The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: In Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” the Madison Opera demonstrated how beautiful music and convincing stagecraft can overcome a weak story

May 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of “Rusalka” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Sunday afternoon performance of Antonin Dvorak’s opera “Rusalka” presented by Madison Opera in Overture Hall. Until then I had only heard recordings of this lushly orchestrated work.

The opera is a fairy tale involving a rather dithering water sprite (below right) who does not follow her father’s wise advice not to pursue a mortal prince (below left) and to stick to her own kind. She ignores his advice, and this leads to her eventual unhappiness and to the death of her prince.

That she also becomes mute when in the presence of the prince adds to everyone’s woes, and it seems a peculiar device to have the lead soprano not be able to sing for most of the second act of the opera.

Her inability to communicate naturally leads to the prince’s frustration, and my companion suggested that she could simply have used paper and pencil to communicate. But since she had been brought up in a river, perhaps she never learned to read and write.

Nevertheless, common sense did not seem to inhabit either Rusalka or her prince. As my companion also pointed out, love isn’t always logical.

In any event, the production and the music made up for the libretto’s shortcomings.

The set featured beautiful projections, from the Minnesota Opera, of forest, water and woodlands during the first and third acts.

The second act took place at the prince’s palace. It appeared to be an International Style palace in the manner of architect Mies van de Rohe, which must have also been disconcerting for Rusalka. Nonetheless, the set was very striking and beautifully lit.

Tenor John Lindsey (below top) portrayed the prince and William Meinert (below bottom left, with Emily Birsan) was Rusalka’s father, a water goblin. Both sang well, although Lindsey had the distracting habit of casting his chin and eyes downward as he sang.


But the stage belonged to the women.

Emily Birsan (below) as Rusalka was a study in subtle shadings of her expressive soprano voice (below, singing the famous  aria “Song to the Moon”). She is a powerful singer and convincing actress who was engaging to watch and to hear.

Lindsay Ammann (below) as the sorceress Jezibaba was powerful in voice and in her command of the stage. Her third act aria was sensational, and her calling Rusalka a “empty little water bubble” was so apt it made the audience titter.

The villainous Foreign Princess portrayed by Karin Wolverton (below, standing over John Lindsey) seemed to be the only sensible character in the opera. She likewise commanded the stage and displayed a powerful voice with passionate commitment to her role.

Three water sprites – portrayed by Kirsten Larson, Saira Frank and Emily Secor (below, in order from left) – provided Rhine maiden-like commentary and gorgeous vocalizations despite having to wander around the stage at times seeming to be fascinated by twigs.

A shout-out goes to tenor Benjamin Liupaogo (below), still a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, who only sang a couple of lines but sang them very beautifully. He is someone to watch!

The Madison Symphony Orchestra was conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). The strings and winds sounded particularly good that day, and DeMain brought out all of the interesting Bohemian folky gestures Dvorak included in the score. I found Dvorak’s orchestral score engaging throughout the performance. (You can hear the opening Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Altogether it was charming afternoon of beautiful music, excellent singing and fetching staging of a strange tale.

Madison Opera has announced its upcoming season offerings, which are Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” (Nov. 1 and 3), Gregory Spears’ “Fellow Travelers” (here Feb. 7 and 9, it has already hit Chicago and Minneapolis and is slated for Tucson next season as well), and Jacques Offenbach’s comic “Orpheus in the Underworld” (April 17 and 19).

It seems a very interesting season, and subscription tickets will go on sale in early May. For more information, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org


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Classical music: This Wednesday night, the Middleton Community Orchestra will perform a Russian trumpet concert and a new work by an orchestra member along with a famous Schumann symphony

February 24, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a  photo by Brian Ruppert) to post:

“For our winter concert, we are excited to welcome trumpeter Jessica Jensen back to the stage on this Wednesday night, Feb. 27, at 7:30 p.m. to perform the Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra by Aleksandra Pakhmutova with the musicians of the Middleton Community Orchestra led by conductor Steve Kurr (below).

“I am beyond thrilled to be playing Aleksandra Pakhmutova’s Trumpet Concerto with the Middleton Community Orchestra,” says Jensen (below).

