The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Tales of Hoffmann” proved a musical and theatrical delight from beginning to end. Plus, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble performs Saturday night

April 22, 2016
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ALERT: This Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Gates of Heaven Synagogue, 300 East Gorham Street in James Madison Park, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble will perform a concert of music by Claudio Monteverdi, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann, Francois Couperin and others. Tickets at the door are $20 for the public, $10 for students. A free reception with the musicians follows at 2422 Kendall Avenue, second floor. For more information about the performers and the program, visit www.wisconsinbaroque.org

By Jacob Stockinger

Editor’s note: The Ear’s good friend and knowledgeable classical music fan Larry Wells offered the following review of last weekend’s production of Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” by the Madison Opera. Production photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.

By Larry Wells

I had been looking forward to Madison Opera’s production of “The Tales of Hoffmann” by Jacques Offenbach (below) ever since it was announced.

Jacques Offenbach seated

The opera is a particular favorite of mine, and I’ve seen a number of productions in larger houses, most recently in Tokyo and most memorably a production at the San Francisco Opera 30 years ago with Placido Domingo and James Morris.

I was interested to see how Madison Opera would approach this somewhat theatrically difficult work, and Sunday’s performance was a delight from beginning to end.

First, the singing.

The cast was consistently strong, and each singer could be mentioned in a positive vein. So, I single out three who particularly stood out.

The star of the show, for me, was coloratura soprano Jeni Hauser (below, center, in white) as Olympia, the doll. Her vocal pyrotechnics were sensational. She would be a wonderful Zerbinetta, and I would enjoy seeing her tackle Baby Doe. She is a very funny physical comic actress, and she was simply wonderful.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Doll Olympia Jeni Hauser CR James Gill

Morgan Smith (below) as Hoffmann’s four nemeses was excellent possessing a strong, deep bass-baritone. As a side note, he is the second singer I’ve seen and heard recently in Wisconsin who will be featured in Tucson Opera’s upcoming premiere of “Riders of the Purple Sage,” the other being Keith Phares who was in Florentine Opera’s recent production of Jake Heggie’s “Three Decembers.” It will be conducted by Keitaro Harada, who is a talent to watch.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Morgan Smith CR James Gill

The third standout was mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala (below) as Hoffmann’s Muse and attendant. She was outstanding vocally and fun to watch.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Adriana Zabala The Muse JAMES GILL

Hoffmann was sung by tenor Harold Meers (below right, in suit).  For an exhausting role, Meers toughed it out and, when singing full voice, was resonant and lyrical.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Harold Meers on right CR James Gill

The production was set in a well-stocked bar, and Hoffmann’s series of bad choices in love appeared fueled by alcohol.

Madison Opera Hoffmann set CR James Gill

The set, from the Virginia Opera, and costumes were dazzling, particularly in the Giulietta act, which in a departure from the productions I’ve seen, was the third act. I felt that the change of the order of the acts made a lot of sense dramatically.

And I loved the use by stage director Kristine McIntyre of the Roaring Twenties theme – flappers and Charlestons, along with gondolas, fog and a bit of German Expressionism. Total fun.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Gondola CR James Gill

Madison Opera Hoffmann Morgan Smith in cape CR James Gill

The Madison Symphony Orchestra was excellent throughout, and Maestro John DeMain is a treasure whom Madison is extremely fortunate to have. His sense of timing and dynamics is a wonder.

My favorite moment of the opera is the ensemble in the Giulietta scene “Hélas Mon Coeur,” and its performance Sunday nearly brought me to tears. In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear that music performed by Placido Domingo and the remarkable Agnes Baltsa.

So, bravo Madison Opera, for a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon at the opera. I heard several people say that it was a long one — three hours — but for me the time flew.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Since reviews are subjective, for purposes of comparison here is a link to John W. Barker’s rave review that just appeared in Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/arts/stage/tales-of-hoffman-madison-opera/

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Classical music: Jacques Offenbach’s fantastical masterpiece “The Tales of Hoffmann” will be performed by Madison Opera on Friday night and Sunday afternoon. Here is Part 1 of a two-part preview

April 12, 2016
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ALERT: The concert by the UW-Madison Contemporary Chamber Ensemble that was scheduled for this Saturday has been CANCELED due to illness.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friends at the Madison Opera write:

Madison Opera will present two performances of  “The Tales of Hoffmann” by French composer Jacques Offenbach (below) this weekend.

