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: Do Stephen Sondheim musicals qualify as opera?

February 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Do Broadway musicals by Stephen Sondheim (below) qualify as opera?

Granted, putting strict boundaries or criteria on certain musical genres only artificially limit their appeal.

But the question matters since this month will see two local opera companies stage two different works by Sondheim, who got his big break back when he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on “West Wide Story.”

This Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m., on Feb. 8 and 10 respectively, the Madison Opera will stage its production of the popular “A Little Night Music” – a great offering about many varieties of love so close to Valentine’s Day — in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center.

For more information about the production (photos of it are by James Gill for Madison Opera) and performances, including ticket sales, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=sondheim

(Below are Charles Eaton and Katherine Pracht.)

Then later in the month, for five performances from Feb. 21 through Feb. 24 in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater, University Opera and University Theatre team up to stage Sondheim’s popular “Into the Woods,” based on classic fairy tales.

Find out more information here: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/into-the-woods/

So, do Stephen Sondheim musicals deserve to be included with operas by Mozart and Verdi, Wagner and Puccini?

The Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) — a Harvard graduate and an opera veteran who worked at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera before coming to Madison — agreed to discuss that question as it relates to her company’s production of “A Little Night Music” this weekend.

Smith writes:

A Little Night Music has been performed by opera companies around the world since 1983, so it is a natural part of the repertoire.

Sondheim himself says, “For me, an opera is something that is performed in an opera house in front of an opera audience. The ambience, along with the audience’s expectation, is what flavors the evening.”

A Little Night Music is particularly intriguing because it is a modern operetta; that’s what the New York Times called it when it premiered in 1973.

The costumes and scenery make it look a bit like traditional operettas such as The Merry Widow, but its story and wit are distinctly modern, with a clear-eyed view of the complexities of adult relationships. (Below, from left, are Cassandra Vasta, Benjamin Barlow, Sarah Day, Emily Pulley and Maddie Uphoff.)

Sondheim’s musical sophistication is on brilliant display; the Act I finale (“A Weekend in the Country”) reminds me of the way Mozart or Rossini finales build scene upon scene. (You can hear a concert version of “A Weekend in the Country,” performed at the BBC Proms, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I find A Little Night Music compelling for its beauty, style and humanity. The book and lyrics are laced with witty lines, but the underlying relationships are very real, as is the way people stumble on the way towards a happy ending.

It manages the trick of being simultaneously moving and entertaining, with glorious music underscoring it all.


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Classical music: Starting this Thursday, Madison Opera offers FREE preview events leading up to its staging of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” on Feb. 8 and 10

January 16, 2019
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ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson, artistic director of the Madison Bach Musicians, will play selections by Johann Sebastian Bach for solo harpsichord. He will be joined by baroque flutist Kristen Davies for Bach’s Sonata in C major for Flute and Harpsichord. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The Madison Opera will present Stephen Sondheim’s classic A Little Night Music on Friday, Feb. 8, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 10, at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State Street.

One of the most popular stage pieces of the 20th century, this modern operetta waltzes through a story of the complications of love across generations, spiced with sparkling wit and rueful self-awareness.

Set in Sweden in the early 1900s, A Little Night Music tells of multiple couples with mixed ideas of love. During a weekend in the country, marriages are made and unmade and the summer nights smile on the young and old alike. Through delicious humor and a ravishing score, human folly eventually gives way to happily-ever-after.

A Little Night Music is an absolutely delicious piece,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “I think of it as a grown-up operetta, with some of the best dialogue and lyrics ever written, all to Sondheim’s brilliant score. It’s a delightful way to spend a winter evening, and I’m so thrilled with our cast and production team, who are creating a new production for the Capitol Theater.”

“A Little Night Music” opened on Broadway in 1973 to rave reviews. The New York Times wrote: “At last, a new operetta!  A Little Night Music is heady, civilized, sophisticated, and enchanting.”

It has since been performed by both theater and opera companies all over the world and was revived on Broadway in 2009. Sondheim composed the score entirely in variations of waltz time, and it includes several now-classic songs, such as “Send in the Clowns,” “A Weekend in the Country,” and “The Miller’s Son.” (You can hear Dame Judi Dench singing a restrained but deeply moving rendition of “Send in the Clowns” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Can you imagine? An entire musical composed in some form of waltz time,” says John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), Madison Opera’s artistic director. “I love this score, which feels like Johann Strauss meets the harmonies of Ravel. It’s an incredible verbal and musical achievement that gets better every time I hear it. Madison Opera’s cast should prove to be sensational as we bring this Sondheim masterpiece to life. I so look forward to conducting it.”

