The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Despite overly traditional staging, the Madison Opera’s “Carmen” beguiled and bewitched through the outstanding singing

November 7, 2017
16 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy attended Sunday’s sold-out performance of “Carmen” by the Madison Opera and filed the following review, with photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

When I learned that Madison Opera was going to produce Bizet‘s “Carmen,” I was not surprised. It is annually one of the most frequently performed operas internationally, and it is a surefire vehicle for filling seats. It is safe.

On the other hand, once one watches repeated performances of an old favorite, the appeal can diminish. One advantage of an opera is that novel approaches to the production can prevent a warhorse from becoming stale.

I would love to say that the approach both musically and dramatically to this production of “Carmen” broke new ground, but it did not. In fact, the production was as traditional as could be. (Below is the main set, rented from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.)

I attended a performance of “Carmen” in Tucson a couple of years ago, and the conductor Keitaro Harada breathed new life into the familiar music through interesting tempi and finely nuanced dynamics.

Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo  by Prasad) conducted the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a perfectly fine and occasionally uplifting manner, but there was little new to learn from his approach. The purely instrumental entr’actes shimmered, but during the rest of the opera the singing was at the forefront.

Maestro Harada (below), whom Madison should be actively courting, is currently conducting “Carmen” in Sofia, and the accompanying publicity clip in the YouTube video at the bottom (bear with the Bulgarian commentary) shows that the production is unconventional in its approach although it clearly is still “Carmen.” I would have enjoyed something other than the ultra-traditional staging and sets experienced here in Madison.

At times the production was so hackneyed and hokey that I chuckled to myself – ersatz flamenco dancing, the fluttering of fans, all of the cigarette factory girls with cigarettes dangling from their lips, unconvincing fight scenes, annoying children running across the stage, dreary costumes that hardly reminded me of Seville. And I could go on.

Yet “Carmen” has a way of drawing one in despite oneself. The music is marvelous, and the singing was uniformly excellent.

The four principals were luminous both in their solo pieces and ensembles. Cecelia Violetta López as Micaëla (below right) was lustrous in her two arias as well as in her duet with Sean Panikkar’s Don José (below left).

Panikkar started the performance off with little flair, but from the time he became besotted with Carmen toward the end of the first act he was on fire. He then maintained a high degree of passion and zest in his vocal performance.

Corey Crider (below right) was a wonderful Escamillo, singing his toréador role with great élan despite his unfortunate costumes.

And Aleks Romano (below) as Carmen made the most of her complex character. Her singing was luscious, and her acting – particularly her use of her expressive eyes – was terrific.

Likewise, the lesser roles – Thomas Forde as Zuniga, Benjamin Liupaogo as Remendado, Erik Earl Larson as Dancaïre, a radiant Anna Polum as Fransquita, and Megan Le Romero as Mercédès – were equally well sung. The ensemble work in the quintet at the end of Act II and in the card scene was outstanding.

The chorus (below) sounded terrific throughout, although the women’s costumes and the stage direction made the choristers appear ludicrous as times.

When all is said and done, “Carmen” still beguiled me by drawing me into its characters’ complex psychologies and motivations. Likewise, its music still bewitched me in much the same way as Carmen inexplicably bewitched hapless Don José (below).

But I seem to always wish for more – more compelling productions, more daring music making, more risk-taking.

I do look forward to this coming spring’s production of “Florencia en el Amazonas.” The recording is captivating, and the opera’s performances have pleased a wide variety of audiences by all accounts. And it is something new. Hallelujah!

Did you go to “Carmen”? 

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra will perform an all-20th century program of works by Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky and Poulenc this coming Saturday night. Plus, conductor Beverly Taylor talks about how severe budget cuts are hurting the choral program at the UW-Madison.

December 8, 2015
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Choral Union, a campus and community chorus, and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform an all 20th-century program. (Both are below.)

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

Featured are the “Symphony of Psalms” by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky; the “Gloria” by French composer Francis Poulenc; and the Overture to “The Wasps” by the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Tickets are $15, $8 for seniors and students.

Here is a link to more information, including how to buy tickets:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-choral-union1/

Beverly Taylor, who heads up the choral program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and who is assistant music director at the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will conduct.

