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”? 

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Classical music Q&A: The Annals of Accompanying, Part 1 of 2. The Ear talks with baritone Paul Rowe and pianist Martha Fischer, both of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, about the challenges of accompanying in their joint FREE performance this Wednesday night of Hugo Wolf’s complete “Italian Songbook.”

March 24, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Baritone Paul Rowe and pianist Martha Fischer have been performing song and song cycles together for almost two decades at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Some performances, like Schubert’s “Winterreise,” have even been published and recorded in book-and-CD format (bel0w) that also features moody theme-related, black-and-white photographs by the Madison-based photographer and violist Katrin Talbot and a foreword by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison.

Winterreise UW Press

Fischer, who teaches Collaborative Piano at the UW-Madison, has also accompanied countless instrumentalists.

This Wednesday night, March 26, Rowe and Fischer will give a FREE performance of Hugo Wolf’s complete “Italian Songbook” at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus.

To The Ear, it seemed like the perfect occasion to explore the complexities of accompanying and of musical collaboration. The two musicians (below left and center with UW alumna Julia Foster, right, who teaches voice at Rollins College and will join in the singing of the Wolf songs) generously agreed to respond to the same questions. Those questions and their answers will be featured today and tomorrow on this blog.

Paul Rowe, Martha Fischer and Julia Foster 1

Why is “accompanying” now referred to as “collaboration”? What distinction is one trying to make? What would you like the audience to listen for and hear in an exemplary collaboration?

PAUL ROWE: To me, this is all in the interest of equal billing for equal participation.

In the past the singer was often the “star,” who hired a pianist to play for them. This started to change in some cases as far back as the 1840s when Felix Mendelssohn and then Johannes Brahms played with selected singers in salons and concert halls. They would do what we now call recitals and might feature music by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann or Brahms or Mendelssohn.

The first of the great modern collaborators was Gerald Moore (below in 1967, seated, with baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the left, and also at the bottom in a 1957 YouTube video that celebrates spring with two songs by Franz Schubert). Moore joined many of the great post World War II recitalists including Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Fritz Wunderlich, Kathleen Ferrier, Janet Baker and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in many performances.

Other great pianists who also collaborated since that time have included Leonard Bernstein, Wolfgang Swallisch, Daniel Barenboim, Benjamin Britten and Mstislav Rostropovich. The next generation included Graham Johnson, Harmut Höll, Jorg Demus and many others. All of these great pianists deserve equal billing with the singers or other musicians.

MARTHA FISCHER: When thinking about the specialty of “pianists-who-prefer-playing-with-others,” Collaborative Piano is a more inclusive term.  It refers to all of the many possibilities of collaboration – duos, trios, larger chamber works, piano-four-hands, two pianos, accompanying choirs, playing as orchestral pianists or with wind ensembles, etc.

This is the explanation from a purely practical standpoint.  But in addition to that, there is the fact that over time “accompanying” had come to have a pejorative connotation — that “those who can’t really play SOLO piano become accompanists.”  In more recent years, I believe that we (including pianists, by the way) have come to understand that it is an art in and of itself that deserves the same respect as any other kind of music-making.

I usually have a whole class in my undergraduate accompanying course where I talk to the students about the importance of approaching their collaborative repertoire with the same kind of integrity that they do their solo repertoire.

If we, as pianists, think of it as “just accompanying” — as a lesser experience — then we are perpetuating the stereotype that accompanists are good sight-readers who should stay in the background and be nothing more than pretty wallpaper to the soloist’s great artistry.

If we as pianists bring all we have to offer to the table and are as prepared (or more so) than our partners, then we play in a way that demands respect.  And that’s where it should all begin.

dietrich fischer- dieskau and gerald moore in 1967

Historically or on the contemporary scene, are there great collaborations that you admire and view as role models?

PR: I would have to rate the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau/Gerald Moore (below) and Peter Pears/Benjamin Britten duos as among the most influential for me. Also, Pierre Bernac/Francis Poulenc and Gerard Souzay/Dalton Baldwin rank very high.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore 1

MF: Some of the greatest collaborations between singers and pianists?  They include Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears (below), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the great Gerald Moore (Fischer-Dieskau collaborated with many pianists, among them being Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia, Sviatoslav Richter and others; and Gerald Moore collaborated with virtually every great singer in the mid-20th century, but Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore’s collaborations are still very special). And then there’s Francis Poulenc and Pierre Bernac!

Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten

Today, I often look to the British pianist, Graham Johnson (below top), who created “The Songmakers’ Almanac,” a group of singers who would do projects of art songs and specially designed programs. (He has done HUGE recording projects for the Hyperion label including the complete Schubert songs, the complete Brahms, Schumann, etc.).

Graham Johnson is also a gifted writer about music and I absolutely love his extensive notes on every song he has recorded. His writing gives us a glimpse into the detailed scholarship, creativity, and imagination that he possesses as an artist (In fact, I have especially enjoyed reading his notes on Wolf’s “Italian Songbook”!) In America, pianist Steven Bleier (below bottom), who teaches at the Julliard School and who played at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival with the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, has put together The New York Festival of Song that does similar song-related concerts on special topics or composers.

Graham Johnson at piano

There are many other great accompanists today, all of whom I see as role models: Malcolm Martineau, Roger Vignoles, Helmut Deutsch, Justus Zehen, Julius Drake, Craig Rutenberg, Warren Jones and Martin Katz, just to name a few.

steven bleier

TOMORROW: What qualities make for a great accompanist or collaborator? What are the most rewarding and most challenging parts of working together? Are some styles of music easier to accompany? And what makes Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Songbook” special?

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