Morton (Eli Pope) in the TV series “Scandal.”  He’s clearly in it to win it; I see an Emmy in his future.

I see Scarpia the way he’s described in Sardou’s play:  elegant, cultured and extraordinarily dangerous. Unless both his class and his depravity are represented, he becomes a boring caricature rather than the multifaceted figure he is.

joe morton as eli pope in scandal-2

For you, how does Scarpia compare to specific famous villains in opera? Have you played others and do you have favorites to sing or to listen to?

I’ve sung Iago, Tonio, Emperor Jones, Wotan, Macbeth (below, for the Long Beach Opera) and Don Giovanni.  (The last three may not fit everyone’s definition of a villain, but they are definitely not good guys in my book.)

The main difference between Scarpia and other villains I’ve sung is that he makes no effort to disguise his nature; in fact, he’s a proud bully and everyone knows it. The other characters try to maintain at least a patina of decency, except for Wotan and Emperor Jones. So far, my favorite is either Iago or Scarpia, with Wotan a close third for his gorgeous music.

Nmon Ford Macbeth Long Beach Opera

Are there secrets or tricks to making such a portrayal convincing and effective musically and dramatically?

My number one rule is “never settle”:  however ruthless, mean, melancholy, violent, calculating or obsessed the character is on paper, that’s exactly what goes onstage. It’s not my job to make excuses for them, so I don’t.

I embody these characters as “anti-heroes,” rather than villains. They often possess the same traits as heroes — commitment, strength, drive, passion — but they’re dealing with some sort of internal psychological structure or conflict that renders them morally ambivalent.

One thing I always do — it’s just my thing — is to find something funny in any role I play, no matter what it is. Whether it’s intentionally or unintentionally comical, it’s my benchmark for the role’s humanity. (Below is an informal portrait of Nmon Ford by Guy Madmoni.)

Are there contemporary or modern real-life figures whom Scarpia represents -– perhaps Vladimir Putin or Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin or Saddam Hussein, Josef Stalin or Pol Pot? 

Offhand, I can’t think of anybody whose behavior is sufficiently both violent and psychosexual to qualify.

Nmon Ford  Photo Guy Madmoni

Is there anything else you would like to say?

Come see the show.  It’s gonna be GOOD!


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