Taylor agreed to a recent email interview with The Ear:

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

This year, you are giving only one performance, both now and in the spring for “The Creation” by Franz Joseph Haydn. For many years, you have generally given two performances. Why the change? Is it an experiment or trial, or is it permanent?

Three things combined:  Really, the main reason was that the hall and players were only available one night.  As more groups emerge and the hall is booked, and string players may be playing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra or several new chamber groups, it’s hard to get everyone together on the same night.

Also, we thought we’d pack them in for one night, although with all that goes on in town, we may leave some people out.

Third, because we did not have a full chamber ensemble yet available at the time we planned “The Creation,” and knowing I’d have to hire some additional players, we planned on one night for budget reasons.

Next year?  Who knows?  Check back in February …

UW Choral singers

It is a great program of very different 20th-century works. What was your idea or reason for linking them by putting them on the same program?

Great question, and yes I’ve given it a fair amount of thought.

Before I answer that, I should say that I’ve added a bonus piece to the program in the form of the orchestra-only Overture to “The Wasps” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Because the program is a bit on the short side, I had an overture in mind, but hadn’t confirmed it till I saw how quickly the orchestra took on the challenges of the Poulenc and Stravinsky.

One of the great things about programming 20th century music — and I expect will be the same as we add more 21st century music — is the astounding variety of styles available to us. And many of the 20th-century composers lived long enough to provide differing styles within their own work.

UW Symphony violins 2015

UW Symphony Strings cellos

What can you tell us about the work by Stravinsky (below)?

Stravinsky’s earliest works were late Romantic, then, with pulsing rhythms, sometimes called primitive; later there was neo-Classicism, and 12-tone, etc.  If forced to choose a title, I would call “Symphony of Psalms” a mixture of the primitive and the Romantic.

What makes it Romantic is the writing for the choir, which entails long lines, some stunning dynamic changes from loud to soft, and a pure, almost disembodied gentle melody at the end.

What makes it Primitive is the pulsing rhythms in the orchestra in movement III and the unexpected chord interpolations in the first.

What makes it clever intellectually is the difficult, jagged but fascinating double fugue in the second movement; and what makes it a wonderful sonic treat is the elimination of Violin I, II and Viola in favor of FIVE flutes, FIVE oboes, FOUR bassoons, FOUR horns, FIVE trumpets, THREE trombones TWO pianos, ONE harp and ONE tuba, some cellos, double basses and a partridge in a pear tree.

When you get four flutes and a piccolo, playing sometimes a half-step apart, you set up weird shimmering overtones.  It’s fascinating to hear, although I may be deaf after the concert from being so close to them.

Igor Stravinsky young with score 2

What about the work by Poulenc (below top)?

I wanted to contrast the modern instrumentation of the pulsing rhythms of Stravinsky with an equally interesting 20th-century work with a different flavor.

What makes Poulenc’s “Gloria” (heard in a YouTube video at the bottom) hard to sing is what we hear all the time in popular music — the major seventh chord — think C, E, G and B natural.  For performers, singing C’s against B’s can be hard to tune, but the chords are closely allied with jazz and the piano bar!  And the piano was Poulenc’s composing instrument.

With long lines in the strings, we are treated to the lushest of lines in the third, fifth and sixth movements. The first movement is regally strong; the second and fourth are playful.

Our wonderful soprano soloist, Tyana O’Connor, sings gorgeously in three of the movements, both powerfully direct, and then in soft floating sounds.

Francis Poulenc

And the work by Vaughan Williams?

I chose the Vaughan Williams for its length, its instrumentation (lots for the upper strings, which weren’t playing in the Stravinsky, and nice parts for the harps that we have already playing in the Poulenc and Stravinsky) and its buoyant, positive nature as an opening to our concert.

Vaughan Williams (below) wrote it while he was fairly young, as occasional music to a production of Aristophanes’ play “The Wasps.” He makes a nod to “The Wasps” in the form of a string buzz in the opening and toward the end. But for the most part the overture is formed of two tunes — a perky, angular march and a warm, lush tune aligned with English folksong.  These tunes are presented separately and then combined.

By choosing three different flavors of 20th-century music, I hope to present a balanced evening with appeal to everyone.

