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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera
Your "Lyric Theatre" program with Keith Brown
Programming Selections for the Months of January and February 2005

Sunday January 2: The old year passes away and we reach the very bottom of the seasonal cycle in mid-winter. With that wondrous annual procession of changes in mind, I devote this first Sunday of 2005 to a brand new recording of Franz Josef Haydn’s oratorio Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons, 1801). Haydn looked to English poetry as inspiration for his enormous box office success Die Schopfung, (The Creation, 1798). Mitton’s Paradise Lost and the King James Bible are the sourcebooks for The Creation. For The Seasons Haydn’s librettist Baron Van Swieten translated into German the verse of Scottish poet James Thompson. Van Sweiten hoped the composer would work a second time the wonders he had performed previously on Mitton’s epic. This time around the solos are sung not by angels but by peasants who observe the seasonal alterations in the weather. The new Harmonia Mundi issue of The Seasons features the period instrumentalists of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra with the RIAS Chamber Choir, Rene Jacobs conducting. You’ll hear Die Jahreszeiten in a performance given at the 2003 Innsbruck Festival, sung in German.

Sunday January 9: My series of broadcasts of the recorded plays of William Shakespeare continues into the winter of 2005. Long before there was any radio or TV people would gather by the hearth on long, cold winter nights and tell stories to each other while the winter away. I have such a fireside story for you from the master storyteller of them all: one of the Bard’s late tragicomedies The Winter’s Tale (1611). The paranoia of King Leontes sets off a chain of events, the results of which stretch over sixteen years. As the Bard works it out on stage, what was sown in sorrow and discord is eventually reaped in joy and reconciliation. The Argo Records complete series of Shakespeare’s play on LP vinyl discs is now long out of print. All the plays were acted by the Marlowe Dramatic Society and Professional Players, directed by George Rylands. The Winter’s Tale is presented complete and uncut in the text of the new Shakespeare, as edited by John Dover Wilson. The voice of Britain’s leading Shakespearean actor of today, Sir Ian McKellen can be heard in two small roles.

Sunday January 16: It was difficult enough to establish an internationally recognized and distinctly American style of opera, witness Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess or Copeland’s The Tender Land. Imagine the difficulty involved in creating a recognizably Australian form of opera! Composer Richard Meale (b. 1932 in Sydney) has taken on this task in Voss (1986), which is his first lyric theatre-work. The story of Voss is based very loosely on the historical figure of German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who tried but failed to cross the vast interior of the continent of Australia. He died in the attempt in 1845. Voss the opera doesn’t show us Leichhardt’s exploits. Rather, it seeks to externalize the inner life of Voss, in particular through his correspondence with a young woman, the niece of the financial backer of his ill-fated expedition. The premiere stage production of Voss was mounted by Australian Opera of Sydney. It was taped in the Sydney studios of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The world premiere recording of Voss was released in 1989 on two PHILIPS compact discs.
Since Voss is not a particularly long opera, we’ll have time remaining this afternoon to explore the byways of contemporary American opera. Stay tuned for Elliot Carter’s What Next? (2000), a chamber-scale one act opera of forty minutes airtime duration. EMC is a German record label well known for its support of avant-garde jazz. EMC’s new series has carried many out-of-the-way classical music items. What Next? explores the personal consciousness of five adults and one child, who witness an accident. Recorded live in performance in Amsterdam, the six singers and the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra are led by Peter Eotvos.

Sunday January 23: Kurt Weill’s Aufsteig und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny 1930) sets forth an ugly and tragic story, not recommended for lovers of pleasant operatic fantasies. Mahagonny is an indictment of the entrepreneurial spirit of the modern world. Amoral hustlers found in the city. It goes through a boom period. Then the cycle of its sleazy business activities winds down in anarchy and violence. A common worker Jimmy Mahoney, the would-be hero of the opera, is condemned to death because he cannot pay a tiny debt. Weill identified Mahoney with America, more specifically New York City. He looked at the capitalist system through the eyes of an alienated wage slave struggling to survive in pre-Nazi Germany. Mahagonny was revived at the Met in 1982 and was televised on National Public TV. Shortly thereafter CBS Masterworks released in the 1956 monaural recording of Mahagonny starring Kurt Weill’s widow, the famous singer Lotte Lenya. Finally the old classic Columbia recording has been reissued on silver disc through Sony Classical. Wilheim Bruckner-Ruggeberg conducts the chorus and orchestra of North German Radio, plus Lenya and her singer colleagues. Keep listening for two Weill rarities, the cantata Vom To dim Wald and the Berllner Requiem, which date from the same period as Mahagonny and The Three Penny Opera, taken from a recent German Harmonia Mundi Release.

