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Classical Notes

Classical Notes: August 16, 2006 Archive

Gilbert, Sullivan, and . . . Wagner?

Posted at 8:29 AM on August 16, 2006 by Rex Levang

Tonight on the Opera, we'll be playing some Gilbert and Sullivan (and also some Gilbert-less Sullivan).

A lot of people know that these operettas make merciless fun of grand opera. The baby-switching plot in "H. M. S. Pinafore" goes back to Verdi's "Il Trovatore." The bumbling pirates of Penzance are a parody of all those corsairs and brigands who populate the operatic world. And so on.

But there's a similar moment in tonight's "Trial by Jury" that I've never seen discussed. When the soprano is summoned into the courtroom, Sullivan uses a brief musical phrase (if you're keeping track, the words are "Oh Angelina, come thou into court"). The phrase is tantalizingly close to the phrase Richard Wagner uses for a similar situation in "Lohengrin" -- except that his soprano is charged with witchcraft, is rescued by Lohengrin who sails in with his swan, etc., etc.

So did Sullivan have a little fun lifting from Wagner? The music (both Sullivan's and Wagner's) is a little formulaic, so it could just be a coincidence.

But maybe -- just maybe. . . .

Music at the Jon Hassler Theater

Posted at 11:40 AM on August 16, 2006 by Rex Levang (1 Comments)

MPR's Michael Barone was on the road this past weekend. Here's his report on a "hidden gem."

This past weekend, my companion and I were in SE Minnesota for a bit of camping (still comfortable in a tent at age 60), a car rally over in Wisconsin with our little Citroen 2CV (we took first-in-class), checking out the restaurant Nosh in Wabasha (superb).

Beforehand, I had received a promo postcard from Nautilus Music-Theater alerting me to their production of the Jason Robert Brown show "The Last 5 Years" at the Jon Hassler Theater in Plainview, MN, and we decided to attend, having seen the previous Nautilus production (with a different cast) in Saint Paul two years ago (a review of that can be found in the MPR website archive).

We had seen the show in 2004, were absolutely dazzled by it and the performances of Bradley Greenwald and Norah Long, and were curious as whether it really was as strong a piece as we had thought if mounted elsewhere with other players.

And Plainview? Well, yes, I guess the view of the main street in Plainview is rather “plain.” certainly not as exciting as downtown Minneapolis. But what is happening at the Jon Hassler Theater should be a hot ticket in any major metro center.

Let's back up. Plainview, the home town of Minnesota author Jon Hassler, is in corn-and-soybeans country. The marvelously undulating topography surrounding Plainview reminds you that Minnesota is not all about urban life. The vast expanse of Minnesota is about growing things, and Plainview's Jon Hassler Theater is growing something quite remarkable with its current show, "The Last Five Years.”

The piece is a compelling "modern falling-in-and-out-of-love musical.” Two singers, male and female, comment on the five-year span of their relationship, from first date through marriage to dissolution. What's unusual is that we experience the individual arches of this progression in contrary motion. The man tells his story from beginning to end, while we get the woman's point of view in reverse order...her first song is a painfilled lament, her last song one of expectation as the (seeming) possibilities of her (doomed) relationship are explored.

This production is top grade, with excellent sets/lighting/music, and the current soloists (Ann Michels is 'Cassie', Dieter Bierbrauer is 'Jamie') are superb. In a bit of post-show enthusiasm, I purchased the 'original cast' CD, and though the players in that NYC off-Broadway production are fine enough, frankly both Michels/Bierbrauer and Long/Greenwald were more compelling. Or was it the magic of live theater?
I was struck by the marvel of finding such a superb piece of theater done so compellingly well “out in the middle of the farmland.” Our Saturday night audience only half filled the 280-seat auditorium (which is technically well equipped, with good sight-lines, intimate, comfortable).

Based on this experience, I'd suggest that the Jon Hassler theater is a “hidden gem,” worthy of your attention, certainly for this current show, but I'd bet that their other offerings later in the season will be similarly appealing. At the very least, this production earns a high rave from me. I'd encourage you to search the place out (Plainview is about 18 miles directly east of Oronoco, perhaps 40 minutes NE from Rochester)...the place should be packed every night the current show's run through September 3. Make it happen. :-)

--Michael Barone

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