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The University of Hartford

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

Sunday May 3: "Julius Caesar has become the most popular of the Handel operas, and it has been recorded many times in many different ways: the competition for any newcomer is pretty fierce." So writes Ralph Lucano in his review of the latest contender in the March/April ‘’98 issue of Fanfare magazine. How does the new Koch International release stand up to previous recordings? Although he was prepared to be disappointed, Lucano was pleased overall with what he heard of the 1997 Virginia Opera staged production of Giulio Cesare, which sticks to Nicola Haym’s original 1724 libretto in Italian language version for the English National Opera production that was taped for EMI. I have not aired any other recording of the opera since you heard that EMI release way back when on Sunday, December 1, 1985. The Virginia Opera production made massive cuts in Handel’s score; so did the English National Opera. In both cases this must have been done to reduce the enormous length of this antique opera seria so as to make it more accessible to modern operagoers. There are no internationally recognized singing stars in the Virginia Opera cast. Mr. Lucano has certain criticisms of the singer’s voices, but he was nonetheless much impressed with the emotional power of their characterizations. Conductor Peter Mark says his abridgment of Julius Caesar made an excellent introduction for Virginia Opera’s audiences to the world of baroque opera. I have featured recordings of Virginia Opera before. My Christmas offering for 1984 was an operatic adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by Thea Musgrave, who was then composer-in-residence at Virginia Opera.

Sunday May 10: Mozart began writing for the lyric stage at the tender age of twelve. He was a teenager when he penned Ascanio in Alba (1771), which is actually a serenata, not a full-fledged opera: that is, a lightweight, festive entertainment with a simplified storyline, employing singing, dancing and pageantry. Leopold Mozart took his son to Milan precisely to show off the boy’s talent for writing opera. Even before the famous La Scala Opera house had been built, Milan was one of the leading cities for opera in all of Europe. Ascanio in Alba wasn’t intended to be the main feature of the theatrical festival held there to celebrate the wedding of the Austrian archduke Ferdinand. A seasoned old composer, Johann Adolf Hasse, was commissioned to write the centerpiece of the festival: a full-scale opera seria titled Ruggiero. Hasse’s opera was a flop, but the audience loved the serenata by Mozart. Ascanio was held over for several additional performances. Its story is taken from classical myth and deals with pastoral love. As drama it’s stale and static, but the music is full of the charm and grace Mozart is renowned for. I last broadcast Ascanio on Sunday, August 4, 1985, when I presented the 1970 Harmonia Mundi recording of it made in Milan with a cast of Milanesse singers backed by the Angelicum Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Carlo Felice Cillario. This time countertenor Michael Chance heads the cast as Ascanio in a recording made at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1990. Jacques Grimbert conducts the Concerto Armonico of Budapest. A Naxos compact disc release.

Sunday May 17: Giaocchino Rossini’s opera called Otello (1816) bears almost no resemblance to Shakespeare’s play of that name until the third act, when we can finally recognize in it the familiar tragedy of the jealous Moor. Rossini was really hitting his stride in this work, his nineteenth opera, coming shortly after his world-renowned Barber of Seville. In writing Othello he didn’t borrow much from previous works. Forget the disappointing elements in Francesco Berio’s libretto: Rossini’s music is simply glorious! (Compare his setting of Desdemona’s "Willow Song" with Verdi’s.) Phillip Gossett says the last act of Otello is "a watershed between the worlds of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Italian opera." Otello was recorded in London for Philips in 1978 with tenor Jose Carreras in the title role. Desdemona is soprano Frederica Von Stade. Also heard as Desdemona’s father Elmiro is baritone Samuel Ramey. Jesus Lopez Cobos conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra and Ambrosian Opera Chorus. Phillips reissued Otello in CD format in 1993.

