A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Oct 28, 2013
11:57 AM
Classically Speaking

University Opera Uses 'Ariodante' to Teach the Students—and the Audience

University Opera Uses 'Ariodante' to Teach the Students—and the Audience

PHOTO BY BRENT NICASTRO

From the opening night cast of "Ariodante": Erik Larson, Anna Whiteway, Lindsay Metzger, Christina Kay, Daniel López-Matthews

The mission statement of University Opera reads in part: “Its mission is to promote professional training and practical performing experience for student singers…Uncommon repertoire will be stressed.”

Outgoing director William Farlow has been faithful to this statement, and with the second of two performances of Handel’s Ariodante Sunday afternoon at the Carol Rennebohm Auditorium in the Music Hall, the mission was thoroughly fulfilled once more—and you could have added “audience members” to the list of those who received some experience.

For anyone not familiar with the niceties of Baroque opera (a mezzo-soprano as the title character gentleman, known as a “trousers role,” and the big, bad villain sung by a countertenor), they might have wondered how “practical” this experience might be for singers and listeners alike.

Well, there has been a major Handel/Baroque opera revival underway for at least a couple of decades now, and the local companies have both done their part to fan those flames.

The story, which has its roots in the Italian Renaissance epic, Orlando furioso, is a little less convoluted and harder hitting in its fabric of deceitful love and high stakes maneuvers to take over the kingdom. Handel had plenty of opportunities for florid displays of heartbroken anguish and competing cries of undying love and later, equally passionate desires to end it all. In other words, the music was the thing.

The middle of the performance run is when University Opera turns to double casting the principal roles, and Susanna Beerheide in the title role, and Caitlin Ruby Miller as Ginevra as the would-be bride wasted little time in proving their mettle. Their Act 1 duet, a celebration of their impending marriage (just before their world crumbles) was a potent reminder of why composers love the mezzo-soprano/soprano combination. Even Richard Strauss, as late as Der Rosenkavalier in 1911, was drawn to it.

Miller was the real star throughout the afternoon, begging the question of how good Anna Whiteway must be (who reprises her opening night role Tuesday evening). Miller’s aria at the close of Act 2, when she is beyond despair and verging on madness, was a stretch of truly riveting singing.

“Trousers roles” can take a little getting used to, but the strong falsetto-like tones of a countertenor can be downright startling at first, particularly when delivered by an imposing figure such as Gerrod Pagenkopf, as the oily and venomous Polinesso. Let it be said that Pagenkopf’s gift is that by the end of the opera we realize that he’s the guy we love to hate—and his technical mastery of the coloratura passages soon make one forget about the initial visual discrepancy.

Lydia Rose Eiche was another second-nighter; her Dalinda, the best friend of Ginerva and unwitting pawn of Polinesso, was highlighted by a lighter soprano that nonetheless came across with a focused weight and impressive purity.

Baritone Erik Larson is the King, and his rich vocal contributions are a welcome counterweight to the plethora of high vocal ranges.

James Smith led the UW Chamber Orchestra, which fought intonation problems a bit more than usual early on. But overall the playing was marked by spirited ensemble, and a fabulous, lengthy introduction to Ariodante’s big Act 2 aria. The contributions of Sam Allen on bassoon must be singled out for both expression and blend.

This production was set in the 1780s, and the stage had a suitable look, dominated by four large oil paintings that were as functional for the simple stagecraft as they were visually appropriate and appealing. The costumes were flat out gorgeous, often bordering on opulent, and credit goes to Sydney Krieger and Hyewon Park.

The nature of the work, dramatically and musically, doesn’t give William Farlow a lot to do in terms of the stage action; give him credit for not distracting from the musical contributions by any excess of busyness. What he did do was select a work that more than fulfilled his group’s mission statement. His farewell production next April, Berlioz’s Beatrice et Benedict, promises to do that again in a whole new way. But first things first: a last performance of Ariodante on Tuesday night at 7:30. Visit music.wisc.edu/opera for more information. 

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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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