A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Apr 30, 2012
07:00 AM
Classically Speaking



It can be easy to carp at operatic productions that take a composer’s original conception far afield, particularly when the attempt comes off as arbitrary — after all, if the music is given with excellence and the staging decent, shouldn’t that be enough?

Yes, but…we must allow for the possibility that a context is available to us that the composer could never have imagined, and that is precisely what Madison Opera gave us Friday night. In the first of two performances of Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella), the long-suffering fairy tale heroine was transported to Hollywood, 1933. It worked in Overture Hall, and then some — and singing that was essentially uniformly fabulous didn’t hurt, either.

Director Garnett Bruce remounted his 2004 production, originally seen at Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and scarcely had the overture commenced before we were drawn into this charming conceit: Film director Ramiro is frustrated in his search for a new leading lady, one of “honesty and integrity,” and takes the suggestion of one of Palace Pictures producers, Alidoro, to announce a search for the elusive star. All of this was played out in pantomime against the overture, with John DeMain conducting the Madison Symphony with his usual effervescence.

When the singing commences, the scene is the dilapidated vaudeville theatre of Magnifico, where his two favorite daughters, Clorinda and Tisbe, taunt and harass their stepsister, Angelina/Cinderella. I think you know the rest of the story…

Of course, Ramiro pretends to be his chauffeur so as to more accurately observe everyone’s true nature, etc., and Bruce and company seized every opportunity to delight in the farcical conventions.

More importantly, every crucial vocal sequence was given its due, regardless of context, beginning with the “love at first sight” duet between Cinderella and the disguised Ramiro. The former was Daniela Mack, who first previewed a portion of the role at last summer’s Opera in the Park. Mack made all the coloratura busy-ness seem second nature, and exhibited a voice of great warmth.

Gregory Schmidt was making his third appearance with Madison Opera, and based on Friday’s evidence, his resume of covering roles at venues such as the Metropolitan Opera will soon change to leading roles in the bigger houses.

If there was a surprise show stealer, it was Daniel Belcher in the role of Dandini — the actual driver, but who spends much of the opera masquerading as his boss, and loving every minute of it. In his company debut, Belcher displayed some spot-on comic contributions as well as some physical gifts: His duet with Magnifico, where the two of them toss an umbrella and a hat back and forth against the backdrop of a patter song was priceless. Fortunately he is equally adept at producing vocal memories.

Amy Mahoney and Jamie Van Eyck were the aforementioned Clorinda and Tisbe; neither are strangers to local audiences, and their performances renewed a desire to have them back.

Some might have missed the more traditional gowns and ballroom settings one might expect, but the upside was the delicious fun that was available, particularly in the finale of Act I. Set in the studio canteen, a number of the extras were recognizably garbed as folks one might have seen on such an occasion: Groucho and Harpo Marx, Jean Harlow, Errol Flynn, etc.

And so new General Director Kathryn Smith has presided over her “rookie” season in Madison — one she did not put in place, but was welcome in every respect. Her own first season was announced just last week: Verdi's “A Masked Ball,” Handel’s “Alcis and Galatea” and Mozart's pillar of the repertoire, “Don Giovanni.” While we wait with great anticipation for it to unfold, we have something much nearer on the calendar: Opera in the Park on July 21. See you there.

Photo: Daniela Mack, courtesy of James Gill Photography.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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