The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s “A Little Night Music” proved totally satisfying as both music and theater

February 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear – went to both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center last weekend by the Madison Opera of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and filed the following review. Photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

Although I was familiar with the recording, my first experience seeing “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim (below) was in London 25 years ago. I remember it as a theatrical experience – it featured Judi Dench and was performed at the National Theatre – more than as a musical event.

Two years ago, I saw it performed by Des Moines Metro Opera, and although it was “operatic” it was also sabotaged by a confusing, even chaotic, production designed by Isaac Mizrahi.

I finally experienced the complete package with the recent performances by the Madison Opera. It was a totally satisfying combination of acting, music and theatrical design.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Little Night Music” concerns itself with mismatched lovers who are eventually properly paired or else reconciled.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the carryings-on are amusing, the dialogue is witty, and the lyrics are sophisticated.

One of the earliest numbers in the show — the trio of songs “Later,” “Now” and “Soon” — set the tone for the evening musically. Each was performed individually by three fine singers – Quinn Bernegger, Jeni Houser (below left) and Daniel Belcher (below right).

In a musical tour-de-force, the three songs ultimately combined into one. Houser’s clear tone, Benegger’s intense passion, and Belcher’s suave lyricism promised an outstanding musical experience to come. Special praise must go to Bernegger (below) who sang while comically, but skillfully, miming playing a cello.

One show-stopper was Sarah Day’s “Liaisons” which was really perfect in its world-weariness. Day (below) — from American Players Theatre in Spring Green — half-declaimed and half-sang such memorable lines of regret as, “What once was a sumptuous feast is now figs. No, not even figs. Raisins.” Or amusing internal rhymes like “…indiscriminate women it…”.  (I am completely taken by Sondheim’s clever use of language.)

Likewise, the singing of “Miller’s Son” by Emily Glick (below) was a good old Broadway rendition – no operatic pretense – and the audience, and I, loved it.

Charles Eaton (below left) as a puffed-up dragoon and Katherine Pracht (below right) as his long-suffering wife were both outstanding vocally and deftly comic.

The center of most of the activity was the character Desirée Armfeldt portrayed by Emily Pulley (below). At first I thought she was overacting, but then I realized that, of course, she was portraying a veteran stage actress – a matinee idol type – who had internalized theatrical gestures into her own character. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, and the lyrics finally made sense to me. (You can hear the familiar Judy Collins interpretation in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I would have to say that the star of the show was the chorus, a quintet of excellent voices – Stephen Hobe, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, Emily Secor and Cassandra Vasta. They waltzed through the action while sliding the panels and frames that comprised the set, moving props, and commenting on the action.

Never obtrusive but always necessary, I thought they were a delight. The three women got to sing a brief round “Perpetual Anticipation” that is another wonder of Sondheim’s musical imagination.

As mentioned, sliding panels, along with dropping frames and panels, comprised the set. The continuous changing of the panels, the blocking and the movements of the quintet were the creative product of stage director Doug Schulz-Carlson (below). There was often a whirlwind of activity, but I was never distracted.

The costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore seemed straight out of Edward Gorey – which is a good thing.  And altogether I felt it was the best production of the musical I’ve seen.

The orchestra was situated on stage behind the set, which made additional seats available close to the stage. People seated in those rows had to bend their necks to read the supertitles, but the diction was so consistently excellent that I rarely needed to even glance at the supertitles.

Praise is due for members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and particularly conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). I heard subtleties in the music that had heretofore eluded me, and that is always a reward for attending a live performance and is a tribute to the maestro.

I was happy to see a younger audience, particularly Friday night. Let us hope that they were enchanted enough to attend the upcoming production on April 26 and 28 of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”

This is an opera I have never seen; and until recently, I was familiar only with one of its arias, the so-called “Song to the Moon.”

But now that I have a recording, I realize that it is a musical treasure that should not be missed. I suppose the reasons it is not so frequently performed are that it is in Czech and its plot involves water sprites. But don’t let that stop you. The music is wonderful.


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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.


Posted in Classical music
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