REVIEW: The Marriage of Figaro

Saturday night’s “Figaro” cast

I had the privilege of seeing Saturday night’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, put on by the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance (the show was double cast for the 4 performances that took place from Thursday-Sunday).

The plot of this very famous opera revolves around the highly-anticipated marriage of Susanna and Figaro, a maid and valet of the Count and Countess, whom they and the other servants regard and trust highly. Because the characters feel maybe a little too comfortable around each other, they take it upon themselves to make sure that everyone is remaining faithful to his/her beloved. Lovers navigate and push social constructs mostly using the powers of humor and wit.

Saturday night’s cast brought the appropriate amount of energy and fun into Mozart and da Ponte’s incredibly humorous work. David Weigel’s Figaro was clearly heard and clearly seen as a joy-bringer among the company. While it  was difficult to hear Susanna’s voice at first, Mahari Conston soon brought a sparkling color and playful spirit into the role. Sedona Libero stood out as a charming, giddy Cherubino. Kristine Overman’s voice floated and shimmered just like her elegant Countess gown over Mozart’s rich orchestral textures. Zachary Crowle played a commanding yet clumsy Count. Kayleigh Jardine and Matthew Fleisher brought the perfect amount of dramatic flare to their at-first vengeful and then absurdly kind characters, Marcellina and Bartolo. The chorus members also brought a bubbling, contagious enthusiasm to the larger numbers.

The chemistry between all of the couples, especially Figaro and Susanna (and even Cherubino and Barbarina), was irresistible and adorable. As an audience member, I didn’t mind watching the various mishaps and pranks carried out because it didn’t feel like the relationships were at stake. It was clearly a comedy from beginning to end, yet I found myself yearning along with the characters who wanted something more in their relationships.

From the very first downbeat of the widely-familiar overture to the joyous close of the opera three hours later, the orchestra consistently supported the cast by bringing a buzzing energy to the light-hearted pieces and a moaning intensity to the more dramatic moments. Chelsea Gallo, a student in the University’s Conducting program, led the orchestra with grace and with fiery command into a sparkling interpretation of the score. Shane McFadden provided superb continuo accompaniment from the harpsichord as the singers artfully and playfully wound their way through the recitative sections.

The sets were exquisite and grand. The costumes were sparkling and picturesque. Personally, I found the constantly-changing backdrop colors rather distracting, but the lighting was very effective at the end, when the characters enjoyed a fireworks show together.

The second half of the three-hour opera was the same length as the first half, and I attribute my gradual sense of disengagement more to a fault of pacing on the part of the composer than I do to the creators of this production. There are plenty of complicated webs to be untangled, and Mozart took care to give every main character an aria before everything got sorted out. Luckily, every one of these arias was executed brilliantly, and it eventually paid off to see the tricks carefully planned out in act one finally play out in the second half.

The opera was hilarious. It was fantastical. It dreamed of a world where justice could be done, and even enjoyed, even as complicated life circumstances tried to prevent it at every turn. The best part of the production, for me, was watching 40+ extremely talented people give themselves over to fun, witty, and truly great music that’s stuck around for over 200 years for a reason. I look forward to the School of Music’s next big opera production next semester!

PREVIEW: The Marriage of Figaro

Last night, the University of Michigan School of Music’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) opened in the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. Michigan’s music students always bring their best to the opera stage and pit, and I am looking forward to seeing the fruits of this semester’s collaborations. Luckily there are still three more chances for you to see this beloved, classic opera this weekend!

Friday, March 23rd at 8pm

Saturday, March 24th at 8pm

Sunday, March 25th at 2pm

Student tickets are just $12 and can be purchased here or at the Michigan League.

REVIEW: Porgy and Bess

A well-deserved standing ovation for the cast, orchestra, and chorus of ‘Porgy and Bess’

The evening of February 17th, 2018 marked a momentous occasion in music history in preserving the legacy of George and Ira Gershwin.

Years of scholarly research and months of rehearsal culminated in a sold-out Hill Auditorium performance of the complete “Porgy and Bess,” a 4-hour-long evening that featured the University Symphony Orchestra, University Chamber Choir, the Willis Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale, and a cast of award-winning soloists from around the world. Together, these large forces created a deeply moving production that honored the composer’s original intentions.

The opera wrestles with topics that are (in many cases, unfortunately still) relevant to today: racism, abusive relationships, hope, addiction, shame, community, joy, loss, and rejection. Consisting of 3 acts and two intermissions, packed with catchy tunes, gorgeous arias, and a heart-wrenching plot, it is a beast to perform for everyone involved (the second act alone is a whopping 1.5 hours long). Beyond his demands for endurance, Gershwin’s intricate and flashy score calls for professional-level performance for both the orchestra and chorus. The chorus, playing the part of an engaged band of citizens, commented on the action in bouts of virtuosity after not singing for long periods of time, which was quite impressive. Gershwin’s orchestration for the opera is often lush and rousing, but just as easily jumps to exposed, virtuosic solos that the members of the University Symphony Orchestra absolutely nailed.

The production’s leads did not disappoint. Morris Robinson’s Porgy was powerful in voice yet genteel in manner. Talise Tevigne’s honey-sweet soprano voice brought innocence and simplicity into the role of Bess. Norman Garrett played the villainous character of Crown with an irresistible smoothness. Chauncey Packer brought polish and electricity to the role of Sporting Life. Janai Brugger’s Clara was matronly and charismatic. Rehanna Thelwell, now pursuing a Specialist’s Degree from the University of Michigan, absolutely shined as a spunky and spirit-filled Maria. Other UM grad students held their own alongside professionals in the industry, bringing vitality, power, and deep feeling into every aspect of their performance.

