The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: University Opera’s “Poppea” proves engaging, satisfying and timely. Performances remain this afternoon at 2 and Tuesday night at 7:30 

November 18, 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 University Opera and filed this review, with rehearsal photos of students, who alternate roles in different performances, by Michael R. Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The only other time I attended a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” (1643) was in the early 1980s at The San Francisco Opera. Despite the appearance of Tatiana Troyanos as Poppea, I remember being baffled by both the static nature of the music and the grandness of the production of what seemed should be an intimate opera.

That memory, in addition to my being a fan of 20th-century music, made attending the opening performance of University Opera’s performance Friday evening fraught with foreboding.

Despite the production being a lengthy three hours, I must praise the ensemble and director David Ronis — who never disappoints — for keeping my attention throughout the evening as I witnessed an intimate retelling of the passion between Nero and Poppea (portrayed below by Benjamin Hopkins and Anja Pustaver).

The opera was staged in Music Hall on a semicircular platform with the small instrumental ensemble directly to the front side of the audience. Stunning lighting and beautiful costumes made up for the minimal set. I was seated in the center of the first row of the balcony and must say that the sightlines and the sound were superb, even though it was very hot up there. (Below is the coronation scene with Hopkins and Pustaver in the center.)

The ensemble was conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below) whom I had heard conduct the UW Symphony Orchestra the night before in a rousing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The plucked instruments – harp, guitars, theorbo (I had to look it up, too) and harpsichords – were the backbone of the accompaniment. Strings and recorders completed the orchestra, and they were a delight to the ear – totally delicate and restrained.

The plot of the opera involves love triangles and political intrigue. The supertitles created by David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Dalalio) were amusing and colloquial. So much of the political posturing by Nero, whose main motivation is consistently self-interest, seemed to be pertinent to our time.

Nero was sung by countertenor Thomas Aláan who has a voice of great agility and expressiveness. His lover, Poppea, who yearns to be his empress, was sung by Talia Engstrom. Hers is a voice of great suppleness and flexibility. Throughout the evening she acted and sang with great subtlety, and I admired her performance very much.

I had been primed for the opera’s very final duet (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) to be the most sublime moment of the opera, but I was much more aroused by the farewell duet between Nero and Poppea toward the end of the first act. It was highly charged vocally and erotic in its beauty and delivery.

Other characters included Seneca, portrayed by bass Benjamin Galvin (below left front, surrounded, from left to right, by Eliav Goldman, Jack Innes, Jiabao Zhang, Jake Elfner and Noah Bossert.) The lower range of his voice is profound and impressive.

Kevin Green (below right with Pustaver) portrayed the hapless Ottone, and his baritone voice shows promise.

It was, however, a night for the female singers. Cayla Rosché’s Ottavia was beautifully sung. She was completely believable as the spurned wife of Nero. Likewise Kelsey Wang’s Drusilla, Ottone’s second choice, was also wonderfully sung.

In the first scene we were introduced to Fortuna, Virtù and Amore who shone vocally. Throughout the remainder of the opera they silently hovered in the background as visual reminders of the forces driving the plots. Love, portrayed by Emily Vandenberg, eventually triumphed and got to sing a bit more.

There were moments of humor sprinkled throughout the production. I do not know how historically informed they were, but they did help to lighten the heaviness of the political intrigue and amorous complexities.

Some were perhaps unintentional – particularly the absurdly amusing wig that Fortuna wore. But Professor Mimmi Fulmer, in the small role as Nutrice, had a moment of complete hilarity. Her performance – both vocally and as an actress – underlined the contrast between earnestly serious, focused students and a relaxed, confident professional. (Below is the final scene with Nero and Poppea).

Altogether, it was a surprisingly engaging evening. There remain chances to see it this afternoon and Tuesday evening. It is not a brief or light evening of entertainment, but it is wholly engaging, thought provoking, timely and certainly something out of the ordinary.

Two more performances take place in Music Hall: today at 2 p.m. and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. For more information including how to get tickets – adults are $25, seniors are $20 and students are $10 — go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-monteverdis-the-coronation-of-poppea/

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Classical music: A busy week at the UW-Madison brings an early opera and an all-Bernstein brass and winds program plus orchestral and choral concerts that will be LIVE-STREAMED

November 14, 2018
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR SHARE IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event

By Jacob Stockinger

A busy week brings an early opera plus orchestral and choral concerts with live streaming to the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Here are details:

On Thursday and Saturday nights, the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music will LIVE STREAM concerts by the UW Symphony Orchestra and the UW Concert Choir.