Ralph Vaughan Williamsjpg

Have steep budget cuts to the UW-Madison hurt the Choral Union? Do such cuts affect your ability to hire guest soloists? Do they account for the reduction in performances? Do they alter the repertoire that you can do?

Yes, they have hurt the Choral Union in certain ways, although I don’t think our excellence will be any the less.

Without the availability of some discretionary concert funds, we have had to increase some fees for members, and we have had to postpone some special works that might include high rentals of materials or special instruments or another venue to perform in.

We sometimes program using the great soloists available to us from our faculty and graduate students, and save funds for when we need to hire a professional voice that we don’t have. With more money we might do that more often, but we are lucky to have gifted people within our reach.

Good classical music has costs that the public often doesn’t know about — high costs for copyrighted parts and scores (below) for recent works, and specialty instruments such as viols or oboes d’amore and portative organs for early music.

Beethoven Symphony 5 score

What else would you like to say?

I’m so glad you asked me to write.  Although this concert by the Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra is a ticketed event, the great majority of our concerts are FREE.

We encourage listeners of all types and generations to TRY to listen to something new and LIVE, and perhaps in a different genre than they’ve ever tried before.

 


Classical music: Puccini’s gift for heart-touching melody allows both beginners and veterans to connect with his timeless operas in a way that has been largely lost in contemporary music, says John DeMain. He will conduct the Madison Opera’s production of La Bohème this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

November 12, 2015
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

On this Friday night, Nov. 13, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 15, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center for the Arts, the Madison Opera will perform its production of Giacomo Puccini’s evergreen “La Bohème.”

The opera will be sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Tickets are $18 to $129 and are available from the Overture Center Box Office (608) 258-4141 or from www.madisonopera.org. Student and group discounts are available.

Puccini’s classic opera tells of the lives, loves and losses of a group of young artists in a bohemian quarter of Paris.

La Bohème has been an audience favorite since its first performance on Feb. 1, 1896 ( below is the original poster from 1896 by Adolfo Hohenstein) at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, and is performed by opera companies around the world.

Its popularity over the past century is undiminished and its ravishing score has inspired generations of artists, including the composer Jonathan Larson, who used it as the basis for his award-winning 1996 musical “Rent,” and Baz Lurhmann, director of the 2001 movie “Moulin Rouge.” It also played a pivotal role in the movie “Moonstruck” with Cher and Nicholas Cage.

La Boheme 1896 poster by Adolfo Hohenstein

For more information about the Madison Opera’s production and cast, read the Q&A that The Ear did with Kathryn Smith, the general director of the Madison Opera. Here is a link:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/11/09/classical-music-puccini-was-a-master-crafter-of-drama-says-kathryn-smith-the-madison-operas-stages-its-production-of-la-boheme-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon/

By The Ear’s reckoning, John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), has spent close to 50 years in opera. He is the artistic director of the Madison Opera and music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and will conduct the singers, orchestra and choruses for the two performances of “La Bohème.”

He graciously agreed to share his experience and knowledge in an email Q&A with The Ear:

John DeMain full face by Prasad

What about the story makes “La Bohème” such an enduring classic for both first-timers and veterans?

First of all, it’s a love story involving young adults trying to make it through their young years living from hand to mouth. They are college or post-college age, and are living life on the edge, enjoying great camaraderie, as college roommates enjoy to this day.

We have all lived through the tragedy of disease or plagues affecting various parts of the world in our own time. Mimi has tuberculosis, and we have seen how HIV/AIDS, SARS and Ebola have taken young lives in our own time, robbing people of the chance to live out their lives and loves. So, there is always some part of a story like this for people, both old and young, to connect with.

And what about the same aspect in the music?

Once we enter into the world of Italian “verismo,”or realism, we basically have music that is timeless. The music vividly underscores the action of the drama in great detail from moment to moment.

The interplay of the various leitmotifs manipulates our emotions, leading us to enjoy a good laugh at the interplay of the guys, or Musetta’s outrageous carrying on to make her “ex” jealous and win Marcello back. Then the music engages us in the great sadness of losing Mimi to her disease and robbing Rodolfo of his loved one ( in the final scene below from a production by the Houston Grand Opera, which John DeMain used to head before coming to Madison).

