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
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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.

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Classical music: The Madison Opera stages Bizet’s “Carmen” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon

October 31, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will perform Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” this Friday night, Nov. 3, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 5, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street. (Below is the set from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City that is being used for the production.)

Tickets are $18-$130. (See below for details.)

With some of the most famous music in opera, Bizet’s passionate work is a vivid story of love, jealousy and betrayal.

Set in 19th-century Seville, Spain, the opera follows a gypsy determined to live life on her own terms – whatever her fate may be.

On a break from her shift at the cigarette factory, Carmen tosses a flower at a corporal named Don José, who ignores her advances. Only after Carmen is arrested and placed in José’s custody does he begin to fall for her, breaking the law and abandoning his hometown sweetheart.

What follows is a torrid love affair of passion, agonizing rage, and fanatical desire that will change their lives forever.

“Carmen is the reason I run an opera company,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director (below, in a photo by James Gill).  “I fell in love with opera as a teenager in the children’s chorus of a ‘Carmen’ production, as its incredible score and intense story hooked me immediately – not to mention the sheer excitement of having principal artists, chorus, children’s chorus, dancers, and orchestra all come together to create this astonishing world.  I am so delighted to produce ‘Carmen’ in Madison, with this spectacular cast and production team.”

At the premiere of “Carmen” in Paris on March 3, 1875, audiences were shocked at its characters’ apparent lack of morality and virtue, and critics derided Bizet’s music. (You can hear the ever-popular Toreador Song in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Three months after the opera’s premiere, Bizet died of heart disease. He was only 36 years old and would never know that his “flop” of an opera would become a global sensation over the next two centuries.

“Carmen was the first opera I saw as a young teenager,” remembers Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). “It should be everyone’s first opera. It is the perfect blend of musical theater and grand opera, with thrilling choruses, great tunes from start to finish, and a compelling story of ill-fated love. And then there is Carmen herself, one of the most alluring characters of all time. I love conducting this great opera, which is so gorgeously orchestrated.”

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts. Making her debut in the title role is Aleks Romano (below), a rising young singer whom Opera News recently praised for her “attractively smoky mezzo-soprano.”

Acclaimed tenor Sean Panikkar (below) makes his role debut as Don José. He debuted with Madison Opera at Opera in the Park 2014, but this is his first mainstage appearance with the company.Also returning to Madison Opera are Cecilia Violetta López (below top) as José’s hometown sweetheart Micaëla and Corey Crider (below bottom) as the toreador Escamillo. López debuted at this past summer’s Opera in the Park; Crider sang the title role in “Sweeney Todd” with Madison Opera in 2015.

Thomas Forde (below), who most recently sang Luther/Crespel in Madison Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffman,” returns to play José’s commanding officer, Zuniga.

Studio artists Anna Polum and Megan Le Romero play Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercedes. Studio Artist Benjamin Liupaogo and Wisconsin native Erik Earl Larson play the smugglers, Remendado and Dancaïre. Rounding out the cast is Charles Eaton in his debut as Morales. (Many have ties to the opera program at the UW-Madison.)

Directing this traditional staging is E. Loren Meeker (below) in her first production for Madison Opera. Meeker has directed at opera companies around the United States, including Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, the Glimmerglass Festival and Wolf Trap Opera.

“A piece like Carmen captures our imagination and begs to be re-told over the centuries because the characters speak to the deepest and most honest parts of human nature,” says Meeker.  “Today we grapple with love, lust, jealousy, morality, honor, and freedom just as much as people did when this opera premiered in 1875.

“At Madison Opera we have a brilliant cast who is willing to unravel the mystery of these characters with me scene by scene – making each choice onstage new, fresh, and true to the characters and arch of the story.

“Bringing this vivid world to life set to some of the most rich and well known music in the operatic canon, plus the fun of working with dancers, a fight director, the Madison Youth Choir, and a large adult chorus challenges me and inspires me all at the same time. The energy created in the performance, the brilliant music sung by such amazing artists, makes this classic opera worth seeing again and again and again.”

Carmen is a truly grand opera and features the Madison Opera Chorus, led by chorusmaster Anthony Cao (below); members of the Madison Youth Choirs; the Madison Symphony Orchestra; and dancers from Tania Tandias Flamenco and Spanish Dance.

For more information about the cast, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2017-2018/carmen/cast/

For informative and entertaining Q&As with the cast members, go to the Madison Opera’s Blogspot:

http://madisonopera.blogspot.com

For tickets, call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141 or go to:

http://www.overture.org/events/madison-opera


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Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players complete their cycle of Beethoven sonatas for strings with impressive beauty and sensitivity

October 10, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

In another distressingly overcrowded weekend, hard choices had to be made about which event to attend. I picked the performance by the Mosaic Chamber Players last Saturday night at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

For the past four years, this group has pursued a “complete” survey of Beethoven’s sonatas for strings and piano. Since he composed 10 for violin and piano plus five for cello and piano, it was easy to organize them into five concerts, each with two violin sonatas and one for cello. In addition, it was possible in many programs to draw on all three periods of Beethoven’s output.

