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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera
Your "Lyric Theatre" program with Keith Brown
Programming Selections for the Months of May and June 2009

Sunday MAY 3rd: Who would now believe that at the premiere of Puccini's immortal Madama Butterfly (1904) the audience of La Scala jeered and heckled Rosina Storchio, the very first Cio-Cio-San! A hostile clique in the opera house seems to have made the opening night such a terrible failure. Every performance Storchio sang thereafter 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. On Sunday, October 7, 1984 I broadcast a recording of one of the greatest of them, Renata Scotto. It was made in Rome in 1966 for EMI with English conductor Sir John Barbirolli conducting. Scotto sang opposite tenor Carlo Bergonzi as Pinkerton. Then on Sunday, September 8, 2002 it was the turn for a Ukrainian soprano not at all well known in the West, Svetlana Kanchour, in a Naxos release of the original La Scala version of the opera. This Sunday you'll hear another one of the famous Cio-Cio-Sans, the Italian diva Mirella Freni, as captured on tape in 1974 for Decca/London. Equally important is who she was paired off with as Pinkerton: the most famous tenor of the latter half of the twentieth century, Luciano Pavarotti. Herbert von Karajan directed the Vienna Philharmonic and the chorus of the Vienna State Opera. This Decca release from the LP era was digitally reprocessed for reissue on CD in 2002 as a nine disc set of all four of Puccini's warhorses of the repertoire: Boheme, Butterfly, Tosca, and Turandot. All of them feature Pavarotti's voice.

SUNDay MAy 10th: Did you know that after the plays of Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt (1876) is probably the single most frequently performed drama in the world? Edvard Grieg's incidental music for this play is also world famous, and the two suites of orchestral pieces from Peer Gynt are pop concert staples. Yet all the many other numbers Grieg composed for Peer Gynt are rarely heard along with the well-known ones and in their proper order in the play. Twice before I have broadcast Neeme Järvi's splendid 1987 account of the complete incidental music for Deutsche Grammophon (Sunday, May 7, 1989 and Sunday, May 20, 2001). Then along came the Swedish BIS recording in 2005, with Ole Kristian Ruud conducting the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (Norway), this being an audio souvenir of a concert version of the play prepared by actor Svein Sturla Hungnes, who portrayed Peer. The BIS discs I aired on Sunday, May 20, 2007. It seems Greig's complete score for the play has found more general acceptance these days, because the whole thing was recorded yet again in 2007 for the Naxos label. The young Norwegian conductor Bjarte Engeset leads the Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Choir. This Swedish concert hall production offers slightly more of Ibsen's Norwegian language dialog for Peer and a better sense of space is achieved by placing actors, chorus, and folk musicians both onstage and off. The two Naxos CD set includes a piece for women's voices and orchestra Grieg composed in 1871 for play by Björnstjerne Björnson and a melodrama i.e., spoken word recitation over and orchestral background. You'll get to hear those additional tracks as well this Sunday.
In 2007 American composer Justin Dello Joio (son of the famous composer Norman Dello Joio) was asked to compose a chamber opera in one act about the last days of Greig's life in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of his death. Blue Mountain has an English language libretto by Andrew Boyle. The music was written especially for the Norwegian Wind Ensemble. The story is told of the Australian composer/piano virtuoso Percy Grainger's visit to the ailing Greig, which buoyed the old man's spirit, helping him to face death with serenity. Blue Mountain was recorded in Oslo, Norway for the Bridge label.

SUNDay MAy 17TH: Longtime listeners to this program will remember my broadcasts in the late 1980s of the operas of Franz Joseph Haydn. Yes, opera fans, Papa Haydn wrote at least a dozen of them, yet they have remained largely unknown and unperformed for fully two centuries. With the assistance of the Haydn authority H.C. Robbins Landon conductor Antal Dorati, who recorded all 104 Haydn symphonies, prepared the surviving manuscript scores for a recorded cycle of the Haydn operas for the PHILIPS label. One of the finest of them I broadcast on PHILIPS LPs on Sunday, September 25, 1988. La Vera Costanza (1779) is styled in its Italian language libretto in a drama giocoso like Mozart's Don Giovanni. For the studio tapings of La Vera Costanza Dorati conducted the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra with two American sopranos, Helen Donath and Jessye Norman. I have come across another, more recent recording of La Vera Costanza and several other Haydyn operas in the newly issued Brilliant Classics 150 CD compendium, "The Haydyn Edition." This studio recording of the drama giocoso was made in Amsterdam in 1990 with a period instrument ensemble, the Catharijne Consort, conducted by Frank van Koten. Surveying the entire Brilliant Classics' boxed set for Fanfare, magazine, reviewer James H. North says of La Vera Costanza, "The performance is excellent…" and that the finales of the first two of its three acts "… all look forward to Mozart." (Fanfare March/April, 2009 issue.)

