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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera
Your "Lyric Theatre" Program with Keith Brown
Programming Selections for the Months of May / June 2007
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Sunday may 6th:  Everybody at one time or another has heard the famous ballet music "The Dance of the Hours" from La Gioconda (1876) by Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-86).  It made a splendid soundtrack for a scene in the Disney feature-length cartoon Fantasia. La Gioconda is one of the very few truly over-the-top grand operas of the nineteenth century to survive to this day in the international operatic repertoire. It is the only one of Ponchielli's seven operas that continues to be performed. La Gioconda has always been standard repertoire in Italy, and from time to time it still gets produced in the world's great opera houses. Our station's classical music record library has four old LP recordings of it. For a second time this Sunday I draw upon the oldest of them for broadcast. It preserves an historic taping at La Scala with that Diva of Divas, soprano Marla Callas in the title role. Angel Records of America released the EMI recording on three LPs in 1960 in early stereo sonics. La Gioconda shows us a tragic tale of marital infidelity and political intrigue in Venice in the days when the Doges ruled like dictators over a maritime empire. I last broadcast the Callas La Gioconda on Sunday, September 3, 1989.

Sunday may 13th:  Louis Andriessen (b. 1939) is a very big deal as a composer for the lyric theater in his native Netherlands. Writing to Vermeer is his third major work in a generally operatic vein. As operas go, almost nothing dramatic happens on stage in this one. Three women: the artist's wife, her mother, and a young female model who lives with them carry on their day-to-day lives in mid-seventeenth century Holland. They write their letters to the painter while he is on a two-week business trip. What made the stage work spellbinding was the dancing and the projected images behind the singers. The videos display the sorry spectacle of the wars of religion that tore Europe apart in that period. These images form the historical backdrop for the domestic scenes, all this courtesy of Peter Greenway, the famous British film director who collaborated with Andriessen on this project. Unfortunately, we can't see anything of what Writing to Vermeer was in its 1999 premier production for the Netherlands Opera of Amsterdam. The 2004 studio recording was issued on two compact discs for Nonesuch Records. Michel van der Aa provides the electronic music. Robert de Leeuw directs the Schoenberg Ensemble and Asko Ensemble with three female vocal soloists and a small choir of women's voices. (There are no adult male voices at all in this opera!) Despite the visual operatic grandeur that we miss, surprisingly Fanfare magazine's reviewer James H. North says, "The Opera works best on discs," perhaps meaning that the proceedings are really best left open to the listener's imagination in broadcast. That approach has been part of my concept of "lyric theater" programming all along.

Sunday may 20Th:  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 staples of the international repertoire. Yet all the many other numbers Grieg composed for Peer Gynt are rarely heard along with the well known ones and in their proper theatrical order. Twice before I have broadcast Neeme Järvi's splendid account of the complete incidental music that Deutsche Grammaphon released in 1987, employing the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra of Sweden and the Pro Musica Chamber Choir, with a cast of Scandinavian vocal soloists, and English soprano  Barbara Bonney.  A new recording released in 2005 by the Swedish label BIS has superseded that one, at least according to Michael Fine, who reviewed it for Fanfare magazine in its March/April 2006 issue. Ole Kristian Ruud conducts the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra of Norway, which Grieg himself conducted, 1880-82. The two BIS CDs preserve a concert version of the drama prepared by actor Svein Sturla Hungnes, who portrays Peer. Heard in the singing rôle of Peer is Swedish tenor Hakan Hagegard. In praising the BIS release Michael Fine points out that it contains several more tracks than the older DGG Peer Gynt. These are additional pieces Grieg wrote for an 1892 revival of the play.

Sunday may 27th:  I believe you'll find the programming for the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend particularly appropriate this year in the winding down (?) of the War in Iraq. Some of the best contemporary works in the popular American lyric theater genre have come, not from Broadway, but from the London theater scene. The same team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg who brought you Les Miserables also gave birth to Miss Saigon (1989), which is a modern reinterpretation of Puccini's Madam Butterfly. The story has been reset in the Vietnam War period and its aftermath 1975-78. London's reinvention of the American musical has brought it closer to opera. Miss Saigon is sung throughout – an upgrade from the traditional Broadway musical, which is a spoken-word play with sung numbers. Miss Saigon aroused controversy over its casting that called attention to the misogynist aspect of the plot – a controversy that overshadowed its New York premiere. Way back in 1926 there were some who thought the element of interracial marriage in Jerome Kern's Showboat was scandalous, so this is nothing new in the history of American lyric theater. We'll be listening to the original London cast recording as released on two Geffen CDs. I'm convinced the passion of the singing in this production will move you, if not the poignancy of Miss Saigon's plight. I last broadcast those same Geffen discs the Memorial Day Sunday of 1991. Larry Bilansky substitutes for me.

