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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera
Your "Lyric Theatre" program with Keith Brown
Programming Selections for the Months of January & February 2006

Spoken-word drama has always played a part in my concept of lyric theater programming-especially the plays of Shakespeare. That's because Cyrano, the swash-buckling hero of the story, possesses a poet's soul and wit. Edmond Rostand's famous play has been enormously popular ever since it was first staged in its original French in Paris in 1897. Many great actors have essayed the title role. José Ferrer in his movie portrayal immediately springs to mind. Sir Ralph Richardson was a magnificent Cyrano in the 1946-47 London production. He recreated his classic performance in audio especially for the Theater Recording Society. Caedmon Records issued that recording on three LP's in early stereo sound. Director Howard Sackler worked from the 1923 English language version of the play prepared by Brian Hooker. I last broadcast these old vinyl discs on Sunday, October 22, 1995.

SUNDAY JANUARY 8TH: Belisa (1966) by Danish composer Poul Rovsing Olsen (1922-82) is a one act opera that ought to be regarded as a masterpiece on an equal par with Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle or perhaps Puccini's Il Tabarro. Olsen worked from a Danish translation of a play by the Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. Belisa presents the strange story of a wife's erotic passion and a husband's cuckoldry. In the end the cuckold commits suicide. Following a successful stage premiere this opera was broadcast in 1970 on Danish Radio. It was in 2002 in the Concert Hall of Danish Radio that Belisa was recorded for release under the Danish national record label Dacapo on a single silver disc. Fanfare magazine's John Story concurs with me that Belisa is an overlooked masterpiece. In his review in the Nov/Dec 2004 issue, he states unequivocally, "The performance is wonderful, beautifully sung, played and recorded." I have paired the cuckold's more modern tragedy with the truly ancient tragedy of incest and patricide. Igor Stravinsky was drawn to the Oedipus myth as handed down to us by the Greek playwright Sophocles. In composing his opera/oratorio Oedipus Rex (1927) he wanted to set a text in a "dead" classical tongue-Latin, the language of Seneca, the Roman playwright who adapted Sophocles' original drama. Stravinsky's severely neoclassical musical style perfectly suits the Latin libretto that Jean Cocteau prepared for him. Although it lasts less than an hour in performance, Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex is truly monumental in conception. It's arguably the greatest thing he ever wrote. I have broadcast it once before, on Sunday, January 10, 1993. A Sony Classical release, it featured the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and chorus, with Esa Pekka-Salonen conducting. Now you get to hear the 2002 Koch International Classics CD. Robert Craft leads the musical forces. This disc also has three little cantatas by Stravinsky that you'll hear following Oedipus Rex.

SUNDAY JANUARY 15TH: It's been a while since I last featured anything on this program by Robert Ashley (b. 1930). I would have liked to present something of his I've never aired before, like Dust (1993), but it contains a long passage with sexual wording that is integral with the composition, so I can't simply edit it out. Many years ago in the pages of Fanfare magazine reviewer Mike Silverton declared Ashley a "genius." To this day he sticks to his judgment. Ashley certainly has a genius for innovation. He has written several operas combining vocals and electronic sounds. Atalanta (1985) is the first work in a trilogy, the second part of which Perfect Lives went over the air on Sunday, January 24, 1993. Atalanta was originally commissioned for performances produced by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, but the Lovely Music release is derived from the live mix of the recorded performance at the Teatro Olimpico in Rome. The opera is an updated treatment of the ancient Greek myth about Atalanta and the curse of fruitless lust laid upon her by the gods. More specifically, it deals with the character of the husband she was forced to take. What sort of man would he be if he were around today? Listen and decide for yourself if Ashley deserves the term "genius" in the higher sense. Last broadcast Sunday, February 22, 1998.

SUNDAY JANUARY 22ND: "Holy Smoke! What an opera!" You may well cry out when you hear Perelá: uomo di fumo (2001), by Pascal Dusapin (b. 1955). Perelá is "The Man of Smoke." This ethereal being drops down out of nowhere into a mythical country. At first the leaders and the citizenry adore him as a Christ-like figure. They want him to rewrite all their laws. But one citizen wants to be too much like him. She sacrifices her life. Thereafter everyone turns against "The Man of Smoke." He is put on trial and condemned to prison for the rest of his life. Dusapin got his story from a surrealistic fable by Aldo Palazzeschi, published in 1911. In putting together a libretto the composer employed only the author's own words in Italian language. There is a grotesque and nightmarish quality about Dusapin's Perelá, similar to György Ligeti's opera Le grand macabre (1978), heard on this program on Sunday, November 1, 1998. Musically, Perelá is entirely accessible and listenable, with real melodic content, including honest-to-gosh arias, duets, choruses, etc. Take it from Robert Carl, professor of music composition at the Hartt School, right here at the University of Hartford. He wrote a very positive review of Perelá that appears in the Jul/Aug issue of Fanfare magazine. A live-in-performance Naive recording of Perelá came out of the 2003 Montpelier Festival staged production.

