The Well-Tempered Ear

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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Classical music: The reviews are in — and they are all raves. This afternoon is your last chance to hear the season-opening concert by maestro John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra with piano soloist Emanuel Ax

September 30, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Are you still undecided about whether to attend the season-opening concert — this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall — by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), with world-famous piano soloist Emanuel Ax (below bottom, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)?

Perhaps the following rave reviews — which all agree on quality of the program and the performances that start DeMain’s 25th anniversary season and the MSO’s 93rd season — will help you to make up your mind.

The program is certainly an attractive one. It features the curtain-raising  “Fanfare Ritmico” by the living American composer Jennifer Higdon (below); Sergei Prokofiev’s dramatic and appealing score to the ballet “Romeo and Juliet” in a suite specially put together by DeMain; and the monumental Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83, by Johannes Brahms.

Here is a link to a longer background story with details about the program, the performers and tickets, which run $18-$93:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/09/26/classical-music-this-weekend-pianist-emanuel-ax-helps-conductor-john-demain-opens-his-25th-season-with-the-madison-symphony-orchestra/

Here is a review written by Matt Ambrosio (below), a graduate student at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, for The Capital Times:

https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/music/madison-symphony-orchestra-gets-its-season-off-to-a-strong/article_3b90302e-b354-5e95-817c-23a0dffe6950.html

And here is the lengthy review — with many discerning details about the background and the actual performance — from the veteran and very knowledgeable reviewer Greg Hettmansberger (below) from his blog “What Greg Says”:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2018/09/29/john-demain-launches-his-25th-madison-symphony-season/

Unfortunately, The Ear could not find an opening-night  review by John W. Barker, who usually covers the MSO for Isthmus.

Of course, you can be a critic too. If you already have heard the MSO concert, either on Friday or Saturday night, please leave your own remarks – positive or negative – in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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