The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: University Opera’s “Turn of the Screw” is a completely satisfying production of a complex modern masterpiece by Benjamin Britten

March 5, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy filed this review, with photos by Michael R. Anderson, for The Ear:

By Larry Wells

I attended the opening performance of Benjamin Britten’s 1954 chamber opera “The Turn of the Screw” that was presented by University Opera and directed by David Ronis.

It was a completely satisfying theatrical experience of a complexly organized musical work.

The libretto is based on Henry James’ serial novella of the same name. Whereas the James work is an ambiguous, psychological tale, Britten’s opera is an eerie ghost story laden with suggestions of psychosexual mischief.

Musically the opera is based on a 12-tone theme with each of its scenes preceded by a variation of the theme. There are further structural complexities in this highly organized work, but the music is very accessible and was admirably performed by 13 musicians ably led by conductor Kyle Knox. Particular praise goes to the percussionist Garrett Mendlow.

The beautiful, minimalistic set and stunning lighting enhanced the creepiness of the tale.

As for the singing, the cast tackled the complex vocal lines with aplomb, and there were several exceptional performances.

Particular praise goes to Anna Polum for her outstanding portrayal of the ghostly Miss Jessell. She sang beautifully and acted convincingly. (Below, from left, are Katie Anderson as the Governess and Anna Polum as Miss Jessell.)

Dress Rehearsal for "Turn of the Screw"

Dress Rehearsal for “Turn of the Screw”

Likewise Emily Vandenberg as Flora was realistic in the role of a young girl. I have seen performances of this opera that were brought down by unconvincing portrayals of this difficult child role, but Vandenberg acted naturally and sang beautifully.

The other child role, Miles, was capably performed by Simon Johnson, a middle school student. Cayla Rosché adeptly performed Mrs. Grose, the enigmatic housekeeper. (Below are Amitabha Shatdal  as Miles, Cayla Rosché  as Mrs. Grose and Elisheva Pront as Flora.)

Dress Rehearsal for "Turn of the Screw"

Dress Rehearsal for “Turn of the Screw”

The two major roles are The Governess and the spectral Peter Quint. Erin Bryan was convincing as the increasingly confused and hysteric governess, and she played off Rosché’s Mrs. Grose to great effect. At one point I was thinking that these were two extremely flighty women. (Below, from left, are Cayla Rosché  as Mrs. Grose; Elisheva Pront as Flora; Katie Anderson as the Governess; and Amitabha Shatdal as Miles.)

Dress Rehearsal for "Turn of the Screw"

Dress Rehearsal for “Turn of the Screw”

Alec Brown (below) as Quint had the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of singers like Peter Pears who made Quint an evil, threatening, nasty fellow. Brown’s Quint came off as slightly laid back, and his perfectly fine tenor voice was just not a Britten voice in the style of Pears, Philip Langridge or Ian Bostridge.

Dress Rehearsal for "Turn of the Screw"

Dress Rehearsal for “Turn of the Screw”

I had a couple of minor problems with the evening. First, I did not understand why the doors to Music Hall didn’t open until 7:20 for a 7:30 performance, which then actually started at 7:45. And, I was disappointed that the piano, which is a major contributor to the music’s sonority, was swapped for an electronic keyboard.

Yet I left feeling once again that Britten was a true musical genius of the 20th century and that I was eager to go to the 3 p.m. performance this afternoon to experience it all over again.

“The Turn of the Screw” will also be performed one last time on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

For more information about the opera, including how to buy tickets — admission is $25 with $20 for seniors and $10 for students, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2017/01/31/university-opera-presents-benjamin-brittens-the-turn-of-the-screw/


Classical music: Madison Opera scores a big artistic and commercial success with the Midwest premiere of “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.” How about seeing and hearing more new music and new operas?

February 15, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a guest review by The Opera Guy, who is himself a senior and who has followed opera for many decades and across several continents, including North America, Europe and Asia. Performance photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.

By Larry Wells

On Sunday afternoon I attended the second, and final, of two sold-out performances of Daniel Schnyder’s “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” presented by Madison Opera, which gave the Midwest premiere of the new work.

Although it is a chamber opera featuring only 16 instrumentalists and running a little over 90 minutes, it was an engaging, satisfying and often hypnotic operatic experience.

The orchestral and vocal music were readily accessible.  As a compliment to the composer, I was reminded of the later work of the great British composer Michael Tippett.

The plot features Charlie Parker’s mother, three of his wives, his friend Dizzy Gillespie and his current patroness, the fascinating Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, as they confront Parker’s spirit after his death but before his removal from the morgue and burial.

madison-opera-charlie-parker-body-cr-james-gill

(Below, standing in front of the photo-portrait set of the Birdland jazz club, are the major cast members, many of whom were in the original world premiere productions at Opera Philadelphia and the Apollo Theater of Harlem in New York City. From the left, they are: Angela Brown as Addie Parker; Will Liverman as Dizzy Gillespie; Rachel Sterrenberg as Chan Parker; Angela Montellaro as Doris Parker; Joshua Stewart as Charlie Parker; and Krysty Swann as Rebecca Parker.)

madison-opera-angela-brown-as-addie-parker-will-liverman-as-dizzy-gillespie-rachel-sterrenberg-as-chan-parker-angela-montellaro-as-doris-parker-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-krysty-swann

A pioneer and innovator of bebop in the world of jazz, saxophonist Parker died young and dissolute, destroyed by drugs and alcohol. Portrayed by Joshua Stewart (below), Parker is unsympathetic and weak, desperate to create but distracted. Stewart is a fine, convincing actor. His singing was often compelling, but his voice was too thin in the higher reaches demanded by the score.

madison-opera-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-cr-james-gill

The other characters were ably portrayed and consistently strong vocally. Will Liverman’s Dizzy Gillespie was a standout – lyrical and touching.

