The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: In Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” the Madison Opera demonstrated how beautiful music and convincing stagecraft can overcome a weak story

May 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

By Larry Wells

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Sunday afternoon performance of Antonin Dvorak’s opera “Rusalka” presented by Madison Opera in Overture Hall. Until then I had only heard recordings of this lushly orchestrated work.

The opera is a fairy tale involving a rather dithering water sprite (below right) who does not follow her father’s wise advice not to pursue a mortal prince (below left) and to stick to her own kind. She ignores his advice, and this leads to her eventual unhappiness and to the death of her prince.

That she also becomes mute when in the presence of the prince adds to everyone’s woes, and it seems a peculiar device to have the lead soprano not be able to sing for most of the second act of the opera.

Her inability to communicate naturally leads to the prince’s frustration, and my companion suggested that she could simply have used paper and pencil to communicate. But since she had been brought up in a river, perhaps she never learned to read and write.

Nevertheless, common sense did not seem to inhabit either Rusalka or her prince. As my companion also pointed out, love isn’t always logical.

In any event, the production and the music made up for the libretto’s shortcomings.

The set featured beautiful projections, from the Minnesota Opera, of forest, water and woodlands during the first and third acts.

The second act took place at the prince’s palace. It appeared to be an International Style palace in the manner of architect Mies van de Rohe, which must have also been disconcerting for Rusalka. Nonetheless, the set was very striking and beautifully lit.

Tenor John Lindsey (below top) portrayed the prince and William Meinert (below bottom left, with Emily Birsan) was Rusalka’s father, a water goblin. Both sang well, although Lindsey had the distracting habit of casting his chin and eyes downward as he sang.


But the stage belonged to the women.

Emily Birsan (below) as Rusalka was a study in subtle shadings of her expressive soprano voice (below, singing the famous  aria “Song to the Moon”). She is a powerful singer and convincing actress who was engaging to watch and to hear.

Lindsay Ammann (below) as the sorceress Jezibaba was powerful in voice and in her command of the stage. Her third act aria was sensational, and her calling Rusalka a “empty little water bubble” was so apt it made the audience titter.

The villainous Foreign Princess portrayed by Karin Wolverton (below, standing over John Lindsey) seemed to be the only sensible character in the opera. She likewise commanded the stage and displayed a powerful voice with passionate commitment to her role.

Three water sprites – portrayed by Kirsten Larson, Saira Frank and Emily Secor (below, in order from left) – provided Rhine maiden-like commentary and gorgeous vocalizations despite having to wander around the stage at times seeming to be fascinated by twigs.

A shout-out goes to tenor Benjamin Liupaogo (below), still a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, who only sang a couple of lines but sang them very beautifully. He is someone to watch!

The Madison Symphony Orchestra was conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). The strings and winds sounded particularly good that day, and DeMain brought out all of the interesting Bohemian folky gestures Dvorak included in the score. I found Dvorak’s orchestral score engaging throughout the performance. (You can hear the opening Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Altogether it was charming afternoon of beautiful music, excellent singing and fetching staging of a strange tale.

Madison Opera has announced its upcoming season offerings, which are Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” (Nov. 1 and 3), Gregory Spears’ “Fellow Travelers” (here Feb. 7 and 9, it has already hit Chicago and Minneapolis and is slated for Tucson next season as well), and Jacques Offenbach’s comic “Orpheus in the Underworld” (April 17 and 19).

It seems a very interesting season, and subscription tickets will go on sale in early May. For more information, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org


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Classical music: Saturday is busy with baroque music by Vivaldi and Bach at the Wisconsin Union Theater; Wagner’s opera “Die Walküre” in cinemas; and FREE Beethoven performances for families by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

March 28, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday, March 30, is busy with classical music from morning until night.

In the morning, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Family Series features two FREE performances of “Beethoven Lives Next Door” featuring Beethoven’s iconic Fifth Symphony.

They start with pre-concert educational activities at 9 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. with 40-minute concerts at 9:30 a.m. and 11:15 a.m.

All activities take place at the Warner Park Recreational Center, 1625 Northport Drive.

To get FREE tickets and see more information, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/education/wco-connect-family-concerts/

From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the penultimate Live From the Met in HD production of this season will feature “Die Walküre” (The Valkyries), the Metropolitan Opera’s second installment of the epic “Ring” cycle by Richard Wagner.

Screenings will be at the Point Cinema on the west side, near West Towne Mall, and the Palace Cinema in Sun Prairie.

The encore HD showings are next Wednesday, April 3, at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

The opera will be sung in German with supertitles in English, Italian and Spanish.

Tickets for Saturday broadcasts are $24 for adults and $22 for seniors and children under 13. For encore showings, all tickets are $18.

