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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera
Your "Lyric Theatre" program with Keith Brown
Programming Selections for the Months of May/June 2005

Sunday May 1: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) was primarily an opera composer, although his music is known today much better through his symphonic poem Scheherazade. May Night (1878) was the second of his fifteen operas. The libretto is based on a story by Nikolai Gogol, a native of the Ukraine, who wrote with great enthusiasm about the rustic life and folklore of Little Russia. May Night is another name for the ancient Celtic fire festival of Beltane. The arrival of summer is celebrated all over Northern Europe. May Nights libretto preserves several age-old customs connected with the celebrations. On that enchanted night the village maidens are supposed to go off together into the wilds to gather flowers and green boughs. May Night is part romance, part peasant comedy, and part ghost story. The village wise woman is mistaken for the Devil himself. She conjures up the dancing spirits of the Rusalki, the lovely water nymphs of Slavic legend. These are the ghosts of girls who drowned and who, on occasion, make appearances among the living. Rimsky-Korsakov was not the only Russian composer to derive his inspiration from Ukrainia. Mussorgski drew upon the same collection of Gogol's stories for his comic opera The Fair at Sorochinsk (1874-80). May Night is also similar in overall effect to Smetana's The Bartered Bride. Rimsky-Korsakov's score is strongly influenced by Ukrainian folk music. Every note of it is brilliantly orchestrated by one of the all-time greatest orchestrators. Deutsche Gramophon originally released May Night in 1976, that wonderful interpretation from the singing cast, chorus and orchestra of Radio Moskow as directed by Vladimir Fedoseyev, now available again on CD format through Musical Heritage Society. Last broadcast on DGG LP's on Sunday, May 5, 1985.

Sunday May 8: My old pal Rob Meehan says if you liked the style of Jake Heggie, the composer of Dead Man Walking (2000, aired on this program on Sunday, February 22, 2004), you'll love Jonathan Dove's Flight (1998). The difference here, however, is that Flight is in many respects a comic opera, whereas Dead Man Walking is downright tragic. Although still a relatively young man, Jonathan Dove (b. 1959) has already written a considerable body of vocal music: song cycles, a string of chamber operas, incidental music for the theater, a children's opera, arrangements of famous works of the operatic repertoire for performance by community musical societies, and a TV opera When She Died about the death of Princess Diana. Flight is his first full-scale opera in three acts. Its setting is the departure lounge of an international airport. The waiting passengers present us with a microcosm of society. One of them, the Refugee, is a tragic figure. Flight was first produced for the Glyndebourne Festival and was subsequently broadcast on Channel Four TV in the UK, and saw further productions in Europe and the USA. Chandos Records of the UK released the world premiere recording of Flight in 2004. David Parry conducts the Glyndebourne Festival Opera and London Philharmonic Orchestra. Writing for Fanfare (Nov/Dec 2004 issue), reviewer John Story says, "New operas as splendid as this one are not exactly thick on the ground…this is a major event."

Sunday May 15: No sooner had our station received the Harmonia Mundi promotional copy of the much praised Rene Jacobs/Concerto Köln interpretation of "The Marriage of Figaro," then Naxos Records sent us their new three-CD promo of Mozart's masterpiece. Although I had already broadcast the Harmonia Mundi three-disc set not long ago (Sunday, October 10, 2004), I decided to give you connoisseurs of Mozart's operatic canon the opportunity to compare the period instrument sound of Concerto Köln with the historically-informed playing of a modern instrument chamber orchestra, the Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia, as conducted by Michael Halasz. This same orchestra, together with the Hungarian Radio Chorus, recorded their "Figaro" in Budapest in 2003. The previous year Halasz and these same performers put in a fine-recorded account of Don Giovanni for Naxos. Danish baritone Bo Skovhus starred as the Don. He is heard again as Count Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro. Does he give us an outstanding performance in this role? Listen and decide for yourself! Sunday May 22: A musicologist with the improbable name of Cuthbert Girdlestone wrote the definitive biography of the French baroque composer Jean Phillippe Rameau (1638-1764). Girdlestone is convinced Rameau should rank alongside Bach and Handel in a trinity of supreme baroque masters. Although he began writing for the state at the advanced age of fifty, Rameau proceeded to compose dozens of lyric stage works after the manner of Lully Reameau's music for the stage is bold and stylistically progressive for its time-especially in the dance movements and orchestral preludes. His dance divertissement for the Blessed Spirits in Act Three of his lyric tragedy Castor et Pollux (1737) anticipates by decades Gluck's treatment of the same dramatic situation in his own Orfeo ed Euridice. Over the years I have presented many historically informed recordings of Rameau's operas in a long-ongoing special feature series. It is remarkable in itself that this long-neglected master should get his due now in so many really fine-recorded interpretations. Caster et Pollux is regarded as Rameau's greatest work in the genre of Lullian tragedie lyrique. It was recorded complete in its first staged version of 1737 for Teldec/Das Alte Work with one of the pioneers of the period instrument movement, Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the podium. He directed the period instrument group he founded Concentus Musicus of Vienna, with the Stockholm Chamber Chorus, as taped way back in 1971. That world premiere recording in "period" style went over the air twice, first in LP, then CD format (Sunday, June 12, 1988 and November 8, 1992). Harnoncourt and his singers and players still sound good after all these years. Now, however, an equally good, if not better, interpretation of the score for the opera's 1754 revival has come out through the budget label Naxos. Kevin Mallon, conductor of the Canadian group the Aradia Ensemble, discovered a copy of Rameau's revised score in the rare book room of the music department of Toronto University. He prepared it into a performing edition. Mallon recorded it with his singers and players in 2003. The Naxos two-CD package, by the way, was also manufactured in Canada.

