The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” excelled in singing, orchestral playing, drama and other aspects that redeemed a largely unmemorable work. Plus, what is good music for Veterans Day?

November 11, 2016
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ALERT: Today is Veterans Day. What piece of classical music should be played to mark the event? The Ear suggests the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. Leave your choice in the COMMENT section.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s post features a guest review of Madison Opera’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Larry Wells. Wells has been enjoying opera since he was a youngster. He subscribed to the San Francisco Opera for nearly 20 years, where he last saw “Romeo and Juliet,” sung by Alfredo Kraus and Ruth Ann Swenson

More recently he lived in Tokyo and attended many memorable performances there over nearly 20 years. These included Richard Strauss rarities such as “Die Ägyptische Helena” and “Die Liebe der Danae” as well as the world’s strangest Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner and a space-age production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” featuring Alessandra Marc singing “In questa reggia” while encased in an inverted cone.

By Larry Wells

Last Sunday’s matinee performance of Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Madison Opera at the Overture Center was a feast for the eyes. The costumes, sets, lighting and staging were consistently arresting. (Performance photos are by James Gill.)

But we go to the opera for music and drama.

The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is well known. Gounod’s opera substitutes the tragedy with melodrama, and therein lies one of the work’s flaws. Despite sword fights, posturings and threats as well as one of opera’s lengthiest death scenes, one leaves the theater thinking that a vast amount of theatrical resources have been squandered on something insubstantial.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-sword-fight

However, despite its dramatic flaws, the opera’s music has somehow endured. And Sunday’s performance milked the most out of the music that could have been expected.

The star of the show was the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the expert direction of Maestro John DeMain (below). He knows how to pace a performance, how to build an exciting climax and how to highlight a solo instrument.

He is an incredibly intelligent conductor, and we are fortunate to have him in Madison. I want to make special mention of the beautiful harp playing, which, according to the program, was accomplished by Jenny DeRoche.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The second star on the stage was the Madison Opera Chorus (below). The chorus plays a significant part in many of the opera’s scenes, and the singing was stirring when it needed to be and tender when it was called for.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-chrous-and-set

As for the soloists, highest praise must go to UW-Madison alumna soprano Emily Birsan (below right) for her portrayal of Juliet. Her solo arias, particularly her big number in the first act as well as her subsequent lament, were stunning.

Her Romeo, tenor John Irvin (below left), sounded a little forced during his forte moments, but he sang magnificently in his quiet farewell to Juliet after their balcony scene. (You can hear the famous balcony scene, sung by Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-john-irvin-and-emily-birsan

Their voices blended beautifully in the opera’s multiple duets. And the wedding quartet, where they were joined by Allisanne Apple’s nurse (below, rear right) and Liam Moran’s Friar Lawrence (below, middle center), was a highlight of the performance.

madison-opera-romoeo-and-juliet-friar-and-nurse

The opera abounds with minor characters, all of which were ably portrayed. Special mention should be made of Stephanie Lauricella (below, far right) for her fantastic moments as Romeo’s page; Madison’s Allisanne Apple for her amusing portrayal of Juliet’s nurse Gertrude; Sidney Outlaw (below, second from left) as a robust Mercutio; and Philip Skinner as a powerful Lord Capulet.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-sidnay-outlaw-left-and-page-right

I have wondered why this opera is still performed. Its music is lovely but unmemorable, and its dramatic impact is tenuous.

I left the performance thinking that it had been a good afternoon at the theater – certainly more interesting than the Packers’ game – but wishing that one of a couple dozen more meaty operas had been performed in its place.

Since we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, how much more interesting would have been Benjamin Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”? 


Classical music: What are the differences in directing “Romeo and Juliet” as an opera and as a play? Madison Opera stages the opera this weekend

November 2, 2016
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features acoustic guitarists Helen Avakian and Dave Irwin in music by Ralph Towner, Giberto Gil and Helen Avakian. The concert takes place from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Opera will stage Charles Gounod’s operaRomeo and Juliet.” Performances in Overture Hall are on Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Here is a link with many more details about the performances, the play, the cast and tickets:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/11/01/classical-music-madison-opera-stages-charles-gounods-opera-romeo-and-juliet-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-to-celebrate-the-400th-anniversary-of-the-death-of-willia/

Stage director Doug Scholz-Carlson (below), the artistic director of the Great River Shakespeare Festival who has directed “Romeo and Juliet” as both an opera and a play, agreed to an email interview with The Ear about the differences:

douglas-scholz-carlson

You have directed “Romeo and Juliet” as both a play and an opera. How do the two experiences differ, and what are your most favorite and least favorite parts of doing each?

The opera is based closely on the play, so much of what is essential remains true for both versions.

The biggest difference for me is that the opera focuses on the emotional heart of the love story. Thanks to the music by Gounod (below), the audience experiences what it feels like to be young, impulsive and in love.

The music can reach our emotions directly, so that the opera becomes a truly personal experience for the audience. I don’t think you can see the opera and not find yourself transported to that time in your life when you first fell in love. Romeo and Juliet sing a moving duet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Because of the important role of the chorus, the opera also gives the audience the sense of the entire community that surrounds the young people. We see the tragedy through the eyes of the adults in the families who are unable, or unwilling, to help their children grow up.

The play by Shakespeare offers more subtlety in the journey of Romeo and Juliet’s relationship and more context for the adults in their lives. While the opera offers a huge emotional experience through the two main characters, the play creates more nuances in the relationships between many individuals in the story.

In our production, I hope audiences will discover that we have added back many of these relationships through visual storytelling.

Charles Gounod

What should audiences know about how Gounod’s opera differs from Shakespeare’s play? Do you have a personal preference between the two and why?

I don’t have a preference. I truly love them both for different reasons.

I love the wordplay in the tragedy by Shakespeare (below). Each character is sketched clearly and specifically through the way they use language. We see in the language why Romeo and Juliet find the perfect match in each other. Even smaller characters like the servant Peter have a full life in the play.

The play has a relentless energy. There are so many times in the story that things could turn out well — and so many ways in which the two lovers might never have met. You come away from the play with a profound sense that the combination of events that make up our lives is, in a way, a miracle.

Through Gounod’s music, the opera delivers an emotional experience that can’t be duplicated in any other way in the theater.

I’d be tempted to draw the distinction that the play appeals to the head while the opera appeals to the heart — but that would be unfair to both. Both the play and the opera are a complete experience. They are both profound ways to experience a timeless story.

shakespeare BW

What else would you like to say about this production in specific or about “Romeo and Juliet” in general?

We keep telling and retelling the story of Romeo and Juliet because it plays out our worst fears. What happens when what we hate becomes more important than what we love? I imagine we’ve all been asking ourselves that question given the current political environment.

Neither the opera nor the play ever explains why the Capulets hate the Montagues.

It doesn’t matter. Both families allow their hatred of each other to become more important than their love for their children. The Capulets and Montagues pay a terrible price to learn that lesson, but it is a lesson we all need to learn over and over again.


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