Sunday January 30: This will be the second time I have offered up an opera by American composer Dominick Argento (b. 1927). I presented the Minnesota Opera’s cast recording of A Postcard from Morocco (1971) on Sunday, December 27, 1992. Now you get to hear Argento’s modern-day opera buffa treatment of the outrageous exploits of the infamous libertine and the adventurer Giovanni Casanova (1725-98). The composer wrote both the music and libretto of Casanova’s Homecoming(1984). The story of the opera is largely biographical. Although so much of what happens on stage seems unbelievable, Argento derived most of it from Casanova’s own memoirs, including a gender-bending subplot involving an amorous affair with a Castro. Newport Classic picked up the tapings of the Moores Opera Center production of Casanova’s Homecoming, captured live in performance on October 14, 2001. The Moores Opera Center is part of the Moorse School of Music of the University of Houston.

Sunday February 6: Falstaff (1893) is a marvelous finale to Giuseppe Verdi’s career as an opera composer. With an excellent libretto by Arrigo Boito to work from, Verdo handled all the dramatic aspects of Shakespeare’s comedy with a mastery unparalleled in anything he had written previously. Sony released a recording of the opera made at La Scala in June of 1993. Bariton Juan Pons starred as the reprobate English knight, with Riccardo Muti conducting. The latest Falstaff on silver disc is Sir Colin Davis’ take on it, with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Baritone Michele Pertusi sings in the tile role. The LSO live record label released their DSD (Direct Stream Digital) two CD set of Falstaff in 2004.

Sunday February 13: Ash Wednesday was this past February 9th, which means that the penitential period of Lent, as it’s observed in the traditional Christian calendar, has arrived on the earlier side this year. In parts of Europe the opera houses used to close down for the entire duration of five weeks up to Easter will focus on sacred choral music, or any good quality vocal music of a generally religious nature within the context of the Judeo-Christian heritage. There are new recordings aplenty of this genre of music to present. Consider Mauricio Kagel’s Sankt Bach Passion (1985). Musicians all over the world have long revered Johann Sebastian Bach. Kagel is one of them, but he has gone so far as to canonize Bach and make him the narrator of his Passion according to Bach. In his score for the Passion-oratorio Kagel has incorporated and tonally tweaked favorite chorale tunes and various melodic motifs written by the master, not to mention the tones of his family name B-A-C-H (B flat). For a text Kagel has drawn upon J.S. Bach’s correspondence, plus contemporary accounts of Bach the man, and verse from the master’s cantatas. The Sankt Bach Passion was created for the 1985 Berlin Festival. Thereafter it was recorded by South German Radio of Stuttgart, with the composer conducting the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Stuttgart, three topnotch German choral groups and three distinguished vocal soloists: mezzo Anne Sofra von Otter, tenor Hans-Peter Blochwitz and baritone Roland Herman. A 2002 Montaigne release on two silver discs.

