A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Jul 28, 2014
11:47 AMClassically Speaking
Opera in the Park Packs Them In, and Packs a Wallop
By the time the 2014 edition of Madison Opera's Opera in the Park closed with an encore of “It’s a Grand Night for Singing,” the assembled forces under John DeMain were only stating yet again what had been proved many times over for an audience of upwards of 14,000 folks in Garner Park Saturday night. General director Kathryn Smith has adopted a formula that was already well in place before she assumed the leadership of the company three years ago: Gather a quartet of truly exciting young singers, fill the shell with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and turn DeMain loose on a well-mixed repertoire of arias, choruses, operetta excerpts and Broadway tunes. And of course, don’t forget the glow sticks.
As usual the proceedings began with an appearance by Mayor Paul Soglin, and he was just loaded with good news: He highlighted a study just released this month by the Overture Center Foundation that discovered, among other things, that students who are consistently engaged in arts activities have a four percent dropout rate. Yes, that single digit is no typo. But wait, there’s more—Soglin announced that his budget recommendation to the City Council will include $1.75 million for the Overture Center. That of course was the amount requested by the Center last year, which the Mayor was not in favor of. Those days when the very future of the Overture Center seemed to hang in the balance seem distant indeed; one fervently hopes they remain a fading memory.
The musical festivities were co-hosted with welcome informality by Smith and WKOW television personality Brandon Taylor. Just four months into his new job on “Wake Up Wisconsin” it’s a good idea to break into the Madison scene in the spring and summer.
But the stars of the night were as usual the singers, soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine and mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta, Sean Panikkar, tenor and Kelly Markgraf, baritone. Giunta and Panikkar were in their company debuts, while Guarrine and Markgraf made welcome returns. They were thrown into a delightful mix and match of excerpts from the upcoming indoor season with a sprinkling of audience favorites and a couple of rarities.
Regarding the repertory we can look forward to, our appetite for Beethoven’s Fidelio was whetted by a delightful duet from Guarrine and Panikkar. Small blurbs in the program gave some context of the dramatic situation, and Smith and Taylor introduced the numbers in twos or threes with a bit more plot description, but one was reminded that opera is old school: no surtitles translating the singing above the stage, as is now standard in opera theaters worldwide. Result: The audience can focus on the core value of opera, glorious singing wedded to dramatic (or comic) music.
Markgraf followed with the villain’s aria from the Beethoven opus, and this was a true preview as he will appear in the role of Don Pizarro in November at the Overture Center. He had no problem adding a sinister streak to his commanding instrument.
Giunta made her initial appearance in the Rossini favorite, “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville, which will close the season next April. More’s the pity that she will not be here for it; she provided a model of coquettishness and vocal agility. It’s no wonder her itinerary includes the Metropolitan Opera these days.
Panikkar gave a luscious reading, marked by delicate accompaniment by DeMain and the MSO of “Che gelida manina” from La Boheme. The first half concluded with a pair of duets, the ladies in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito (not just melt-your-heart gorgeous, but persuasive enough to make one listener go back to an opera unjustly overlooked) and the men returned for the great duet from Verdi’s Don Carlo.
Of course the chorus isn’t onstage just for show, and along with contributing to some of the arias, we had been given the rarely heard “Bell Chorus” from Pagliacci. As DeMain rightly noted in his closing remarks, the Opera Chorus has continued to develop under the leadership of Anthony Cao.
The second half gave us excerpts from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, the middle production of the impending season, a beguiling aria from Lehár’s The Land of Smiles, courtesy of Mr. Panikkar, a real rarity, “Yes, My Heart” from the musical Carnival by Guarrine (need to hear more of that work, too), and a tour de force rendition of “The Miller’s Son” from A Little Night Music from Giunta.
As for the glow sticks, they came out in force for the “Toreador Song” with Markgraf charmingly aided by the ladies and chorus, and seemingly 10,000 glow sticks conducting along with DeMain during the chorus. Of course, some patrons wave them about other times, but who would dare complain? It isn’t often that one finds the time and place to combine great art, a sense of wonder, and to let one’s inner child out to play on a beautiful summer night—but it keeps happening in Madison once a year. Thank heavens!