The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s “A Little Night Music” proved totally satisfying as both music and theater

February 13, 2019

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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear – went to both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center last weekend by the Madison Opera of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and filed the following review. Photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

Although I was familiar with the recording, my first experience seeing “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim (below) was in London 25 years ago. I remember it as a theatrical experience – it featured Judi Dench and was performed at the National Theatre – more than as a musical event.

Two years ago, I saw it performed by Des Moines Metro Opera, and although it was “operatic” it was also sabotaged by a confusing, even chaotic, production designed by Isaac Mizrahi.

I finally experienced the complete package with the recent performances by the Madison Opera. It was a totally satisfying combination of acting, music and theatrical design.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Little Night Music” concerns itself with mismatched lovers who are eventually properly paired or else reconciled.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the carryings-on are amusing, the dialogue is witty, and the lyrics are sophisticated.

One of the earliest numbers in the show — the trio of songs “Later,” “Now” and “Soon” — set the tone for the evening musically. Each was performed individually by three fine singers – Quinn Bernegger, Jeni Houser (below left) and Daniel Belcher (below right).

In a musical tour-de-force, the three songs ultimately combined into one. Houser’s clear tone, Benegger’s intense passion, and Belcher’s suave lyricism promised an outstanding musical experience to come. Special praise must go to Bernegger (below) who sang while comically, but skillfully, miming playing a cello.

One show-stopper was Sarah Day’s “Liaisons” which was really perfect in its world-weariness. Day (below) — from American Players Theatre in Spring Green — half-declaimed and half-sang such memorable lines of regret as, “What once was a sumptuous feast is now figs. No, not even figs. Raisins.” Or amusing internal rhymes like “…indiscriminate women it…”.  (I am completely taken by Sondheim’s clever use of language.)

Likewise, the singing of “Miller’s Son” by Emily Glick (below) was a good old Broadway rendition – no operatic pretense – and the audience, and I, loved it.

Charles Eaton (below left) as a puffed-up dragoon and Katherine Pracht (below right) as his long-suffering wife were both outstanding vocally and deftly comic.

The center of most of the activity was the character Desirée Armfeldt portrayed by Emily Pulley (below). At first I thought she was overacting, but then I realized that, of course, she was portraying a veteran stage actress – a matinee idol type – who had internalized theatrical gestures into her own character. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, and the lyrics finally made sense to me. (You can hear the familiar Judy Collins interpretation in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I would have to say that the star of the show was the chorus, a quintet of excellent voices – Stephen Hobe, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, Emily Secor and Cassandra Vasta. They waltzed through the action while sliding the panels and frames that comprised the set, moving props, and commenting on the action.

Never obtrusive but always necessary, I thought they were a delight. The three women got to sing a brief round “Perpetual Anticipation” that is another wonder of Sondheim’s musical imagination.

As mentioned, sliding panels, along with dropping frames and panels, comprised the set. The continuous changing of the panels, the blocking and the movements of the quintet were the creative product of stage director Doug Schulz-Carlson (below). There was often a whirlwind of activity, but I was never distracted.

The costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore seemed straight out of Edward Gorey – which is a good thing.  And altogether I felt it was the best production of the musical I’ve seen.

The orchestra was situated on stage behind the set, which made additional seats available close to the stage. People seated in those rows had to bend their necks to read the supertitles, but the diction was so consistently excellent that I rarely needed to even glance at the supertitles.

Praise is due for members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and particularly conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). I heard subtleties in the music that had heretofore eluded me, and that is always a reward for attending a live performance and is a tribute to the maestro.

I was happy to see a younger audience, particularly Friday night. Let us hope that they were enchanted enough to attend the upcoming production on April 26 and 28 of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”

This is an opera I have never seen; and until recently, I was familiar only with one of its arias, the so-called “Song to the Moon.”

But now that I have a recording, I realize that it is a musical treasure that should not be missed. I suppose the reasons it is not so frequently performed are that it is in Czech and its plot involves water sprites. But don’t let that stop you. The music is wonderful.

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Classical music: Despite some flawed comparisons, the Madison Bach Musicians turn in brilliant performances in a concept program of “imitations” by Bach and Vivaldi

September 26, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review 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 once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

An unusual program opened the 14th season of Trevor Stephenson’s Madison Bach Musicians (below) at the First Unitarian Society of Madison on Saturday night, and was repeated on Sunday afternoon at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton.

Instead of a string of compositions with few or no connections, there was a cumulative assemblage illustrating an overriding theme, as summed up in the title of “Imitation.”

To be sure, only two composers were involved: Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach. The focus was on their uses of imitative textures, including canon and fugue. There were 11 pieces in all, mostly — although not entirely — grouped in pairs, Vivaldi leading each.

The organization was fugue-like, too, beginning with two-part textures and culminating in nine parts. Thus, the nine players (four violins, two violas, two cellos and a harpsichord) were gradually built into the full company by the end.

The pairings did not evoke any direct parallelisms between Vivaldi (below top) and Bach (below bottom), though the former’s experimental and extroverted Italian style stood in regular contrast with Bach’s Germanic seriousness, even as each explored similar contrapuntal possibilities.

The entire concept of the program was intriguing. I did, however, find that two specific selections, both by Bach, did not fit well. They were given in transcriptions rather than as the composer intended. Thus, a fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier was delivered not on the keyboard, but by five string players.

To be sure, that transformation allowed the three-voice counterpoint to be heard more distinctly, but the fact remains that it was written for keyboard and Bach’s part writing deserved to be heard as he intended.

A more serious instance was the tantalizing idea of hearing Bach’s own transcription of a work by Vivaldi. The original was the Concerto in D minor, Op. 3, No. 11, a true concerto grosso, matching a concertino of two violins and cello against a full four-part string ensemble.

Now, Bach made transcriptions of a number of Vivaldi concertos, but presenting any of them in this context posed practical concerns for these players. In this case, Bach’s adaptation was for solo organ. Instead, we heard it with Bach’s organ transcription transcribed, in turn, into a concerto for nine players by one of the group’s violists, Micah Behr.

(You can compare Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins to Bach’s reworking of the same concerto for four harpsichords in the YouTube video at bottom.)

Again, this third-hand edition allowed for contrapuntal clarity, but it totally distorted Bach’s intentions as a transcriber himself.

That said, the performances were all brilliant. Visiting Baroque cellist Steuart Pincombe (below) was something of a star, but all musicians played wonderfully, sitting in a circle for closest interaction and without an intermission.

Still, reservations about this program aside, this concept or idea concert is worth trying again.

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