Sunday May 29: Karlheinz Stockhausen (b. 1928) continues his heptology of operas dedicated to the days of the week. Thus far in this long-ongoing series you have heard recordings of Samstag aus Licht ("Saturday from Light", 1984, Sunday, January 6, 1991), Montag aus Licht ("Monday", 1988, September 24, 2000), Dienstag ("Tuesday", 1988, January 14, 2001) and Donnerstag ("Thursday", 1980-82, September 15, 2001). Now along comes Freitag aus Licht ("Friday from Light", 1996), which premiered at the Leipzig Opera. Stockhausen dedicated this one to all children, so I guess it is his take on the genre of children's opera, and boy is it weird! But so are all the others that preceded it! This one is presented in a "greeting, two acts and farewell," much as the others were. It is intended for five musical performers (three adult vocal soloists and two wind players), twelve couples of dancer-mimes, a children's orchestra, children's choir, twelve choral singers and synthesizer, all this augmented by a host of phantasmagorical special visual effects. In a kind of science fiction spectacle, a "children's war" takes place on stage. "Friday from Light" plays out on a truly Wagnerian scale: five hours of music on four CD's. We won't have time to listen to the purely electronic music of the "greeting" and "farewell." The two acts containing vocal music on two silver discs last fully two and a half hours. Larry Bilanski, who loves to present these Stockhausen operas, will host this program, as he has done in this series in years past.

Sunday June 5: It took an awful long time for the twenty complete operas of Antonio Vivaldi to receive topnotch historically informed recorded interpretations, seeing how the "period instrument" movement in performance practice began before 1970. In recent months you've started hearing some of these excellent new recordings. I hope you remember my presentations of La Verita in Cimento (1720) on Sunday, February 29, 2004, and then on Sunday, May 3 of that same year L'Olimpiade (1734). Let's not forget the Vivaldi serenata La Senna Festeggiante (1724), which I broadcast in two different but equally good "period" recordings on Sunday, May 4, 2003 and October 24, 2004. The French label Opus 111 has brought out the fourth in its series of Vivaldi operas in its Naive line. This one is arguably his best, Orlando Furioso (1727). Way back on Sunday, June 16, 1985, I broadcast an RCA Red Seal LP release of Orlando Furioso in a much-edited version featuring the voice of female mezzo Marilyn Horne in the title rôle. Contralto Marie-Nicoloe Lemieux essays that heroic breeches part with Jean-Christophe Spinosi conducting the Ensemble Matheus. Vivaldi's imagination was particularly fired by the poem Orlando by the renaissance poet Ariosto-a classic Italian literature that appealed to generations of Italian opera composers. Orlando is really Roland, the renowned French crusader and knight errant and descendant of the emperor Charlemagne. Furioso means "raging," in reference to how the hero goes berserk upon being mislead into believing he has lost the love of his beloved Angelica.

