Minus Maestro DeMain (and the rain), the winning formula delivers another “Grand Night for (and of) Singing”
It was perhaps inevitable that Saturday’s storms would mean that Sunday night’s 15th annual Madison Opera in the Park event would fail to draw the usual throng of 15,000 or so. But all that mattered to the 10,000+ who did come out to a still-steamy Garner Park was that all the winning elements that have made OITP as beloved a summer tradition in Madison as any other were still in place.
Well, our usual maestro was not in place: John DeMain has been spending his summer plying his talents at Glimmerglass Opera in New York, via Sweeney Todd. But it has been DeMain’s vision and tinkering that give OITP its special allure.
Most of you know the recipe by now: Bring in a quartet of solo singers, mixed as to making company debuts and returning, feature a few highlights from the upcoming season, sprinkle in some other opera excerpts and Broadway fare, add the Madison Symphony and Chorus—and make sure you don’t run out of glow sticks.
In place of DeMain, Gary Thor Wedow returned (he led OITP in 2012, and will conduct Mozart’s Magic Flute next spring), and he immediately showed an easy working relationship with all involved. The national anthem and the overture to the aforementioned Mozart masterpiece set the table, and then we were treated to baritone Sidney Outlaw (making his MO debut) and Emily Birsan, already a local favorite who portrayed Musetta in last season’s La Boheme. Ironically, the pair will appear in November’s season opening production of Romeo and Juliette, but Sunday first highlighted Outlaw as Papageno, and then he was joined by Birsan as a winsome and suitably chirpy Papagena.
The next forward-looking highlight was the MO debut of soprano Angela Brown, singing “My Boy is King” from the new opera Charlie Parker’s Yardbird by Daniel Schnyder. Brown sang in the acclaimed world premiere just 13 months ago, and for a company that has developed a nice habit of fitting in newer operas, Madison Opera may have pulled off a minor coup: MO’s presentation of “Yardbird” will be only the second production—beating Lyric Opera of Chicago and English National Opera (among others) to the punch. We heard enough to have our curiosity more than piqued; unfortunately it was the one occasion of the night that was miscalculated, with Ms. Brown mostly buried under over-amplified (and over-scored) orchestration. Fortunately there will be an ensemble of only a dozen or so in the Capitol Theater next February when Ms. Brown returns in the fully staged version.
Birsan returned for a sparkling “Je Veux Vivre” from Gounod’s setting of Romeo, and Outlaw as Mercutio (which he will sing here in November) in the “Queen Mab” aria. Tenor Scott Quinn made his MO debut in the ever-popular “La Donna Mobile” from Rigoletto, and delivered a satisfying realization; he’s not scheduled to return—yet.
The Madison Opera Chorus and the MSO then unleashed their full powers on the “Triumphal Scene” from Verdi’s Aida, and Brown closed the first half with a rapturous “Ritorna Vincitor” from the same opera. It was convincing evidence that she has triumphed in this at the Metropolitan Aria; most notable was the way she, Wedow and MSO all worked their magic in the quiet closing bars.
The second half was particularly notable for the sprinkling in of rarities, and a reliable source informs that MO general director Kathryn Smith deserves credit here (she had fun in her usual co-emcee duties, joined for the third year by Brandon Taylor of WKOW-27). This being the 400th year since Shakespeare’s death, it was the perfect occasion to unearth “O Vin, Dissipe la Tristesse” from Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet. Joined by the men of the chorus, Outlaw illustrated the scene where Hamlet leads the visiting acting troupe in a lively drinking song (yes, we know it’s not in the play!).
Equally refreshing was Quinn in Lara’s “Granada”; he really delivered the kind of Iberian ring one associates in this tune with the likes of Domingo. Birsan and chorus provided the scintillating “accompaniment” to the waving of thousands of glow sticks in the “Italian Street Song” from Naughty Marietta; as Smith exclaimed when she came back onstage, “That’s never not cool!”
Quinn and Outlaw were thoroughly amusing in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from Kiss Me, Kate; they had the gangster inflections and clever lyrics down pat. Birsan and Brown were joined by a recent alum of the MO Young Artists program, Kelsey Park, for “Sing for Your Supper” from Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse. Park looked and sounded quite at home (and gee, The Comedy of Errors at American Players Theater and now this? Wonderful!)
Brown returned for one final specialty, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” in that sturdily quiet version from Bonds. That left only the traditional OITP closer, “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair. It may have been a day late, and a couple of thousand auditors short, but as always Opera in the Park was indeed that, and a whole lot more.