Author Gustave Flaubert once said that Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the ocean were God’s three greatest creations. Having seen the play and played in the sea, we dropped into Madison Opera’s recent production of Mozart’s masterwork to see if the author of Madame Bovary was accurate on all counts.
It would seem that Flaubert knew a bit what he was talking about, but he failed to comment on how funny Don Giovanni can be. One would think the tale of the world’s greatest lover ultimately being dragged to hell for repeatedly violating most if not all of the Seven Deadly Sins would not set off so much as a wry chortle. But Mozart apparently knew that there is always a little light within the darkness, order amid the chaos, and more than a few knee-slappers threading the tale of rape, murder and anything but a bid for redemption.
Add to that a food fight, more than one confetti snowstorm, spooky dry-ice clouds billowing from an open tomb and a title character so ripped that he may simply have been augmenting his day job with Chippendale’s and you have a pretty lively production of what is considered one of the world’s ten greatest operas.
Central to the humor is the role of Leporello (baritone Matt Boehler), Don Giovanni’s wiley servant cast in the same mold as many of Shakepeare’s servants, henchmen and lackeys. It’s through Leporello that we have an objective eye as audience members, a tempered insight into the doings both Don Giovanni (baritone Kelly Markgraf) and the nobles and commoners victimized by his exploits.
Leporello interprets both the humor and horror in the opera’s unfolding, ultimately burying his face in a delicious-looking cake at the opera’s climax. I would want to play Leporello if I could sing. And if I could understand and rhythmically repeat lengthy passages in Italian.
As for Madison Opera’s production, both cast and crew did an outstanding job bringing the tale to life. Dueling sopranos Elizabeth Caballero (Donna Anna), Caitlyn Lynch (Donna Elvira) and Angela Mannino (Zerlina) all did fine jobs in their respective roles, more than once creating a chorus of angelic voices to complement the play’s dark doings. Guest conductor Joseph Mechavich marshaled the talents of Madison Symphony Orchestra members to good effect, and Mozart’s memorable melodies were beautifully interpreted.
In fact, there are only two complaints. The scenic design, courtesy of the Virginia Opera, was functional, but not especially fanciful and did not live up the scenery from past Madison Opera productions. However, lighting designer Ben Zamora’s subtle shadings of the play’s interesting abstract backdrop brought both intrigue and pathos to the proceedings.
As to the final appearance of Il Comendatore (Nathan Stark), who rose from the dead to drag Don Giovanni to his ultimate demise, there certainly are images more chilling than an old man in a nightshirt.
But those are minor points in a production that otherwise pleases on all levels. Madison Opera once again deserves kudos for its interpretation.
If food is an art form, and to many it most surely is, then there was wide and impressive array of “canvases” on display Sunday at Madison’s Concourse Hotel for the second annual Flavors of Madison. Sponsored by Madison Originals, an association of the city’s locally owned and operated eateries, the evening event offered foods of all types prepared by some of the city’s best kitchens.
We ate our way through the hotel’s Grand Ballroom for nearly 90 minutes sampling salads, enjoying enchiladas, dining on desserts and grabbing all gustatory experiences in between. Our goal, like that of other visitors, was to take our “wooden nickel” token and drop it in the box of what we enjoyed most from the 27 restaurants represented in the show.
Our only problem? We only had one token apiece, and there were so many good options from which to choose.
We were pleased by Chef David Heide’s jambalaya from Liliana’s, the Fitchburg Cajun restaurant named for Heide’s young daughter, who also was in attendance. Nueske’s bacon joined with sausage, rice and all those other good ingredients for a semi-spicy version of the Cajun classic.
A bratwurst kabob and Reuben rollup demonstrated how clever the Essen Haus could be with standard German ingredients and a little creative thinking.
Clam chowder was once again on the menu from Captain Bill’s, a creamy smooth delight that we well remember from last year. Sister restaurants The Mariner’s Inn and Nau-Ti-Gal were also on hand with such a wide selection that a stop at those three stations alone could have constituted an entire meal.
The meat lovers in us thoroughly enjoyed the ribs with homemade bourbon sauce and pot roast from Bonfyre American Grille. We bellied up for the pulled pork sliders topped with seasoned chopped cabbage from Hawk’s Bar & Grill. And we simply couldn’t pass up the Original Gritty Burger served on a pretzel roll from The Nitty Gritty.