Jacques Offenbach

The production will be performed in Overture Hall of the Overture Center on Friday at 8 p.m. and on
 Sunday at 2:30 p.m. It will be sung in French with projected English translations.

Tickets are $18-$129. Student and group discounts are available. Tickets can be purchased at the Overture Box Office, 201 State St., Madison, and by calling (608) 258-4141 or visiting www.madisonopera.org

This will be the company’s first production in 20 years of Offenbach’s masterpiece, which moves in a fantasy world. It offers showpiece arias for the bravura cast, the gorgeous “Barcarolle,” and a moving tribute to what it means to be an artist. (You can hear the famous and familiar Barcarolle in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

THE STORY

As he sits in a tavern, the poet Hoffmann drinks, smokes and encounters Lindorf, his rival for his current lover, the opera singer Stella.

He recalls how his nemesis seems to appear constantly in his life, and urged on by his fellow bar patrons, tells the three tales of his loves: Olympia, who turns out to be a mechanical doll; Antonia, a singer who dies of a mysterious illness; and Giulietta, a courtesan who steals his reflection. His adventures take him from Munich to Venice, always accompanied by his most faithful love, his muse.

The opera ends back in the tavern, as Hoffmann’s muse consoles him and urges him on to the higher purpose of art.

Madison Opera Hoffmann set 2

PRAISE AND BACKGROUND

“The Tales of Hoffmann is one of my absolute favorite operas,” says Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill), the general director of Madison Opera. “I love the music, the story, the myriad facets to the characters, and the fact that no two productions of this opera are identical. It has comedy, tragedy, drinking songs, lyrical arias, and even some magic tricks.”

Offenbach’s final opera, “The Tales of Hoffmann” premiered in 1881 at the Opera-Comique in Paris. The title character was based on the writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, now most famous as the author of the original “Nutcracker” story; the different acts were adaptations of Hoffmann’s own short stories.

Offenbach was celebrated for over 100 comic operettas such as “Orpheus in the Underworld”; “Hoffmann” was intended to be his first grand opera. Unfortunately, he died before completing the opera, and other composers finished it. Over the past century, there have been many different versions of the opera, with different arias, different plot points, and even different orders of the acts.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

“The Tales of Hoffmann, for me, is the perfect blend of great music and
 great theater,” says John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), the artistic director of Madison Opera and the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. “It’s particularly fun to conduct because the orchestra plays a central role in
the moment to moment unfolding of the drama, and Offenbach achieves this at the same time as he is spinning out one gorgeous melody after another.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

THE CAST

Madison Opera’s cast features a quartet of debuts in the leading roles. Harold Meers (below), who sang at Opera in the Park in 2015, makes his mainstage debut as Hoffmann, the poet.

Harold Meers

Sian Davies (bel0w) makes her debut singing three of Hoffmann’s loves – Antonia, Giulietta and Stella – a true vocal and dramatic feat. Jeni Houser returns to Madison Opera following her most recent role as Amy in Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” to sing the role of his fourth love, Olympia. She has also appeared here in George Frideric Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” and Stephan Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.”

Sian Davies

Baritone Morgan Smith makes his debut as Hoffmann’s nemesis, who appears in forms both sinister and comic.

Making her debut as Hoffmann’s sidekick Nicklausse, who also turns out to be his Muse, is mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala.

Returning to Madison Opera as the four servants is Jared Rogers, who sang Beadle Bamford in Stephen Sondheim‘s “Sweeney Todd.” Thomas Forde, last here as Don Basilio in Giaocchino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” sings the dual roles of Luther and Crespel. Robert Goderich, who sang Pirelli in “Sweeney Todd,” sings Spalanzani, the mad inventor. Tyler Alessi makes his debut as Schlemil.