“We plan to do more live streaming of ensemble groups,  especially large ones, and of non-ticketed events,” says concert manager Katherine Esposito. “It is more and more becoming the norm for music schools.”

Here is the all-purpose Live Streaming link where you can see what events will be live-streamed: https://www.music.wisc.edu/video/

At 7:30 p.m. on Thursday night, Nov. 15, in Mills Hall, the UW Symphony Orchestra (below top) will perform a FREE concert under director Chad Hutchinson (below bottom).

The program is American composer Jennifer Higdon’s “Blue Cathedral” and the Symphony No. 5 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

For information about the program and the concert, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-madison-symphony-orchestra-2/

On Saturday night, Nov. 17,  at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Concert Choir (below) will perform a FREE concert featuring the “Hymn to St. Cecilia” by British composer Benjamin Britten and “Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah” by Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera as well as works by several other composers.

Conductors will be Beverly Taylor (below), the director of choral activities at the UW-Madison, and graduate student Michael Johnson.

For details about the program and individual performers, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-choir-2/

On Friday night, Nov. 16, at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall there is the first of three performances by the University Opera of Italian baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea,” directed by David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio).

Other performances are on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 18,  at 2 p.m. and Tuesday night, Nov. 20, at 7:30 in Music Hall. (Sorry, no photos of the UW production. But you can hear a famous duet from another professional production in the YouTube video below.)

Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and $10 for students.

Chad Hutchinson will conduct the orchestra.

For more information about the plot of the opera, comments by the two singers playing Emperor Nero, the production and tickets, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-monteverdis-the-coronation-of-poppea/

And here is a link to a press release about the opera: https://www.music.wisc.edu/2018/10/09/university-opera-poppea2018/

On Sunday night, Nov. 18, at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Brass Ensemble and the Winds of Wisconsin join forces under conductor Scott Teeple for an FREE all-Leonard Bernstein (below) program. For details, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-wind-ensemble-and-winds-of-wisconsin-joint-concert/


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Classical music: The new FREE concert brochure for the UW-Madison’s music school is both entertaining and informative — it’s a MUST-GET, MUST-READ and MUST-USE

September 15, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The new 2018-19 concert season has started. And the Internet makes it very easy to take out your date book and plan out what you want to attend.

If you just use Google to go to home websites, you will find lots of information about the dates and times of performances; cost of tickets; works on the program; biographies of performers; and even notes about the pieces.

That is true for all large and small presenters, including the biggest presenter of all for live classical music events: The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. Just click on the Events Calendar when you go to http://www.music.wisc.edu

You can also subscribe to an email newsletter by sending an email to: join-somnews@lists.wisc.edu

And you can also download the helpful mobile app for your smart phone that gives you what is happening today with searches possible for other months and days.

But there is something more old-fashioned that you should not forego: the printed season brochure (below).

It is 8-1/2 by 11 inches big and has 24 pages, and it features numerous color photographs. Along the right hand edge is an easy-to-use calendar of major events for the month.

It is a fun and informative read that gives you even more respect for the School of Music than you already had because it contains a lot of background  and human interest stories about students, faculty members, guest artists, alumni and supporters. Editor and Concert Manager Katherine Esposito and her staff of writers and photographers have done an outstanding job.

The brochure also has a lot of news, including updates about the new Hamel Music Center that is being built on the corner of Lake Street and University Avenue and will open in 2019, and about the seat-naming, fundraising campaign ($1,500-plus) that is being used for the new performance center.

A particularly useful page (23) gives you information about ordering tickets (many have increased to $17 this year) either in advance or at the door (for the latter you are asked to show up 30 minutes early to avoid long lines); about finding parking, both free and paid; and about making special arrangements for disability access.

In larger and bolder type, the brochure tells you about stand-out special events: the 100th birthday tribute to Leonard Bernstein being held tonight (Saturday, Sept. 15) at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall; the fifth annual Brass Fest on Sept. 28 and 29; the University Opera’s production of Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” on Nov. 16, 18 and 20; the annual Schubertiade on Jan. 27; the world premiere of a viola sonata by John Harbison on Feb. 17; the Choral Union’s joint performance with the Madison Symphony Orchestra of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” (Symphony No. 8) on May 3, 4 and 5; and much, much more.

In short, the brochure is an impressive publication that also provides many hours of enjoyable browsing while you educate yourself about the state of music education at the UW-Madison.

The only major shortcoming The Ear perceives is that lack of specific programs by some individuals and groups that must surely know what they are going to perform this season but apparently didn’t report it. Maybe that can be remedied, at least in part, next year.