Our great film composers and composers of musical theater all learned from Puccini how to connect the emotions of the drama to the music and vice-versa.

HGO La Boheme

HGO La Boheme

Is Puccini’s reputation as a serious and innovative opera composer, not just a popular one, being reexamined and revised upward in recent years?

Puccini’s output as a composer was limited both in scope and in number. He focused primarily on opera and gave us 12 works in that form. To this day, La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, Turandot and Tosca remain in the top echelon of opera’s most popular works.

Puccini (below) labored over each of his operas for long periods of time, rewriting to get these pieces as close as possible to perfection, creating librettos and music that soars emotionally, melodically and harmonically. His Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West), Turandot and even parts of Butterfly are great examples of Italian Impressionism.

But while Bohème has a few touches of impressionistic harmony, most of the opera stays within a late Romantic harmonic vocabulary.

I think we appreciate more than ever Puccini’s capacity to write unforgettable melody that goes to the very core of our being. Indeed, we lament that most contemporary scores can’t achieve that, and therefore, they don’t have the same relationship with our audiences today. (You can hear that in the arias sung by Luciano Pavarotti and Fiamma Izzo in a YouTube video at the bottom. Listen for when the audience applauds Pavarotti singing a high C.)

puccini at piano

Are there special things you would like the public to know about this particular production? Do you have comments about the concept and cast, sets and costumes?

I would like to encourage people who have never been to an opera to come and see La Bohème. There are still people out there who don’t know that we have English titles over the stage that simultaneously translate the opera into English.

The acts are not long, the drama flows at almost the same rate of time as it would if it were just spoken without music. And the young stunning cast we have assembled will thrill young and old alike.

This, like Carmen or Madama Butterfly, is the perfect opera for a first-timer. For the rest of us, it is a chance to thrill once again to one of the most beautiful scores ever composed for the operatic stage.

 


Classical music: Puccini was a master crafter of drama, says Kathryn Smith. The Madison Opera stages its production of “La Bohème” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

November 9, 2015
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Anyone want to bet that it qualifies as almost everyone’s first and still favorite opera?

On Friday night, Nov. 13, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 15, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center for the Arts, the Madison Opera will perform its production of Giacomo Puccini’s evergreen “La Bohème.”

The opera will be sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Tickets are $18 to $129 and are available from the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141 or from www.madisonopera.org. Student and group discounts are available.

The classic opera by Puccini (below) tells of the lives, loves and losses of a group of young artists in a bohemian quarter of Paris.

puccini at piano

On Christmas Eve, the poet Rodolfo and the artist Marcello burn pages from Rodolfo’s latest drama, trying to stay warm in their garret. They are joined by their roommates, Colline and Schaunard, and head out to celebrate at Café Momus.

Staying behind, Rodolfo answers a knock on the door and meets his new neighbor, a seamstress named Mimi. The two fall instantly in love, and the opera charts the course of their relationship, as friendship, poverty, and illness intersect in what has often been called “the greatest love story ever sung.”

La Bohème is simply perfect,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s General Director. “The passionate music is perfectly matched to the very emotionally true story of young people dealing with life in all of its happiness and sorrow. Bohème never ages and is perfect for both opera newcomers and opera omnivores.”

La Bohème has been an audience favorite since its first performance on Feb. 1, 1896 at the Teatro Regio in Turn, Italy, and is performed by opera companies around the world. Its popularity over the past century is undiminished and its ravishing score has inspired generations of artists, including the composer Jonathan Larson, who used it as the basis for his award-winning 1996 musical Rent, and Baz Lurhmann, director of the 2001 movie Moulin Rouge. It also played a pivotal role in the movie “Moonstruck” with Cher and Nicholas Cage.

“La Bohème is one of the reasons I fell in love with opera and wanted to become an opera conductor,” says John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), Madison Opera’s Artistic Director and conductor. “It has glorious lyricism, engaging and ultimately gripping theater, and is sumptuously written for the orchestra. It is a perfect specimen.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The cast features a mixture of returning Madison Opera artists and debuts.

