The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Excellent singing, acting, orchestral playing, sets and costumes combined to make Verdi’s “La Traviata” one of Madison Opera’s best ever productions

November 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experienced Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of Verdi’s “La Traviata” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

During the first few moments of the Overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” — on Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall — I had a feeling that this would be a special performance. Members of the Madison  Symphony Orchestra sounded full and alive and attentive to artistic director and conductor John DeMain.

(You can hear the haunting overture or prelude, performed at the BBC Proms by the Milan Symphony Orchestra under Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Presented by Madison Opera, this performance will remain in my memory as one of the best I have attended here.

The traditional production was well staged by director Fenlon Lamb with beautiful sets (below) designed for Hawaii Opera Theater and provided by Utah Opera. The sets provided a sense of spaciousness and perspective as befits grand houses in 19th-century Paris.

Likewise, the costumes were spectacular, particularly in the masquerade scene (below) in the second act where almost everyone was in opulent black.

The three principal characters were all well portrayed, although tenor Mackenzie Whitney’s Alfredo (below left) seemed rather youthful to be proclaiming he was being reborn by his love for Violetta (below right).

Both Whitney and baritone Weston Hurt (below right), who portrayed Alfredo’s father Germont, sang perfectly well.

But all of my notes seem to have focused on soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez’s portrayal of Violetta (below left, with Mackenzie Whitney as Alfredo). One aria, duet and ensemble after another was remarkably sung with her pure and crystalline voice.

Lopez is also a talented actress who convincingly conveyed the emotions of the heroine in their wide gamut from care-free courtesan to love-struck woman to abandoned consumptive.

I was close enough to the stage to see the changing emotions flicker across Lopez’s face, and I was very impressed, and ultimately moved, by her performance.

All three of the main characters could sing, but Lopez could really sing and act as well. It was an outstanding performance that left me quite affected.

The chorus sounded wonderful, and the choristers did not overact, for which I was grateful. Their contribution to the finale of the second act made that ensemble heartbreaking. Likewise, the final ensemble at the end of the opera left me bereft.

Altogether conductor, orchestra, singers, chorus, set, costumes and lighting combined to create an unforgettable afternoon. I pay tribute to Verdi for creating an enduring work of art and to John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) for an amazing performance.

For more background about the real-life story and inspiration of the opera and more details about the production and the cast, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/10/28/classical-music-the-madison-opera-performs-verdis-la-traviata-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-in-overture-hall/

Unfortunately, I was seated behind an older couple. The woman was obviously very ill and apparently was unable to lift her head high enough to see the stage, let alone read the supertitles. Her partner — I assume it was her husband — patiently whispered a summary of the supertitles throughout the performance.

I believe that people feel that they are inaudible to others when they whisper to their neighbor, but we all know that this is not the case.

I mentioned this to friends during the intermission, and they said that I should say something. However, my Midwestern niceness kicked in and I just endured it. I thought that perhaps this would be the last opera she would ever attend.

Yet I could not help feeling that I would not have enjoyed someone whispering in my ear while music was being performed; and I would have perhaps prepared in advance so that I knew what I would be hearing.

Additionally, I darkly mused that perhaps “La Traviata” is not an appropriate opera to bring someone who is critically ill to.

Readers’ thoughts on this matter would be appreciated.


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Classical music: How did Baroque composer Telemann get overshadowed and why is he being rediscovered? Trevor Stephenson talks about his all-Telemann concerts this weekend

October 2, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Bach Musicians (MBM) will give two performances of a concert devoted exclusively to the music of Baroque composer Georg Philip Telemann (below).

The performances are: Saturday night, Oct. 5, at 8 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, where MBM will be artists-in-residence this season; the second performance is on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 6, at 3:30 p.m. at the Holy Wisdom Monastery, 4200 County Road M, in Middleton.

Tickets are $35 in advance and are available at the Willy Street Coop East and West, and at Orange Tree Imports. Tickets at the door are $38 for the general public; $35 for seniors; and $10 for student rush tickets that go on sale 30 minutes before each lecture. The lectures take place 45 minutes before the performance, at 7:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m, respectively.