SUNDAY JUNE 3RD:  Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909) is remembered as a virtuoso pianist who composed many difficult works for solo keyboard. It's not well known in the musical world at large that he also wrote opera. We'll hear the best one of them today: Merlin (1902), which Albeniz intended as the first of a trilogy of operas dealing with Arthurian legend. A second opera, Lancelot, exists in piano score. The third, Guenevre, was never written. Albeniz is credited with creating the distinct Spanish national style in the late romantic period. Merlin, however, doesn't sound "Spanish" at all. It has impressionistic qualities that remind me of the style of Albeniz' contemporary Frederic Delius. While no one would mistake Merlin for anything by Wagner, there is a strong Wagnerian influence here, especially in the use of leit-motivs. What surprises me most about Merlin is that its libretto is in English language. The verse is stilted and archaic as in medieval romances, yet Albeniz' remarkable music fits this foreign tongue perfectly well and moves the story right along. Albeniz' patron and librettist was a British banker. Merlin was intended for performance in London. It never saw the stage in the composer's lifetime. It has been produced in concert performance only and recorded in 1999 for the British Decca label. José de Eusebio prepared the score in its concert version. He conducts the Orquesta Sinfonica de Madrid and Corale la Comunidad de Madrid. The superstar Spanish tenor Placido Domingo is featured as King Arthur.

SUNDAY JUNE 10th:  This will be the fourth opera by Finnish composer Aulis Salinnen (b. 1935) that I have aired over the course of a quarter century of lyric theater broadcasting. First came The Horseman (1976) on January 27, 1985. Then you heard Palatsi (1995) on Sunday, June 29, 1997. Most recently came "The King Goes Forth to France" (1984) on Sunday, January 14, 2007. Now you get to hear the work that most endeared Salinnen to Finnish audiences, The Red Line (1978), which premiered at the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki. The story has to do with crucial national elections in 1907. Illiterate Finnish peasants voted in this election by marking their paper ballots with a line of red ink. A huge brown bear threatens to steal what little food a poor man and his wife possess. The predator succeeds in killing their children. The struggles of the common folk provide the backdrop for a debate between a conservative young priest and an anticlerical political agitator. The Red Line was recorded in 1979 for Finlandia Records and released on three LPs. Okku Kamu conducts the Finnish National Opera Chorus and Orchestra.

SUNDAY JUNE 17th:  Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier (1911) was the last opera my predecessor Joseph S. Terzo presented upon his retirement from broadcasting on WWUH. That was on Sunday, June 20, 1982. I'm amazed to discover as I go back through my opera programming listing that I have never broadcast Der Rosenkavalier during my twenty five year-long tenure in this timeslot. Our station's library has three different old LP recordings of Strauss' masterpiece. The on Joe Terzo went to was a 1971 Columbia Masterworks release with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and chorus of the Vienna State Opera. There's also a 1970 London boxed set with Georg Solti leading the Vienna Philharmonic. For my presentation today I have chosen the third one, which is the oldest. It came out in 1957 in early stereo sound on four EMI/Angel vinyl discs. My Thursday Classics colleague Steve Petke tells me this is the one that the critics have consistently over the years regarded as the classic Rosenkavalier. Herbert von Karajan directs the Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus of London. All three recordings under consideration have wonderful singing casts, with names now legendary in the history of recorded sound. Karajan's cast includes sopranos Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Teresa Stich-Randall and Ljuba Welitsch, mezzo Christa Ludwig, tenors Erich Majkut and Paul Kuen, and baritones Otto Edelmann and Eberhard Waechter. WOW!!!

sunday JUNE 24TH:  It's been some long time since I have featured anything by America's great surviving musical eccentric Robert Ashley (b. 1930). That's because many of his more recent works for voices and electronics include words in their librettos that the FCC won't let us put over the air. I say "surviving" about Ashley since he's 77 years old now and so many others like him in the twentieth century American musical scene (people such as John Cage) are dead and gone. Celestial Excursions (2002) is Ashley's reflection upon old age, looking towards eventual death. This work was commissioned by Performing Artservices Inc. as part of the national series Meet the Composer and was a co-production of the Berliner Festspeile at the Hebbel Theater, Berlin. The recording was made live in performance at the Kitchen in New York City. It was released on two CDs in 2005 through Ashley's own record label Lovely Music, Ltd. He performs Celestial Excursions with his old familiar crew of artistic collaborators, among them pianist Blue Gene Tyranny, and singers Joan La Barbara and Thomas Buckner. Ashley himself and Tom Hamilton provide the electronic orchestra.
A special thanks to my colleague Larry Bilanski for filling in for me on the Sunday of the Memorial Day weekend. As always I am grateful to my friend, private record collector Rob Meehan, for loaning me for broadcast his recordings of Miss Saigon, Salinnen's The Red Lion and Ashley's Celestial Excursions. The British Decca recording of Merlin by Isaac Albeniz comes out of my own collection. All the other featured programming you hear over this two-month period is derived from our station's extensive library of classical music on disc.

WWUH Program Guide 2007 ©

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