Our inner health nut appreciated the two different salads from Fit Fresh Cuisine and we enjoyed the culinary creativity of the vanilla bean and vodka-cured salmon served on a bed of mixed greens from Dayton Street Grille. The prevalence of greens from the two restaurants in what seemed to be a meat-heavy menu provided a delightful contrast to the evening’s dining experience.
There were many others, most of which met and exceeded our expectations. But we each only could make one choice, and after much deliberation cast our coins.
When our evenings call for pizza, we generally opt for a trip Roman Candle in Middleton, but for all our visits over the years we’ve failed to sample their full menu. The restaurant’s red peppers soup, which we were introduced to last night, received a big thumb’s up for its savory flavors and creamy texture. It also received one of our two coins.
For sheer creativity and satisfaction, however, we had to cast our other coin for the Daisy Café & Cupcakery’s roasted vegetable enchilada. The serving, dressed with romatillo-avocado salsa and pico de gallo with a goat cheese sauce, was both rich and subtle (and it didn’t hurt that the restaurant brought along mini-versions of six of its cupcakes for dessert.)
By then our food comas began to take hold and it was time to leave. But we’re happy to report that The Flavors of Madison was once again a success and we salute all the foodies who participated on both sides of the serving tables.
When an orchestra receives a more enthusiastic audience response that its internationally known guest soloist, that response says something not only about audience expectations, but also the orchestra’s ability to fulfill them. When the group is the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, such a response no longer comes as any surprise.
WCO, under the baton of Maestro Andrew Sewell, closed is season Friday at the Capitol Theater in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts with a rich program that lived up to the series name of Masterworks. The two-hour concert was bookended by Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 in G minor (La Poule) and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D Major. Sandwiched in between were the Joseph Cantaloube’s Chants d’Auvergne and a pair of Mozart arias masterfully performed without amplification by soprano Susannah Phillips.
Phillips’ soaring voice and delicate phrasing left none in the audience wondering why she had just completed her fifth consecutive season with New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Yet her performances — which included Cantaloube’s haunting, heartbreaking “”Bailero”, the famous “Non di mir” aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the composer’s rarely heard “Bella mia fiamma” – were greeted with respectful and appreciative applause.
The audience saved its cheers, applause and standing ovation for the Beethoven, which closed the evening.
That’s not to say the enthusiasm was not deserved. WCO and Sewell performed with their usual gusto, delivering the work and its familiar third movement “Scherzo: Allegro” with the precision and tempo required to bring the music to life. Sewell himself looked like he was getting more of a workout during that number that he did throughout the entire rest of the program.
But then the response may have been for more than just the Beethoven composition. Haydn received the same doses of energy and finesse, and Phillips’ performance was superb in its delivery. (At the close of the second Mozart aria, written for his hostess, soprano Josefa Dusek, who was jealous of the Donna Anna role in Don Giovanni for which she had been overlooked, Sewell accidently kicked over his music stand — a curious but effective way to signal his enthusiasm for Phillips’ performance.)
Instead, the ovation may have been for one of the best conceived and executed WCO concerts in this and many other seasons, and perhaps the season itself. Sewell has made himself and WCO a hard act to follow, but we’re confident they will once again rise to the occasion for the 2013-2014 Masterworks series.
Is success a matter of luck, the result of hard work or a combination of the two? What do we owe one another as human beings? And is it really so bad to forget your roots, at least until those roots rise up and entangle you in your past?
Those questions drive Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People,” Forward Theater Co.’s season finale that opened this weekend at The Playhouse in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts. In a relatively simple narrative layered with humor and despair, Forward and its stunning cast may have uncovered the crown jewel of the troupe’s brief four-year existence.
In the play, single mother Margie (said with a hard “g” and flawlessly performed by the Milwaukee Rep’s Laura Gordon) is dismissed from her low-paying job as a dollar store clerk in South Boston (“Southie” as the rough, lower-class neighborhood is better known.) Desperate for money to support herself and her disabled daughter, she visits Mike (Richard Ganoung), a former boyfriend and now a doctor at the advice of friends Dottie (American Players Theatre’s Susan Sweeney) and Jean (Madison Rep founding member Celia A. Klehr). All Margie wants is a job.
The pair joust verbally and Mike ends up reluctantly inviting Margie to his birthday party being thrown by his elegant African-American wife Kate (Milwaukee actor Malkia Stampley) at the couples’ stylish Chestnut Hill home. The day prior Mike calls Margie to say the party has been cancelled. Sure that she has simply been “disinvited,” Margie shows up anyway, the only guest at a party for three that takes a very nasty turn.
