The Well-Tempered Ear

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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Classical music: Oakwood Chamber Players concludes its season with performances of “Summer Splash” this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet and music by Samuel Barber is included.

May 9, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the outstanding Oakwood Chamber Players, known for giving fine performances of programs that feature both unusual repertoire and classic works:

Oakwood Chamber Players 2015-16

The Oakwood Chamber Players will round out its 2015-2016 season with a concert entitled Summer Splash on this Saturday, May 14, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, May 15, at 1:30 p.m.

The concerts will both be held at the Oakwood Village University Woods 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 – $20 general admission, $15 seniors and $5 students. Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com for more information.

The concert will honor the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death through Six Pieces After Shakespeare by American composer Craig Bohmler (below). This piece – which was commissioned by the Oakwood Chamber Players and which is receiving its world premiere — explores some of the Bard’s most emblematic comedic and dramatic characters: flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and string bass depict the quicksilver movements of Puck, pathos of Ophelia, eeriness of Macbeth’s witches and rollicking nature of Falstaff.

craig bohmler

The program will also include Romanesque by Argentine/French composer Reynaldo Hahn (below), a work that radiates charm with its simplicity and heart as well as its sweetly flowing melody. The expressive musical lines are even more emphasized by the melded flute and viola timbres as they join together in unison.

RH au piano

The complexity and artistry of Summer Music by Samuel Barber (below) make it an enduring and fascinating piece of music. Its slow and bluesy beginning shifts to flashes of dissonance with contrasting lofty and flowing lines. As the work draws to its conclusion the listener is returned to the lazily unfolding material of the start, echoing the idle quality of summertime.

Samuel Barber 2 composing

Finally, the concert will close with the delightful and uplifting theme and variations movement from the beloved “Trout” Piano Quintet in A Major, D. 667, for violin, viola, cello, bass and piano, by Franz Schubert (below). The work gets its nickname from the theme and variations movement based on the song “The Trout” by Schubert. (You can hear that movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Franz Schubert big

The Oakwood Chamber Players is a group of Madison-area professional musicians who 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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