Following her performance at Opera in the Park 2015, Eleni Calenos (below) makes her main stage debut as the seamstress Mimi, a role she has previously performed at Palm Beach Opera.

Palm Beach Opera "La Boheme" dress rehearsal Thursday, January 15, 2015.

Palm Beach Opera “La Boheme” dress rehearsal Thursday, January 15, 2015.

Making their Madison Opera debuts are Mackenzie Whitney (below) in the role of the enamored poet Rodolfo and Dan Kempson, singing the role of his friend and artist Marcello. Whitney recently sang in Rappacini’s Daughter with Des Moines Metro Opera; Kempson has recently sung with Santa Fe Opera and Fort Worth Opera.

Mackenzie Whitney La Boheme

The other bohemian friends are played by faces familiar to the Madison Opera audience. UW-Madison alumna Emily Birsan (below) sings Musetta, Marcello’s on-and-off again lover, a role she just performed at Boston Lyric Opera.

Emily Birsan MSO 2014

Liam Moran returns as the philosopher Colline, following his performance as Don Fernando in last season’s Fidelio. Alan Dunbar (below, in a photo by Roy Heilman), last seen here in The Barber of Seville, sings Schaunard. They are joined by Evan Ross, debuting with Madison Opera as Benoit and Alcindoro.

Alan Dunbar CR Roy Heilman

This traditional staging is directed by David Lefkowich, who directed The Daughter of the Regiment for Madison Opera.

David Lefkowich 2013

Madison Opera’s general manager Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) generously answered an email Q&A for The Ear:

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

What about the story makes “La Bohème” such an enduring classic for both first-timers and veterans?

The story is such a universal one that it is instantly relatable for opera newcomers, but still carries an emotional immediacy for those who have seen it before. A group of 20-something friends struggle financially, have fun together, fall in love, break up and deal with illness and death – this is a story that plays out in real life every day. As audience members, I think we grow with La Bohème: what moves you the most when you are 23 years old might be Act III; later in life, Act IV might strike a stronger chord.

And what about the same aspect in the music?

Puccini’s music is so emotional and melodic that it appeals to every ear, and it is so perfectly tied to the story that it is impossible to separate the two. “O Soave Fanciulla” could only be a love duet, and the heartbreak of Mimi’s phrase, “Addio, senza rancor” sums up every painful romantic breakup in just a few notes. (You can hear soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Rolando Villazon sing “O Soave Fanciulla” in a concert version at the bottom in a YouTube video.) 

Is Puccini’s reputation as a serious and innovative opera composer, not just a popular one, being reexamined and revised upward in recent years?

I think that may be a question for critics and academics! In our world – the performance world – Puccini has always been highly regarded, as his shows have been wildly successful with audiences, regardless of what critics or other composers might write. “La Bohème” was definitely harshly criticized when it was new, with phrases like “musical degradation” tossed about, but it has been one of the most performed operas around the world ever since.

What do you think is the most overlooked or underrated aspect of “La Bohème” and of Puccini in general?

I think people overlook how tight the dramaturgy is. There is not one page of Bohème that could be removed without having the entire structure collapse. Most 19th-century operas can — and do —  benefit from cuts, but Puccini doesn’t waste time, either musically or dramatically. In addition, the music really illustrates the story. There are specific moments where the music tells us what happens on stage, and as long as you obey the music, the story will work.

Are there special things you would like the public to know about this particular production? Do you have comments about the concept and cast, sets and costumes?

This is a traditional production, but that doesn’t mean it looks exactly like every other La Bohème, as every cast and director brings their own ideas and chemistry to the mix.

We have a spectacular young cast who are perfectly matched with each other and will bring this classic story to vivid life.

We have two exciting debuts, with Mackenzie Whitney as Rodolfo and Dan Kempson as Marcello.

Returning to us are Eleni Calenos (Mimì), who sang at Opera in the Park last summer; Emily Birsan (Musetta), who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and who last sang with us in 2010; Alan Dunbar (Schaunard), who was last in Rossini’s Barber of Seville; and Liam Moran (Colline), who debuted in Beethoven’s Fidelio last fall.

Add in our wonderful Madison Opera Chorus, the Madison Youth Choirs and the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and it will be a musical and dramatic feast.

 


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