This semi-staged production truly showcased the best of the best at the University of Michigan’s School of Music. The fact that I felt engaged for the entire opera, even without costumes, sets, and blocking, is a testament to the talent of the performers and the dramatic integrity of the score on its own. There were moments where the supertitles blandly relayed important plot events, and the audience members were left to use their own imaginations, but it was easy to do so given the highly evocative music. While there were definitely a few scenes that I could imagine a director choosing to cut, I was still appreciative of the opportunity to hear the opera in its entirety, and I was glad to see that much of the audience stayed for the entire performance.

This experience brought me a heightened sense of what I typically feel after watching a live opera: I am always deeply moved by witnessing the summation of collaboration at the highest and most intricate level, and the amount of work, focus, talent, and heart it takes to pull something so monumental off. But after this production, I felt this way to an even greater degree. I feel proud to go to a school where world-class scholars and performers collaborate to create beautiful things together.

PREVIEW: Porgy and Bess

“Porgy and Bess” in rehearsal.

Tonight in Hill Auditorium, the incredible culmination of years of research, hours of rehearsal, and the collaborative efforts of dozens of performers and world-class directors will be enjoyed by a completely SOLD OUT crowd. This is the premiere performance of the first-ever Critical Edition of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, brought into the world by the University of Michigan’s own Gershwin Initiative. The Gershwin Initiative has poured over older editions of the opera to bring us what they believe to be a version that most closely resembles the composer’s original intent. This non-staged performance will feature students from the School of Music performing in the orchestra, choir, and as soloists.

If you’re lucky enough to have tickets, be sure to prepare yourself for a long evening: since this is a presentation of the original opera, it will be performed in its entirely. Come well-rested and well-fed so that you can fully enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

 

Check out these articles for more information about the performance’s momentous implications for history and musicology.

REVIEW: Russian Renaissance

Russian Renaissance tuning their instruments while announcing the next piece from the stage. From left to right: Ivan Kuznetsov, Balalaika, Anastasia Zakharova, Domra and Domra Alto, Alexander Tarasov, Button Accordion, and Ivan Vinogradov, Contrabass Balalaika.

On Saturday night, thanks to UMS and M-Prize, the city of Ann Arbor had the privilege of drinking in one of the finest displays of musicianship in the world, ushered in by the quartet Russian Renaissance.

Founded in 2015, “Russian Renaissance performs high-caliber traditional folk music through a modern lens.” As the $100,00 grand-prize winners of the 2017 M-Prize chamber arts competition, they received a spot on the star-studded UMS 2017-18 season and played a diverse and engaging program to an appreciative audience in Rackham Auditorium.

Given the group’s extremely unique instrumentation that is quite unfamiliar to American audiences, many entered the concert hall with no idea what to expect. Others who were in Ann Arbor last summer and witnessed the group’s winning performance couldn’t wait to hear them again. Yet for those familiar and unfamiliar with their work, Russian Renaissance delivered the unexpected.

The program began with a fresh and inviting arrangement of a Bach Fantasia and Fugue. They followed this with the Concerto Grosso No. 1 of avant-garde composer Alfred Schnittke, one of the 20th century’s great mashup artists. They performed music that is often perceived as dissonant and upsetting with true conviction and spunk, and I have yet to hear a livelier rendition of his music.  They also played delicate and heartfelt music from international films, Duke Ellington, Tchaikovsky, and Russian folk tunes. Their dazzling arrangements contained some surprise appearances, including The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Grieg. I was amazed by their dynamic range as a group: their Bach was so delicate you almost wanted to hold your breath for fear of missing a beautiful moment, but their tangos were bombastic and rapturous. Just when you thought that they had exploited every possible color from their instrumentation, they pulled out another.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what exactly made the performance so engaging and unforgettable for me. Was it the diverse program that spanned centuries of composers from around the world? Was it the fact that they played two hours of music completely from memory? Was it their colorful arrangements? Was it their perfect display of technique, virtuosity, and ensemble playing?

I think my indecisiveness is a testament to the pure musicianship that radiated from these four performers. They were clearly masters, but they were also interested in connecting with one another and the audience. I often felt like a fly on the wall of a delightful dinner conversation among four long-time friends. I felt free to enjoy the music along with them: giggling at their inside jokes, tapping my toes, holding my breath. They had complete control over the sound they made, and it was easy to get swept up in the world of each piece.

This performance made me feel incredibly optimistic for the future of chamber music, lead in part by the innovative minds behind M-Prize. As one of the most intimate and vulnerable performance mediums, chamber music is also charged with the power to bring about palpable and rapid change in the realm of Western classical music. Russian Renaissance is certainly doing their part in contributing to the “rebirth” of instrumental music today.

If you missed the performance, do yourself a favor and watch them here. Or, get excited about their first album, which is coming soon!

The final bow welcomed a much-deserved ovation, after an encore performance featuring pianist, translator, and SMTD-alum Sonya Belaya.

PREVIEW: Russian Renaissance

Tomorrow night at 8pm, Ann Arbor welcomes back the grand prize winners of the University of Michigan’s 2017 M-Prize competition to Rackham Auditorium. Founded in 2015, the virtuosic quartet Russian Renaissance seeks to bring Russian folk music to a wider audience while reimagining popular tunes for a unique and colorful instrumentation.

Check out this video of their final round at M-Prize last summer:

Student tickets are available here for $12 or $20. Come hear music as you’ve never heard it before!