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: The UW-Madison Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra perform the Duruflé Requiem and Kodaly “Te Deum” this coming Saturday and Sunday nights

December 5, 2018
3 Comments

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

By Jacob Stockinger

In Mills Hall this coming Saturday night, Dec. 8, at 8 p.m. and Sunday night, Dec. 9, at 7:30 p.m., the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union (below, in a  photo by John W. Barker) and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform two works: the Requiem by Maurice Duruflé; and the “Te Deum” by Zoltan Kodaly.

The Choral Union is a campus and community choral group that performs once each semester. This spring, it will take part in three performances of the Symphony No. 8, “The Symphony of a Thousand,” by Gustav Mahler with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, where conductor Beverly Taylor is the choral director.

In addition to the chorus and the orchestra there are student soloists.

In the Duruflé Requiem, the student soloists are: Michael Johnson, baritone; and Chloe Flesch, mezzo-soprano (below).

In the Kodaly “Te Deum,” the student soloists are:  Jing Liu, soprano; Chloe Flesch, mezzo-soprano; Benjamin Hopkins, tenor; and bass Ben Galvin.

Tickets cost $17 for the public, $8 for students.

For more information about the works as well as a YouTube video preview of the Kodaly and information about how to obtain tickets in advance or at the door, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/choral-union-the-durufle-requiem/

Beverly Taylor (below), the longtime director of Choral Activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music who will lead the performances, recently spoke to The Ear about the concert:

“I plan to retire in May 2020, so I’m picking some great music for my last few Choral Union concerts!

“I’ve always wanted to do the Duruflé Requiem, which Bruce Gladstone performed in Luther Memorial Church a few years ago in the organ version. But I knew we couldn’t get a good organ on stage in Mills Hall and still have room for the orchestra.

“I hadn’t realized that Duruflé (below) had written a full orchestra version without the organ, which is replaced by the woodwinds. So it seemed a wonderful piece to do. (You can hear the Kyrie movement from the Durufle Requiem in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

“Since I have the symphony orchestra only one semester, I ignore holiday music when it comes to programming for the Choral Union, and try to assemble a wonderful evening.

“The Duruflé piece sounds like music by Gabriel Fauré and other late French church works, with its less dramatic text choices and its warmth, lush color and tide-like swells and diminuendos.

“I’ve done the “Te Deum” by Kolday (below) twice before over my 24 years here. It continues to be a favorite, and I use it because I like it, because it’s about 20 minutes long and a good companion piece, and because it shows off the Choral Union so beautifully.

“It’s a work of great contrasts, from a thrilling opening to a quiet middle based on a Hungarian folksong, to a next-to-final fugato and to a very quiet ending.

“The only problem with this program?  Both pieces end quietly!  Can we still get a burst of applause?”


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