Despite the dour scenario, the play is rife with laughter as Margie and her friends verbally spar during several bingo games. Ganoung proves an able, if malevolent foil, but this show belongs to Gordon, Sweeney and Klehr. The working class trio banter and box in a no-holds-barred manner available only to those who have spent a long, hard life together. Director Jennifer Uphoff Gray coaxes award-winning performances from all three veteran actors throughout the two-hour show.
Dialect coach Annelise Dickinson and dialect consultant Jan Gist get credit for creating a flawless collection of Southie accents among the six-member cast, which also includes Whitney Derendinger as Margie’s former boss Stevie. Keith Pitts’ set design, which literally rises step by step from a trash-strewn alley to Margie’s small, battered kitchen to Mike and Kate’s elegant living room was as effective as the design was simple.
The characters in the play may or may not be good people, as the title asserts. But “Good People” makes for an evening of great performances and another impressive win for Forward Theater.
“Good People” runs on select dates through April 21.
Other than perhaps zombies, vampires are the current hot commodity when it comes to cultural icons. The romance, the danger, the less-than-subtle sexuality … now, if only they could dance.
W. Earle Smith, artistic director for Madison Ballet, is the latest in a number of impresarios nationwide to tackle the question. Madison Ballet’s production of Bram Stoker’s gothic horror novel opened at Overture Center for the Arts’ Capitol Theater this past weekend to enthusiastic audiences who came to see just how much life the undead could breath into classical dance. The answer is quite a lot.
Smith is not the first area dance master to bring Dracula’s story to the stage. Milwaukee Ballet’s Michael Pink produced his own version of the timeless tale a number of years ago and it’s now become part of the company’s revolving repertoire. What Smith’s version has that others lack, however, is a rock music score by local composer Michael Massey and a “steampunk” esthetic by set designer Jen Trieloff and costumer Karen Brown-Larimore. However, chances are that neither element adds as much as Smith probably thinks it does.
The production is at its best when the dancers are allowed to do their jobs, and there are some lovely balletic moments buried under the thundering synthesizer notes. Dancer Matthew Linzer plays an androgynous, almost serpentine seducer in the title role, his long hair and towering height making him a physical standout among the crowd of 10 male and 8 female dancers. The fiery Lucy Westenra (Marguerite Luksik) succumbs to the vampire’s charms, while the more chaste Mina Murray (Jennifer Tierney) does not. But then Mina is betrothed to Jonathan Harker (Brian Roethlisberger) who himself is almost, ahem, sucked in. Dracula, it seems, is an equal opportunity vampire.
Despite the helpful program notes, the narrative is difficult to follow unless you know the story well. We lost track during the 90-minute program’s first act until the appearance of Renfield (Jams Stevko), the asylum inmate who goes on to become Dracula’s minion. The pair dance a very engaging, even humorous pas de deux to one of the more lyrical moments in Massey’s largely derivative score. From a dance perspective, it was one of many such engaging moments.
The rock music may help make the event accessible for ballet novices, but it does little to enhance the show’s artistry. Massey himself leads a seven-person ensemble at the back of the stage, sounding like part of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra that had gone off on its own rail spur. It would have been better to dial back the growling guitars and try for a sound a little more etherial, or at least original to give the ballet its own distinct voice.
As for the steampunk esthetic – that fantastical view of the future through a Victorian lens – it does fit, but mostly because it applies to the same era in which the original novel takes place. With the exception of some ornate weaponry and the need for some of the characters to wear goggles on their heads, the costuming likely would have been about the same without the steampunk flavoring. Trieloff’s set is multi-tiered and nicely staged, but in the same way that “Phantom of the Opera” has become known as “The Chandelier Show” for the obviously dominant set piece, Madison Ballet’s production can be referred to as “The Gears and Girders Show.” Those who have seen it know what I am talking about.
During Friday’s premier performance there were a few awkward moments that probably would work themselves out during subsequent performance. Dracula, after being mortally wounded by one of the many ornate weapons (not sure that part was accurate but I will have to check my vampire lore) takes awfully long time to dance himself to death before Van Helsing (Jacob Ashley) places an oversized stake near the vampire’s heart. He never quite plunges it into Dracula’s chest, but apparently the mere suggestion that he could is enough to finish the job.