Three Madison Opera Studio Artists round out the cast: Kelsey Park as the voice of Antonia’s dead mother and William Ottow and Nathaniel Hill as two students.

SETTING

Madison Opera’s production is set in the Roaring 1920s, with stylish costumes that are perfect for Offenbach’s fantasy that travels time and location.

Madison Opera Hoffmann set 3

Kristine McIntyre (below), who directed Jake Heggie‘s “Dead Man Walking” and Giuseppe Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” for Madison Opera, stages this complex story that has a vast dramatic scope.

Kristine McIntyre 2016

Tomorrow: Artistic and music director John DeMain and stage director Kristine McIntyre address the differences between the reputation and the reality of “The Tales of Hoffman.”


New Life for “The Great Gatsby”: John Harbison’s “Roaring ‘20s” opera has its European premiere this month in Dresden, Germany

December 5, 2015
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s good friend, Sarah Schaffer, who works with composer John Harbison, writes:

Many Madisonians were among those who travelled to New York City in 1999 for the world premiere of John Harbison’s opera, “The Great Gatsby,” which is based on the iconic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald and which was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in celebration of renowned conductor James Levine’s 25th anniversary there. (Below, from the original production, are the late tenor Jerry Hadley as Jay Gatsby and soprano Dawn Upshaw as Daisy Buchanan.)

Harbison Great Gatsby Gatbsy (Hadley) and Daisy (Upshaw)

The work has since been presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, in Boston and at Tanglewood by Emmanuel Music, and, in a reduced orchestra chamber version, by Opera Parallele in San Francisco and at the Aspen Music Festival.

A suite from the opera, commissioned by conductor David Zinman, was performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under Maestro John DeMain here in 2010.

And of course, John Harbison and his wife, violinist Rose Mary Harbison, are best known in Madison as the artistic directors of the fiercely imaginative annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, held in their refurbished barn near Sun Prairie just before Labor Day each summer.

John and Rose Mary Harbison Katrin Talbot

Now, the first European performance of “The Great Gatsby” will take place at Semperoper (below) in Dresden, Germany from this Sunday, Dec. 6, through Dec. 21. It will be presented in English, with German surtitles.

semperoper dresden exter

Semperoper interior

Preceding the first performance, Semperoper is offering a preview event where two film versions of “The Great Gatsby” will be shown: the 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow; and the 2013 Baz Luhrman version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan.

According to Semperoper, “The opera blends modern classical music with jazz and swing to paint a thrilling portrait of a debauched and decadent society, where double standards clash with idealism. European audiences can now enjoy this work for the first time.”

John Harbison directing Gatsby

Wayne Marshall is music director, Keith Warner stage director, with dramaturgy by Stefan Ulrich, and set design by the late John Engels, whose stunning and evocative work was seen last spring in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of The Passenger, Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s powerful opera about how the horrors of Auschwitz impact people’s lives in the present.

Wayne Marshall, renowned interpreter of the works of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington and other 20th-century American composers, serves as music director.

In making a new production of The Great Gatsby, Director Keith Warner does not adopt an “update” strategy, often seen in recent European productions.  Instead he goes directly to the period, the American mid-1920s, making its excesses, its excitements, and its cloak of impending doom the essential color of the opera. (below is the party scene.)

Harbison Great Gatsby Party Scene

In the upcoming Dresden production, tenor Peter Lodahl makes his Semperoper debut in the role of Jay Gatsby. For more information, visit: www.peterlodahl.co

Daisy Buchanan will be performed by soprano Maria Bengtsson. For more information, visit: www.mariabengtsson.com

A complete cast list and production personnel can be found at https://www.semperoper.de/en/whats-on/schedule/stid/Gatsby/60545.html

A brief video regarding the launching of Gatsby at Semperopera can be found at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7x_dVimgYg

While not without its detractors, over the years and through its many productions Gatsby has garnered significant praise from some of the most respected critics and publications.