Sunday June 12: The lyric theater spotlight today is trained upon opera of the seventeenth century. First comes Henry Purcell's King Arthur (1961), which has been called a "semi-opera" in that it is not wholly sung but includes spoken word stage play, ballet sequences and magnificent costuming and special effects in equal parts, all this conforming to the seventeenth century English traditions of the masque. The play itself is the work of John Dryden, leading poet and dramatist of the age. There have been many historically informed recorded interpretations of King Arthur. On Sunday, December 9, 1984, I presented a period instrument version directed by the late great countertenor singer Alfred Deller, one of the pioneers in the "early music" field. Then came an even more authentic one in CD format from John Eliot Gardner and his English Baroque Soloists. Gardner is one of the luminaries of a later generation of early music specialists. This Erato release included all the music Purcell wrote for the semi-opera. Unfortunately, musicologists still can't figure out exactly where in Dryden's play Purcell's musical sequences were intended to go. In 2003 a French ensemble of singers and players Le Concert Spirituel recorded all of the King Arthur music for the Spanish Glossa label. Herve' Niquet conducts. There's time remaining this afternoon to examine the roots of opera in Italy. Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607) is usually regarded as the first true opera. In the generation of opera composers who immediately followed Monteverdi, one of the greatest talents was surely Francesco Cavalli (1602-76). Opera began as all declamation or recitative; the aria developed later. In Cavalli's hands the aria became a truly singable, melodic song expressing the full spectrum of human emotion and employed in some surprisingly bizarre dramatic situations. Long ago I broadcast two of Cavalli's operas: his late masterpiece Ercole Amante ("Hercules in Love", 1662) in an authentic period instrument performance on Erato LP's from Michel Corboz and the English Bach Festival Orchestra (Sunday, November 22, 1987), and La Calista (1651) in a truncated version on Argo LP's (Sunday, January 31, 1988). Now you'll be able to sample solo arias and duets from five of Cavalli's earlier operas: Didone (1641), Egisto (1643), Ormindo (1644), Giasone (1649), and Calisto, all originally produced in Venetian theaters. The selections come on one brand new, generously timed Naxos CD. In all details it conforms to historically informed baroque style. Sergio Vartolo directs the period instrumentalists of the Mediterraneo Concerto.

Sunday June 19: Now the focus of lyric theater programming switches to contemporary Eastern Europe. Osvaldas Balakauskas (b. 1937) is one of the leaders of the modern school of Lithuanian music. He is head of the Composition Department at the Lithuanian Academy of Music. He also served his native land as a diplomat and his compositions have been performed all over Europe. As far as his style goes, he's been described as a Lithuanian Messaien. His Requiem in memoriam Stasys Lozoraitis (1995) is his only religious work. Lozoraitis was a fellow diplomat who ran for president of Lithuania in 1993, lost the election, and then died suddenly. The whole country mourned his passing. Lithuanian Radio recorded this chamber-scaled Requiem in 2003. Naxos Records issued it the following year. Donatas Katkus leads the Christopher Chamber Orchestra of Vilnius (the capitol of the country), with the Vilnius Municipal Choir and a mezzo vocal soloist. Sung in Latin to the text of the traditional Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) is Poland's internationally famous contemporary composer. He's written plenty of religious music for voices, and you've heard recordings of these works on my program over the years. A Polish Requiem (1993) was many years in gestation, beginning in 1980 with the Lacrimosa, written for Lech Walesa and his trade union Solidarity in remembrance of the Gdansk dockworkers who died in confrontations with the government authorities. Various other sections of the Roman Catholic Requiem text were written separately while a decade passed, all of them marking nationally important anniversaries or special rites of commemoration. The entire work encapsulates the sufferings of the Polish national past. We can thank Naxos once again for making available to the public on two CD's the complete Polish Requiem, recorded in the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall in 2003. Antoni Wit leads the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonic Choir, with four vocal soloists.

Sunday June 26: When people think of American music they are really thinking of the "big sky" musical style of Aaron Copland (1900-86). Copland's one and only opera The Tender Land (1954) evokes so eloquently in music the spirit of the Midwestern plains, where the story of the opera is set. I have broadcast Copland's original score of The Tender Land for full orchestra on two previous occasions, Sunday, July 7, 1991 and Sunday, November 25, 2001. Both times I presented the world premiere recording of the work, as performed by the Plymouth Music Series of St. Paul, Minnesota, under the direction of Philip Brunelle. Conductor Murry Sidlin obtained permission from Copland shortly before he died to arrange The Tender Land for a chamber ensemble of thirteen instruments like Copland's original scoring for the famous Appalachian Spring ballet music. Sidlin first prepared several sequences of the opera into a chamber cantata, first played publicly at the Aspen Music Festival in 1996. This, too, I have broadcast in its world premiere appearance on a Koch International Classics sliver disc, with Sidlin conducting Portland Oregon's Third Angle New Music Ensemble (Sunday, November 28, 1999). Sidlin led this group again for yet another world premiere Koch release of The Tender Land in its complete chamber version. It was first staged at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven in 1997. The action of the opera takes place at harvest time, which could only be the fall here in New England. In the southern reaches of the Midwest, however, there is a spring harvest coming right around the time of high school graduation-an all-important moment for Laurie, the young heroine in our story. In this two-month period of programming I have drawn upon my own recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov's May Night and the Murray Sidlin recording of Copland's The Tender Land. Out of the private collection of Rob Meehan comes Jonathan Dove's Flight and Stockhausen's Friday opera. Rob is a former WWUH classics deejay who specializes in collecting recorded music of the twentieth century. Everything else that's featured in these notes can be found in our station's ever-growing library of classical music on disc. I mustn't forget to thank my radio colleague Larry Bilanski for substituting for me on the Memorial Day weekend, and Kerry Atkins of Keystrokes by Kerry for the preparation of these columns of typescript you're reading.

WWUH: May/June Program Guide 2005 ©

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