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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera
Your "Lyric Theatre" Program with Keith Brown
Programming Selections for the Months of March/April 2008
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SUNDAY MARCH 2ND:This is the Sunday when this program participates in Marathon 2008. For this one Sunday I will suspend the usual Lenten programming.  Today's show should be fun to listen to, by way of encouraging your participation in Marathon.  I only rather recently broadcast Bedrich Smetata's "The Bartered Bride" (1866).  That was on Sunday, July 16, 2006, when I presented it in its 1962 early stereo recording for EMI Electrola. The original LP release resides in our WWUH classical music record library.  After more than four decades, this wonderful recorded interpretation, starring the immortal German tenor Fritz Wunderlich (1930 - 1966), has acquired a certain historical status.  EMI reissued it in CD format in 2007.  Rather than broadcast that CD re-release, why not offer you listeners a truly historic recording of this famous work featuring a previous generation of operatic greats? Sir Thomas Beecham brought to London a stellar cast of Central European singers for a production of "The Bartered Bride" at Covent Garden.  The opening night was recorded live for broadcast over BBC radio, May 1, 1939.  Heard in the romantic male lead as Hans is another immortal lyric tenor, Richard Tauber (1891 - 1948). Beecham conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in the spirit performance.  Too bad the monaural sound of the old acetate disc transfers was marred by numerous glitches and some highend distortion.  Yet the solo singing voices shine through loud and clear.  Writing for Fanfare magazine (Sept./Oct. 2003), reviewer Bob Rose says this is the only known recording of Tauber singing in a complete opera.  (BBC's 1939 air tape isn't exactly complete.)  Soprano Hilde Konetzni sings opposite Tauber in the female romantic lead as Marie.  Bob Rose was reviewing a 2002 Somm-Beecham CD reissue of the Beecham "Bride." Legato Classics also picked it up for digitally reprocessed silver disc reissue in their catalog.  I'm working today from the Italian label Urania's two CD repackaging (2005).  This is the German language version of the Opera titled Die Verkaufte Braut.

SUNDAY MARCH 9TH: Judas Maccabaeus (1747) is probably George Friedrich Handel's next most famous oratorio after Messiah.  Central to the story set forth in Handel's music is the figure of Judah the Maccabee, military hero of the Israelites. We know of his exploits through the books of the Maccabee's contained in the Apocrypha of the Bible. Judas Maccabaeus has been recorded several times since the beginning of the high fidelity LP era. On a Sunday in Lent, 1994 I presented Nicholas McGegan's account of it for the German Harmonia Mundi label, at that time a brand new release. McGegan led his period instrument Philharmonic Baroque Ensemble. The very first period instrument recording of Judas Maccabaeus came out in 1994 under the British Hyperion label, with Robert King leading his own King's Consort. That recording I aired on Easter Sunday, 1999 in CD reissue through Musical Heritage Society. On this Lenten Sunday you get to hear the oratorio as it was taped in 1971 for Vanguard Classics.  Conductors Johannes Somary's approach to the work is historically informed but not "period" instrumentally. He directs the English Chamber Orchestra, Amor Artis Chorale and the Wandsworth School Boys' Choir.  The soloists rank among the finest British singers of a past generation: tenor Alexander Young in the title role, also baritone John Shirley-Quirk, contralto Helen Watts and soprano Heather Harper.  The Alto label reissued the Vanguard LP originals on two compact discs and 2007.

SUNDAY MARCH 16TH: This Sunday, Palm Sunday, and next Sunday, Easter Sunday, for the first time on this radio program we will take part in a sacred drama in music based on the medievil legend of the Holy Grail. The music of Richard Wagner is suffused with nineteenth century German Romantic mysticism.  Wagner's mystic masterpiece Parsifal (1882) last too long in complete recorded performance to be accommodated in one Sunday's timeslot.  For Wagner, it seems art was his religion.  The Festspielhaus at Beyreuth was his temple.  The Vienna State Opera is another famous temple of musical art. Parsifal was recorded live at the Wiener Staatsoper in June, 2006 in coproduction with ORF Austrian Radio. Deutsche Grammophon issued the proceedings on four compact discs.  I will air only the first of the three acts of Parsifal this Palm Sunday.  The title role is taken by the Spanish tenor Placido Domingo.  He has become, since the recent death of Luciano Pavarotti, the greatest living male operatic singer.  Domingo can tackle the exhausting a Wagnerian Heldentenor rules which Pavarotti never did or could. Christian Tielemann conducts the chorus and orchestra of the Vienna State Opera.
Following Parsifal: Act One there will be time remaining to listen to some little known but remarkable religious music in the German Lutheran tradition, more specifically in the style of the North German baroque church cantata.  The year 2007 witnessed the 300th anniversary of the death of Dietrich Buxtehude (1637 - 1707), the man accounted to be the single most important composer in all of northern Europe in the second half of the seventeenth century. Membra Jesu Nostri (1680) is among his finest and most popular works. It's seven sections treat with Lutheran Pietistic devotion the parts of the Savior's body that suffered torment during the Passion. Buxtehude's Passion cantatas were recorded complete in his tricentennial year in Montréal, Canada by LeVoix Baroques, a chamber ensemble dedicated to historically informed performance of unexplored 17th and 18th century repertoire for voices and instruments. Membra Jesu Nostri comes to us on a single Atma compact disc.  Sung to a Latin text.

