The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What makes this weekend’s performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” classically Italian operas and especially inviting for beginners?

October 30, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will open its new season this weekend with two performances of Pietro Mascagni’s  “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s ”Pagliacci.”

Details about the productions in Overture Hall on Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. appeared in a previous posting that includes information about the cast and the tickets ($18-$131):

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/classical-music-madison-opera-offers-preview-events-leading-up-to-cavalleria-rusticana-and-i-pagliacci-on-nov-2-and-4/

https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

But Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), the general director of the Madison Opera, recently agreed to a Q&A with The Ear to discuss the two operas more specifically and at length. Here are her comments:

A veteran opera-goer told the Ear that he considers these two works ideal operas for people new to the art form.  Do you agree?

I think almost any opera is perfect for someone new to opera – supertitles make it possible to understand the words, so one can just sit down and enjoy the show.

That said, “Cav and Pag” are definitely what many people think of when you say the words “Italian opera”: elemental stories of love, hate and jealousy that lead to tragedy.

Cavalleria Rusticana, which means “Rustic Chivalry,” tells about a woman named Santuzza who had been seduced and abandoned by a man named Turridu. On Easter Sunday, she attempts to get Turridu back, then tells the husband of his new lover about that affair, resulting in a duel.

Pagliacci, which means “Clowns,” tells about a traveling theater troupe. Nedda, the wife of the troupe’s leader, Canio, wants to run away with her lover Silvio after the evening performance. Canio finds out, but goes on with the show even though his heart is breaking. He then snaps during the performance and kills both Nedda and Silvio.

The music in both operas ranges from glorious choral music (the Easter Hymn in Cavalleria Rusticana is one of the most famous opera choruses of all time for good reason) to famous arias (particularly the aria “Vesti la Giubba” from Pagliacci, or at least the line “Ridi, Pagliaccio!”), to orchestral music that is well-known in its own right, such as Cavalleria’s intermezzo, which plays an integral role in the final scene of “The Godfather” film trilogy. (You can hear that famous Intermezzo used in “The Godfather” film in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They are also compact: Each opera lasts about 70 minutes, so a lot gets packed into a short amount of time. (Below is the set of “Pagliaccio” rented from the New Orleans Opera.)

What are the shared elements that make the two operas so compatible that they are often presented together?

Pagliacci was written in response to Cavalleria Rusticana:  Ruggero Leoncavallo (below top) saw what a hit Pietro Mascagni (below bottom) had his 1890 one-act opera about real people propelled by love and revenge, and wrote his own version that premiered just two years later, in 1892.

There are some obvious parallels: both take place in small Italian villages, both take place on religious holidays, and both involve love triangles that end with someone dead. Plus the last line of each opera is spoken, not sung.

They also have musical similarities, as both have full orchestrations, large choral segments, and a style of vocal writing that calls for dramatic, expressive singing. As a result, the combined pairing makes a satisfying night of Italian opera, rather than being simply two operas that happen to be done on the same night.

Does one usually overshadow the other or are they equals?

It very much depends on the tastes of an individual audience member. When the operas were new, Cavalleria was definitely the more popular of the two – even Queen Victoria wrote in her diary that she preferred it.

To modern eyes, Pagliacci may be more dramatically satisfying because more happens in it, such as the entire play-within-the-opera, which adds an element of humor to the high stakes of reality. But both are masterpieces in their own right, and the audience gets to enjoy them both.

Why do you think these verismo operas are still powerful today?

“Verismo” comes from the word “vero,” which means “true.” Cav and Pag tell stories about real people caught up in their lives, with all the emotional messiness that can entail – and those emotions are still driving people today.

Above all, the music of both operas is so powerful that it strikes to the heart of what opera can be. It can be thrilling, it can be moving, it can be funny – all in one night.

Is there something else you would like to say about the two operas and your production of them?

We have wonderful casts in each opera. Scott Piper (below top), who was last here as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, sings both Turridu and Canio; and Michael Mayes (below bottom), who was last here as the lead in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, sings both Alfio and Tonio.