SUNDAY JANUARY 29TH: George Frideric Handel got his start as an opera composer at Hamburg's Gänsemarkt Theater. This "Goose Market" opera house was in operation from 1678 to 1738. Designed along the same lines as an opera house in Venice, this place was the most important venue of its kind in all Northern Europe. You have heard operas that premiered at the Gänsemarkt Theater before on this program: Reinhard Keiser's Croesus (1730) and Der Geduldige Sokrates (1721) by Telemann. Johann Georg Conradi (1645?-99) was director of the Gänsemarkt from 1690 to '93. During his tenure he wrote several operas, of which only one has survived in manuscript, Ariadne (1691). We do know from contemporary accounts that it was very popular, and was revived repeatedly into the 1720's. Conradi's operas are an amalgam of elements from Venetian opera and the French tragedie lyrique of Lully. The arias are certainly Italiante, although they are sung in German. The Gänsemarkt had a dance troupe and a large orchestra. Conradi provided them with wonderful Lullian-style dance numbers, chaconnes and choruses. Ariadne is the oldest example of German baroque opera, which only now seems to be getting the attention it deserves. The libretto and score of Ariadne were discovered by American musicologist George Buelow in the Library of Congress in 1970. It was staged in 2003 at the Boston Early Music Festival. Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, who prepared the manuscription score into a performing edition, direct the singers and players. A 2005 cpo release on two silver discs.

SUNDAY FEBRUARY 5TH: February is Black History Month. I have the perfect recording to musically observe it. Wynton Marsalis (b. 1962) is now recognized as Americas leading composer in the jazz mode. The people who packed Alice Tully Hall the evening of April 1, 1994 for the world premier of Blood on the Fields knew they were witnessing something truly great in jazz history. In creating this three-hour dramatic performance Marsalis had out done in grandeur of scale even Duke Ellington's 1943 Black, Brown and Beige. Marsalis' work is operatic in conception. The story of the opera shows us the life of two black slaves, Jesse and Leona: how they confront their servitude and learn to transcend it spiritually. In the 1997 world premiere recording of Blood on the Fields Marsalis directs the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with vocal soloists Jon Hendricks, Cassandra Wilson and Miles Griffith. Issued on three CD's under Sony's revived Columbia label.

Preempted by University of Hartford Women's Basketball game.

SUNDAY FEBRUARY 19TH: After his immortal Messiah, the oratorio Saul (1739) was probably Handel's next most popular work in that genre during his lifetime, and it continued to be regularly performed in England after his death and right on into modern times. Messiah is quite different from Saul in that it is a musical reflection upon an assemblage of passages from many places in the Bible. Saul takes its story specifically from the First and Second Books of Samuel in the Old Testament. In Saul the English oratorio most closely approaches staged opera in its dramatic intensity. Indeed, the printed librettos given out at performances in Handel's day provide detailed stage directions, as if it were presented as opera for visual imagination, or for us today as a music movie in the listener's mind. Saul has occasionally been acted out on stage with success. René Jacobs' recorded theatricalization (as it were) of Saul is the latest thing on disc in the way of Handel oratorios. It was taped in the Teldex Studio in Berlin only last year. I say "theatricalization" because Jacobs' interpretation is indeed an opera for the ear. The various vocal airs and interspersed recitatives flow swiftly along in a continuous theatrical action. Jacobs directs the period instrument orchestra Concerto Köln, the RIAS Radio Berlin Chamber Chorus and eight vocal soloists, all of whom hail from English-speaking countries. Saul was last heard on this program on Sunday, January 17, 1988, when I presented a 1972 Archive set of LP's. Sir Charles Mackerras' interpretation with the English Chamber Orchestra and Leeds Festival Chorus was good for its time, but the new Jacobs' account on two Harmonia Mundi CD's has clearly supplanted it.

SUNDAY FEBRUARY 26TH: In his works for the Parisian opera houses Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) built upon the "reformed" classical style of opera established by his predecessor there, Christopf Willibald Gluck. Cherubini's lyric tragedy Medea (1797), heard on this program more than two decades ago in LP format (Sunday, February 3, 1985), is a masterpiece of dramatic concentration in an austere symphonic musical framework. Brilliantly successful in its own day was his Lodoiska (1791), an opera comique with spoken-word dialog and musical numbers almost as intense as Media, Lodoiska is a heroic "rescue opera", one of the forerunners of Beethoven's Fidelio. In time this revolutionary piece de sauvetage fell out of the repertoire, but it forever changed the course of French operatic history. Nineteenth century composers like Spontini and Rossini were greatly indebted to it. Lodoiska was revived to the first time in the twentieth century at Milan's Teatra alla Scala in 1951, in Italian language translation and with a badly adapted musical score. When it was next staged there in 1991 conductor Riccardo Muti drew upon a new score based on the two oldest and most reliable printed editions. Lodoiska was recorded at La Scala live for issue on two Sony Classical CD's. You heard this recording once before on this program on Sunday, May 3, 1992. A clutch of great new opera recordings have recently been processed into our station's ever-growing library of classical music on disc; Dusapin's Perelá, Conradi's Ariadne, and Handel's Saul. Cherubini's Lodoiska and Ashley's Atalana are also to be found in the station's CD collection. I am indebted as always to Rob Meehan, former WWUH classics deejay and specialist in the alternative musics of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, for the loan for broadcast of his recordings of Olsen's Belisa, Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, and Marsalis' Blood on the Fields. The old Caedmon LP set of Cyrano de Bergerac comes out of my own collection.

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WWUH: January / February Program Guide 2006 ©

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