Sunday May 24: Memorial Day normally commemorates only those who died fighting in our nation’s Civil War and in the foreign wars the US military waged thereafter. My programming for the Sunday of this holiday weekend memorializes by extension those who died as the victims of the second World War in Europe: specifically, the Jews of the Nazi Holocaust. Two contemporary musical works reflect most poignantly upon the extermination of European Jewry. The first one you’ll hear is David Axelrod’s Requiem: The Holocaust (1993, Liberty Records). Axelrod has been called "the father of fusion," because of the way in which his work combines classical and jazz idioms. Axelrod maintains this "concept album" takes Mahler’s Song of the Earth as a model, especially in alternating long instrumental passages with vocals. Here’s a piece that cries out emphatically, "Never again!"

Our second offering, Kaddish (1993, Island Records) leans more toward the world folk music idiom in combination with modern classical elements. Richard Wolfson and Andy Saunders composed Kaddish for their ensemble known as Towering Inferno, which includes among its instrumental performers progressive rock stalwart Chris Cutler on drums and progressive jazz veteran Elton Dean on saxophone. The star vocalist is Marta Sebestyen, known for her splendid efforts in reviving the beauties of Hungarian folk song. Two cantors and a rabbi are also heard chanting the Psalms of David and the Kaddish, the traditional Hebrew prayer for the dead. The vocal parts of Kaddish are in several languages besides English.

Sunday May 31: Ferenc Erkel (1810-93) is the first truly significant composer of Hungarian opera. I’ve broadcast his tragic Bank Ban (1861) at least twice in going-on two decades of opera deejaying at this station. Bank Ban is one of my personal favorites because of its beautiful lyricism. Also imbued with plenty of that special Hungarian tunefulness is an earlier work Hunyadi Laszlo (1844). Like Bank Ban, the story of this opera is drawn from the history of medieval Hungary and concerns a loyal and steadfast Magyar nobleman who is tragically betrayed. Both Bank Ban and Hunyadi Laszlo have been recorded by Hungaroton, the state record label. Hunyadi Laszlo came out on three Hungaroton CD’s in 1985. The singing cast is all native Hungarian. Janos Kovacs leads the Hungarian State Opera Chorus and Orchestra.

Sunday June 7: Ah, Paris in the Spring! No opera captures the spirit of the "City of Lights" so well as Gustave Charpentier’s Louise (1900). The language of the libretto has expressions drawn from Parisian argot. As music theater the opera is a very keen French adaptation of the Italian verismo style with certain parallels to Puccini’s La Boheme. Yet there aren’t any illusions in Charpentier’s opera about the gaiety of La Vie Bohemiene. The story of Louise is completely credible as it deals with the poor people of Paris. Part of it is set in a garment industry sweatshop. Life isn’t easy for a working girl who loves a poet, but in the end love, freedom and "The Pleasure of Paris" win out over hard-headed working class morality. I last served up Louise to you listeners fully a decade ago. You’ll hear Charpentier’s lyric masterpiece again this Sunday in a different, newer version than the LP recording you savored way back then. This one was originally taped in Paris in 1977 and was reissued on CD in 1994 in the EMI Classics series. Julius Rudel conducts the Orchestre et Choeurs du Theatre National de L’Opera de Paris. Beverly Sills stars as the young seamstress Louise opposite Nicolai Gedda as the young poet Julien.

Sunday June 14: Richard Strauss’ Die Frau Ohne Schatten ("The Woman Without A Shadow," 1919) is a fairytale opera whose underlying theme is the contrast between the human world of light or consciousness and shadowy spirit world that lies in the human collective unconscious. The beautiful princess of fairyland possesses no shadow. She wants one badly so as to please her human husband, the Emperor of the South-Eastern Isles. With the assistance of her demonic nursemaid she tries to connive one from a common mortal woman. Hugo Von Hoffmannsthal’s libretto can easily be viewed from the perspective of Jungian psychology. It’s surely the most esoteric the Austrian writer provided to the German composer in the course of their long, fruitful collaboration. I first broadcast Die Frau Ohne Schatten as a spooky, Halloween-type piece on Sunday, October 27, 1985. A number of fine recordings of the opera have been made since the advent of hi-fi sound. The first one I aired was taped in stereo in 1963 with the resources of the Bavarian State Opera. Die Frau was recorded again in 1987 in digitally-processed stereo by EMI under the auspices of Bavarian Radio. That latter issue in CD format I aired on Sunday, February 5, 1995. Along comes a more recent CD release from Decca/London, taped in 1989-91 in Vienna with the recently deceased Sir Georg Solti conducting. Like the 1987 EMI interpretation with Wolfgang Sawallisch at the podium, the Solti reading gives us the entire score of the work. Solti directs the Vienna Philharmonic with a stellar cast of vocal principals: Placido Domingo, Julia Varady, Jose Van Dam, Hildegard Behrends and Sumi Jo.

