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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 67.0° F  Fair
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University Opera's Medea is an engrossing tale about a vengeful sorceress
This student cast creates a full-blooded realization of this powerful opera.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

For its first production this season, the University Opera is tackling a work of daunting challenges, Medea by Luigi Cherubini. Performances take place this weekend at the UW's Music Hall.

Though born in Florence, Cherubini (1760-1842) settled early in Paris, to become eventually the grand old man of French music. His roots were in the Classic era, but his music was forward-looking. The admiring Beethoven learned much from him.

The work in question, one of Cherubini's most famous, began in 1797 as Médée, a French opéra comique, with spoken dialogue between the musical numbers. Its international acclaim, however, led to its adaptation as a through-composed opera, in Italian translation, the spoken dialogue replaced with recitatives composed by Franz Lachner. This version has become "standard" ever since. It was the one made famous by Maria Callas, who single-handedly brought the opera back to public attention, and it is the one used by the University Opera.

The current crop of vocal students is so abundant that director William Farlow could double-cast, and even triple-cast, many of the leading roles. I attended the first of three performances, on the evening of Friday, Nov. 9, so it was that night's cast I heard and must judge.

The role of the terribly wronged and cruelly vengeful "barbarian" sorceress, Medea, is a long and ferociously demanding one. I am sorry I could not hear the acclaimed Shannon Prickett in that role (she sings only on Sunday, Nov. 11). But the soprano I did hear, Cassie Glaeser, gives an astonishingly mature portrayal. Her voice is rich, forceful, and skillfully controlled, while her acting is truly compelling. The other soprano, the singer throughout the run as Glauce, Medea's ill-fated rival in marriage, Ariana Douglas, is a vivid presence and has a strong voice, but tends to blast her high notes just now. Bethany Hickman, the first-cast Neris, Medea's faithful servant, gives a touching portrayal, even if her pleasant mezzo-soprano voice is rather on the small and pale side.

Of the three Jasons, I heard Alex Gmeinder, whose firm, clear tenor voice is still rather unpolished: nevertheless, his confrontations with Medea were genuinely gripping. Glauce's father, King Creon of Corinth, was taken on Friday by James Held, whose light baritone lacked authority. The remaining cast is fine, and the 27 members of the UW Madrigal Singers give the important choral parts unusual heft. Guest conductor Andrew Sewell, of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, leads the student orchestra in tight pacing, with telling urgency in the purely orchestral segments.

There is really rather little action in the plot. While the results could seem static and stiff much of the time, Farlow's direction had consistent dignity that was appropriate to ancient drama.

What compromised the production somewhat was the visual dimension, a farrago of competing nonsense. The all-purpose set looked vaguely like part of a Roman theater. The costumes for the cast were a ridiculous muddle of ancient Persia, Thousand-Nights Araby and Mogul India. (I'm told that they were supposed to be "exotic" and to suggest Bollywood -- more of Farlow's obsession with bringing the movies into his productions.) Crowning the inconsistencies, the chorus was all dressed in black concert gear, and sang from scores, as if they had wandered into the wrong event. All this does little scenic justice to the ancient Greek origins of the Medea story.

Whatever the quibbles or individual judgments, the important thing is that this student cast creates a full-blooded realization of this powerful opera, catching the audience up in the unyielding drama. That is a considerable achievement for a student production.

There remain the two final performances at Music Hall on the UW campus: Sunday, Nov. 11, at 3 p.m., and Tuesday, Nov. 13, at 7:30 p.m. Chances to experience this remarkable work are all too rare, so opera lovers are urged to catch the opportunity with this highly absorbing production.

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