Sunday MAy 24TH: Our modern Memorial Day holiday commemorates the American dead of all wars, but the original Decoration Day holiday specifically honored the dead of the American Civil War. With that in mind, this Sunday of the Memorial Day weekend, I present a new Civil War Opera, Eric Sawyer's Our American Cousin, which received its world premiere stage performance on June 20, 2008 at the Academy of Music Theater in Northampton, Mass. Our American Cousin tells the story of the assassination of President Lincoln from the standpoint of the actors presenting the comedy of the same name at Ford's Theater in Washington, DC. It is the first operatic treatment of this historical subject. Sawyer's music for the opera incorporates period tunes like "Dixie" and "Hail to the Chief." The small ensemble of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project approximates the pit band that played that fateful night at Ford's. In reviewing the BMOP sound recording of Our American Cousin, Robert Carl, professor of musical composition at the Hartt School of the University of Hartford, writes, "… this is one of the freshest, most ambitious new American operas I've heard in ages. Instead of once again taking up some cinematic or literary retread, it actually dares to use original material. And it also dares to take up historical events and musical tropes without succumbing to mere costume drama." (Fanfare, Nov/Dec, 2008.) The opera was recorded in April, 2007 at Buckley Hall at Amherst College, Amherst, Mass. Gil Rose directs the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the Amherst College Concert Choir.

Sunday May 31St: William Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra was written circa 1606 and is the sequel to Julius Caesar (1599.) The verse of the later play shows us Shakespeare's style in its most advanced, most intense, and concentrated form. The verse is at times very free in Anthony and Cleopatra. It's clear that many of the lines aren't in formal iambic pentameter. Over the years in presenting audio plays, I have drawn upon two recording projects from the early 1960s offering the public the complete plays of Shakespeare on stereo LP. Many of these were in the long-out-of-print London/Argo Records series as read by the Marlowe Dramatic Society and Professional Players. The Shakespeare Recording Society set forth a rival series through Caedmon Records. The Caedmon recorded production of Anthony and Cleopatra, directed by Howard Sackler, moves right along and quickly captivates the listener. Spellbinding, too, are the voices of Anthony Quayle as the Roman conqueror and Pamela Brown as the Egyptian princess.

Sunday JUNE 7th: Exotic Oriental settings have long appealed to opera composers, and especially so at the dawn of the modern era in musical history. French composer Albert Roussel (1869-1937) actually visited the exotic locale that is the backdrop for his opera Padmavati (1923). Roussel and his bride toured the ruins of the palace at Chittogarh near Jaipur in India. It was there in 1303 A.D that the beautiful princess Padmavati immolated herself rather than be married off to the Sultan of the Moguls, whose army was then invading the region. With its a lengthy dance sequences along the line of Le Sacre du Printemps this lyric stage work is as much ballet as it is opera. Padmavati was recorded in 1983 for EMI with mezzo Marilyn Horne in the title rôle. Three other operatic luminaries took part in the studio taping: tenor Nicolai Gedda, bass Jose Van Dam, and soprano Jane Berbie. Michel Plasson directed the Orchestra du Capitole de Toulouse.

