A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Oct 27, 2012
10:12 AM
Classically Speaking

Madison Opera Has a Ball Unmasking Verdi

Madison Opera Has a Ball Unmasking Verdi

Finally: Friday night was Madison’s first opportunity to gauge just what kind of General Director had been put at the helm when Kathryn Smith replaced Allan Naplan in the midst of Madison Opera's 50th anniversary season. Although last year was her first season on the job, she oversaw productions that had long been in place.

But when the curtain rose in Overture Hall on Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Masked Ball”), we had our first sight and sound of Smith’s vision of what this company should be.

If Friday night’s performance was an accurate predictor, then Madsion opera fans are in for an exciting ride.

Smith’s most crucial decision may also have been her best, placing Kristine McIntyre at the stage director’s controls for Verdi’s 1859 fact-based tale of the assassination of Sweden’s King Gustav III in 1792 (ok, so the love triangle is fiction — this is opera, after all).

From the opening scene it was obvious that this was an opera that looked where it belonged, no senseless updating, no exaggerated or silly stage play. McIntyre recognizes the work for what it is: plausible melodrama with characters far closer to three-dimensional than stock operatic stick figures with booming voices. “A Masked Ball” may not have the hit tunes of its immediate predecessors, Rigoletto and La Traviata, but is driven by integral ensemble writing, and this production consistently moved from one emotional dynamic to the next.

Smith has kept some Madison Opera traditions intact, most importantly the ability to blend casts of rising stars, both returning favorites and young folks making local debuts. Half of the ten principal roles were taken by singers making their Madison Opera stage debuts, including local products John Arnold and Caitlin Cisler. The returnees were anchored by baritone Hyung Yun, last season’s powerful Eugene Onegin, as Anckarstrom, the King’s trusted advisor whose wife is in love with his boss.

Yun possesses a level of subtlety to his stage presence that is an irresistible complement to his compelling vocalism, and he was largely matched by William Joyner. Last season’s Galileo, Joyner was cautious just in a few moments with some high notes, but was consistently expressive throughout. When it mattered most, he was a good match for Alexandra LoBianco’s Amelia. In her company debut, she offered the full extent of dynamics and range.

The sorceress Ulrica only gets to make her mark in the second scene of Act I, but Jeniece Golbourne had enough time to demonstrate that not only is she welcome back here anytime, but is likely to grace some of the world’s major stages as well, with a dark and smoky mezzo voice.

Act II is the place to give credit to Marcus Dilliard’s lighting design of the scenery of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City: the gallows at midnight scene moved from fog to filtered moonlight in myriad ways — a perfect prelude to the pending Freakfest that would surround the entire Overture Center the next night.

Stalwart John DeMain was in the pit as usual, eliciting fabulous ensemble effects from this rich score, and again revealing a deft hand for pacing. Kudos must go out as well to the chorus members, with the men offering a particularly rich and characteristic sound.

While it proved impossible to resist the “unmasking” pun — after all, Smith and company really just gave us the genuine article instead of obscuring it — one can hardly wait for January, to see how our wonderful company handles Handel for the first time. It could be a very happy new year, indeed. Meanwhile, you've got one more chance to treat yourself to Verdi on Sunday afternoon.

Photo: William Joyner and Jeniece Golbourne, 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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