The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: University Opera succeeded brilliantly by setting Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the 1960s at Andy Warhol’s The Factory

November 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells — the Opera Guy for this blog – took in two performances last weekend of the University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which played to three sold-out houses at Music Hall. He filed this review. Performance photos are by Benjamin Hopkins and Michael Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was set in Andy Warhol’s Factory of the 1960s with countertenor Thomas Alaan (below) as a Warhol-like Oberon presiding over the antics.

The opera by Britten (below) follows Shakespeare’s play fairly closely. The magical transformations and herbs of the original were translated to a hallucinogen-filled milieu of go-go dancing fairies, master-slave relationships and same-sex liaisons.

And for me it worked. That is to say, this production contained the same strangeness and wonder as the traditional productions I have seen. The play itself is very strange and wonderful.

Alaan is a fine singer and played a manipulative and somewhat slimy Warhol/Oberon whose flat affect seemed to be reflected in the relative lack of expressivity in the voice. Pitted against Oberon were Amanda Lauricella and Kelsey Wang alternating as Tytania.

Although the program stated that the portrayal of Tytania was loosely based on Edie Sedgwick in this production, without the platinum hair I missed the references. Both portrayals were much more assertive than Edie ever was, and both singers’ ardent coloratura voices tended to overshadow Oberon’s, which may have been intentional. Wang (below, far right) was an intense actress who put sparks into her portrayal, while Lauricella really has a superb voice.

(Below, from left, are Michael Kelley as Puck; Thomas Alaan as Oberon; Tanner Zocher as a young man; and Kelsey Wang as Tytania.)

The four lovers (below left) seemed to be employees at The Factory. Tenor Benjamin Liupaogo portrayed Lysander. The vocal part has an uncomfortable upper range, but Liupaogo’s singing in the second act particularly was up to the challenge.

His rival Demetrius was portrayed by baritone Kevin Green. Their contending affections for Hermia and Demetrius’ initial scorn for Helena were oddly lacking in ardor.

Hermia was double cast with Julia Urbank, a promising soprano, and Chloe Agostino, who was also a very good singer. Poor Helena, first ignored and then pursued by both men, was also double cast with a terrific Rachel Love and an equally gifted Jing Liu.

(The four lovers, below from left, were: Benjamin Liupaogo as Lysander; Chloe Agostino as Hermia; Jing Liu as Helena;, Kevin Green as Demetrius; and Paul Rowe as Theseus with Lindsey Meekhof as Hippolyte.)

As I have noted before, the female singers in the opera program often seem to be very solid performers. (You can hear the lovers’ quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And then there were the “Rustics” (below), the workers who have come together to put on the play “Pyramus and Thisbe” for the upcoming wedding of the local duke, or in this case a rich art patron.

(The six rustics, below from left, were: James Harrington as Bottom; Jacob Elfner as Quince; Benjamin Galvin as Snug; Jack Innes as Starveling; Thore Dosdall as Flute; Jeffrey Larson as Snout; with Kevin Green as Demetrius, seated.)

The six men were each talented comic actors and provided many of the performance’s laughs. Foremost was James Harrington’s Bottom. Not only a very funny actor, he produced in my opinion the finest singing among the many talented students.

Mention must be made of the very amusing Flute, hysterically portrayed by Thore Dosdall, and the promising bass Benjamin Galvin as the slow learner Snug.

These men not only sang well together and separately, but also provided many guffaws whenever they appeared. (Below are: Jacob Elfner as Quince; Jeffrey Larson as Snout; James Harrington as Bottom; Jack Innes – back row up on box – as Starveling; Benjamin Galvin as Snug; and Thore Dosdall as Flute.)

Additionally we had the fairies — all female voices in this production — who sounded wonderful together and got to demonstrate their incongruous ‘60s dance moves to Britten’s score.

Professor Paul Rowe (below left, with Lindsey Meekhof as Hippolyta) made an appearance as Theseus, the duke. His singing was that of a mature artist, a quality to which the students are clearly aspiring.

As the opera drew to a close with a beautifully harmonious chorus, one felt the transformation from dissonance to harmony in the opera and conflict to resolution embodied in the original play.

Many mentions of woods and forest are made in the libretto.  Director David Ronis had the walls of the factory cleverly hung with changing arrays of Warhol-like multiple images of flowers and animals. With the amount of weed being smoked and who knows what being ingested onstage, it was easy to believe that the characters might think they were in a forest despite being in a Manhattan warehouse (below).

