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: The Madison Opera stages its first-ever production of Dvorak’s fairy tale opera “Rusalka” next Friday night and Sunday afternoon. A preview roundtable is this Sunday afternoon

April 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage its production of Antonin Dvorak’s luxurious masterpiece Rusalka on Friday night, April 26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 28, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Running time is 3 hours with two intermissions, and will feature projected supertitles with English translations of the original Czech that will be sung.

Tickets are $18-$131 with discounts available for students and groups. Go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

Inspired by the classic fairy tale The Little Mermaid, the story travels from a mythical forest to a palace and back again. Its lush score includes the famous “Song to the Moon.” (You can hear Renée Fleming sing”Song to the Moon” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Set in a mythical realm, Rusalka is about a water nymph who falls in love with a human prince. She tells her father Vodnik that she wishes to become human and live with the Prince on land. Horrified, Vodnik tells her that humans are full of sin, but reluctantly suggests she enlist the help of Jezibaba, a witch. Jezibaba agrees to make her human, but cautions that Rusalka will lose her power of speech. Further, if the Prince betrays her, she will be cursed forever.

The Prince falls in love with Rusalka and plans to marry her, but her silence unnerves him, and a Foreign Princess interrupts the wedding festivities with evil intent. Rusalka returns to the lake as a spirit that lures men to their death – and the Prince follows her.

Rusalka is one of the most gorgeous operas in the repertoire,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director (below, in a photo by James Gill). “I fell in love with it when I first saw it over 20 years ago, and listening to the score is a pure pleasure. I am so delighted to share this opera with Madison, so that everyone can learn how brilliant an operatic composer Dvorak was, and experience an opera that is justifiably popular around the world.”

Rusalka’s story was inspired by multiple sources, including Slavic mythology and the fairy tales of Karel Jaromir Erben, Hans Christian Andersen, and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.

The opera premiered on March 31, 1901 in Prague and quickly became a massive success, hailed as Dvorak’s masterpiece.

But it was not initially widely performed outside of Czech territories; the first U.S. performance was in 1975. But in recent decades, the opera by Dvorak (below) has become a regular part of the opera repertoire, due to its beautiful music and lovely story.

This production is not only a Madison Opera premiere, but also the company’s first-ever opera in Czech.

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts.

Soprano Emily Birsan (below) returns to Madison Opera in the title role, following successes here as Gounod’s Juliet and Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème. Last month, she sang Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Chicago Tribune has praised her singing for her “amazing clarity of diction, accuracy of intonation and fineness of expression.”

Tenor John Lindsey (below) returns to Madison Opera as The Prince, after singing in last summer’s Opera in the Park.

Making their debuts with Madison Opera are soprano Karin Wolverton as the Foreign Princess, contralto Lindsay Amman as the witch Jezibaba and bass William Meinert as Rusalka’s father, Vodnik. Emily SecorSaira Frank and Kirsten Larson play the three wood sprites; Benjamin Liupaogo sings the Hunter.

The Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra round out the musical forces, all under the baton of John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), Madison Opera’s artistic director.

Keturah Stickann (below) directs her first opera for Madison Opera; she has directed both traditional and contemporary repertoire across all of the U.S., most recently for San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera.

This production originated at Minnesota Opera and features projections (below) by Wendall K. Harrington, who has been described as “the godmother of modern projection design.”

In reviewing the Minnesota production, theTwin Cities Arts Reader praised “the stunning visuals on display, which only serve to enhance and elaborate on the action and the music.”

Madison Opera’s production of “Rusalka” is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Kay & Martin Barrett, Millie & Marshall Osborn, Sally & Mike Miley, Kato Perlman, Charles & Martha Casey, John Lemke & Pam Oliver, and The Ann Stanke Fund.

RELATED EVENTS

You can learn more about “Rusalka” at the events leading up to the performances.

Opera Up Close will take place this Sunday, April 21, 1-3 p.m. at the Margaret C. Winston Opera Center (below) 335 West Mifflin Street, $20 general admission; free for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers.

This event features a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Rusalka. General director Kathryn Smith will discuss Antonin Dvorak and the history of his fairy-tale opera. Principal artists, stage director Keturah Stickann and conductor John DeMain will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on this masterpiece.

Pre-Show Talks by Kathryn Smith take place on Friday, April 26, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 28, at 1:30 p.m. at Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

Post-Opera Q&A’s are on Friday, April 26, and Sunday, April 28, immediately following the opera in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

More information — including cast biographies and a blog with Q&A interviews with some cast members — is available at https://www.madisonopera.org and https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/rusalka/.


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