 It will also be broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Radio, starting at 11 a.m. (You can hear the famous and dramatic “Ride of the Valkyries” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For a cast list and synopsis, go to:

https://www.metopera.org/season/in-cinemas/synopsiscast/2018-19/die-walkure/?performanceNumber=15381

For information about the production, go to:

https://www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/die-walkure/

But the big local event is the Madison debut of Apollo’s Fire (below), a period-instrument baroque group that just won a 2019 Grammy Award, at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The program features suite and concertos by Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach. Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins and “The Goldfinch” Flute Concerto will be featured as will Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 and Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.

Trevor Stephenson, founder and director of the Madison Bach Musicians, will give a FREE pre-concert lecture at 6 p.m. in the Old Madison Room.

For more information and samples of rare reviews about the Cleveland-based group devoted to passionate and dramatic performances of early music, go to:

https://apollosfire.org

For the full program, background, videos and ticket information ($10-$47), go to:

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/apollos-fire/


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Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players open their new “Vignettes” season with concerts on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

September 14, 2018
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A CORRECTION: The Ear wants to apologize for and correct an error he made in yesterday’s blog post. The correct time and address for the all-Schubert concert by the Mosaic Chamber Players is on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the chapel of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall Stadium.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Oakwood Chamber Players (below) will begin their 2018-2019 season series “Vignettes” with concerts on Saturday, Sept. 15, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 16, at 2 p.m.

The concerts will both be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door: $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors 62 and over; and $5 students. Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com or call (608) 230-4316 for more information for individual and season tickets.

Once again, the group will explore largely new or unknown composers and neglected music.

Each program of the 2018-19 series will focus on how composers create specific themes to tell stories, and represent emotions, places or characteristics to enhance the listening experience.

Central to the program is poetry and narration paired with music that will feature Boston-based guest soprano Mary Mackenzie (below). She has been described by The New York Times as “a soprano of extraordinary agility and concentration,” and the Boston Globe as “sensational.”

Mackenzie is a passionate performer of contemporary vocal music, and has appeared with the Chameleon Arts Ensemble of Boston, Collage New Music, the Da Capo Chamber Players, Fulcrum Point New Music Project, and The Knights.

American composer Byron Adams (below) was commissioned by renowned American clarinetist Yehuda Weiner to set Nightingales, a poem by British Victorian poet Robert Bridges, as a memorial to his brother. The composer chose a quartet of soprano, clarinet, cello and piano to evoke the breathtaking beauty of the natural world that is overlaid with a sense of loss and longing.

By contrast, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Jennifer Higdon (below, in a photo by Candace DiCarlo) set four poems that have titles that reference roses by James Whitcomb Riley for the combination of flute, soprano and piano.

Bentley Roses was written as a surprise tribute for the retirement of her former music teacher, Judith Bentley. The settings are sunny and accessible, the music weaves around the words with swirling energy, coy interactions, and graceful interplay.

The yearning Vocalise by conductor, composer and pianist Andre Previn conveys emotion using the voice without words as a chamber instrument. The combination of soprano, cello and piano carries the shifting harmonies and sinuous melodic line through a series of subtle yet powerful transformations. (You can hear Previn’s beautiful “Vocalise,” with soprano Barbara Bonney and the the composer at the piano, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

A second piece by Previn (below) piece puts the cello and soprano in conversation with his setting of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison’s poem Stones.

American film composer and bassoonist Charles Fernandez (below) wrote Quatuor Parisienne (Parisian Quartet) for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. It consists of three movements: a tongue-in-cheek march; a gracefully flowing reflection: and a farcical musical conversation with a dash of merriment.

Budapest-based clarinetist and composer Endre Szervanszky (below) wrote his Quintet No. 1 in 1953. Audiences will hear some characteristics similar to the writing of Kodaly and Bartok. It is a pleasing four-movement work that shows his strong understanding of each of the instruments, demanding both melodic expressiveness and technical panache.

The program concludes with poetry by British writer Roald Dahl, known for his darkly humorous children’s stories. Composer Martin Butler (below, in a photo by Katie Vandyck) incorporated The Pig, The Tummy Beast, and The Crocodile into his piece Dirty Beasts for narrator, piano and woodwind quintet. Butler mirrors the acerbic wit of the text with clever effects, closing out the program with some unexpected twists and turns.

Guest performers are soprano Mary Mackenzie, pianist Joseph Ross (below top) and oboist Laura Medisky (below bottom).

They join Oakwood Chamber Players members Marilyn Chohaney, flute; Nancy Mackenzie, clarinet; Amanda Szczys, bassoon; Anne Aley, horn; and Maggie Darby Townsend, cello.