With such an iconic and thoroughly American novel, story and music as its origin and soundscape, it will be fascinating to see what kind of reception Gatsby’s eagerly anticipated European premiere will garner across the pond.

Harbison Great Gatsby 2

Europeans, very conversant with the Fitzgerald novel, tend to emphasize the role of class more than American readers.  Warner uses a number of theatrical devices to starkly outline the attitudes and surroundings of the Wilsons, the working-class couple so crucial to conflicts within the story.

The racist and elitist rants of Tom Buchanan, perhaps more comfortably folded into his familiar character by American fans of the book, emerge in stark outline in Warner’s conception.

 


Classical music: On Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m., SoundWaves moves to Mills Hall to present a FREE and PUBLIC discussion and performance of inventions and music from the 1920s.

October 20, 2015
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Daniel Grabois (below, in a photo by James Gill), a professor of horn at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and a friend of The Ear, writes:

Daniel Grabois 2012 James Gill

I’m not sure if you know about my FREE and PUBLIC series SoundWaves. But I’d like to tell you about it because we have our first-ever presentation in the UW-Madison School of Music next week. It is part of the statewide Wisconsin Science Festival.

The basic idea is this: I choose a theme and get four scientists from different disciplines (or sometimes academics from the humanities) to explore the theme — for the layman — in short 15-minute talks.

I then give a short talk about the theme as it relates to music.

Then, there’s a related music performance.

To make this concrete for you, our program coming up is about The Roaring ’20s.

Now in its fourth year, the SoundWaves series is underwritten by Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF, below with founder Prof. Harry Steenbock), which is celebrating its 90th anniversary. So it seemed fitting to explore the decade of its creation for our first event of the year.

Harry Steenbock WARF bldg

Accordingly, we will have a historian of science speaking about Vitamin D, which was discovered and synthesized by Steenbock,  explaining things like “What the hell IS a vitamin, anyway?”

Vitamin D

Then, a dermatologist will talk about bandaids (invented in 1920). Kids love them, but do they work? How? Why does someone invent a bandaid?

bandaid

Next, a law professor will discuss the lie detector, also invented in 1920. We see them on cop shows, but do they work? Is their evidence admissible in court? How do they work?

lie detector

Then, an industrial engineer will speak about automotive breakthroughs from the 1920s that have shaped our driving experience. Power steering, the traffic light, the car radio (invented by Motorola, hence the “motor” in the company name) — all were invented in the 1920s and all have had a broad impact on cars and driving today.

traffic light

Then I’ll be talking about music of the 1920s. I’m particularly interested in what was then the recent invention of the 12-tone system by Arnold Schoenberg (below). If you are a composer, how on earth do you respond to that? Do you reject it, and if so, what do you do instead? How is the musical aesthetic reshaped by such a radical (and difficult to listen to) idea?

Arnold Schoenberg 1936

At the end, there will be a performance of the String Quartet No. 1 (subtitled “Kreutzer Sonata,” based on the short story by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy) by Czech composer Leos Janacek (below top), written in 1923, played by the Rhapsodie String Quartet (below bottom, in a photo by Greg Anderson), made of Madison Symphony Orchestra players including Suzanne Beia, our own second violinist of the Pro Arte Quartet. (You can hear it in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Leos Janacek

Rhapsodie Quartet MSO Greg Anderson

We’ve been getting around 175 people for our programs at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, including lots of people who come back over and over.

For me, doing this series is hugely stimulating — being able to collaborate across traditionally rigid academic boundaries is one of the reasons I was excited to come to Madison.

Here are the specifics:

Date: This Saturday, Oct. 24, at 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Speakers and performers:

Kevin Walters, WARF historian-in-residence

Klint Peebles, Department of Dermatology

Keith Findley, UW Law School

John Lee, Department of Industrial Engineering

Daniel Grabois, School of Music and SoundWaves curator

Rhapsodie String Quartet

For more information, visit:

http://discovery.wisc.edu/home/town-center/programs–events/soundwaves/soundwaves.cmsx

Sales pitch over!

Hope to see you there.

 


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