We have two extraordinary sopranos making their debuts with us:  Michelle Johnson (below top) as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana and Talise Trevigne (below bottom) as Nedda in Pagliacci.

The Pagliacci cast is completed by Benjamin Taylor making his debut as Silvio and Robert Goderich singing Beppe; the Cavalleria cast is completed by Danielle Wright as Lucia and Kirsten Larson as Lola.


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s first-ever “Sweeney Todd” excels in singing and stage work. It also draws striking parallels between Victorian England and contemporary America. The last performance is today at 2:30.

February 8, 2015
15 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, which will perform its fourth season next summer. He has been named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has a website here (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest preview review of this weekend’s three performances of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” by the Madison Opera in the Capitol Theater in the Overture Center.

I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below) with production photos by James Gill:

Mikko Utevsky with baton

By Mikko Utevsky

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd!

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 masterpiece of musical theater tells the gruesome legend of Benjamin Barker, now Sweeney Todd, returned to London after unjust imprisonment to take revenge on the judge who wronged him and stole his daughter. With his baker accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, he slaughters unsuspecting Londoners and has their bodies baked into meat pies.

The Madison Opera presents it for the first time this weekend in all its sonic splendor, with a larger orchestra than the typical Broadway band, placed on stage, plus a cast of powerful voices and gifted actors.

The new production, also the directorial debut of UW-Madison theater professor Norma Saldivar (below, in a photo from Madison Magazine), is a triumph of atmosphere. From haunting and evocative lighting (Hideaki Tsutsi) with flashes of red to accompany the many otherwise bloodless murders, to a versatile and visually striking Victorian-industrial set (Joseph Varga), the visual side was appropriately dramatic.

Norma Saldivar color

The stark soundscape that makes the piece so successful was the product of crisp, energetic playing from members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the baton of John DeMain, who is both the Music Director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Artistic Director of the Madison Opera.

The music featured a prominent organ part that was performed with dramatic flair by UW alumnus composer Scott Gendel and arresting singing from the Madison Opera Chorus that is directed by Anthony Cao. If the choral blocking was somewhat static, it lent additional emphasis to the jerky, mechanistic motions that were used sparingly, but to great effect.

Meredith Arwardy as Mrs. Lovett and Corey Crider as Sweeney Todd with crowd chorus James Gill

What sets this apart from the 2007 Hollywood film version directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp in the title role, or even from a typical Broadway production, is the singing — even if it was uncharacteristically amplified electronically in tis production.

Sondheim’s score treads the line between opera and musical theater, making unusually great demands on the vocalists. Madison Opera’s cast came through magnificently.

In the leads, Corey Crider (below, as Sweeney Todd) and Meredith Arwady (Mrs. Lovett) both excelled in their Madison Opera debuts.

Arwady’s comic instincts are superb — her duets with Crider (“A Little Priest” and “By the Sea”) were hysterical. (With regard to the former, I confess I have a soft spot for good puns.)

Crider’s powerful baritone modulated through tenderness, rage, bitterness, and insane glee with subtle precision, and he brought no small measure of dramatic flair to the role.

Corey Crider as Sweeney Todd   CR James Gill

The show has a cast full of tenors, all of whom excelled. Robert Goderich (Adolfo Pirelli) was hilariously over the top in both his character acting and the Italianate tenor writing, which he pulled off with aplomb, and Daniel Shirley’s smooth lyricism as Anthony Hope (bottom right, with Jeni Houser on far left and Michael Etzwiler in the middle) was especially lovely. Thomas Leighton’s solos stood out from the chorus for their particular beauty.

Seeney Todd  Jeni Houser as Johanna, Michael Etzwiler as Birdseller, Daniel Shirley as Anthony Hope GR James Gill

The young Joshua Sanders (below center), a company veteran despite his age, was outstanding in his first major role as Tobias Ragg. From his enthusiastic sales patter in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” to gentle tenderness in the show-stealing “Not While I’m Around” — heard sung by Neil Patrick Harris in a YouTube video at the bottom — to the deranged mania of the final scene, both his acting skill and immense vocal talent shone throughout the evening.

