New general director Kathryn Smith could not have asked for better weather than she got on Saturday night at Madison Opera’s 10th annual Opera in the Park.
The air was warm with a slight breeze as we hiked to our picnic spot on the Garner Park hill, about a football field away from the main stage. Smith, who replaced Allan Naplan two weeks ago, welcomed the crowd, estimated in the thousands.
Later, as the light sticks swirled in the crowd down in front, I thought how strange and wonderful it was to hear music held in such reverence among teens reading “The Hunger Games” and grandmothers humming along to “Nabucco.” No wonder we’ve been coming back for a decade.
Back in the cheap seats, my part of the crowd stayed reverentially silent for all of one number: the whimsical overture to “Cinderella,” the third and final piece in Madison Opera’s upcoming season.
Still, the humor carried over the whispering in Hyung Yun’s funny, cocky rendition of “Largo al factotum” (the famous “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro!” aria). Tenor Scott Ramsay’s “Una furtiva lagrima,” from Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love,” was sweet and sorrowful. I found it hopelessly romantic.
The Madison Symphony Orchestra under maestro John DeMain sounded quite fine, if not as nuanced, in the open air as in Overture Hall. Amplification, with few exceptions, was ably managed during the more than 2 1/2-hour program.
The music isn’t the sole focus for anyone reclining on a blanket in Madison summer — two women topped off their Riesling, a man slapped at a mosquito. I squinted to see the details on Daniela Mack’s dark, form-fitting gown as she spun through giddy trills in Cinderella’s triumphant “Non più mesta.”
And there are advantages to this format. In the absence of supertitles, I preferred reading a simple synopsis of “Au fond du temple saint,” from “The Pearl Fishers,” a duet between two old friends sung by Yun and Ramsay.
The singers told the story, full of danger and sadness and nostalgia. While the microphones occasionally made their consonants clash, Ramsay’s bright high notes leapt into the crowd; Yun’s smooth baritone carried.
Maria Kanyova reprised her sparkling turn as Cio-Cio San in Madison Opera’s 2008 “Madama Butterfly” with the beautiful, desperate “Un Bel Di.” In a duet with Ramsay, she previewed a passionate Tatiana, the heroine Kanyova will play in this fall’s “Eugene Onegin” with Madison Opera.
The high point of the night was Mack’s fantastic turn on “What a Movie,” a highly entertaining number from Leonard Bernstein’s brief opera of marital strife, “Trouble in Tahiti.” Mack was at once relaxed and technically solid, with lovely, ringing high notes.
The Madison Opera Chorus, which marshaled impressive dynamics and balance, opened the second half of the program with a boisterous waltz from “Onegin.” They had an excellent blend.
But it was hard to understand them in the chorus from “The Shining Brow,” the opera about Frank Lloyd Wright that premiered in Madison in 1993. (I caught something about seasons, and “how long must we endure?” The epic drama in the music made Wright sound like a king.)
The Broadway portion of the evening was short and well-chosen — Yun sang “Some Enchanted Evening,” deep, powerful but never heavy; Mack returned to swoon over “Mr. Snow.” The audience conducted (and sang) along to the “brand new state” celebration in “Oklahoma!”
The closers, a pair of songs from “Die Fledermaus,” alluded to the opera’s inaugural performance under Roland Johnson in 1961. Unfortunately, as a musical conclusion “Sing to Love” fell flat, sentimental and plodding next to the upbeat familiarity of “Oklahoma!”
The opera always notes a spike in season subscriptions after Opera in the Park. People hummed as they gathered their camping chairs — “we should come to Madison more often,” one woman said. Such gorgeous music, hanging in the summer air, could make an opera lover out of anyone.