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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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”?
ALERT: On this Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Guitar Ensemble, under the direction of UW-Madison professor Javier Calderon, will give a FREE concert of music by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Gilbert Bibarian and others.
By Jacob Stockinger
He may be wrong, but The Ear does not think that Veterans Day — and Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth nations of the former British Empire — is just about war. And there is plenty of music one could play that aims to depict war and conflict.
But Veterans Day -– which was originally Armistice Day and was intended to mark the end of that vicious meat-grinder World War I that started 100 years ago this year and officially ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 –- is more about people and loss. So is Remembrance Day.
Given the way “total war” has evolved and been waged since World War I — just look at the Middle East and ISIS these days — one has to wonder: Shouldn’t civilians, including women and children, also be honored? When war is waged, usually all suffer and all sacrifice.
Not that the armed forces don’t come at the head of the line and hold a special place in our thoughts.
But these days a Requiem for All seems fit and appropriate.
That is probably why the prize-winning and popular documentary filmmaker Ken Burns also used the same music, arranged for solo piano, in his 2007 epic film about World War II called, simply, ‘The War.”
By Jacob Stockinger
Today is Memorial Day, 2014
My Mom always referred to it as Decoration Day
I liked that name. It seemed to fit the occasion better.
To be honest, The Ear has always liked the idea of honoring military service, but is much less inclined to celebrate unabashed militarism with parades and flag-waving (below is a photo of a Memorial Day parade in Chicago).
I think of Memorial Day as a sadder, more introspective and memory-driven holiday, as well as the traditional start of summer -– which, especially after a Wisconsin winter like the last one, is nothing to apologize for.
In any case, here is a link to an informative but very accessible history of the holiday that also highlights the important difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day:
But putting history aside for a moment, how would you celebrate the holiday artistically, especially musically?
That is what The Ear wants to know.
But over the past years, The Well-Tempered Ear has also offered previous blog posts – some offering suggested listening, others seeking it — that still seem relevant and still invite readers to participate.
Here is one from last year:
And here is a link to memorable 2011 posting, which made a lot of suggestions for composers and specific works, then asked for reader feedback and also featured the moving version of Sir Edward Elgar’s beautifully poignant “Nimrod” Variation from the “Enigma” Variations (heard in the original orchestration at the bottom in a YouTube video that has almost 2,5 million hits and features Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) and Norah Jones in her “Hymn to America,” both used convincingly and touchingly in Ken Burns’ mammoth documentary film “The War”:
Finally, here is a stirring story, much of it previously unknown to me, about the history of “Taps” that appeared on NPR:
What music comes to your mind and heart when you think of Memorial Day?
The Ear wants to hear.