Sunday JUNE 14TH: Gustav Mahler structured Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth", 1910) rather like a gigantic cantata for two voices. He subtitled it a "Symphony," so it is really a symphony of songs, more than just an orchestrated song cycle, and follows in the line of Beethoven's Ninth. Mahler took for his text six ancient Chinese poems in German translation. Das Lied von der Erde expresses inextinguishable hope wrung from the composer's despair over the loss of his young daughter. This was Mahler's last gift to the world. He didn't live long enough to conduct its premiere. (Remember he was a great opera conductor.) The conductor who best interpreted Mahler's music later on in the twentieth century was Jascha Horenstein, whose 1972 BBC airtape of Das Lied von der Erde, issued on disc in the BBC Legends series, I broadcast on Sunday, November 19, 2000. Prior to that I presented a Harmonia Mundi CD of Arnold Schoenburg's reorchestration of Das Lied for thirteen instruments. (Sunday, February 26, 1995.) Mahler left unspecified exactly what two voices he wanted: a tenor and a contralto, or a baritone. Bruno Walter, the conductor who actually premiered the work employed a contralto, and everybody thereafter followed suit. Michael Tilson Thomas, however, paired tenor Stewart Skelton when he recorded Das Lied with the San Francisco Symphony live in concert at Davies Symphony Hall in 2007. Andrew Quint, reviewer for Fanfare magazine, says this is the finest recording of Das Lied von der Erde ever made. (Fanfare, Jan/Feb, 2009 issue.)
There's time remaining to listen to a recital of songs from the late Romantic Viennese school. Franz Schreker (1878-1934) is better known for his operas, but he wrote a total of 49 lieder of which 33 were published during his lifetime. Most of these songs were the inspirations of his youth, written just before the dawn of the twentieth century. The six Mutterlieder (“Songs of a Mother", 1897) are reminiscent of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder. Schreker in fact set  one of the same poems that Mahler used in his own Das Knaben Wunderhorn. Thirty of Schreker's songs, included some never hitherto published or previously recorded, were pulled together for release in 2008 on one Bridge CD. Two singers trade-off in our radio recital: mezzo Hermine Haselbock and baritone Wolfgang Holzmair, accompanied at the piano by Russell Ryan.

Sunday JUNE 21ST: Certain great spoken word dramas translate naturally into opera. William Alwyn (1905-85) wrote an opera in two acts after the famous play by the nineteenth-century Swedish playwright August Strindberg. Alwyn's Miss Juile (1977) premiered not on stage, but as a BBC studio broadcast. Alwyn was a Briton of a generation now passed away who were more class conscious than British folk are today. Miss Julie is a lyric tragedy about illicit sexual relations between the classes in the Sweden of a century and more ago. Alwyn himself wrote the libretto for his operatic treatment, reducing the play’s dialogue by wholly three fourths. Soprano Jill Gomez is heard as the reckless upper-class girl Julie. Her father's lowly valet Jean is baritone Benjamin Luxon. In the BBC airtape of Miss Julie Vilem Tausky conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra. A 1992 Lyrita compact disc release, last broadcast on Sunday, December 10, 1993. Since the action of Strindberg's play takes place on Midsummer Eve, a partying time in Sweden, it's more appropriate to present the opera again on this Sunday of the Summer solstice.

Sunday JUNE 28th: We are living in a Mahler renaissance. Mahler's symphonies and orchestrated song cycles are being recorded again and again. Those of his symphonies that include chorus and solo voices are appropriate for lyric Theatre programming. Twice in the very recent month of June I have broadcast Mahler's third (1896/1901), a particularly "operatic" symphony. In June, 2006 you heard Zubin Mehta's take on the Third for the German label Farao Classics. Mehta led the orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera, widely regarded as the world's finest opera orchestra. The Vienna Boys' Choir supported the solo voice of alto Marjana Lipovsek. Then last June it was Bernard Haitink's turn. He's one of today's preeminent interpreters of this music. Haitink recorded  the Third live-in-performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and women of the Chicago Chorus, with mezzo Michelle DeYoung. The Russian conductor Valery Gergiev has been recording a cycle of Mahler's symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra for their own LSO Live label. Alto Anna Larsson is backed by the female voices of the London Symphony Chorus and Tiffin Boys' Choir.
It was Leonard Bernstein who got the Mahler enthusiasm rolling back in the 1960s. Bernstein was an astoundingly good accompanist. On Sunday, December 6, 1992 I broadcast the Sony CD reissue of Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen (1896-7) with Bernstein accompanying mezzo Christa Ludwig. Another stellar mezzo of that era was Dame Janet Baker. She recorded the same four songs in 1983 with Geoffrey Parsons at the piano. The British label Hyperion has also reissued in its Helios line the Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen and the Baker/Parsons accounts of the entire remainder of Mahler's youthful songs composed up to circa 1890.
I must once again thank Rob Meehan, private collector and long ago a classical music deejay here at WWUH, for the loan for broadcast of his recordings of Eric's Sawyer's Our American Cousin and Albert Roussel's Padmavati. The Caedmon LP set of Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra comes out of my own collection. Everything else featured in this two month period of programming is to be found in our stations ever growing collection of classical music on disc. Thanks also to Vickie Hadge of Virtually Done by Vickie for her assistance in the preparation of these notes for publication

Copyright©WWUH: May/June Program Guide, 2009

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