(The cast, below from left, included Amanda Lauricella and Thomas Alaan in the foreground as Tytania and Oberon. Others were: Julia Urbank on the floor; Benjamin Liupaogo, on the floor; Chloe Flesch; Maria Steigerwald; Amanda Lauricella; Maria Marsland; Angela Fraioli; Thomas Aláan; and James Harrington lying on the couch.)

Presiding over all of this were members of the UW Symphony Orchestra led by new conductor Oriol Sans (below). I have heard maestro Sans conduct the students several times this fall, and I feel he is an outstanding addition to the music school. His control over the forces was amazing, and the subtlety he drew from the players was remarkable.

Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio) has tried original twists in several of his previous productions, but I think this has been the most outlandish. And I have to say that I really loved it. So carry on, please.

He has a penchant for Britten, one of my favorite composers. His previous productions included “Albert Herring” and “Turn of the Screw.” I wonder if readers have suggestions for another Britten opera he could conceivably produce here. I have my own wish list.

 


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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: Madison Opera gives completely satisfying and nearly perfect performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci.” Here are four reviews

November 8, 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 performance photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

I attended performances of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” presented by the Madison Opera at Overture Hall last Sunday afternoon.

Each of the operas is an hour and a quarter long. At least for “Cavalleria” (below), the time flew by while I was captivated by the good singing, excellent playing and charming staging. The opera is tightly constructed and the production flowed effortlessly to its dramatic conclusion.

The feckless mama’s boy Turridu was ably portrayed by tenor Scott Piper (below top) who sang beautifully throughout. His nemesis, Alfio, was sung by baritone Michael Mayes (below bottom). Mayes has an excellent voice and terrific musicianship, but he tended to overact.

The star of the show was soprano Michelle Johnson (below) as Santuzza.  Her big aria “Voi lo sapete” and her duets with Piper were rapturously dramatic. Her supple and nuanced performance had me uncharacteristically leaping to my feet and shouting “Brava!” as she took her curtain call. Hers is a voice I hope to hear again soon.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra shone throughout the performance, ably led by guest conductor Joseph Mechavich (below). I cannot recall hearing before such subtle control of its orchestral voices, and the ensemble glimmered in the well-known intermezzo. (You can hear that famous and beautiful Intermezzo, used in the film “The Godfather” and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

The set and costumes, the bravura singing by the chorus, and the lighting were all above expectations. It was a completely satisfying experience.

“Pagliacci” is a more troublesome work for me. It has moments of lyrical genius but also what to me seems like filler – the chorus going on too long about getting to vespers, for example.

Mayes (below) portrayed the villainous Tonio in this opera.  Although his prologue was beautifully sung, his creepy overacting was a bit too much. For example, when Nedda spat at him in contempt, he wiped the spittle from his face and then licked his hand. His final utterance “La commedia e finita” was overly dramatic and lacking irony.

Piper sang the clown Canio (below), and by the time he got to the showpiece aria “Vesti la giubba” I was nervous that he would not be able to hit all the high notes. He did hit the notes, but it will take a couple more years for this role to fit his voice comfortably.

Nedda was portrayed by sensational Talise Trevigne (below bottom). Her big aria “Stridono lassù” was sung beautifully, and the orchestra shimmered in its accompaniment. Her duet with her lover Silvio, ably sung by baritone Benjamin Taylor (below top), was another highlight of the production.

Once again, the orchestral interlude was beautifully played.

Altogether, this was almost a perfect afternoon at Madison Opera. There appeared to be a gratifyingly large number of younger people attending, which I took as a good sign for the future. (Below is the tragic final scene of “Pagliacci” with Robert Goodrich, Michael Mayes and Scott Piper.)

I look forward to the next production: Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” on Feb. 8 and 10. I saw it recently at Des Moines Metropolitan Opera, so I am interested to see how it will compare.

When all is said and done, I enjoyed “Pagliacci” but feel it is inferior to “Cavalleria.” Although both operas are frequently performed together, I have attended other pairings for “Cavalleria” including one with Puccini’s comic short opera “Gianni Schicchi.” That combination worked well. I wonder: Do readers have other suggestions for pairings?

Editor’s note: Everyone has an opinion. How did you and other critics find the Madison Opera productions? Leave your opinion in the COMMENTS section. And here are links to some other reviews:

Here is the review John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/music/satisfying-double-bill/

Here is the review, with a historical bent, that Greg Hettmansberger wrote for his blog “What Greg Says”: https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2018/11/06/madison-opera-goes-old-school/

 And here is what Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times newspaper: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/love-revenge-passion-violence-open-the-season-at-madison-opera/article_1c27e195-cc2f-5826-9502-00544b88fae6.html


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