A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Oct 4, 2011
09:58 AM
Classically Speaking

Fresco Opera’s “Big Top Opera” Eschews Safety Nets

Fresco Opera’s “Big Top Opera” Eschews Safety Nets

 The goal of Fresco Opera is to bring opera to audiences who don’t know the difference between Rigoletto and rigatoni—but also to engage the operatically enlightened by adding a twist to “Tosca.” In either case, full-blown opera and its centuries-long traditions are both tossed out in favor of contextual creativity.

Knowing this, my curiosity was thoroughly piqued on Friday for the first of three presentations of Big Top Opera at the Overture Center’s Promenade Hall. Perhaps it was the authentic touch of selling genuine Crackerjack at intermission, but I kept coming back to baseball analogies: by the end of the night, the scorecard indicated that Fresco had scored on occasion, played with passion throughout, and even hit a home run.

To be true to the company’s conceit on this occasion, the night opened with Jonathan Ten Brink as the Ringmaster, singing the prologue from I Pagliacci, the opera famously set in a circus troupe. Brink was engaging throughout the evening, but here and later in a duet from Rigoletto, his rich lower and mid-range gave way to somewhat tentative upper notes.

Another apt visual followed with the “Fire Aria” from Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges. Caitlin Cisler entered with a scorching high note and her vocalism matched the bright costume, complimented by the large screen backdrop projections of fire.

Throughout the evening, a small ensemble of Jess Salek, piano, Laura Burns, violin, Christine Liu, viola, and cellist Michael Allen provided stylish arrangements usually distilled from full orchestra versions.

A cleverly costumed Kassy Coleman was “Princess Charming,” one side dressed in a major-domo uniform, the other half in a beautiful gown. She sang a duet with herself, so to speak, from Massenet’s Cendrillon (“Cinderella”); while the singing was consistently expressive, the alternating visual profiles were funnier than the vocalism—after all, Coleman’s voice is pure Cinderella.

The only greater miss in mismatching the vocal original with occasionally forced visual contexts came with a “Wheel of Death” for the Gilda/Rigoletto duet from Verdi’s famous opera. While Brink and Cisler played up her reluctance to be the participant on the wheel, the duet is really about the hunchback’s obsession for revenge of his daughter’s seduction, and anyone familiar with Verdi’s masterpiece might have counted this as the one strikeout of the night, despite solid to excellent singing.

But there was a home run in store: Saira Frank as the Airwalker, singing an aria from Bellini’s La Sonnambula (“The Sleepwalker”) and using a balance beam and parasol as convincing props. Best of all, Saira provided the best singing of the night, with colors that emerged in a crescendo, or as a phrase was gently finished off.

There were other examples of well-matched ideas with superior singing: the Strongman of Benjamin Schoening in “There’s a Law” from Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti; Brianne and Erin Sura as “Suramese Twins,” in the sisters’ duet from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte; Diana Kelly Eiler as Baba the Turk in a number from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.

Fresco co-founder Melanie Cain nearly found herself upstaged by three adorably cuddly tigers and lion as she played the Tamer of Beasts in an aria from Beethoven’s Fidelio. She gets credit as director of the show as well, but certainly managed to display her own powerful vocalism to full advantage.

But wait—there’s more! A real circus quality was added by various characters, but also entire acts by Josh B’Gosh, with some great audience participation in a bed of nails trick and later a straitjacket escape that was even more impressive. And the aerial artists Cyrcopia gave a “Cirque de Soleil-lite” touch with a signature aerial dance with low trapeze.

But one of the most mesmerizing moments of the show, just before Cain’s final number, also proved the most frustrating. Hula Hoop artist Samantha Olson all but hypnotized the audience with incredibly smooth gyrations with two large hoops, accompanied by the music of Clarisse Tobia. Billed as a world premiere, the Sura sisters sang, but for the only time all night, the lyrics could not be clearly heard and there was no accompanying projection. Unfortunately there was no program bio for Olson (although she’s likely to attract attention now that she’s back in Madison for awhile)—and I’d love to hear “Stella” again, or other work by Ms. Tobia.

Well, at least I had my Crackerjack—and the prize in the box wasn’t the only goody on this night. Fresco Opera continues to accomplish their mission; if world-famous directors can destroy whole operas in a single night, there’s nothing wrong with having some fun and taking some chances, one aria at a time. I’ll be back for their next show—and I hope that some folks in the audience that were new to opera last Friday will now try a full production, as the Fresco program booklet urged them to do.

Photograph of Samantha Olson, hula hoop artist, by Max Wendt.

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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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