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The University of Hartford

Sunday Afternoon at the Opera
Your "Lyric Theatre" program with Keith Brown
Programming Selections for the Months of January and February 1999

Sunday January 3: According to the old calendar still followed in the Russian Orthodox faith, Christmas has not yet arrived. On the western Christmas Eve, Sunday, December 24. 1995 I presented a recent Harmonia Mundi recording of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s delightful comic opera named after the holiday. I came across an old monaural recording of it, which appears to be a very early magnetic airtape of a 1948 Radio Moscow studio broadcast. This historic recording has been digitally reprocessed for issue on two CD’s by the Italian label Arlecchino. The sound quality is amazingly good - a tiny bit of crackle in radio transmission, with surprisingly little high-end distortion, except in the occasional very loud passages. Nicolai Golovanov conducts the Moscow Radio Choir and Orchestra with a cast of distinguished Russian singers who were never familiar names in the West. Christmas has long been associated with tales of the supernatural. Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol," for instance, is essentially a ghost story. The nineteenth century Russian writer Nicolai Gogol penned a tall tale about Christmas Eve in a village in old Ukrania. Rimsky-Korsakov took up Gogol’s story of witches and demons in his own Christmas Eve (1895). Rimsky-Korsakov was always known as a brilliant orchestral colorist. As you would expect, his scoring for Christmas Eve is brightly colored with references to Ukrainian folk songs, especially the "Koliadki" or Slavic Christmas carols, as well as echoes of Russian Orthodox chants and even quotations from the works of other contemporaneous Russian composers.

Sunday January 10: Amadis (1922) is the operatic last will and testament of Jules Massenet. The opera premiered ten years after the composer’s death. Massenet actually began writing it in 1890 in the midst of other operatic projects, notably Esclarmonde and Werther. Twenty years later he returned to it and finished it in the last days of his life. Amadis contains some of Massenet’s last thoughts on operatic composition. Written in his most progressive vein, it has a spoken-word prologue with orchestral accompaniment. The orchestration of Amadis is elaborate and eloquent throughout. Too bad the lush, lyrical Romantic style of this work was out of fashion in the 1920’s. Many of the obscure operas of Massenet have been revived in our time. I have broadcast as many recordings of them as I could come by, the latest being Werther, aired on new Erato CD’s on Sunday, March 29, 1998. Amadis is styled a "Legendary Opera" in four short acts. The setting is Celtic Brittany and the story resembles those of Arthurian legend. Amadis has a bittersweet conclusion, with a children’s chorus intoning "Noel! Noel!" similar to the closing wintertime scene of Werther. The French record label Forlane issued the world premiere recording of Amadis in 1989. Patrick Fournillier conducts the soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Theatre de l’Opera of Paris. Amadis was originally scheduled to air on Sunday, December 13 of last year but was preempted by one of the UHA women’s basketball games.

Sunday January 17: Kurt Weill’s "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 a musical indictment of the entrepreneurial spirit of the modern world. Amoral hustlers found 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 die in the electric chair because he cannot pay a tiny debt. Weill identified Mahagonny with America. 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 re-released the 1956 monaural recording of Mahagonny starring Kurt Weill’s widow, the famous singer Lotte Lenya. I have broadcast this same classic rendition of the work twice before: in LP format way back in January of 1984 and again in CD upgrade on Sunday, February 11, 1996. The 1988 Capriccio CD recording of Mahagonny is far superior in sound quality. It is derived from a 1985 studio air tape of a broadcast from West German Radio of Cologne. Jan Latham-Koenig conducts the Orchestra of Radio Cologne.

Sunday January 24: Preempted.

Sunday January 31: I liked Antonio Salieri’s comic opera Falstaff (1799) so much I broadcast it three times in the course of my sixteen years as an opera deejay. La Locandiera ("The Mistress of the Inn," 1773) comes from much earlier in Salieri’s career. The success of this opera buffa in Vienna was so great it was re-staged in many of the other opera capitals of Europe, and it remained in the repertoire almost to the end of the eighteenth century. The music of La Locandiera does not quite measure up to the excellence of Mozart’s operatic scores but it sure does sound an awful lot like early-period Mozart anyway. I’m sure you’ll enjoy listening to the Nuova Era live recording of the 1989 production of La Locandiera at the Teatro Rossini in Lugo. It was the first theatrical revival of the work in close to two hundred years. The Nuova Era sound is OK, but you will have to put up with the intermittent stamping of feet and rumbling of stage machinery in the background. Fabio Luisi conducts the "A. Toscanini" Symphony Orchestra of the Emilia Romagna region.