“After completing her concerto in 1955, Pakhmutova (below) — who is still actively composing and performing today at the age of 89 — cultivated a legendary career as one of Russia’s top film and popular music composers.

“Her future cinematic success was foreshadowed in her trumpet concerto as parts of it sound as though they could have been taken directly out of the score to a 1950s film. Week after week the MCO adds a new electricity to the work. I cannot wait to share this rarely performed fiery, dramatic piece with everyone.”

The program will open with “Polar Nights,” a piece composed by MCO violist Nebojsa Macura (below), who says: “‘Polar Nights’ uses a variety of instrumental colors to conjure up images of winter above the Arctic Circle. I’m tremendously honored to perform my own piece as a member of such a dedicated orchestra.”

The program will conclude with the famous Symphony No. 3 “Rhenish” by Robert Schumann. (You can hear the lyrical second movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The concert is at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, which is attached to Middleton High School at 2100 Bristol Street.

General admission is $15.  All students are admitted free of charge. Tickets are available at the door and at Willy St. Coop West.

The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and the concert hall doors open at 7 p.m.

A meet-and-greet reception (below) follows the concert.


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Classical music: TONIGHT through Sunday night, the Ancora String Quartet reprises the program it just performed on a 10-day tour of Germany

September 4, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ancora String Quartet (below, in a photo by Barry Lewis) has sent the following announcement about its upcoming concerts in Wisconsin – including two in Madison – that will reprise the group’s recent tour to Germany.

Members are (below, from left) violinist Wes Luke, violinist Robin Ryan, violist Marika Fischer Hoyt; and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb.

“The Ancora String Quartet (below, rehearsing in Nieder-Olm during the tour) is fresh back from Germany, our first overseas tour, which we called “Deutsch-Amerikanische “Träume,” or “German-American Dreams.”

“We are partnering with a wonderful mezzo-soprano, Melinda Paulsen, who serves on the voice faculty at the Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Frankfurt, Germany.

“Together, we have prepared a program of works by German and American composers, for string quartet, and for mezzo-soprano and quartet.

“We spent 10 fabulous days in Germany in August of 2018, performing at town halls, concert halls, churches, and a music school, in Nieder-Olm, Frankfurt, Vellmar, Schlitz and St. Goar on the Rhine. It was wonderful and we can’t wait to go back again in future years.

“We are back in Madison now with Melinda, to perform this same program in concert venues around the state of Wisconsin.

“We are grateful for funding from several German organizations, and from the Kassel-Dane Sister County Task Force.

“Melinda and the members of this quartet (below, in Schlitz) are thrilled that this project has taken shape, are pleased with our recent reception in Germany, and look forward to sharing with Wisconsin audiences a program exploring the intersections between two cultures that are quite distinct today, but which share deep, common roots.”

Here is the “German-American Dreams” Tour, Sept. 4-9, at venues in Wisconsin

Admission is FREE except where noted

  • TONIGHT, Tuesday, Sept. 4, at 7 p.m. at Capitol Lakes Grand Hall, Madison
  • Wednesday, Sept. 5 at noon on The Midday on Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison and at 6 p.m. at Germantown Community Library, Germantown
  • Thursday, Sept. 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the Light Recital Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. For ticket information, go to: https://mastercal.uww.edu/MasterCalendar/EventDetails.aspx?data=hHr80o3M7J72xlWbKk4NucsOjgrgFcp7yGVHvRRLZ2VDe4XLariznlZrFvCFdeeY
  • Friday, Sept. 7, at 7:30 p.m. at the Janesville Women’s Club
  • Saturday, Sept. 8, at 7:30 p.m. at the Eaton Chapel, Beloit College
  • Sunday, Sept. 9, at 7:30 p.m. at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Madison. Admission is $15.

PROGRAM

“Dover Beach” by Samuel Barber

Drei Lieder (Three Songs) by Viktor Ullmann

“Melancholia,” Op. 13, by Paul Hindemith

Intermission

Quartet in B Minor, Op. 11, by Samuel Barber (with the more transparent slow movement that later became the orchestral “Adagio for Strings,” heard in the YouTube video at the bottom)

“Wesendonck” Lieder, WWV 91 (arranged by Stefan Heucke) by Richard Wagner


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