Sunday June 21: This Sunday’s programming showcases two really contemporary American operas; that is to say, works that have premiered on stage or on disc in just the past couple of years. Harold Blumenfeld and Charles Kondek’s Seasons in Hell premiered in February, 1996 in Cincinnati, Ohio, where it arose from the activities of the opera department of the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. Subtitled, "A Life of Rimbaud," Seasons in Hell is an operatic biography of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91), who as a youth revolutionized French literature. He penned his great confessional work Une Saison en Enfer at the age of nineteen, then renounced writing forever. Blumenfeld and Kondek have captured the agony and ecstasy of Rimbaud’s existence, both before and after his renunciation , in one lyric theater extravaganza. (Leonardo De Caprio portrayed the young Rimbaud on film only a few years ago.) Seasons in Hell is currently available on CD through Albany Records.

The Studio division of Houston Grand Opera mounted the first production of Michael Dougherty and Wayne Kestenbaum’s Jackie O in March, 1997. This work, too, is an operatic biography, with operatic liberties taken, and in which, "...the events are based on history, but are largely imaginary or allegorical." Reviewer Mike Silverton says "...the opera addresses in clever and interesting ways the culture of empty celebrity and its helium-inflated cartoonish symbols." (Fanfare, January/February, ‘93 issue.) In other words, Jackie O is a camp! You’ll be amused by the caricature portrayals of Aristotle Onassis, Maria Callas, Liz Taylor, Grace Kelly and Andy Warhol. Silverton says further, "it’s an all-round excellent production and recording." Jackie O is out right now on a single very generously timed Argo CD.

Sunday June 28: Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), was born in Italy and reared in the Italian traditions of musical culture, yet he got much of his musical education from Germans and his career as a composer was played out in Austria and Germany, especially in Berlin. Busoni strove to lighten the heavyweight Wagnerian lyric theater style of Germany in his time through the medium of the traditional Italian Comedia dell’Arte. The two final products of his endeavor were Arlecchino and Turandot (1917). The first is billed as "A Theatrical Caprice" in one act, the second "A Chinese Fable" in two short acts, both with librettos worked up by the composer, in the second case using his countryman Carlo Gozzi’s play about Turandot as a model. Busoni referred to them collectively as "The New Comedia dell’Arte" of the twentieth century and he intended them to be performed together back-to-back. You’ll hear them both as recorded in 1992 by Radio France for release through Virgin Classics. Kent Nagano conducts the forces of Opera Lyon. Sung in German.

In this two-month cycle of broadcasts I am particularly indebted to the Hartford Public Library for allowing me to air five weeks’ worth of programming drawn from HPL’s extensive holdings of opera on disc. From their CD treasure trove I have selected Rossini’s Otello, Erkel’s Hunyadi Laszlo, Charpentier’s Louise, Strauss’ Die Frau Ohne Schatten and the two Busoni works. Special thanks for the arrangement of the loan of all these recordings go to Bob Chapman, HPL’s music librarian and a former opera singer himself. Handel’s Julius Caesar is taken from our station’s ever-growing collection of opera on CD. Mozart’s Ascanio in Alba is a contribution from my own collection. All the contemporary operas on CD (Requiem: The Holocaust, Jackie O, et al) come on loan from the private collection of Rob Meehan, former classics deejay here at WWUH and a specialist in twentieth century "alternative music."

Copyright©WWUH: March/April Program Guide, 1998

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