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Concert Operetta’s ‘Remembering Romberg’ (2nd review)BY: Steve Cohen 02.07.2011
Some critics find Sigmund Romberg’s exotic operettas schmaltzy and outdated. I disagree, and the recent production of Romberg highlights by the Concert Operetta Theater reinforced my feeling.
Concert Operetta Theater: “Remembering Romberg.” Music by Sigmund Romberg with words by Oscar Hammerstein II, Dorothy Donnelly, Otto Harbach, et al. Catharine Layton, Zulimar Lopez-Fernandez, sopranos; Patrick Layton, tenor; John-Andrew Fernandez, baritone; Michael Presser, narrator; Donald Yonker, writer; Daniel Pantano, artistic director. January 30, 2011 at Helen Corning Warden Theater, Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce St. (215) 389-0648 or www.concertoperetta.com.
Why Sigmund Romberg succeeded
Sigmund Romberg’s music was once ubiquitous and now is almost forgotten, or it’s consigned to the dustbin. “It was all the rage in 1924,” as my colleague Steven Suskin wrote in Playbill, “but I think that even then I would have found it outdated...stodgy...old-fashioned.”
I disagree, and the recent production of Romberg highlights by the Concert Operetta Theater reinforced my feeling.
Romberg’s songs had more intimate appeal than those songwriters to whom he’s usually compared. Like the Viennese composers Johann Strauss, Franz Lehar and Rudolf Friml, Romberg blended Austrian, Hungarian, gypsy and Jewish influences. But he wrote with more intimacy and accessibility. You need a trained voice to sing Lehar’s hits, like “Vilia,” or Strauss’s, like “Look Me Over Once.” Romberg’s songs, on the other hand, can be sung by amateurs. Just try it.
Romberg wrote tunes that sound brilliant when sung on stage in a high key with loud endings, and that sound mellow— and just as good— when sung softly, an octave lower, by ordinary voices. On the stage, Romberg’s songs have a wide range, but if you strip away the coloratura obbligatos and the high transpositions, you’ll see that his melodies are simple and reachable.
Romberg usually kept his tunes within one octave, and the progressions were in very small steps. One of Romberg’s biggest hits, “Lover Come Back to Me,” is built on multiple repetitions of three adjoining notes, on the words “I remember ev’ry little thing you used to do”; and the title phrase is three adjoining notes with the top one repeated four times.
By contrast, in the 1920s, Gershwin was dazzling audiences with tricky rhythms and Richard Rodgers was interrupting his simple, innocent phrases with unexpected jumps and unprepared dissonances.
Because Romberg’s music was so accessible, it became extremely popular from 1915 to the mid-20th Century. But after Romberg’s death in 1951 his popularity faded, presumably because his subject matter was so foreign and remote, like Old Heidelberg in The Student Prince, the French monarchy in The New Moon, North Africa in The Desert Song and Peru in Nina Rosa.
Haunting black notes
At the Concert Operetta recital, José Meléndez, as music director and pianist, admirably translated the double appeal of Romberg. He often chose to close songs with Romberg’s quiet, lower endings. He also provided atmospheric postludes and transitions between songs. Meléndez opted for Romberg’s original keys with plenty of black notes, giving the songs a haunting quality.
The baritone John-Andrew Fernandez handled the stalwart heroes, tenor Michael Layton the romantic lovers. Layton’s real-life wife, Catherine Layton, portrayed his inamorati and Zulimar-Lopez Hernandez dazzled with the high coloratura parts.
Lost score discovered
Dan Pantano, the company’s artistic director, was excellent in several songs. I was pleasantly surprised because, although he was trained at the Academy of Vocal Arts, Pantano had given up performing elsewhere. One might have assumed he cut back his performances because he lacked the chops, but Sunday he proved that wasn’t the case.
Pantano is working with the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization to develop a stage version of the 1930 Romberg-Hammerstein movie, Viennese Nights. The piano/vocal version of the film score was found in the Philadelphia Library, and the script was located in the rare book collection at the Princeton University Library. Catharine Layton sang two songs from it on the recital.♦
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