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Opera Before the Storm

July 18, 2010

Excess humidity, it seems, is an enemy to all things musical. And when it hits 100%, the point at which humidity usually converts to rain, it downright dampens the spirit, not to mention the crowd.

Allan Naplan, the Madison Opera’s general director, has gotten used to the threat of weather during Opera in the Park. Sometimes it has led to postponement of the annual event, this year in its ninth season. His strategy for Saturday’s pending cloudburst was to step up the pace and race the rain to the finale.

Photo courtesy Peter Patau

And this year the strategy worked, resulting only in a shortening of the intermission and the elimination of  “Symphonic Nocturne” from Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark, the instrumental overture to the event’s second half. The rain never materialized until much later in the evening, long after we had all left Garner Park on Madison’s west side.

This year’s two-hour highlights concert married opera and show tunes more blissfully that it had in year’s past. MO’s upcoming productions – Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Verdi’s La Traviata and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera – received ample airing, which led to a general shortage of other operatic favorites. But the selection was well complemented by a tribute to composer Stephen Sondheim, who turned 80 in March, and selections from The Sound of Music, which last year celebrated it’s 50th anniversary.

The vocal talent fronting the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera Chorus was first rate, as is often the case, although not without its glitches. Honors go to tenor Roderick Dixon, who managed to hit multiple high Cs during the “Ah, mes amis” aria from Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment. The effort took its toll later, however, causing unanticipated warbles during two other Dixon solos.

Sopranos Anya Matanovic and Barbara Shirvis each had her own shining moment in very different ways. Shirvis beautifully sang “Song to the Moon,” a lovely lyrical ballad taken from Dvorak’s Rusalka. (Alas, there was no real moon at that point.) Matanovic delivered a near-Olympian performance of  “Ah forse lui…Sempre libera” from La Traviata, matching strength and delivery in a stunning tour de force. The pair also shown during the “Sull’ aria” from Figaro, performing with near identical tonality and corresponding lovely moments.

Baritone Stephen Powell seemed to have too little to do during Saturday’s performance, but nevertheless delivered a wonderful performance of “Te Deum” from Puccini’s Tosca. This number in particular best maximized the integration of the soloist, the Opera Chorus and MSO, all at their most stirring levels.

Show tunes, familiar and less so, dominated the concert’s second half. Dixon returned to perform a wonderful “Make Them Hear You” from Ragtime, a role he had originated on Broadway. Powell and Shirvis were back for “All I Ask of You” from Lloyd-Weber’s Phantom of the Opera. Kudos go to the soprano for coloratura moments almost too overwhelming in their strength.

Sondheim’s music closed the show with four numbers, the last of which was the famous “Tonight” quintet from West Side Story. Fans of the film will remember the number as appearing right before the rumble in which Riff and Bernardo each lose their lives. Seen on the stage, however, it quickly becomes evident that the piece was cast in a classic operatic structure, making the closing work the most perfect synthesis of all.

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