The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Opera’s superb and sensual production of “Fellow Travelers” broke both hearts and new ground

February 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Walking out into the heavy snow last Sunday afternoon, The Ear left the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” – done in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – feeling sad and moved, but also satisfied and proud. (Below is the full cast in a party scene. All performance photos are by James Gill.)

He was proud that the Madison Opera chose this 2016 work by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce — based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon — for its annual winter staging of a modern or contemporary opera.

It was a brave choice.

For one, it focuses on a same-sex love affair in the oppressive political environment of the McCarthy era with its Lavender Scare, which, during the larger Red Scare, tied gays to communists and tried to purge and ruin them lest they be blackmailed.

In addition, the opera speaks to today’s politics of smear and fear, as practiced by President Donald Trump and conspiracy theory proponents on the far right. The Madison Opera wasn’t afraid to point out possible parallels in the program notes.

But the real affirmation of the opera’s contemporaneity came from the first-rate quality of this memorable production.

The cast of nine made a tight ensemble in which each member proved  equally strong in singing and acting.

The two leading men who played federal government workers – tenor Andres Acosta (below right) as the young Timothy Laughlin and baritone Ben Edquist (below left) as the older Hawkins Fuller – turned in outstanding performances from their first meeting on a park bench, through their sexual encounters, to the final breakup.

Particularly moving were the same-sex love scenes and moments of casual affection. Perhaps there are precedents in the history of other Madison Opera productions, but no one seems to know of any.

The two men in bed — wearing only boxer shorts while kissing and caressing each other — seemed like another brave first for the Madison Opera. The explicit scenes of the two men being intimate were tasteful but also sensual and realistic, erotic as well as poignant. (Below are Andres Acosta, left, as Timothy Laughlin and Ben Edquist, right, as Hawkins Fuller.)

Acting seems the real fulcrum of this chamber opera, with the appealing music underscoring the scenes and the acting rather than standing on its own. Yet the two men proved to be powerful singers, especially in their solos and duets. (You can hear Andres Acosta sing an aria in the Minneapolis production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The haunting music was always accessible and atmospheric, disproving the notion that music in new operas is always discordant or hard to listen to. True, The Ear heard no tunes to take away from the opera, no earworm arias from a first hearing. But the singing by all the cast members was uniformly strong.

John DeMain’s conducting exuded both control and subtlety. He maintained a balance from the Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the pit and never overwhelmed the singers.

DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) knew exactly when to pull the music into the background and create a context for the action; and then when to push it to the foreground to accompany the singers or set a scene.

Stage director Peter Rothstein (below), who also staged the opera for the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis with some of the same cast, kept the show moving at a brisk and engaging pace.

The 16 scenes moved quickly throughout the two-hour show, thanks in part to the austere and portable but convincing sets.

The atmosphere of the 1950s, for example, was believably evoked by a simple office setting — a desk, a few filing cabinets, an American flag and a portrait of President Eisenhower. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.)

Particularly effective and disturbing was the interrogation scene, from the embarrassing questions about whether Hawkins Fuller walks or talks like a homosexual to the lie detector test. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Stephen Hobe as the Technician and Alan Dunbar as the Interrogator.)

One outstanding performance involved the resonant and expressive Sidney Outlaw (below) as Tommy McIntyre, the bureaucrat who knows all the secrets in the office of Senator Charles Parker (played by Andrew Wilkowske) and how to use them in order to get his way. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.)

Another outstanding performance came from Adriana Zabala (below) as Mary Johnson, the secretary who finally quits her job and leaves Washington, D.C., to protest the treatment of Timothy by the aptly nicknamed “Hawk” Fuller and the government inquisitors. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.

Throughout the entire opera, the audience proved amazingly quiet, rapt in their attention as they laughed out loud at humorous moments and openly cried at the heart-wrenching plot.

At the end the audience — gay and straight, men and women, old and young – gave the singers and orchestra players a prolonged standing ovation and loud applause.

And walking out, you heard many people talking about the opera in the most positive and approving ways.

The underlying irony, of course, is that an opera with this much insight into both the human heart and the exploitative politics of oppression could never have been staged in the same era it depicts.

At least on that score, we can say we have made some progress in confronting and correcting the injustices and bigotry we witness in “Fellow Travelers.”

But in the end the opera tells us to keep traveling.

You can see what other critics thought of “Fellow Travelers”:

Here is the review that Jay Rath wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/arts/stage/forbidden%20love/

And here is the review that Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/opera-review-fellow-travelers-is-a-certain-kind-of-wonderful/article_0ebc5a83-afbe-5f50-99eb-51e4baa4df0e.html

What did you think?

