Revisiting Sutermeister’s “Romeo und Julia”

16908_booklet_Romeo und Julia.indd

SUTERMEISTER: Romeo und Julia / Urzula Koszut, sop (Juliet); Adolf Dallapozza, ten (Romeo); Jörn W. Wilsing, bar (Escalus); Theodor Nicolai, speaker (Montague); Alexander Malta, bass (Capulet); Raimund Grumbach, bar (Balthasar); Hildegard Laurich, mezzo (Countess Capulet); Gudrun Wewezow, alto (Nurse); Ferry Gruber, ten (Servant); Nikolaus Hillebrand, bass (Pater Lorenzo); Gregor Lütje, boy sop (Shepherd/Boy’s Voice); Tölzer Boys’ Choir; Bavarian Radio Chorus; Munich Radio Orch.; Heinz Wallberg, cond / Musiques Suisses MGB CD 626, available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube

This now-old 1980 recording is the only sound document we have of Heinrich Sutermeister’s operatic masterpiece, written when he was only 30 years old and a smash hit across Europe throughout the 1940s. It is also available for streaming on Amazon, where you can also purchase the physical CD which comes with a full libretto (in German only).

I went out of my way to look this up after having been highly impressed by Karajan’s performance of the Sutermeier Missa da Requiem that I recently reviewed. Interestingly, the musical style here is quite different. The Requiem shows very strongly the influence of Stravinsky while Romeo und Julia sounds a great deal in places like Carl Orff. This makes sense when you learn that, as a 21-year-old, Sutermeister left his native Switzerland to study with Orff in Germany. But the music is not entirely Orff-influenced, as we shall discover.

The opera debuted in Dresden in 1940, conducted by Karl Böhm who raved about the young composer as a “genius.” It spread across Europe like wildfire throughout the ‘40s, but by the mid-‘50s Sutermeiester’s harmonic language was considered “dated.” I find this difficult to understand considering that Orff, one of his original mentors, was still writing and getting operas produced using essentially the same harmonic language he had introduced with Carmina Burana and Der Mond many years earlier. I think that, for whatever reason, music critics simply turned their back on Sutermeister. Neither this opera nor his superb Requiem have ever found a place in the standard repertoire, anywhere in the world.

The opening chorus is very much Orff-like in its use of a quick ostinato rhythm and a single chord underneath, with the top line shifting slightly in harmony as the rhythms change as well. It has a very strong Carmina Burana-like feel to it, including two speaking roles which interject a few works from time to time. But Sutermeister’s orchestration is far more colorful than Orff’s, sounding not unlike Stravinsky’s Petrouchka (a work that, I still feel, was incredibly innovative and unfairly overshadowed by Le sacre du Printemps, great as that ballet is). Moreover, Sutermeister wrote here in a more continuous manner than young Orff; each scene blends seamlessly and skillfully into the next, creating a musical and dramatic flow that Orff would not really achieve until the 1950s.

There are also actual arias—brief, but still arias—set to interesting yet essentially tonal musical lines, and this was something Orff was never able to really achieve. For all his brilliance, Orff’s solo spots for singers always consisted of strophic lines, often centered around two or three pitches, and nothing melodic in the true sense of the word. In addition to Orff and Stravinsky, I also hear some influence of Hindemith here, particularly in the latter’s opera Mathis der Maler. Sutermeister also wrote duets in this opera, something Orff almost never did.

By the time you reach track 3, however, the Stravinsky influence really does seem to overshadow that of Orff…but again, it’s not thievery. Sutermeister clearly had his own way of dealing with the Stravinskyisms in his score, blending and morphing them in ways that Igor never thought of. Still, it’s an interesting reference point.

As we get deeper into Act I and the interaction between the two young lovers, the vocal lines become even more lyrical, and there is a note of the tragedy to come in some of the music. Sutermeister laid out his dramatic and musical path in this work with unerring dramatic accuracy. There’s also a nice unaccompanied vocal madrigal between Juliet, Romeo and Friar Laurence in the midst of Act II, Scene 4. As one gets deeper into Act II, one notices that the music is almost symphonically developed, much like Berlioz’ Les Troyens or Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Pride of place among the solo singers goes to Urszula Koszut, a soprano I’d never heard of, as Juliet. Her free, open tone, complete vocal control and youthful sound are completely appropriate to the role. Second in excellence is Nikolaus Hillebrand as Father Laurence; his dark, rich basso cantate voice is perfect. Adolf Dallapozza, a pretty well-known light tenor of the time, has a bit of vocal control problems but is completely wrapped up in his role. All of the other singers are also quite good; this was an era when, for the most part, record companies made sure that singers in their opera recordings, particularly in leading roles but also in subsidiary ones, did not have wobbles, poor breath support, unclear diction or other defects. Times have certainly changed.

In the end, however, I found it an interesting work but not a “keeper.” Worth hearing at least once, but as a musical representation of the Romeo and Juliet story I still prefer Berlioz’ “dramatic symphony” and Prokofiev’s ballet score.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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