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Review: “Pygmalion” celebrates creator’s love

In one of the major events of the season, Madison Bach Musicians, led by director Trevor Stephenson, celebrated the music of the French Baroque master Jean-Philippe Rameau at the First Unitarian Society’s Atrium auditorium.

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) has long been admired for his keyboard and instrumental music, but the 250th anniversary of his death last year has added new stimulus, helping his amazing operas gain more public exposure. By offering an artful introduction to these masterworks, the Madison Bach Musicians have advanced to one more level of bold ambition.

The core work is a single-act opera-ballet, “Pygmalion,” telling the story of the sculptor who falls in love with the statue of Galatea he has created: To his boundless joy, his passion is rewarded by Love, who brings the statue to life. The slender plot is conveyed not only through lovely vocal music, but also with the original French element of dance.

Performance of that complete work was preceded by a 45-minute sampling of music from a much larger opera-ballet, “Les Indes gallants.”

Six singers handled the vocal assignments. All six were admirable, though sopranos Chelsea Morris and Chelsie Propst and mezzo-soprano Sarah Leuwerke stood out for consistently beautiful singing in various roles.

Most impressive, though, was tenor Dann Coakwell, a seasoned professional of international renown. To the title role of Pygmalion he brought a particularly idiomatic combination of Gallic vocal sound and French diction.

David Ronis organized the modest and delicate staging of “Pygmalion,” weaving in appealing choreography by Karen McShane-Hellenbrand that features three female dancers with UW affiliations.

The orchestra was crucial. Thirteen strings, a harpsichord, and five woodwinds all played in convincing period style under the baton of Stephenson’s new collaborator, Marc Vallon of the UW School of Music. His robust and assertive direction brought fine nuance to musical lines, and showed how the juxtaposition of the winds with and against the strings was the secret to Rameau’s remarkably colorful orchestral style.

In drawing together such an expert ensemble, Stephenson has shown once more that Madison offers musical excellence few larger cities could muster right now.

The show repeats Sunday, April 19 at 2:45. Not to be missed!


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