Sunday Afternoon at the Opera
Your Lyric Theater Program with Keith Brown
Programming Selections for the Months of September and October
SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 2ND: There could not be a more appropriate opera to air on the Sunday before Labor Day than Daron Aric Hagen's Bandanna (2000). That's because the underlying issue in this work forces us to consider the plight of those who physically labor in the United States of America. It's amazing how topical the story of this opera is! In a tiny town on the Texas/Mexico border, a double-dealing local cop enforces the law by day, but at night conducts illegal Mexican workers across the line. Officer Jake arouses the jealousy of his boss, the police chief, by convincing him that a rival officer, Cassidy, is having an affair with his wife. The misplaced placed bandanna Mona wears is taken as a sign of her infidelity. Sound like Shakespeare's Othello? The composer (b. 1961) intended it that way. Musically, Bandanna is entirely accessible and eminently singable. Hagen admits his style is derived in part from the lyricism of Leonard Bernstein. For local color he added a mariachi band to the sound of the University of Las Vegas Wind Orchestra. Hagen himself conducted that ensemble and the university's Opera Theatre Chorus for the Albany Records world premiere recording of Bandanna.
SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 9TH: You're wrong if you think all of Giocamo Puccini's operas are in the international standard operatic repertoire. Even after Puccini made major revisions in the score over a period of fifteen years, Edgar (1889) his second operatic essay, never made it into the canon of his works. Its premiere at La Scala was a failure, due no doubt to a preposterous libretto. Yet the music audibly displays the melodic genius of this composer in its earliest flowering. In radio broadcast you can forget about the romantic absurdities of the plot and concentrate on some glorious singing. Edgar has had its supporters, one of whom is a discerning music critic, Raymond Tuttle. Four commercial recordings of the opera have been made over the past three decades or so. One rare revival of Edgar took place in a concert performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City. This was the world premiere of the complete opera on LP discs, made in 1977 for Columbia Masterworks. Comparing the singing casts of the three live-in-performance recordings and the single studio taping, Raymond Tuttle concludes that the oldest one from Carnegie Hall is the best. Operatic superstars tenor Carlo Bergonzi and soprano Renato Scotto, "... squeeze the last drops of juice out of the score...", (Fanfare, Jan/Feb, 2007). Eve Queler directed the Opera Orchestra of New York. I last broadcast the Columbia Masterworks Edgar on Sunday, May 22, 1988. On the second occasion my substitute Bob Walsh will spin those same two vinyl platters.
SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 16TH: Under terms of the contract he accepted from the town fathers of Leipzig, Johann Sebastian Bach was forbidden to write operas. His youngest son, Johann Christian Bach (1735 - 82), wrote eleven of them, as well as fifty symphonies and many other instrumental works. The theme music for this show is the rondo, the third movement from his Symphony in D major, Op. 18, No. 4 (1781), which is in the form of a three movement Italian opera overture. The music of "The London Bach" could easily be mistaken for early Mozart. J. C. Bach befriended the child prodigy when he visited London in 1764 - 5. Recordings of Bach's operas are few and far between. Amadis des Gaules (1779), was his last and the only one with a libretto in French rather than Italian. Bach crafted it with Gluck's reformed French lyric tragedies in mind. The plot is trite and the characterization pretty shallow by the standards of the mature Mozart. Forgetting that, Amadis is musically more solidly composed, more suave, melodic, and Italian than any of Gluck's operas. Too bad that Parisian opera politics ruined its premiere. In the Jan/Feb, 1991 issue of Fanfare, that bible of classical music record review, David Mason Greene wrote very favorably of Hannssler Classic's world premiere release of this opera on two CDs. Helmut Rilling, who has in his long career revived many neglected works of the baroque and early classical periods conducts the instrumentalists of the Bach Collegium Stuttgart and the choral group he founded, the Gachinger Kantorei. American tenor James Wagner sings in the title rôle. The original French libretto of Amadis has been rendered into German. Surprisingly, in that language, the overall recorded musical effect approaches Mozart's "Magic Flute" or perhaps even a proto-Romantic Carl Maria von Weber in his most classical and heroic mode. I last broadcast this recording on Sunday, October 13, 1991.
SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 23RD: The operas of Leŏs Janáčk (1854 - 1928) are better known now than they ever were in his lifetime, even in his own country. Best known today and most frequently produced is the "The Cunning Little Vixen" (1924), which established an international reputation for itself only much later on in the twentieth century. It was heard on this program this past summer. Janáčk had to struggle terribly hard for recognition outside of his native land. He came from provincial Moravia. Performance in the national capital was necessary to insure success. Unfortunately, the musical genius from Brno was unwelcome at the Prague National Theatre, so his third opera "Jenufa" (1904) had to wait twelve years for the attention it deserved. This one also continues to cling to the fringe of the international operatic repertoire. In 1970 EMI cooperated with the Czechoslovak state record label Supraphon in producing what remains the definitive recording of the work. Bohumil Gregor conducted the chorus and orchestra of the National Theatre at Prague. Originally titled in Czech Jeji Pastorkine or "Her Foster Daughter.""Jenufa" is the story of a family tragedy among the Moravian peasant folk. Janáčk's theatrical genius lay in his ability to latch onto universal human emotions and situations, in the case of this story, jealousy in love and guilt over the covering-up of a heinous crime. I last broadcast "Jenufa" on Sunday, September 8, 1985. You hear it again today working from the same boxed set of Angel stereo vinyl discs
SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 30TH: Nancy Van de Vate (b. 1930) is an American composer by birth who has long lived and worked in Vienna, Austria. She has written operas in both German and English language. You've heard two of her operas with English librettos in recent times on this program, most recently Where The Cross Is Made (2005) in July of this year. That one was her operatic treatment of a play by Eugene O'Neil. Thinking of Armistice Day, on Sunday, November 7, 2004 I programmed All Quiet on the Western Front (2003), her adaptation for the lyric stage of the famous anti-war novel set during World War One. Now you get to listen to her German language opera Nemo:Jenseits von Vulkania ("Nemo: Beyond Volcania." 1994). Nemo's libretto takes its inspiration from Jules Verne's science-fiction novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. The hero of the opera is the son of Captain Nemo, the builder of the submarine Nautilus. As a stage work Nemo combines elements of adventure, romance, and fantasy. For the world premiere recording of Nemo, Toshiyuki Shimada conducted the Moravain Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus Ars Brunensis, based in the Moravian capital Brno. A 2001 release on two CDs through Vienna Modern Masters, a record label founded by the composer's late husband Clyde Smith in 1990.
SUNDAY OCTOBER 7TH: Falstaff (1893) is a marvelous finale to Giuseppe Verdi's career as an opera composer. He regarded it fondly as a labor of love. With an excellent libretto by Arrigo Boito to work from, Verdi handled the dramatic aspects of Shakespeare's comedy with a mastery unparalleled in anything he had previously written. I have broadcast two CD releases of Falstaff: the 1994 Sony Classical starring baritone Juan Pons (Sunday, April 30, 1995) and the one from LSO Live with Italian baritone Michele Pertusi in the title rôle (Sunday, February 6, 2005). Today we dig deep into the musty, dusty vaults of our WWUH classical collection to exhume a historically significant recording of Falstaff on three Angel monaural LPs. Herbert von Karajan was on the podium directing the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, plus the singers of what Angel billed in 1956 (?) as the Philharmonia Opera Company. The legendary baritone Tito Gobbi is our Falstaff, with baritone Rolando Panerai as Mister Ford. Tenor Luigi Alva participates as the young suitor Fenton. The list of operatic luminaries who took part in tapings carries on with the female voices: soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as Mistress Ford and Anno Moffo as Nanetta. That latter name is the Italian language diminutive form of Anna that Boito assigned to the character. She's known as Mistress Anne Page in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor.