Sunday February 20: Christus am Olberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives, 1802) is Beethoven’s only oratorio. At forty-odd minutes of airplay, it does really constitute a full-length work in that line. Beethoven concerned himself only with that brief portion of the beginning of the Passion narrative that takes place in the garden of Gethsemany after the Last Supper. There Jesus endured emotional suffering, restrained his disciple Peter from an act of violence and peacefully submitted to arrest. Frans Huber’s libretto ends with Jesus now wholly committed to complete his Act of Redemption. The oratorio closes with a hallelujah chorus of angels worthy of Handel, albeit in the style of the “Eroica” symphony. Chritus am Olberge, one of Beethoven’s most overlooked masterpieces, has received the interpretation it most certainly deserves from Kent Nagano, leading the German Symphony Orchestra of Berlin and the Berlin Radio Chorus. Tenor Placido Domingo is heard in the role of Christ. This Harmonia Mundi recording of the work won highest praise from James H. North, whose review appeared in the Sept/Oct 2004 issue of Fanfare magazine.
Now for something completely different to fill out the afternoon’s Lenten listening: something truly ancient derived from the Roman Catholic cultus of the Saints. The music of the Middle Ages often sounds exotic to us today. There is still much conjecture among scholars in the “early music” field as to how it should be performed. Ultimately we may never know for sure how to interpret the neumatic notation of a thousand years or more ago. One very interesting speculative account comes to us in a 1996 Arcana compact disc: Historia Sancti Eadmundi, a liturgical drama in Latin language about Eadmond Walfing (c. 884-870) the last Saxon king of East Anglia, a Christian nobleman martyred at the hands of pagan Norse invaders. He is known to posterity as St. Edmund of Bury. Before St. Edward the confessor, or St. George, St. Edmond was regarded as the patron saint of England. West German radio of Cologne co-produced with Arcana the recording of the singers and players of the La Reverdie Ensemble.

Sunday February 27: Leonard Bernstein (1918-93) is surely the most famous American composer of the twentieth century. In 1971, for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, Bernstein created his Mass, which is actually an enormous polyglot theatre piece for singers, players and dancers. Bernstein’s Mass reflects what he saw as the crisis of faith underlying all the ennui of the twentieth century civilization. Bernstein himself and Stephen Schwarz supplied provocative secular texts which the juxtaposed with the Latin words of the Roman Catholic Ordinary of the Mass. Kent Nagano had a go at Mass in a concert setting, employing the musical resources of the German Symphony Orchestra of Berlin and The Berlin Radio Chorus. Mass was recorded in co-production with German Radio of Berlin in that city’s Philharmonie hall. The celebrant of the Mass is American tenor Jerry Hadley. A 2004 Harmonia Mundi release.
The perfect compliment to Bernstein’s Mass comes from a composer of the post- Lenny Generation: the Paradisio Oratorio of Jacob Ter Velhuis (b. 1951). Among other things, he is a master of audio sampling technique. What makes him unique perhaps amongst his contemporaries is that he can craft his electronic sound bytes to blend perfectly with the sounds of the traditional acoustic symphony orchestra. He strives to write traditionally beautiful, melodically pleasing music. He opposes what he perceives as the prevailing gloom-and-doom mood of “serious” music from the mid twentieth century onward. Aiming at nothing less than ecstasy, Ter Veldhuis looked to the third book of Dante’s Divine Comedy for a description of the various levels of Paradise ascending from the earthly Paradise of the Garden of Eden, through the heavenly spheres of medieval cosmology to the Empyrean, the highest heaven to total light. The music and its accompanying videos were ready for the first performance. Then came 11 September. Ter Velhuis and the performers were given to go-ahead for a premiere on September 12, 2001, although the tragic events of the previous day cast a new light on the possible impact of his creation on the public. In 2003 Chandos Records brought out the Paradiso Oratorio on a single CD. Alexander Leibreich conducts the North Netherlands Orchestra and the Concert Choir, with tenor Tom Allen as the Italian poet Dante and soprano Claron McFadden as Beatrice, the poet’s spiritual guide through Paradise.
Rob Meehan, former classics deejay here at WWUH and avid collector of “alternative musics” of the 20th and 21st centuries has leant us the recordings of Richard Meale’s Voss, Eliot Carter’s What Next?, Kurt Weiil’s Mahagonny, Vom To dim Wald and the Berliner Requiem, Argento’s Casanova’s Homecoming, Kaegel’s Sankt Bach Passion and the Ter Veldhuis Paradiso Oratorio. Form my own collection comes the old LP set of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and the Arcana CD of the Historia Sanctu Eadmundi. Everything else that’s featured over this two-month period of programming is derived from our station’s ever-growing library of classical music on silver disc.

Copyright©WWUH: January/February Program Guide, 2005

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