This year’s concert was thus the fifth and the last in the series, climaxing a really impressive achievement for artistic director and guiding spirit Jess Salek and his colleagues.

As pianist in all three of the works presented, Salek (below) provided more than accompaniment, since the role of the piano was generally put on terms of equal partnership, sometimes even of relative superiority. He played bravely, justly showing palpable pride in the total achievement.

Laura Burns (below), who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the MSO’s Rhapsodie String Quartet, was the violinist in the early Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 12, No. 2.

This happens to be the first of these Beethoven sonatas that I came to know and love in my youth, via an old Jascha Heifetz recording, so it had particular reverberations for me. To its wit and sprightliness Burns brought an added warmth of sound and spirit.

The Cello Sonata No. 5 in D, Op. 102, No. 2, was the last one Beethoven composed for this medium, and one of two that dates from the composer’s late period. A great deal of very serious thinking went into it, with a slow movement particularly notable for its spiritual depth. Cellist Kyle Price (below) delivered it with genuine feeling and with great strength of tone.

Also Beethoven’s last work for its medium, the Violin Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96, comes from late in the composer’s so-called middle period. It is a work of almost kaleidoscopic variety, with frequent changes of mood and character.

Its core is another slow movement of amazingly personal eloquence and breath-taking beauty. And the theme-and-variations movement finale seems to have everything (almost) in it but the kitchen sink. (You can hear Wes Luke and Jess Salek performing another theme-and-variations movement from a different Beethoven violin sonata in the cycle, Op. 30, No. 1, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was clear that violinist Wes Luke (below), who is also the first violinist of the Ancora String Quartet, was having a whale of a good time playing it, relishing almost every note.

Luke’s printed program notes were particularly excellent, and included notice that the group’s spring concert will juxtapose piano trios of Beethoven and Brahms.

The Mosaic Chamber Players do not receive a great deal of publicity, but their concerts offer some of the most lovely and thought-provoking chamber music repertoire to be found, even in a town so full of wonderful music-making as ours.


Classical music: We should hear more encores, especially at outstanding chamber music concerts. Plus, a FREE Farmer’s Market organ recital is this Saturday at 11 a.m.

August 11, 2017
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ALERT: This Saturday at 11 a.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, the Madison Symphony Orchestra will offer another FREE Farmers Market Organ Concert. The program, which runs 45 minutes, features music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Charles-Marie Widor and Louis Vierne. The organist is the prize-winning Madison native Adrian Binkley.

By Jacob Stockinger

Two weeks ago, the Willy Street Chamber Players gave The Ear yet another reason to like them and be a fan.

After the season-ending program of Schubert, Osvaldo Golijov and Mozart was over, while the audience was cheering, standing and applauding loudly, two members of the young chamber music group played an encore.

The encore was “Julie-O” by Mark Summer. It was written for one cellist, as you can hear in a performance by the composer in the YouTube video at the bottom.

But this time it was performed by the two cellists of The Willys — Lindsey Crabb and Mark Bridges (below).

They agreed to play an encore only reluctantly – after some prodding by other members of The Willys, by guest clarinetist Michael Maccaferri (of the Grammy-winning group eighth blackbird) and, of course, by the audience.

But there shouldn’t have been any reluctance.

The Ear thinks we hear too few encores after so much memorable music-making.

Certain student recitals at the UW-Madison come immediately to mind. It sometimes seems that the protocol of student recitals prohibits encores, but The Ear has been told by faculty members that such is not the case.

What also comes to mind is the lack of encores at chamber music concerts by larger ensembles – piano trios, string quartets and piano or string quintets and sextets.

And rarely do you hear encores at the Madison Symphony Orchestra, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra or Madison Opera except when they are played by concerto soloists.

But why not?

The Ear recalls that several years ago the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez, performing the aria with notoriously difficult nine high C’s in the aria “Ah! Mes amis” from Donizetti’s opera “La Fille du Regiment,” then quickly repeated the same passage to frenzied approval.

What are encores but a way of saying: “You liked me, so now I like you.”

Encores are not immodest bragging. They are a reward, a gift, a way for the performer to say thank you to the audience for its attention and appreciation.

Maybe every individual or group should have some kind of encore in the back pocket and ready to go. It could be a short movement or even a section of a movement, perhaps a coda or finale.

It seems to The Ear that many instrumentalists, especially pianists who have such a rich repertory, would do well to have four encores ready: one fast and one slow, one loud and one soft.

