Arts and Culture

Madison Opera Goes for Baroque — and Wins

It was opera as usual on Thursday night in the Playhouse of the Overture Center: a would-be love triangle goes wrong, the bad guy kills the hero, and despite great singing and music, it's not exactly happily ever after for our heroine.

But it was smiles all around, because at the conclusion of Madison Opera's first-ever Handel opera, Acis and Galatea, one thing was clear: General Director Kathryn Smith continues to build an impressive season that promises stimulating productions for as long as she's here.

Last year in her first season she oversaw productions put in place before she took over for Alan Naplan. Last fall's A Masked Ball served notice that Smith can sure pick ‘em when it comes to freshening the repertory, and generate a compelling production.

The choice of Handel for the midseason Playhouse offering was not only new, but the production is original to Madison, an increasingly rare circumstance in opera houses of any size.

Fitting then that the final curtain call included the other movers and shakers offstage: director David Lefkowich and scenic designer Alan C. Edwards, both in their company debuts, and costume designer Karen Brown-Larimore and lighting designer John Frautschy.

This team transformed a treacherously repetitive, mythological story into an English glade circa World War I. They filled the stage with setting and action that consistently illuminated, rather than distracted (and someone deserves a bow for including a quartet of ladies from the Overture Center resident company, Kanopy Dance — they followed Galatea around and added a visual flourish well matched to the florid vocal lines. It's hard to imagine that Handel himself wouldn't have approved).

A five-member ensemble (John Arnold, Jennifer DeMain, Jeni Houser, Josh Sanders and Jessica Lee Timman) gave us madrigal-like ensemble, and Lefkowich gave them plenty to do that delighted the eyes, while keeping the ears from focusing on the numerous repetitions. This is part and parcel of the style of the time — and this production makes a great argument for opera live versus recordings.

In case you need to know the context, Galatea is a nymph, Acis a mere mortal, and while they are hopelessly in love, the cyclops, Polyphemus, becomes so enraged by jealousy, he kills Acis via an avalanche. Galatea then uses her goddess powers to immortalize the lad as a fountain.

But there's plenty of love and laughter before the denouement, and Angela Mortellaro produced a voice that sounds like it could take on the dimensions of Overture Hall. The rich, powerful core of her instrument was well-controlled, sweet and sorrowful as needed. Her Acis, Daniel Shirley, appears to possess a light tenor perfectly suited to the intimate Playhouse; as they both were in local debuts, we can hope to sample their artistry again in other contexts. J. Adam Shelton added great and modulated visual humor to solid vocalism as Damon.

Jeffrey Bruan (also in his local debut — practically a prerequisite for this production, but not a bad thing!), was as vocally fierce as his eye-patched, facially scarred visage. Director Lefkowich also gave him a showstopper of an aria, where he reaches into a diorama of the glade with characters of the ensemble, and the actual actors flung themselves about as he raged over the dolls — and Beruan sang his heart out in the bargain.

John DeMain presided over the cream of the Madison Symphony strings and flutes and oboes; as always to these ears, 18-century music played on modern instruments, with tasteful transparency, grace and energetic precision applied, is irresistible.

In recent seasons, Madison Opera has sold out all of four shows in their midseason Playhouse adventures. Thursday night found a few empty seats, and one hopes it was only an economic blip, for the company is apparently not only in good hands, but exciting ones, and Madison Opera tickets will hopefully become a premium item for seasons to come. The season is capped off in April by Smith's first "masterpiece" test: Don Giovanni.

Photo: Angela Mortellaro and Daniel Shirley in rehearsal. Courtesy: Madison Opera.

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