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts.

Emily Pulley (below top) returns to Madison Opera as Desirée Armfeldt, a famous actress searching for “a coherent existence after so many years of muddle.” Daniel Belcher returns as Fredrik, Desirée’s ex-lover, who is currently married to the 18-year-old Anne, played by Wisconsin native Jeni Houser (below bottom), who recently made her debut at the Vienna State Opera.

Sarah Day (below), a member of the core acting company of American Players Theatre in Spring Green, makes her debut as Madame Armfeldt, the elegant ex-courtesan who is Desirée’s mother. Charles Eaton returns as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Desirée’s current lover; his wife Charlotte is played by Katherine Pracht in her Madison Opera debut.

Rounding out the cast are Quinn Bernegger as Henrik, son of Fredrik; Emily Glick as the maid Petra; and Maddie Uphoff as Fredrika, Desirée’s 13-year-old daughter.

The Liebeslieders, who function as a waltz-prone Greek chorus throughout the show, are portrayed by Emily Secor, Cassandra Vasta, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, and Stephen Hobe.

Doug Schulz-Carlson (below) returns to direct. The artistic director of the Great River Shakespeare Festival, his most recent Madison Opera production was Romeo and Juliet in 2016.

The original set is designed by R. Eric Stone (below top) and is being built in the Madison Opera Scene Shop. The costumes are designed by Karen Brown-Larimore (below bottom), who most recently designed costumes for Madison Opera’s production of Florencia en el Amazonas.

Members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra accompany Sondheim’s gorgeous score.

PREVIEW EVENTS

Events leading up to the performances can help the community learn more about A Little Night Music.

A FREE community preview will be held this Thursday, Jan. 17, from 7 to 8 p.m. at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street.

Opera Novice, also FREEtakes place this Friday, Jan. 18, from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Madison Opera Center (below), 335 West Mifflin Street, and offers a free, entertaining look at the works of Stephen Sondheim including A Little Night Music.

Opera Up Close — which is free to season subscribers and costs $20 for others — provides an in-depth discussion of the production, including a cast roundtable, and takes place on Feb. 3 from 1-3 p.m. at the Madison Opera Center, 335 West Mifflin Street.

Pre-Opera Talks will take place at the Overture Center one hour prior to each performance.

For more information, including interviews with cast members and the production team, and to get tickets ($25-$115), go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/a-little-night-music/

Madison Opera’s production of “A Little Night Music” is sponsored by Thompson Investment Management, Inc., Fran Klos, David Flanders and Susan Ecroyd, and Charles Snowdon and Ann Lindsey.


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Classical music: With actors and multimedia, the Madison Symphony Orchestra explores Felix Mendelssohn in Italy this coming Sunday afternoon

January 14, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday afternoon, Jan. 20, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) and its music director John DeMain will present the story behind Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 “Italian” with Beyond the Score®: Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4: Why Italy? (Ticket information is further down.)

The concert is a multimedia examination of German composer Felix Mendelssohn’s travels through Italy.

Starring American Players Theatre actors Sarah Day (below top), Jonathan Smoots (below middle) and Nate Burger (below bottom), the concert experience features visual projections, photos, musical excerpts and a full performance of the Symphony No. 4 by the MSO, with John DeMain conducting, in the second half.

In 1830, a young 21-year-old Mendelssohn (below) visited the Italian countryside and the historic cities of Venice, Naples and Rome.

Three years later, he set his journey to music and composed his fourth Symphony — later to be known as his “Italian” Symphony. Though it eventually became one of the composer’s most popular works, the piece was performed only twice during his lifetime and published four years after his death in 1851. (You can hear the rousing final movement of the “Italian Symphony” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Designed for classical music lovers and newcomers looking for a deeper look into the world of classic music and the motivations of significant compositions, “Beyond the Score®: Why Italy?” joins Mendelssohn on his travels in Italy and discovers his inspiration for this symphonic work.

Incorporating the composer’s own letters and writings, the program presents the historical context behind the classical piece turned masterpiece.

Program notes by J. Michael Allsen are available at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1819/4AJan19.html

Single Tickets are $16 to $70 each, available at https://madisonsymphony.org/event/beyond-the-score-mendelssohn/, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the box office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/buy-tickets/group-discounts/.

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $10 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/buy-tickets/offers-discounts/. Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Exclusive funding for this concert is provided by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation. Beyond the Score® is a production of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Gerard McBurney is the Creative Director for Beyond the Score®


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