The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: In Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” the Madison Opera demonstrated how beautiful music and convincing stagecraft can overcome a weak story

May 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of “Rusalka” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Sunday afternoon performance of Antonin Dvorak’s opera “Rusalka” presented by Madison Opera in Overture Hall. Until then I had only heard recordings of this lushly orchestrated work.

The opera is a fairy tale involving a rather dithering water sprite (below right) who does not follow her father’s wise advice not to pursue a mortal prince (below left) and to stick to her own kind. She ignores his advice, and this leads to her eventual unhappiness and to the death of her prince.

That she also becomes mute when in the presence of the prince adds to everyone’s woes, and it seems a peculiar device to have the lead soprano not be able to sing for most of the second act of the opera.

Her inability to communicate naturally leads to the prince’s frustration, and my companion suggested that she could simply have used paper and pencil to communicate. But since she had been brought up in a river, perhaps she never learned to read and write.

Nevertheless, common sense did not seem to inhabit either Rusalka or her prince. As my companion also pointed out, love isn’t always logical.

In any event, the production and the music made up for the libretto’s shortcomings.

The set featured beautiful projections, from the Minnesota Opera, of forest, water and woodlands during the first and third acts.

The second act took place at the prince’s palace. It appeared to be an International Style palace in the manner of architect Mies van de Rohe, which must have also been disconcerting for Rusalka. Nonetheless, the set was very striking and beautifully lit.

Tenor John Lindsey (below top) portrayed the prince and William Meinert (below bottom left, with Emily Birsan) was Rusalka’s father, a water goblin. Both sang well, although Lindsey had the distracting habit of casting his chin and eyes downward as he sang.


But the stage belonged to the women.

Emily Birsan (below) as Rusalka was a study in subtle shadings of her expressive soprano voice (below, singing the famous  aria “Song to the Moon”). She is a powerful singer and convincing actress who was engaging to watch and to hear.

Lindsay Ammann (below) as the sorceress Jezibaba was powerful in voice and in her command of the stage. Her third act aria was sensational, and her calling Rusalka a “empty little water bubble” was so apt it made the audience titter.

The villainous Foreign Princess portrayed by Karin Wolverton (below, standing over John Lindsey) seemed to be the only sensible character in the opera. She likewise commanded the stage and displayed a powerful voice with passionate commitment to her role.

Three water sprites – portrayed by Kirsten Larson, Saira Frank and Emily Secor (below, in order from left) – provided Rhine maiden-like commentary and gorgeous vocalizations despite having to wander around the stage at times seeming to be fascinated by twigs.

A shout-out goes to tenor Benjamin Liupaogo (below), still a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, who only sang a couple of lines but sang them very beautifully. He is someone to watch!

The Madison Symphony Orchestra was conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). The strings and winds sounded particularly good that day, and DeMain brought out all of the interesting Bohemian folky gestures Dvorak included in the score. I found Dvorak’s orchestral score engaging throughout the performance. (You can hear the opening Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Altogether it was charming afternoon of beautiful music, excellent singing and fetching staging of a strange tale.

Madison Opera has announced its upcoming season offerings, which are Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” (Nov. 1 and 3), Gregory Spears’ “Fellow Travelers” (here Feb. 7 and 9, it has already hit Chicago and Minneapolis and is slated for Tucson next season as well), and Jacques Offenbach’s comic “Orpheus in the Underworld” (April 17 and 19).

It seems a very interesting season, and subscription tickets will go on sale in early May. For more information, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org


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Classical music: A busy week at the UW spotlights choral and vocal music with some wind, brass and guitar music included

November 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s going to be a busy week at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

And especially if you are a fan of choral music, there is much to attract you.

Here is run-down by the day:

TODAY

At 3 p.m. in Mills Hall is a FREE concert of Combined Choirs that features the Women’s Chorus (below), the University Chorus and the Masters Singers.

Sorry, no word about the program, but the groups’ past record suggests excellent programs are in store.