Leave your own review or reactions in the Comments section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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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: UW trombonist Mark Hetzler explores Stravinsky with new music and alumni musicians in a FREE concert on FRIDAY night. Plus, you can hear FREE Brahms at noon this Friday

October 12, 2017
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ALERT: The music of Johannes Brahms will be featured at this Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive. Performers are Wes Luke and Valerie Sanders, violin; Ina Georgieva and Marie Pauls, viola; and Rachel Bottner, cello. (No word on specific works, but it sure sounds like a string quintet is on the program.) The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

And more Brahms (below) fits into the question The Ear recently posted about what explains why we are hearing more music by Brahms these days. Here is a link to that post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/10/07/classical-music-are-we-hearing-more-brahms-if-so-why/

By Jacob Stockinger

The always adventurous and inventive UW-Madison trombone professor Mark Hetzler (below) will once again perform an experimental and innovative FREE concert this FRIDAY night (NOT Saturday night, as incorrectly listed on here before) at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall.

“Solitude and Stravinsky“ is an exploration of social isolation and a reimagining of Igor Stravinsky’s popular Neo-Classical “Pulcinella” Suite (which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom).

According to the website at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music: “This concert will showcase landmark works by contemporary composers and an experimental performance by the quartet combo Mr. Chair, with special guests and alumni Jason Kutz (piano, below top), Ben Ferris (double bass, below bottom) and Mike Koszewski (drums).”

Here is the full eclectic program:

Allemande, Suite No. 2 in D Major for Solo Cello……J.S. Bach

Brass Atmosphere…..Matthew Burtner

Disegno…….Anders Eliasson

Caravaggio….John Stevens (below)

  1. Realism; 2. Shadow;  3. Vulgarity;  4. Light

Luminous….Mark Engebretson

Onyzx Quartet…..Jason Kutz

PULCINELLA RE-IMAGINED……Igor Stravinsky (below)

Introduzione (Domenico Gallo)

Scherzino (Giovanni Battista Pergolesi)

Serenata (Pergolesi)

Allegro assai (Gallo)

Allegro alla breve (Pergolesi)

Largo (Pergolesi)

Tarantella (Count Unico Wilhelm Wasserader/Fortunato Chelleri)

Gavotta (Carlo Monza)

Andantino (Alessandro Parisotti)

Minuetto (Pergolesi)

Finale (Gallo)

For a biography of Mark Hetzler and his previous projects, including his many recordings, prizes and guest appearances, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/mark-hetzler/


Classical music: University Opera’s “Turn of the Screw” is a completely satisfying production of a complex modern masterpiece by Benjamin Britten

March 5, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy filed this review, with photos by Michael R. Anderson, for The Ear:

By Larry Wells

I attended the opening performance of Benjamin Britten’s 1954 chamber opera “The Turn of the Screw” that was presented by University Opera and directed by David Ronis.

It was a completely satisfying theatrical experience of a complexly organized musical work.

The libretto is based on Henry James’ serial novella of the same name. Whereas the James work is an ambiguous, psychological tale, Britten’s opera is an eerie ghost story laden with suggestions of psychosexual mischief.

Musically the opera is based on a 12-tone theme with each of its scenes preceded by a variation of the theme. There are further structural complexities in this highly organized work, but the music is very accessible and was admirably performed by 13 musicians ably led by conductor Kyle Knox. Particular praise goes to the percussionist Garrett Mendlow.

The beautiful, minimalistic set and stunning lighting enhanced the creepiness of the tale.

As for the singing, the cast tackled the complex vocal lines with aplomb, and there were several exceptional performances.

Particular praise goes to Anna Polum for her outstanding portrayal of the ghostly Miss Jessell. She sang beautifully and acted convincingly. (Below, from left, are Katie Anderson as the Governess and Anna Polum as Miss Jessell.)

Dress Rehearsal for "Turn of the Screw"

Dress Rehearsal for “Turn of the Screw”

Likewise Emily Vandenberg as Flora was realistic in the role of a young girl. I have seen performances of this opera that were brought down by unconvincing portrayals of this difficult child role, but Vandenberg acted naturally and sang beautifully.

The other child role, Miles, was capably performed by Simon Johnson, a middle school student. Cayla Rosché adeptly performed Mrs. Grose, the enigmatic housekeeper. (Below are Amitabha Shatdal  as Miles, Cayla Rosché  as Mrs. Grose and Elisheva Pront as Flora.)

Dress Rehearsal for "Turn of the Screw"

Dress Rehearsal for “Turn of the Screw”

The two major roles are The Governess and the spectral Peter Quint. Erin Bryan was convincing as the increasingly confused and hysteric governess, and she played off Rosché’s Mrs. Grose to great effect. At one point I was thinking that these were two extremely flighty women. (Below, from left, are Cayla Rosché  as Mrs. Grose; Elisheva Pront as Flora; Katie Anderson as the Governess; and Amitabha Shatdal as Miles.)

Dress Rehearsal for "Turn of the Screw"

Dress Rehearsal for “Turn of the Screw”

Alec Brown (below) as Quint had the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of singers like Peter Pears who made Quint an evil, threatening, nasty fellow. Brown’s Quint came off as slightly laid back, and his perfectly fine tenor voice was just not a Britten voice in the style of Pears, Philip Langridge or Ian Bostridge.

Dress Rehearsal for "Turn of the Screw"

Dress Rehearsal for “Turn of the Screw”

I had a couple of minor problems with the evening. First, I did not understand why the doors to Music Hall didn’t open until 7:20 for a 7:30 performance, which then actually started at 7:45. And, I was disappointed that the piano, which is a major contributor to the music’s sonority, was swapped for an electronic keyboard.