Still, the brochure is successful and popular, which is why the UW sent out 13,000 copies – up from 8,000 last year. If you want to get one, they will be available at concerts until supplies run out. You can also order one to be mailed to you by emailing music@music.wisc.edu

Do you have the UW music brochure?

What do you think of it?

Do you find it useful? Enjoyable?

What do you suggest to improve the brochure, either by adding something or deleting something or doing it differently?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: University Opera’s updated Hollywood production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” proves a triumph on all counts. Plus, FREE Opera Scenes concert is Tuesday night

November 20, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a guest review by The Opera Guy of Giuseppe’s Verdi’s “Falstaff” as staged by the University Opera. Performance photos are by Michael Anderson.

By Larry Wells

In the past few years I’ve seen Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” set in the Spanish Civil War, Wagner’s Ring cycle re-imagined as the history of cinema, and Puccini’s “Turandot” presented as a performance by a traveling circus.

Thus, Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’ set in 1930’s Hollywood seemed a reasonable reinterpretation, and so it proved at its final performance Tuesday evening by University Opera.

“Falstaff,” drawn from three plays by Shakespeare, is Verdi’s final opera and a rare comedy. More importantly, gone are his familiar forms of a recitative followed by an aria with lots of oom-pa-pa orchestral accompaniment, now replaced with a conversational style that to me shows Wagner’s influence. It just doesn’t sound like Verdi, but it certainly sounds good.

I felt that the whole evening was a triumph.

The sets were beautifully dressed, the costumes were excellent and the lighting was effective.

uw-falstaff-set-and-cast-michael-anderson

The UW Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Smith, played wonderfully, although from where I sat the sound was occasionally muffled.

Thank goodness a new music building is being built, and I trust that there will be a theater within it that will accommodate operatic performances. The current Music Hall has its limitations, one being that much of the orchestra was playing underneath the stage and another being that for some reason the theater’s temperature cannot be controlled. It was stiflingly hot during the performance.

As for the singing and acting, the cast I saw was uniformly strong. Falstaff, performed by UW-Madison faculty member Paul Rowe (below), was very robust and was particularly affecting during his act III soliloquy. The Ear mentioned to me his Oliver Hardy mannerisms, and once I noticed that I was constantly amused.

uw-falstaff-paul-rowe

Yanzelmalee Rivera as Alice was hilarious in her seduction scene and really came alive in Act III. Courtney Kayser as Meg was a compelling comic actress. Rebecca Buechel’s Mistress Quickly was an equally adept comic actress and had an excellent voice. Emily Weaver as Nannetta was a beautiful singer who shone in her third act moments as Queen of the Fairies. These four women had some outstanding ensemble moments, and I was constantly diverted by their antics as they outwitted the men.

Among the hapless male characters, Brian Schneider was a standout as Ford and the deep voice of Benjamin Schultz (below left, with Paul Rowe and Jiabao Zhang) made the minor character Pistola noticeable whenever he was on stage.

uw-falstaff-benjamin-schultz-left-paul-rowe-and-jiabao-zhang

But the voice of the evening belonged to tenor José Daniel Muñiz (below right) as Fenton. He excelled not only in his solo moments but blended extremely well with his paramour Nannetta (Claire Powling, below left).

uw-falstaff-jose-muniz-and-claire-powling

The outstanding ensemble work exhibited throughout the opera culminated in the grand fugue at the end of the opera, and the nearly full-house audience was blown away by those final moments. (You can hear the fugal finale, conducted by Sir George Solti, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The 1930’s Hollywood concept worked well. It seemed completely fitting and was undoubtedly more amusing than it would have been had the opera been set in the time of Henry IV.

“Well done” to the University Opera’s new full-time director David Ronis (below center) for his imagination and direction. I look forward to his production of Benjamin Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” in early March.

uw-falstaff-david-ronis

And since this University Opera production and other events are being presented to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the exhibition of a First Folio at the Chazen Museum of Art, I want to put in a plug for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Sir John in Love” which has almost exactly the same plot as “Falstaff” and is woefully underperformed.

I also want to draw your attention the FREE Opera Scenes concert by University Opera that will be presented this Tuesday night, Nov. 22, at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall. Featured are singers, with piano accompaniment, in scenes from: Charles Gounod’s “Faust”; Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea“; Giacomo Puccini‘s “La Rondine”; Leonard Bernstein‘s “Trouble in Tahiti”; Gioacchino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”;  Dominick Argento’s “Postcard From Morocco”; and Marc Blitzstein’s”Regina.” 


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