The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s “A Little Night Music” proved totally satisfying as both music and theater

February 13, 2019

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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear – went to both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center last weekend by the Madison Opera of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and filed the following review. Photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

Although I was familiar with the recording, my first experience seeing “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim (below) was in London 25 years ago. I remember it as a theatrical experience – it featured Judi Dench and was performed at the National Theatre – more than as a musical event.

Two years ago, I saw it performed by Des Moines Metro Opera, and although it was “operatic” it was also sabotaged by a confusing, even chaotic, production designed by Isaac Mizrahi.

I finally experienced the complete package with the recent performances by the Madison Opera. It was a totally satisfying combination of acting, music and theatrical design.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Little Night Music” concerns itself with mismatched lovers who are eventually properly paired or else reconciled.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the carryings-on are amusing, the dialogue is witty, and the lyrics are sophisticated.

One of the earliest numbers in the show — the trio of songs “Later,” “Now” and “Soon” — set the tone for the evening musically. Each was performed individually by three fine singers – Quinn Bernegger, Jeni Houser (below left) and Daniel Belcher (below right).

In a musical tour-de-force, the three songs ultimately combined into one. Houser’s clear tone, Benegger’s intense passion, and Belcher’s suave lyricism promised an outstanding musical experience to come. Special praise must go to Bernegger (below) who sang while comically, but skillfully, miming playing a cello.

One show-stopper was Sarah Day’s “Liaisons” which was really perfect in its world-weariness. Day (below) — from American Players Theatre in Spring Green — half-declaimed and half-sang such memorable lines of regret as, “What once was a sumptuous feast is now figs. No, not even figs. Raisins.” Or amusing internal rhymes like “…indiscriminate women it…”.  (I am completely taken by Sondheim’s clever use of language.)

Likewise, the singing of “Miller’s Son” by Emily Glick (below) was a good old Broadway rendition – no operatic pretense – and the audience, and I, loved it.

Charles Eaton (below left) as a puffed-up dragoon and Katherine Pracht (below right) as his long-suffering wife were both outstanding vocally and deftly comic.

The center of most of the activity was the character Desirée Armfeldt portrayed by Emily Pulley (below). At first I thought she was overacting, but then I realized that, of course, she was portraying a veteran stage actress – a matinee idol type – who had internalized theatrical gestures into her own character. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, and the lyrics finally made sense to me. (You can hear the familiar Judy Collins interpretation in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I would have to say that the star of the show was the chorus, a quintet of excellent voices – Stephen Hobe, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, Emily Secor and Cassandra Vasta. They waltzed through the action while sliding the panels and frames that comprised the set, moving props, and commenting on the action.

Never obtrusive but always necessary, I thought they were a delight. The three women got to sing a brief round “Perpetual Anticipation” that is another wonder of Sondheim’s musical imagination.

As mentioned, sliding panels, along with dropping frames and panels, comprised the set. The continuous changing of the panels, the blocking and the movements of the quintet were the creative product of stage director Doug Schulz-Carlson (below). There was often a whirlwind of activity, but I was never distracted.

The costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore seemed straight out of Edward Gorey – which is a good thing.  And altogether I felt it was the best production of the musical I’ve seen.

The orchestra was situated on stage behind the set, which made additional seats available close to the stage. People seated in those rows had to bend their necks to read the supertitles, but the diction was so consistently excellent that I rarely needed to even glance at the supertitles.

Praise is due for members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and particularly conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). I heard subtleties in the music that had heretofore eluded me, and that is always a reward for attending a live performance and is a tribute to the maestro.

I was happy to see a younger audience, particularly Friday night. Let us hope that they were enchanted enough to attend the upcoming production on April 26 and 28 of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”

This is an opera I have never seen; and until recently, I was familiar only with one of its arias, the so-called “Song to the Moon.”

But now that I have a recording, I realize that it is a musical treasure that should not be missed. I suppose the reasons it is not so frequently performed are that it is in Czech and its plot involves water sprites. But don’t let that stop you. The music is wonderful.