Taken in the spirit in which it was presented, “Dracula” is a lot of fun and good way for newbies to get their first taste of ballet. Smith, who sported a blood-red mohawk on opening night, has a little more work ahead of him, but no doubt the production will rise from the grave in future years.
So, what’s next? “Swan Lake and Zombies?” The mind reels at the possibilities.
In the arts, beauty — and sometimes even the mere existence of a genre or form — may be in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. This modified axiom is never more evident than when it comes to jazz.
I once had the opportunity to interview vocalist Dianne Reeves and asked what she thought about naysayers who claimed jazz was a dying art form. She paused for a moment, then said, “Well, they’re just not listening to the right people.”
Madison got a hefty dose of the right people Thursday when the Branford Marsalis Quartet took the stage at Overture Hall. Jazz, as a rule, has a rabid, but small following, so it was very encouraging to see more than 1,600 seats filled in Overture Hall, a sign that the art form is anything but dying.
The band’s 100-minute set strayed into a range of areas, from inventive, nonlinear progressions to jazz standards and even a little Dixieland, an homage to Marsalis’ New Orleans upbringing. For the serious musician, jazz provides a wealth of fascinating musical structures and progressions that mix musical education with freeform improvisation. For the rest of us … well, it simply has the power to carry us to the stratosphere and back again.
With Marsalis on reeds, Joey Calderazzo on piano and Eric Revis on bass, the quartet’s core group provided a smooth synthesis of rhythms and melodies. Drummer Justin Faulkner, who replaced longtime Marsalis sideman Jeff “Tain” Watts in 2009, brings an unbridled energy to his kit that takes tunes both familiar and not well beyond the downbeat.
The group drew heavily on its August 2012 recording Four MFs Playin’ Tunes, a blend of originals and covers that demonstrated an incredible range of skills. Interspersed were stories and anecdotes about an encounter with Stan Getz and the inevitable travel woes musicians face on the road, but none of it distracted from the music.
The band wailed through a cover of Thelonius Monk’s “Teo” and stepped lightly amid the notes of George Gershwin’s “Our Love is Here to Stay.” The evening’s best were original compositions such as Marsalis’ musically complex “In the Crease” and Calderazzo’s lyrically beautiful “As Summer into Autumn Slips.” The pair together comprised the final part of the regular concert, and the band clearly had saved the best for last.
But not quite. The musicians regrouped for an extended encore version of “Tiger Rag” that Marsalis told us was actually a blend of three French gavottes that were popular as dance tunes in early 20th Century New Orleans. “Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have written the song, but Jelly Roll claimed to have written just about everything,” Marsalis said.
Regardless of its history, the Branford Marsalis Quartet had a grand time with their closing number, proving that their love for jazz — like ours — is here to stay.
Some revelations jump out and startle you, while others unfold like the petals of a flower, slowly and deliberately revealing their meaning. During Friday’s concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, it was more the later than the former case.
It occurred during WCO’s performance of the “Molto Sereno” from Gerald Finzi’s Introit for Solo Violin & Small Orchestra, Op. 6. The work, not often performed, was fairly typical of the English pastoral style that Finzi and others represent. Guest artist Tasmin Little took the lead on solo violin.
It’s not that Finzi’s work stood out from the rest of the English composer’s compositions, and its debt to Ralph Vaughn Williams was not to be denied. Little’s romantic violin played sweetly and, while it lacked the verve and passion of Williams’ “lark” in a similar, but more famous work, it carried our hearts to more peaceful places and temperate times. At least it did mine.
The evening’s revelation might have had something to do with a conversation I had had earlier that day with Glenn Edgerton, artistic director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. During the course of our talk, we touched on how to approach contemporary dance like that of Hubbard Street. Edgerton’s frustration with those who think they need to “get it” when they see a contemporary dance performance was palpable.
“Approach dance like you would a symphony orchestra concert,” Edgerton told me. “There is no need to ‘get’ classical music, but there is a need to experience it and go where the music and your emotions mean to take you.”
Sage advice from someone who knows whereof he speaks, and never more evident than during WCO’s performance of the Finzi composition.
The Introit is not something I will necessarily seek out in the future, and perhaps the polite but restrained applause it received at the end was deserved. But for a few moments, at least, I followed the melody to its source and let Finzi’s composition carry me away. I may not be a better person for it, but a balm of sorts had been applied to my soul. My spirit was refreshed, renewed and ready for more of life’s never-ending challenges.
That, it would seem to me, is art doing its job. And that alone made this concert a success.