That way, the encore can underscore —  by either complementarity or contrast — the piece or pieces that preceded it and called for it.

Have you ever wanted to hear an encore and been frustrated?

What do musicians themselves say about playing encores?

Are there unwritten guidelines or an unstated protocol about when to play encores?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Madison Opera’s festive and fun 16th annual Opera in the Park is this Saturday night

July 17, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It serves as a preview of the indoor winter opera season.

But one of the summer’s major events in Madison is primarily a fun time unto itself — with outdoors picnicking and socializing, and lots of outdoor music making, some of it with the audience helping to “conduct” with glow-in-the-dark light sticks.

The Madison Opera’s annual FREE Opera in the Park concert will take place this coming Saturday night starting at 8 p.m. in Garner Park, on Madison’s west side near the junction of Mineral Point Road and Rosa Road. (You can get a taste of the event in the YouTube video from 2010 at the bottom.)

The park opens at 7 a.m. Blankets, chairs, food and beverages are allowed. The rain date is the next day — Sunday, July 23.

Here is what Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), the general director of Madison Opera, has to say about the event:

“Opera in the Park has become a Madison summer tradition since the first concert in 2002. When the weather is good, we have over 15,000 people in the audience, which is the highest per-capita attendance of any such opera event in the U.S.

“I think there are many reasons for its success, from the beautiful music to the beautiful park, and the fact that our community enjoys spending time together outside in the summer.

“We don’t make massive changes each year, but it is of course a new set of singers and a new program, so it’s a fresh musical experience.

“This year, for example, we have two arias from zarzuelas or traditional Spanish musical comedies,, including the zarzuela version of “The Barber of Seville” – which will be complemented by an aria from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” naturally.

“Audience members might also choose to vary the contents of their picnic basket each year – perhaps with Bizet’s “Carmen” and “The Barber of Seville” on the concert, they might want to include Spanish foods.

“I try to invite principal artists from our upcoming season when possible, so that audiences can get to know singers they can then hear in full roles later in the year.

“This summer our singers include soprano Cecilia Violetta López (below), who will be in “Carmen” in November;

tenor David Walton (below), who will be in Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” in February;

and mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala (below), who will be in Daniel Catan‘s “Florencia en el Amazonas” in April.

“Baritone Will Liverman (below) is not in the upcoming season, but he has had major success here as “The Barber of Seville” and in last season’s “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” so I’m delighted he is able to join us this summer in the park.

“Putting on Opera in the Park is a complex production, from renting the generators and the stage to coordinating with the City Parks Department and the Madison Police.

Full Compass Systems and Bag End donate the sound system and their services to run it every year, and there are hundreds of people involved, from our production team to our volunteers, from the IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) stage crew to the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra.

“I often say that Opera in the Park is the most important thing Madison Opera does, and I think everyone involved believes that as well.

Now if only the weather will cooperate …”

For more information about Opera in the Park, including the times; the complete concert program that includes selections from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” on the occasion of the composer’s centennial; detailed biographies of the soloists and the guest conductor Joseph Mechavich (below); reservations for the supporters’ Prelude Dinner at 6:30 p.m.; rules about reserving seating in the park; and how to become a volunteer, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/park/


Classical music: Music is another reason to like Emmanuel Macron, the new President of France

May 12, 2017
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ALERT 1: Due to unforeseen circumstances, the recital TONIGHT by the Ancora String Quartet in Janesville will take place in St. Mary’s Catholic Church, instead of in the Janesville Woman’s Club building.

For more information, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/05/05/classical-music-next-week-the-ancora-string-quartet-closes-its-16th-season-with-three-concerts-that-contrast-the-german-romanticism-of-beethoven-and-the-french-impressionism-of-saint-saens/

REMINDER: This Saturday, “Live From the Met in HD” will feature  Richard Strauss‘ “Der Rosenkavalier.” The acclaimed Metropolitan Opera production features superstar soprano Renee Fleming in a farewell performance of her signature role of the aging Marshallin.

By Jacob Stockinger

Besides the fact that he decisively defeated the dangerous far right candidate Marine Le Pen to become the new President of France, there is much to like about centrist Emmanuel Macron (below).

PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images

Some people like his background in economics and international banking, and his desire to stay in the European Union.

Some people like that he is a newcomer who has formed his own political party.

Some people like the fact that he married a high school teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, who is 25 years older than he is.

Some people like the fact that he has foregone having his own children in order to be an instant stepfather and step-grandfather through his wife’s family.

But here is another reason to like Macron.

Classical music.

Not only is Macron a winning politician, he is also an avid amateur pianist.

For details – including his training and his favorite composers — see the story on National Public Radio (NPR).

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2017/05/09/527577050/something-you-didnt-know-about-emmanuel-macron-hes-a-pianist


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