SUNDAY MARCH 23RD: Parsifal, acts two and three.

SUNDAY MARCH 30TH: Who would now believe that at the premiere of Puccini's immortal Madame Butterfly (1904) the audience at La Scala jeered and heckled Rosina Storchio, the very first Cho-Cho-San! A hostile clique in the opera house seems to have made the opening night such a terrible failure.  Every performance Storchio sang there after brought onlookers to tears and ended with hysterical applause.  Many great sopranos have made Butterfly their own special role.  We're fortunate to have so many Butterflys preserved for posterity in recordings.  I have chosen the first of two recordings that well remembered Italian soprano Renata Scotto made for EMI.  My predecessor in this timeslot, Joseph S. Terzo, recommended this one to me highly, in part I'm sure because it's musically complete.  It was also the first complete recording of any Opera that British conductor Sir John Barbirolli ever made. Barbirolli presided in the tapings of Puccini's masterpiece in Rome in 1966. He led the chorus and orchestra of the Rome Opera House.  Besides Scotto, the cast includes tenor Carlo Bergonzi as Pinkerton and baritone Rolando Panerai as Sharpless. Fanfare Magazine's James Camner reviewed EMI's CD reissue of the Scotto/Barbirolli Madame Butterfly. He concurs with Joe Terzo that it is perhaps the single finest interpretation on disc. You hear it today in its original stateside release on three Angel LPs. It was last broadcast on Sunday, October 7, 1984.  It had been scheduled for a second broadcast on Sunday, November 11, 2007, but was preempted by a UHA women's basketball game.

SUNDAY APRIL 6TH: It seems my Tuesday Evening Classics colleague Scott Deshefy has beaten me to the punch in programming the two recordings I'm offering up today. I've never before had any competition and premiering on radio new releases of unusual lyric theater music.  First comes a choral work by Francoise-André Danican Phildor (1726 – 1795). Besides being France's reigning chess master of the age, in his parallel career as a composer he provided music for a score of stage comedies.  One of them, Tom Jones (1765), was revived at Lausanne in French-speaking Switzerland in 2006 and recorded for the Italian label Dynamic. Philidor's oratorio Carmen Saeculare (1779) is a setting of Latin poems by Horace commissioned for the Secular Games in Rome in 17 B.C. This work was first produced in London.  Samuel Johnson of dictionary fame attended a performance.  His biographer, James Boswell, reported Dr. Johnson's measured opinion of the peace.  Baroque specialist Jean-Claude Malgoire conducted Tom Jones at Lausanne. In 1998 he went into the studios of Intalian Swiss Radio in Lugano to broadcast Carman Saeculare, directing the chorus and orchestra of RSI. Naxos issued the oratorio last year on two CDs. Onto their release Naxos piggybacked a different recording Malqoire made of the overture to Tom Jones.
Bela Bartok's colleague Zoltan Kodaly described Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle (1918) as "sixty minutes of tragic intensity."  Once regarded as unperformable, Bartok's only opera is now considered a twentieth century classic. Bartok didn't want it to be taken at the level of a simpleminded tale of a monstrous lady-killer. Like Adonis in ancient legend, Bluebeard is a lover who suffers.  When I first broadcast Bluebeard's Castle way back on Sunday, August 19, 1984 I made use of the old London LP recording with the late great Hungarian conductor Isztvan Kertesz at the podium.  It was sung in its original Hungarian language libretto.  Then on Sunday, January 11, 2004 I came up with a 1994 CD reissue of a 1960 German language version taped for Deutsche Grammophon. It won the 1961 Grand Prix Internationale du Disque. Another great Hungarian conductor Ferenc Fricsay was in charge.  Now along comes a 2007 Naxos release of Bluebeard's Castle in Hungarian. Marin Alsop leads the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Bass Gustav Belecek is Bluebeard.  Mezzo Andrea Melath is his latest wife Judith.