Yet I left feeling once again that Britten was a true musical genius of the 20th century and that I was eager to go to the 3 p.m. performance this afternoon to experience it all over again.

“The Turn of the Screw” will also be performed one last time on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

For more information about the opera, including how to buy tickets — admission is $25 with $20 for seniors and $10 for students, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2017/01/31/university-opera-presents-benjamin-brittens-the-turn-of-the-screw/


Classical music: Puccini makes us all bohemians. Madison Opera scores a big heart-rending success with “La Bohème.” The final performance is this afternoon.

November 15, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

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 (MAYCO – www.MAYCO.org), which will perform its sixth season this summer. He also directs a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra (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 past weekend’s performance of “La Bohème” by the Madison Opera.

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

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below):

new Mikko Utevsky baton profile USE

By Mikko Rankin Utevsky

Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème” is perhaps the most beloved of all operas, adored by newcomers and veterans alike for its richly Romantic melodies, subtly shaded score and sheer vocal magnetism. (Performance photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.)

This weekend’s production anchors Madison Opera’s writer-themed season, which continues with Mark Adamo‘s “Little Women” in February and Jacques Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffman” (The Tales of Hoffmann) in April.

The famous numbers in “La Boheme” — the first-act arias “Che gelida manina” by the poet Rodolfo (Mackenzie Whitney) and “Si, mi chiamano Mimi” by Mimi (Eleni Calanos), and the following duet “O soave fanciulla” in particular — are familiar showstoppers, and were well sung Friday night. (You can hear Jussi Bjorling and Renata Tebaldi sing the arias and duets in the YouTube video at the bottom. Can you not be moved?)

Boheme Madison Opera USE Mimi and Rodolfo GILL

But the indisputable star of this production was Maestro John DeMain (below in a photo by Prasad), whose flexible leadership in conducting united a remarkably even cast and the Madison Symphony Orchestra, whose lush, supple sound filled Overture Hall to the rafters with a powerful reading of Puccini’s rich and colorful score.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

One was struck by the tightness of composition. For a composer often accused of pandering to popular tastes, sacrificing musical integrity for cheap emotional tricks, the score to “La Bohème” is densely motivic and self-referential.

As in Mozart or Verdi, the orchestra often represents the subtext or the emotional undercurrents of the scene, with snatches of remembered melody drifting throughout the drama. The only complaint must be that we sometimes heard a bit too much of this lovely orchestra, to the detriment of balance with the singers.

Among the cast, the sense of camaraderie between the members of the male quartet — Marcello, Rodolfo, Colline and Schaunard — was palpable, by turns rowdy and rambunctious and in the fourth act deeply moving.

Madison Opera Boheme cafe sceneJames Gill

Whether this was the result of some special chemistry between the singers (Dan Kempson, Mackenzie Whitney, Liam Moran, and Alan Dunbar) or something drawn out by director David Lefkowich (below), it brought the ensemble scenes to life marvelously, and drew the audience into the lives of the four friends quite powerfully.

David Lefkowich 2013

Dan Kempson (below) deserves special praise as the painter Marcello, a somewhat unsympathetic role, both for humanizing the jealous lover and for his rich and warm singing throughout the evening.

Madison Opera boheme Rodolfo GILL

Tenor Mackenzie Whitney brought a clear and smooth tone to the role of Rodolfo, shining brightest in ensemble singing.

Evan Ross, in the buffo roles of Benoit and Alcindoro, brought humor, but not enough sound to be consistently heard over the orchestra, leaving the audience chuckling at his mannerisms and the supertitles rather than what he actually sang.

Soprano Emily Birsan (below), a favorite of local audiences and a UW-Madison graduate, who recently graduated out of the Ryan Center at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, made an excellent showing as the flirtatious Musetta, whose gentle side in the fourth act was extraordinarily poignant.

Emily Birsan MSO 2014

And Eleni Calenos’ Mimi (below, second from right) was both credibly fragile and vocally excellent, with warmth to spare and the ability to draw the audience into the intimate final moments of her life.

Madison Opera Boheme death scene

Sets from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City made subtle but evocative use of perspective, drawing the eye where it needed to be without drawing attention away from the action. (I was particularly fond of the Cafe Momus.)

Madison Opera Boheme outdoor scene GILL

The city beyond the garret was subtly shaded by Connie Yun’s lighting design. And Anthony Cao’s chorus, together with the Madison Youth Choirs, brought the necessary sense of spectacle to the outdoor scenes in Act II.

Madison Opera Boheme outdoor 2 parade GILL

All in all, despite some balance issues early on, the gorgeous playing of the orchestra alone makes this a production worth hearing, and the largely young cast brings Puccini’s “verismo” (realistic) masterpiece vividly to life.

It’s another feather in the caps of artistic director John DeMain and general director Kathryn Smith of the Madison Opera.

It is sung in Italian with projected English supertitles. The final performance, with two intermissions, will be this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center.


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