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Classical music: University Opera stages a compelling and fully engaging cabaret of Kurt Weill songs

October 29, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friend and colleague, The Opera Guy, has filed the following review.

By Larry Wells

I attended a nearly full-house opening of University Opera’s “A Kurt Weill Cabaret” Friday night in Music Hall on Bascom Hill.

The 90-minute show was comprised of about 20 numbers from the body of works by Weill (below, in a photo from the German Federal Archive. The ensembles, solos and duets were arranged into three sections with a loose narrative structure linking the pieces.

Throughout the evening I was unaware of the passage of time, which is one of my acid tests for a good performance. Likewise, I felt fully engaged.

Many of the numbers will be familiar to Weill’s fans. The well-known “Whiskey Bar/Alabama Song” was the opening solo for Sarah Kendall, who performed it more as a Puccini aria than as the world-weary, boozy Jenny. It was a novel and strangely compelling interpretation.

(Kendall performing “Whiskey Bar” with the company, is below in a photo by Michael R. Anderson, who took all the performance photographs)

More convincingly conveyed was “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” performed by the sprightly and clear-voiced Emily Weaver. “My Ship” sung by Miranda Kettlewell (below right, singing the Ice Cream Sextet with Alec Brown) was perfectly enunciated and movingly sung.

Since there were no supertitles, clear enunciation was a problem in a couple of the performances.

Likewise, mention should be made of Emily Vandenberg’s haunting rendition of “Surabaya Johnny.” (You can hear the legendary Weill interpreter Lotte Lenya sing “Surabaya Johnny” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

My favorite performances of the evening included “‘Youkali” by Talia Engstrom. My notes simply said “Perfection.” And my perennial favorite Courtney Kayser (below) did not disappoint with “J’attends un navire” and “Denn wie man sich bettet.” She is an excellent actress, possesses outstanding musicianship, and commands a clearly focused voice.

The women singers seriously overshadowed the men’s solo performances. I was wondering why that might have been. One possibility is that the men, who are trained operatically, find that they need to scale back their vocal projection for lighter vocal fare and in doing so sound constrained.

(Below, from back to front and left to right, are: Alec Brown, Jeff Larson, Jake Elfner, Sarah Kendall, Talia Engstrom, Matt Chastain in the “Benares Song.”)

Having said that, I thought Matt Chastain’s “Oh the Rio Grande” from the not well-known “Johnny Johnson” was both well sung and amusing to watch.

My companion admired the voice and acting of Alec Brown, and we both believed that Tim Emery is a dead ringer for a young Jimmy Stewart.

Some of the most compelling moments were the ensembles from Weill’s heavier works. “The Benares Song” highlighted Weill’s gravitas as a composer as did “Zu Potsdam unter den Eichen” from “Das Berliner Requiem.”

The cast members’ acting and vocal skills came to the forefront in these ensembles. (Below is “Zu Potsdam unter den Eichen” with Matt Chastain, Miranda Kettlewell, Alec Brown, Tim Emery, Emily Weaver, Eliav Goldman and Jeffrey Larson in the foreground).

Daniel Fung (below top) heroically provided the piano accompaniment without slacking for even a moment. Kudos to him. He was joined by a string bass and drum all conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below bottom) with unflaggingly appropriate tempi and dynamics.

This was the seventh production by David Ronis (below in a photo by Luke Delallio) for University Opera at the UW-Madison, and his consistently novel approach to the productions has made each one a joy. His commitment to quality and novelty is admirable.

I am eager to see what Ronis has in store for us this coming spring with “La Bohème” to be staged at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

I highly recommend attending “A Kurt Weill Cabaret,” which will be repeated this afternoon at 3 p.m. and Tuesday evening (Halloween night) at 7:30 p.m. Admission for the general public is $25; $20 for seniors; and $10 for UW students.

For more background and information about getting tickets, go to:

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