TUESDAY

From noon to 1:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, William Buchman (below), who is assistant principal bassoon of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a faculty member at DePaul University in Chicago, will give a master class that is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

At 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall on Bascom Hill, University Opera a FREE Fall Opera Scenes program with UW student singers (below form last year).

Featured are excerpts from four operas and one Broadway musical: “The Marriage of Figaro” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; “Orpheus in the Underworld” by Jacques Offenbach; “Der Freischuetz” (The Marksman or Freeshooter) by Carl Maria von Weber; and “Carousel” by Rodgers and Hammerstein,

WEDNESDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Wisconsin Brass Quintet (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) will give a FREE concert.

Members of the faculty ensemble are Alex Noppe and Matthew Onstad, trumpets; Mark Hetzler, trombone; Tom Curry, tuba; and Daniel Grabois, horn.

The program includes: Johann Schein: Three Psalm Settings; Peter Maxwell Davies, arr. Matthew Onstad: “Farewell to Stromness” (1980), from The Yellow Cake Review; Jan Radzynski: Take Five (1984); Gunther Schuller’s Music for Brass Quintet (1961); and Alvin Etler’s Quintet for Brass Instruments (1966).

For more information, go to http://www.wisconsinbrassquintet.com

THURSDAY

From 10 a.m. until noon in Morphy Recital Hall, the acclaimed Grammy Award-winning guitarist Sharon Isbin (below), who will perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this coming weekend, will give a FREE master class that is OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

FRIDAY

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Madrigal Singers (below top), under conductor Bruce Gladstone (below bottom, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), will present Part 2 of “Israelsbrünnlein” (Fountains of Israel) by the Baroque composer Johann Hermann Schein.

According to program notes, “Johann Hermann Schein’s collection of 26 motets from 1623 has long been considered the most important set of motets in the early 17th century. Schein (below), frustrated that there wasn’t a true counterpart of the Italian madrigal to be found in German music, set out to marry the expressiveness of the madrigal to German texts.

“In this case, he chose to set sacred and mostly biblical texts, rather than the secular poetry found in most madrigals. His set of spiritual madrigals display both moments of pure joy and exultation as well as heartbreaking sadness and longing.

“Last fall, the Madrigal Singers presented the first 13 of these motets, and this fall, we finish out the collection with motets 14-26.

“This music is incredibly moving and remarkably fresh, revealing a marked sensitivity to the texts and a mastery of musical expression.” (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

SATURDAY

At 8 p.m., in Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Avenue, the Low Brass Ensemble will give a FREE recital. No word on composers or pieces on the program.

At 8 p.m. in Mils Hall, the group Chorale, under conductor Bruce Gladstone will present “Songs to Live By.”

Programs notes read: “Music has always had a way to touch our souls the way other things cannot. When paired with poetry that speaks honestly to the human condition, it can lift us out of the merely abstract, touching our souls and offering insight on how we can be better at being human and humane.

“The Chorale offers a choral song-cycle by composer Gwyneth Walker (below) on autobiographical poems by Virginia Hamilton Adair, as well as three works by Elizabeth Alexander:  “How to Sing Like a Planet”; “If You Can Walk You Can Dance”; and “Finally On My Way To Yes.”

“Also on the program is Joshua Shank’s “Rules To Live By,” a heartfelt and moving piece whose text was written by the commissioning ensemble.

SUNDAY

At 5 p.m., in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Wind Ensemble (below top) and Winds of Wisconsin will give a FREE joint concert.

Scott Teeple will conduct with guest violinist, Professor Soh-Hyun Altino (below bottom, in a photo by Caroline Bittencourt) soloing.

Here is the program:

UW-Madison Wind Ensemble:

“Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, #2,” by Joan Tower

Concerto for Violin and Wind Ensemble, by Robert Hutchinson with the violinist Park Altino

Winds of Wisconsin:

“Chester Overture for Band,” by William Schuman

“A Child’s Embrace” by Charles Rochester Young

“Vesuvius,” by Frank Ticheli

Combined UW Wind Ensemble and Winds of Wisconsin:

“Folk Dances,” by Dmitri Shostakovich


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