SUNDAY OCTOBER 14TH: Over the past decade or two, at long last all of the Italian opere serie of George Frideric Handel have been recorded in state-of-the-art sound and in historically informed interpretations. Many of these operas have been issued for the first time under the French Harmonia Mundi label. Perhaps the most novel and sprightly of them is Giustino (1737). The story of the Emperor Giustino is a species of rags to riches parable, rather like the English tale about Dick Whittington. It was a staple of baroque opera. Esteemed composers Legrenzi, Scarlotti, and Albinoni had written scores for successful productions of it. Handel breathed the best of his musical high spirits into the cartoonish characters. How can a theatrical production on so grand a scale fail, when as part of the spectacle the hero gets to fight with a bear and a sea monster! Nevertheless, Handel's London opera season of 1736 - 37 was pretty much a disaster. The English public was growing tired of the imported musical entertainment, sung in a language they didn't understand. Nicholas McGegan seems to have captured those Handelian high spirits well in his interpretation of Giustino for Harmonia Mundi. He directs the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (a period instrument ensemble) with countertenor Michael Chance in the title rôle. Giustino was taped in its 1994 Göttingen Festival revival. The painting reproduced on the cover of the HM two CD set resides in Hartford's own Wadsworth Athanaeum. I last broadcast Giustino on Sunday, April 14, 1996.
SUNDAY OCTOBER 21ST: The teenage Mozart had already written two operas for appreciative audiences in Milan, when in 1772 he was invited to return there to the Theatro Regio Ducale (the predecessor of La Scala) to write a new opera seria. He was commissioned to compose music for Lucio Silla - a common subject for baroque lyric theater, drawn from Roman history and dealing with the conflict between love and duty. Strangely, this was Mozart's last operatic excursion into Italy. While Lucio Silla was favorably received and ran for 26 performances, it disappeared from the stage immediately thereafter and was never revived. This was because the entire genre of Italian opera seria was passing away. The mock heroics, the male soprano castrati singers, the dull secco recitative passages and the rigid formula of the da capo arias -- all that the mature Gluck was already in the process of reforming. The young Mozart took the most progressive approach you could under the circumstances in writing a new work in an old art form. His music for Lucio Silla is, as you would expect, utterly beautiful and surprisingly dramatic. Lucio Silla was resuscitated in concert performance in the Vienna Koncerthaus in 1989 in historically-informed eighteenth-century musical style. Nikolaus Harnoncourt directed his own period instrument ensemble, the Concentus Musicus. Teldec release the recording on two compact discs, which I last broadcast on this program on Sunday, October 17, 1993.
SUNDAY OCTOBER 28TH: Halloweentide programming calls for something magical, even if it might be out of its proper season. I have broadcast Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1596) at the appropriate time of year, i.e. at the summer solstice, on Sunday, June 23, 1985. On that occasion I presented the entire spoken-word comedy as recorded in 1960 for Decca/Argo in their stereo LP series of the complete plays of the Bard. One year previous to that, however, I broadcast Benjamin Britten's opera of the same name, which premiered at the 1960 Aldeburgh Festival in England. For that Decca/London recording Britten himself conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, with a singing cast that included the pioneering countertenor Alfred Deller in the rôle of Oberon, King of the Fairies, and Britten's lover tenor Peter Pears as Lysander. Britten and Pears prepared the libretto themselves, using about one half of Shakespeare's original verse. They added virtually nothing. In 2004 Decca reissued all their classic recordings of Britten's operas in a ten-CD box. In most of them the composer is conducting. The first two CDs in the package are devoted to A Midsummer Night's Dream, the same recording heard in LP format on this program twenty three years ago.
The first person I must thank as I look back to my programming for the Fall of 2007 is my WWUH radio colleague Bob Walsh. Earlier this year he substituted for me on certain Sundays, often on relatively short notice. He will be doing so again on the second Sunday in September. I'm sure to call on him for Sundays to come. As always, I thank Rob Meehan, who was a classical music deejay on this station three decades ago, for loaning me for broadcast various items from his extensive private record collection. He's a specialist in the "alternative musics" of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This time around he loaned me his Albany Records copy of Daron Aric Hagen's Bandanna and the boxed Decca CD set that includes Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. From my own holdings of opera on silver disc come J. C. Bach's Amadis des Gaules and Mozart's Lucio Silla. All the other featured recordings new or old, on LP or CD come from our WWUH classical music record library - an enormous collection, to be sure, which keeps on growing.