This is the first of five concerts in the Oakwood Chamber Players’ 2018-19 season series entitled Vignettes. Remaining concerts will take place on Nov. 24 and 25; Jan. 12 and 13; March 2 and 3; and May 18 and 19. For more information about the Oakwood Chamber Players and their new season, go to: https://www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a professional music ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation.


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Classical music: The Madison Opera stages Bizet’s “Carmen” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon

October 31, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will perform Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” this Friday night, Nov. 3, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 5, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street. (Below is the set from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City that is being used for the production.)

Tickets are $18-$130. (See below for details.)

With some of the most famous music in opera, Bizet’s passionate work is a vivid story of love, jealousy and betrayal.

Set in 19th-century Seville, Spain, the opera follows a gypsy determined to live life on her own terms – whatever her fate may be.

On a break from her shift at the cigarette factory, Carmen tosses a flower at a corporal named Don José, who ignores her advances. Only after Carmen is arrested and placed in José’s custody does he begin to fall for her, breaking the law and abandoning his hometown sweetheart.

What follows is a torrid love affair of passion, agonizing rage, and fanatical desire that will change their lives forever.

“Carmen is the reason I run an opera company,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director (below, in a photo by James Gill).  “I fell in love with opera as a teenager in the children’s chorus of a ‘Carmen’ production, as its incredible score and intense story hooked me immediately – not to mention the sheer excitement of having principal artists, chorus, children’s chorus, dancers, and orchestra all come together to create this astonishing world.  I am so delighted to produce ‘Carmen’ in Madison, with this spectacular cast and production team.”

At the premiere of “Carmen” in Paris on March 3, 1875, audiences were shocked at its characters’ apparent lack of morality and virtue, and critics derided Bizet’s music. (You can hear the ever-popular Toreador Song in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Three months after the opera’s premiere, Bizet died of heart disease. He was only 36 years old and would never know that his “flop” of an opera would become a global sensation over the next two centuries.

“Carmen was the first opera I saw as a young teenager,” remembers Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). “It should be everyone’s first opera. It is the perfect blend of musical theater and grand opera, with thrilling choruses, great tunes from start to finish, and a compelling story of ill-fated love. And then there is Carmen herself, one of the most alluring characters of all time. I love conducting this great opera, which is so gorgeously orchestrated.”

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts. Making her debut in the title role is Aleks Romano (below), a rising young singer whom Opera News recently praised for her “attractively smoky mezzo-soprano.”

Acclaimed tenor Sean Panikkar (below) makes his role debut as Don José. He debuted with Madison Opera at Opera in the Park 2014, but this is his first mainstage appearance with the company.Also returning to Madison Opera are Cecilia Violetta López (below top) as José’s hometown sweetheart Micaëla and Corey Crider (below bottom) as the toreador Escamillo. López debuted at this past summer’s Opera in the Park; Crider sang the title role in “Sweeney Todd” with Madison Opera in 2015.

Thomas Forde (below), who most recently sang Luther/Crespel in Madison Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffman,” returns to play José’s commanding officer, Zuniga.

Studio artists Anna Polum and Megan Le Romero play Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercedes. Studio Artist Benjamin Liupaogo and Wisconsin native Erik Earl Larson play the smugglers, Remendado and Dancaïre. Rounding out the cast is Charles Eaton in his debut as Morales. (Many have ties to the opera program at the UW-Madison.)

Directing this traditional staging is E. Loren Meeker (below) in her first production for Madison Opera. Meeker has directed at opera companies around the United States, including Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, the Glimmerglass Festival and Wolf Trap Opera.

“A piece like Carmen captures our imagination and begs to be re-told over the centuries because the characters speak to the deepest and most honest parts of human nature,” says Meeker.  “Today we grapple with love, lust, jealousy, morality, honor, and freedom just as much as people did when this opera premiered in 1875.

“At Madison Opera we have a brilliant cast who is willing to unravel the mystery of these characters with me scene by scene – making each choice onstage new, fresh, and true to the characters and arch of the story.

“Bringing this vivid world to life set to some of the most rich and well known music in the operatic canon, plus the fun of working with dancers, a fight director, the Madison Youth Choir, and a large adult chorus challenges me and inspires me all at the same time. The energy created in the performance, the brilliant music sung by such amazing artists, makes this classic opera worth seeing again and again and again.”

Carmen is a truly grand opera and features the Madison Opera Chorus, led by chorusmaster Anthony Cao (below); members of the Madison Youth Choirs; the Madison Symphony Orchestra; and dancers from Tania Tandias Flamenco and Spanish Dance.

For more information about the cast, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2017-2018/carmen/cast/

For informative and entertaining Q&As with the cast members, go to the Madison Opera’s Blogspot:

http://madisonopera.blogspot.com

For tickets, call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141 or go to:

http://www.overture.org/events/madison-opera


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