The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Opera triumphed in Beethoven’s “Fidelio.”

November 28, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO), which will perform its fifth season next summer. He was recently named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has a website at (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a review of last weekend’s production of Ludwig van Beethoven’s opera ‘Fidelio” by the Madison Opera at the Overture Center.

I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review of “Fidelio” by Mikko Utevsky (below):

Mikko Utevsky with baton

By Mikko Utevsky

The Madison Opera has done it again.

Perhaps it is a mark of Katherine Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) settling into her tenure as General Director.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Perhaps it is the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s continual growth and development as a regional orchestra of versatility and repute.

Perhaps it is the luck of discovering singers at the outset of promising careers, whose success has not yet priced them out of the range of smaller companies.

Whatever the reason, last Sunday’s performance in Overture Hall of Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera, the monumental “Fidelio,” was a true triumph for what can only be regarded as a company going places.

Briefly, “Fidelio” is the story of a woman, Leonore, who disguises herself as a boy — “Fidelio” meaning the “faithful one” — to infiltrate the prison where her husband Florestan is being wrongly held by his political rival, Don Pizarro.

When the King’s minister (Don Fernando sung by Liam Moran) announces a surprise visit, Pizarro (sung by Kelly Markgraf) decides to have Florestan killed to avoid the awkward explanation. At the last moment, Fidelio intercedes, and the arrival of Don Fernando saves the day.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra under artistic director John DeMain (below), in its usual reduced string complement, shone forth from the pit in more than its usual splendor this Sunday, with a firm, centered string sound and particularly powerful playing from the horns.

John DeMain conducting 2

Above it soared a cast of creditable balance, with a veritable jewel in the center: Alexandra LoBianco, in the title role of Leonore/Fidelio.

LoBianco, in her first turn as the titular trouser role of Fidelio/Leonore, was beyond reproach in every way. Her captivating Verdian soprano that seemed equally at home in every moment of the opera, rendered with proper dramatic heft the imposing vocal challenges of the part, including a powerful lower register.

The moment when she steps forward at last to defend her husband from the evil Don Pizarro sent chills down my spine. It is hard to believe she has not sung this before; given how completely the role fit her.

Alexandra LoBianco as Fidelio-Leonore by James Gill

Of the others, Clay Hilley’s (Florestan) powerful tenor sometimes substituted steel for warmth in navigating Beethoven’s punishingly high writing — a forgivable flaw in a role whose characterization leaves little room for luxury. His opening scene (“Gott! Welch Dunkel hier” or “God! How dark it is here!”) at the start of Act II was nevertheless absolutely spellbinding.

Clay Hilley as Florestan CR James Gill

The chorus (below top and at the bottom, conducted by James Levine, in a YouTube video) was superbly prepared by Chorus Master Anthony Cao (below), who has brought the group’s performance level up considerably in recent years. A timid beginning to the famed prisoner chorus “O welche Lust” was quickly surmounted, and more than made up for by the rousing “Heil sei dem Tag” in the second act.

Fidelio prisoners' chorus James Gill

Anthony Cao

Sensitive lighting by Christopher Maravich relieved some of the potential for monotony in a visually subdued staging, which featured sets from Michigan Opera Theater and costumes from the Utah Opera.

Both the sets and the costumes relied mostly on hues of brown. The sky showing above the walls of the prison shifted subtly to reflect the passage of time and the mood of the ensemble, providing as well a glimpse of the freedom held at arm’s length from most of the characters. The darkness of Florestan’s prison at the start of the second act was also evocatively rendered.

Fidelio set James GIll

The scene change from dungeon to daylight before the final scene was distractingly long — could we have had one of the three other overtures Beethoven wrote to this opera to fill the silence? Certainly the orchestra was one of the stars of this production; let them play on!

The staging by director Tara Faircloth (below), in her Madison Opera debut, maintained interest and rewarded careful attention with choice details, though the melodrama and confrontation scenes in the dungeon were rather weak.

Fidelio Tara Faircloth

Neither of these sapped the sheer power of Leonore’s unveiling, or of the 11th-hour trumpet call announcing the arrival of Florestan’s savior (below left, with Don Pizarro below right)  — moments that were absolutely electrifying and worth the price of admission on their own — but they did slow the pace of the act.

Fidelio     left Don Fernando and right is Don PIzarro CR James Gill

Unfortunately, the staging seemed to dodge the political difficulties of the plot, focusing merely on the abstract notion of “freedom” without exploring the implications of Don Fernando’s benevolent proclamations in the final scene.

In the current political climate, I would have hoped for a stronger thesis here — surely Beethoven (below) the revolutionary would have something to say today!

Beethoven big

For the most part, these are quibbles with an overwhelmingly excellent production of which the Madison Opera can be justifiably proud. I left the hall feeling uplifted, and I look forward to the rest of the season.

 


Classical music Q&A: Stage director Tara Faircloth talks about her staging of Beethoven’s only opera “Fidelio.” The Madison Opera performs it this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

November 17, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Political prisoners and prisoners of conscience are the hot topics of an old opera that is celebrating its bicentennial this year.

When you look around the world and see the struggle in fighting terrorism, religious intolerance and political tyranny as well as the difficult and thwarted stirrings of democracy in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, “Fidelio” — the only opera composed by Ludwig van Beethoven (below) — seems a timely and even inspired choice to stage.

Beethoven big

That is exactly what the Madison Opera will do in Overture Hall of the Overture Center this Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. The opera will be sung in German with English supertitles.

Single tickets are $18-$125. Call (608) 258-4141 or visit the Overture Center box office.