Likewise, Krysty Swann (below center with a baby) was solid vocally and emotionally convincing as Parker’s abandoned first wife Rebecca Parker.

madison-opera-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-krysty-swann-and-rebecca-parker-angela-brown-as-addie-parker-cr-james-gill

Rachel Sterrenberg was moving and gripping vocally as Parker’s final wife Chan.

Julie Miller as Baronness Nica commanded the stage whenever she appeared, perhaps because of her bright red dress in a sea of black garments but also because of her powerful portrayal and expressive singing.

Whenever Angela Brown (below right, with Joshua Stewart as Charlie Parker) was onstage as Parker’s mother, Addie, she was the focus. She owned the role, she sang beautifully, and she had some of the best material to sing.

(You can hear Angela Brown, who has appeared here before with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera, in the world premiere production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

madison-opera-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-angela-brown-as-addie-parker-cr-james-gill

One of the finest moments in the opera was an orchestral interlude followed by a vocalise by another of Parker’s wives, Doris, sung by Angela Mortellaro (below). I was totally captivated, as I was by the quintet toward the end with Dizzy, the three wives and Parker’s mother.

madison-opera-angela-mortellaro-as-doris-parker-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-cr-james-gill

Such are the moments for which an opera aficionado waits – several minutes of total aural delight.

Maestro John DeMain was, as always, in full command of the score as he led members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. I was in a position to watch him conduct, and he was always totally involved in the moment. I repeat what I have said before: Maestro DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) is a treasure for which Madison should be constantly grateful.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

I personally like newer music and always welcome the chance to hear something other than the tired Brahms overtures, Tchaikovsky symphonies and Mozart piano concertos.

The argument in Madison seems to be that to fill seats, you have to give the audience what it wants; and the belief is that it wants music that is tried, true and safe.

The fact that this new work sold out both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center and that the audience was not entirely made up of seniors seems to suggest that the halls can be filled if the programming is more adventurous.

I say let’s hear more music of the 20th and 21st centuries, draw in a new audience and give the seniors a little thrill.

What do you think?


Classical music: Madison Opera’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” excelled in singing, orchestral playing, drama and other aspects that redeemed a largely unmemorable work. Plus, what is good music for Veterans Day?

November 11, 2016
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ALERT: Today is Veterans Day. What piece of classical music should be played to mark the event? The Ear suggests the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. Leave your choice in the COMMENT section.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s post features a guest review of Madison Opera’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Larry Wells. Wells has been enjoying opera since he was a youngster. He subscribed to the San Francisco Opera for nearly 20 years, where he last saw “Romeo and Juliet,” sung by Alfredo Kraus and Ruth Ann Swenson

More recently he lived in Tokyo and attended many memorable performances there over nearly 20 years. These included Richard Strauss rarities such as “Die Ägyptische Helena” and “Die Liebe der Danae” as well as the world’s strangest Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner and a space-age production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” featuring Alessandra Marc singing “In questa reggia” while encased in an inverted cone.

By Larry Wells

Last Sunday’s matinee performance of Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Madison Opera at the Overture Center was a feast for the eyes. The costumes, sets, lighting and staging were consistently arresting. (Performance photos are by James Gill.)

But we go to the opera for music and drama.

The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is well known. Gounod’s opera substitutes the tragedy with melodrama, and therein lies one of the work’s flaws. Despite sword fights, posturings and threats as well as one of opera’s lengthiest death scenes, one leaves the theater thinking that a vast amount of theatrical resources have been squandered on something insubstantial.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-sword-fight

However, despite its dramatic flaws, the opera’s music has somehow endured. And Sunday’s performance milked the most out of the music that could have been expected.

The star of the show was the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the expert direction of Maestro John DeMain (below). He knows how to pace a performance, how to build an exciting climax and how to highlight a solo instrument.

He is an incredibly intelligent conductor, and we are fortunate to have him in Madison. I want to make special mention of the beautiful harp playing, which, according to the program, was accomplished by Jenny DeRoche.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The second star on the stage was the Madison Opera Chorus (below). The chorus plays a significant part in many of the opera’s scenes, and the singing was stirring when it needed to be and tender when it was called for.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-chrous-and-set

As for the soloists, highest praise must go to UW-Madison alumna soprano Emily Birsan (below right) for her portrayal of Juliet. Her solo arias, particularly her big number in the first act as well as her subsequent lament, were stunning.

Her Romeo, tenor John Irvin (below left), sounded a little forced during his forte moments, but he sang magnificently in his quiet farewell to Juliet after their balcony scene. (You can hear the famous balcony scene, sung by Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-john-irvin-and-emily-birsan

Their voices blended beautifully in the opera’s multiple duets. And the wedding quartet, where they were joined by Allisanne Apple’s nurse (below, rear right) and Liam Moran’s Friar Lawrence (below, middle center), was a highlight of the performance.

madison-opera-romoeo-and-juliet-friar-and-nurse

The opera abounds with minor characters, all of which were ably portrayed. Special mention should be made of Stephanie Lauricella (below, far right) for her fantastic moments as Romeo’s page; Madison’s Allisanne Apple for her amusing portrayal of Juliet’s nurse Gertrude; Sidney Outlaw (below, second from left) as a robust Mercutio; and Philip Skinner as a powerful Lord Capulet.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-sidnay-outlaw-left-and-page-right

I have wondered why this opera is still performed. Its music is lovely but unmemorable, and its dramatic impact is tenuous.

I left the performance thinking that it had been a good afternoon at the theater – certainly more interesting than the Packers’ game – but wishing that one of a couple dozen more meaty operas had been performed in its place.

Since we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, how much more interesting would have been Benjamin Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”? 


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.

 


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