Why focus on the music of Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)?

Trevor Stephenson, the founder and director of the Madison Bach Musicians, talks about it in an email Q&A with The Ear:

Why does Telemann, who was so respected in his day, seem to get far less play, fewer performances and less mentioning today than his contemporaries Bach, Vivaldi and Handel?

Telemann was born in 1681 — three years after Vivaldi and four years before Bach and Handel. He was astonishingly prolific and it is estimated that he wrote more than Bach and Handel combined.

On top of this, he was very highly respected and was widely published and performed during his life. Remember, it was Telemann — not Bach — whom the Leipzig council wanted to hire for the music director position in 1723. But Telemann was enjoying his wonderful new post in Hamburg—a thriving port city — and was not about to go back to landlocked Leipzig where he had spent his student days.

At any rate, after the 18th century had passed and its music became somewhat marginalized, in the early 19th century it was Bach’s music, not Telemann’s, that suddenly re-emerged.

Bach’s tremendous emotional depth, contrapuntal mastery and ability to control large-scale forms in an almost heroic way spoke with greater urgency to the Romantic sensibility than did Telemann’s elegant craftsmanship. Indeed, 19th-century Bach scholars often mean-spiritedly used Telemann as a foil for Bach.

Telemann’s music nevertheless received a modicum of performances in the early 20th century, but in the 1980s and 1990s, as the Early Music movement really got rolling—and the level of period-instrument performance increased—it became apparent that Telemann’s music really was hot stuff!

Now his music is enjoying a wonderful and well-deserved revival.

What are the appealing and admirable qualities you see in Telemann’s music? Are there any drawbacks to his compositions?

Telemann had a wonderful sense of melodic invention — probably music’s analog to an artist’s ability to draw — and his tunes seem to flow out effortlessly. And although his output was opulent, he had an uncanny sense of form and how much weight – duration — any given musical scene could bear.

He also was a masterful musical polyglot, able to jump back and forth easily between Italian, French and German musical idioms; and like Bach, he was also adept at integrating them into a unified style—this integration of national styles was a frequently acknowledged goal of 18th-century composers.

Telemann’s limitations are apparent when he is juxtaposed with Handel, who could dramatically really take the roof off and who could also find the inner essence of the human voice, and Bach who, like Shakespeare, through a near alchemy of sound and meaning could consistently define and further what it means to be human.

How and why did you put this program together? What unifies it and what would you like the public to know about it?

Madison Bach Musicians’ concertmaster and assistant artistic director Kangwon Kim (below left with Emily Dupere) did the heavy lifting in putting together this wonderful program of Telemann’s chamber music. MBM will present three of Telemann’s programmatic or story works, one church cantata and three purely instrumental selections.

With narration and graphics, we’ll walk you through how he cleverly depicts scenes from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726, below), which had been in print only two years when Telemann wrote his topical Gulliver Suite in 1728. Telemann loved ludicrous irony, like the tiny Lilliputians dancing a heavy chaconne—which Telemann notates in a hilarious, confounding mass of 64th and 128th notes. And then there’s the Brobdingnagian giants doing their rendition of a light-footed gigue, rendered in loopy, cumbersome whole notes!

We’ll also present the marvelous Suite Burlesque based upon Cervantes’ Don Quixote (below): Quixote’s love for Dulcinea, his jousting with windmills, and how a crowd mocks Quixote’s faithful, world-weary servant Sancho Panza.

To top it off, guest artist mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski (below) will sing the droll and sweetly amusing cantata about the demise — brought about by the cat! — of a favorite and very artistic canary. Osowski will also sing the church cantata Weicht, ihr Sünden, bleibt dahinten (Yield, You Sins, and Stay Behind Me). Telemann wrote more than 1,000 church cantatas.

The concert includes non-programmatic works for string band: the dramatic and Corelli-esque Sonata à 6 in F minor for two violins, two violas, cello and continuo; and the sparkling Sinfonia Spirituosa (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom). I will also perform some fascinating Fantasy miniatures for solo harpsichord, and will give a pre-concert lecture at both events.

For more information about the program, the performers and tickets, go to: www.madisonbachmusicians.org


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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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