Here is a link to more information, including a cast list and information about the production, which is based on the one done by the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2014-2015/fidelio/

Fidelio Set John Grigaitis Michigan Opera Theatre

A Madison Opera staged premiere, “Fidelio” is “a passionate ode to freedom, and the triumph of love over tyranny,” according to a press release from the Madison Opera.

“To rescue her husband, a political prisoner, the noblewoman Leonore (below, played by Alexandra LoBianco) disguises herself as a man and works at the prison where she believes her husband is held. Beethoven contrasts the evil of Don Pizarro, who has ordered his enemy imprisoned and starved, with the inner strength and bravery that enables Leonore to rescue her husband.

“Ranging from breathtaking arias to stunning choral music, Beethoven’s score is truly sublime, with an ever-building dramatic intensity that leaves audiences exhilarated. The famous “Prisoners’ Chorus” is one of the most beautiful choral tributes to freedom ever written, and one of the reasons Fidelio has resonated across the centuries.

Fidelio Alexandra LoBianco Leonore

“Madison Opera performed Fidelio in concert in November 1986, but this is the first time the company has presented the opera fully-staged. Sung in German with German dialogue and projected English translations, Fidelio is the only opera Beethoven ever wrote, premiering in its final form in 1814.

“Fidelio is a truly great opera,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s General Director. “It has both light and dark moments, with real emotion underlying the intense drama. Above all, the score is a masterpiece from one of classical music’s greatest composers.”

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

“Fidelio” also marks the start of Madison Opera’s 10th season in Overture Hall, whose exceptional acoustics have been a primary factor in the company’s growth and success.

“It is absolutely thrilling for me to finally have a chance to conduct Beethoven’s operatic masterpiece,” says John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), the Madison Opera’s Artistic Director and conductor who is also the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. “I have loved this music passionately for years, and can’t wait to perform this great work in the acoustic splendor of Overture Hall. We have a thrilling cast of singers, the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra, all up to the demands of the mighty Beethoven.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Pre-opera talks will be hosted by Kathryn Smith one hour prior to each performance.

Here is a background story, with more interviews, written by Mike Muckian that appeared in the Wisconsin Gazette.

http://www.wisconsingazette.com/music/fidelio-beethovens-struggle-madison-operas-reward.html

And here is an email Q&A that stage director that Tara Faircloth (below), who is making her Madison Opera debut, granted to The Ear:

Fidelio Tara Faircloth

Can you briefly introduce yourself, with some background and current activities as well as future projects and plans?

A Georgia native, I make my home in Houston, Texas, in a 1935 Art & Crafts bungalow that I am slowly renovating and restoring. I work primarily in opera, and take special pleasure in my work with young people: I am a semi-regular director at Wolf Trap Opera, and the dramatic coach for the fine singers in the Houston Grand Opera Studio.

Some of my most beloved projects have been a beautiful (if I do say so!) production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at Wolf Trap, a Dido & Aeneas with Houston’s Mercury Baroque in collaboration with the Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, and a very recent production of Claudio Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno di Ulisse at Rice University. I am very much looking forward to a new production of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Arizona Opera, and my first Le Nozze di Figaro, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, at the Atlanta Opera.

I like to create productions that are whimsical and humorous with intense moments of emotional connection.

How do you situate Beethoven’s “Fidelio” among other major opera and opera composers? What makes it special?

Fidelio is Beethoven’s only opera, a work that he re-wrote three times. It has been called a “secular oratorio,” and it is full of the passion that typifies so much of Beethoven’s work.

When listening to Beethoven’s music, I personally feel as if the score can barely contain all of the emotion he is trying to express, that it is stretched to its absolute limit, and somehow there is an underlying tension, a sense that if it were possible, he would want you to feel even more than he has been able to write down.

What is your overall concept of the opera? Do you see it as having to do with the Enlightenment and political movement toward democracy?

Fidelio has been subject to a multitude of interpretations since its inception. In many ways, the score is a blank slate: the characters are not described in great detail, there is no mention in the score of the exact political situation at hand, and even Florestan’s “crime” against Pizarro is not identified explicitly. Instead we have a story of brutal revenge versus great love: a universally appealing theme.

With its dream of a government free of tyranny, and the inherent worth of the individual man, Fidelio certainly has a very healthy dose of Enlightenment principles.

However, in many ways it may be seen as ushering in Romantic era ideals. It is full of sweeping emotional moments: perhaps the most famous is the Prisoners’ Chorus “O welche Lust” (at bottom in a YouTube video), which begins with an ecstatic appreciation of the beauty of a single breath of fresh air.

The fact that Beethoven gave the most beautiful music in the entire opera to a chorus of common prisoners shows us, I think, his belief that our connection to a higher power and our longing for freedom is inherent and universal to every man.

Does Beethoven’s opera hold lessons for today about current events?

As a director, I am not really one to look for lessons in our literature. Instead, I hope to engage our audience in a very human drama, to make them FEEL something and to connect with them. I think that experiencing music and drama in this way makes us more empathetic and open to other human beings, and that can only make the world a better place.

This is your debut in Madison. Do have impressions of the city, the opera and orchestra, either firsthand or through others?

I travel a lot for my work, and every time I have mentioned I will be in Madison, people simply gush about what a lovely place it is. In addition to the charming beauty of the city, I’ve noticed there seems to be a big focus on beer and cheese. So, basically it is heaven.

What you would you like to add or say?

Fidelio is an opera that is rarely performed. It takes massive forces: large orchestra, large chorus, and very large voices. I think we have quite a group assembled here, and hope your reading audience will take advantage of the opportunity to hear the work of one of the world’s most beloved composers.

 


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