Sweeney Todd   Joshua Sanders as Tobias Ragg and Meredith Arwady as Mrs. Lovett CR James Gill

My attention Friday night was drawn to the social commentary in the show.

Sweeney Todd’s murderous frenzy is overlaid with a critique of the social order in Victorian London — not so distant from that of today: “The history of the world, my sweet/Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat” It is also not far from Bertolt Brecht‘s moralizing in “The Threepenny Opera,” which says “Even saintly folk will act like sinners/Until they’ve had their customary dinners.”

Through the same lens, we see Mrs. Lovett (played played by Meredith Arwady, below) in particular swayed by the social mobility brought on by newfound prosperity: her change of costume in the second act, coupled with fresh wallpaper and a brand-new harmonium in the parlor, suggest that once she becomes one of the ones “who gets to eat,” her priorities align more and more with the upper class she seemed to despise before.

Meredith Arwady

Whether you come for the social critique, the powerful music, the skillful acting, or if you just want a good Gothic thrill, this weekend’s “Sweeney Todd” will deliver.

It joins the long list of Madison Opera’s successes in recent seasons, and you might just consider catching the last show this Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater.

 

 


Classical music: The Madison Savoyards celebrates 50 years of staging Gilbert and Sullivan with an encore production of “Iolanthe” that opens this Friday and Saturday nights at UW-Madison Music Hall.

July 16, 2013
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s summer, so it must be time for another production of a Gilbert and Sullivan satirical operetta by the Madison Savoyards.

The venerable and veteran local group, which relies on gifted amateur talent, started in 1963 with the operetta “Iolanthe.”

So what better way to make the 50th anniversary, and the 51st season, than by staging another updated production of “Iolanthe.”

Iolanthe poster.web

The production this summer will be staged in Music Hall (below), at the foot of Bascom Hill on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus – a kind of fitting and time-appropriate setting. It has been the usual venue for the Savoyards since 2002, after the shows moved form the Wisconsin Union Theater.

MusicHall2

The production starts this weekend on this coming Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m.; the final four performances with be on Thursday, Friday and Saturday (July 25-28) at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday July 29 at 3 p.m.

One of the many encouraging things to like about the Madison Savoyards – which seems to have survived the Great Recession in excellent shape — is how organized the troupe (seen below in a recent production of “Utopia Limited”) has become in terms of using electronic media.

DSC03869

The home website is a model of how to be both informative and entertaining. It has links to the Savoyard’s’ YouTube channel that has a lot of video and audio clips, especially from last summer’s acclaimed production of the popular “Pirates of Penzance.”

You will also find links to information about tickets; about reviews and recordings; about the pre-concert dinners on Friday nights; about the history of the Savoyards; and of course about the plot of “Iolanthe.’

Here is a link to the Savoyards’ website:

http://www.madisonsavoyards.org

And here is a link to the Savoyards’ YouTube channel with lots of fine videos:

http://www.youtube.com/user/MadisonSavoyardsLtd?feature=mhee

What is the secret to the perennial popularity of the musical theater created by Gilbert and Sullivan (below) that has survived and prospered ever since the time of Queen Victoria? 

Gilbert and Sullivan (left)

Is it the absurd plots? The generally sympathetic characters with all their human foibles? The clever lyrics, as exemplified in the lickety-split, tongue-twistingly witty patter songs? The tuneful and easy-to-digest music? The trials and tribulations we all eternally endure through bureaucracy and the well-intended mistakes of officialdom? The biting political satire that can be updated, as in the YouTube video at the bottom?

It is probably all of that and more, at least when you look at the wide spectrums of ages and personalities that make up devoted “G&S” fans.

What message do you want to leave the Madison Savoyards on marking 50 years?

Why do you like G&S? And what is your favorite G&S operetta?

The Ear wants to hear.


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