Sunday February 7: For nigh-on two decades I have avoided programming one of the war-horses of the repertoire, Verdi’s La Traviata (1853). That is, until now, when of all the many recordings I could have chosen to broadcast, I stumbled upon a 1997 reissue of a historic one that’s guaranteed to please, because it stars the immortal Maria Callas as Violetta, singing opposite Alfredo Kraus as Alfredo. Eyewitness accounts of Callas in action agree that her understanding of Violetta’s character was absolutely on the mark, and her performances in the role were riveting. Yet her voice had its off nights. She gave five performances as Violetta at Covent Garden in June of 1958 that the critics thought weren’t quite up to snuff. Even when Callas was bad she was good, but her vocal instrument was in top form for the two nights in March of ‘58 when she when she sang it at the Sao Carlos theater in Lisbon. Radio Lisbon preserved this La Traviata for posterity. The monaural sound of the air tape isn’t top notch, but the singing definitely is. The availability of the Lisbon taping in digital transfer to compact disc fills an important gap in the Callas discography. It’s an audio document from the surprisingly brief, decade-long "Age of Callas" - a golden age of opera, indeed! The Lisbon La Traviata appears on two CD’s in the EMI Classics series.

Sunday February 14: I have previously broadcast all of Benjamin Britten’s operas with only two exceptions remaining: The Little Sweep (1949) and The Turn of the Screw (1954). Both of these are small exceptions, too, because they are modestly proportioned "chamber" operas. The Turn of the Screw is a lyric theater adaptation of a novel by Henry James. Britten expressed with enormous musical subtlety the moral struggle with sexual taboos in James’ book, which is a species of ghost story and psychological thriller. One of the taboos is against homosexuality. The last Britten opera I broadcast was perhaps his most famous one Billy Bud (1951). The composer himself conducted in the London recording you heard on Sunday, February 23, 1997. It’s a CD reissue of the historic recording Britten made with his lover tenor Peter Pears singing in the role of Captain Vere. The 1954 mono recording of The Turn of the Screw with Britten conducting resurfaced as a London CD reissue in 1990. Peter Pears is heard again, this time as one of the two ghosts in the story, the seductive one called Quint. Britten directs the English Opera Group Orchestra.

Sunday February 21: Preempted.

Sunday February 28: Attila (1846) holds a special place among the early operas of Giuseppe Verdi. It was one of his most popular until the familiar operas of his middle period came along: Rigoletto, La Traviata and Il Travatore. It was also one of the few that made any significant money for the composer in his "galley slave" days. Part of Attila’s popularity arose out of Risorgamento patriotism. Italian audiences were inclined to identify the Huns with the Austrians, whose rule in Northern Italy would soon be ended by a general revolt. From about 1852 onwards, however, Attila virtually disappeared from the operatic stage. Fully a century passed before it would be revived. As for recordings of the opera, in 1972 Philips released Attila in stereo LP format for the first time. Italian baritone Ruggero Raimondi starred as the barbarian chieftain the Romans referred to as "The Scourge of God." I broadcast the Philips Attila on Sunday, March 15, 1987. In 1989 EMI put out a new Attila on compact disc. It features American basso Samuel Ramey, heard opposite another American singer, soprano Cheryl Studer as Odabella, the love interest in the opera. Riccardo Muti conducts the chorus and orchestra of the world famous Teatro alla Scala of Milan.

In this abbreviated wintertime lineup of lyric theater programming I have drawn upon the recources of the Allen Memorial library at the Hartt School of Music here on the campus of the University of Hartford. From their ample holdings of opera on disc I have selected the historic 1958 Lisbon La Traviata and Britten’s Turn of the Screw. Thanks go to the Allen Library’s director Linda Blottner for granting me faculty-type borrowing privileges that made the programming possible. As usual, I have drawn upon the impressive collection of opera recording available on loan from the Hartford Public Library. From the HPL’s stacks I have borrowed Massenet’s Amadis, Salieri’s La Locandiera and Verdi’s Attila. Thanks again to HPL’s music librarian Bob Chapman for arranging the special terms of loan for broadcast. (He’s a former professional opera singer!) Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve and Mahagonny come from my own collection.

Copyright©WWUH: January/February Program Guide, 1999

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