SUNDAY APRIL 13TH: You can call today's presentation a Schubertiad, since it is entirely devoted to the music of Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828).  The composer and his circle of friends in Vienna would put on music parties featuring private performances of his songs.  The song-cycle Die Schöne Müllerin ("The Fair Maid of the Mill", 1823) is the acknowledged to masterpiece of the form, a perfect pairing of Schubert's folk-like melodies with Wilhelm Müller's simple verse.  This will be the fourth time over more than a quarter of a century of lyric theater broadcasting that I have aired a recording of these lieder. German baritone Michael Schopper is regarded as one of the foremost interpreters of the lieder repertoire.  He is accompanied by Wolfgang Brunner playing an early nineteenth-century pianoforte. Our Hannsler/Profil CD release of Die Schöne Müllerin, recorded in Austria in 2000, is truly a complete one in that it includes the poet spoken word prologue and epilogue.  The additional explanatory verses make the song cycle into a parlor entertainment, a monodrama, if you will, as Schubert's contemporaries would have experienced it.
At various points in his brief artistic career Franz Schubert tried to make a name for himself as an opera composer.  Besides the well-known incidental music for Rosamunde (1823), Schubert composed at least nine complete operas, three more in substantial fragments, and three more in rough sketch.  The grandest of his theatrical projects was Fierrabras (1823), heard in its world premiere Deutsche Grammophon recording on Sunday, March 29, 1992.  Also grand in design was Alfonso und Estrella (1821), which I broadcast on Berlin Classics CDs on Sunday, May 11, 1997.  Neither of those two full-length operas was produced in Schubert's lifetime.  But a one act comic singspiel called Die Zwillingsbrüder ("The Twin Brothers," 1820) was a qualified success in its six-night run.  "The Twins" plays for a little under an hour.  Another one act of lyric comedy with spoken dialogue, Die Vierjährige Posten ("Four Years' Sentry Duty", 1815), which was never staged while Schubert was alive, lasts no more than forty minutes.  Both of these Schubert rarities were produced in 1997 for the Teatro Rendano in Cosenza, Italy in observance of the two hundredth anniversary of the composer's birth. They were recorded live in performance for the Italian label Bongiovanni.  Peter Maag conducted the singers and players of the Philharmonia Mediterranea and Solisti Cantori. I broadcast the two Bongiovanni CDs previously, back to back, on Sunday, May 9, 1999.

SUNDAY APRIL 20TH: The fifteen  operas of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov display a wealth of Russian legend upon the lyric stage.  These fantastic tales are framed in brilliantly orchestrated music derived from Russian song and dance. Rimsky-Korsakov also touched upon Russian history in the quasi-legendary period of the first Tsar, Ivan the Terrible. The Tsar's Bride (1899), his ninth opera, sets forth a story of young love, political intrigue at the highest levels of Ivan's administration, xenophobia, and peasant superstition. A poisonous love potion figures tragically in the plot.  This will be the third time I have broadcast The Tsar's Bride. Long ago on Sunday, January 15, 1989 I presented it on Melodiya/Angel LPs dating from the 1970s.  Today's featured recording, last aired on September 29, 2002, was made in 1992, and like the old Melodiya release, also employs the performing resources of the Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow. Andrei Christiakov conducts an all-native Russian-speaking cast. A French Harmonia Mundi release on two compact discs.

SUNDAY APRIL 27TH: Over the past couple of years I have been broadcasting the operas of Benjamin Britten in classical recordings of these works made decades ago but now available again in compact disc format. Decca/London brought them all out in two boxed CD sets in 2004. In some of these world premiere recordings the composer himself is conducting.  I return today with Britten's last opera Death in Venice (1973), which I had previously aired in its original London LP release on Sunday, February 4, 1990.  This is a psychological study in self-examination and obsession inspired by the short story of the same name by Thomas Mann.  Britten's music at the end of his career as a composer displays an extreme economy of style. In the homo-erotic element of the story Britten must surely have found reflections of his own sexual nature.  For the central rôle of the conflicted artist Gustav von Aschenbach he had his own lover tenor Peter Pears in mind. We hear Pears as Aschenbach with the English Opera Group as they were taped not long after the staged premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival. In this instance Steuart Bedford is the conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra and cast of singers.
Rob Meehan loaned me for broadcast the Decca boxed CD set that includes Britten's Death in Venice. The Urania CD reissue of the 1939 BBC film sound-track recording of Smetana's Die Verkanfte Braut comes for my own collection, as do the French HM CDs of the Rimsky-Korsakov opera. 


WWUH Program Guide 2008 ©

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