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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera
Your "Lyric Theatre" program with Keith Brown
Programming Selections for the Months of November and December 2000

Sunday November 5: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor (1749) and Mozart’s Requiem (1791) are monuments of Western art music for chorus and orchestra, but they both came down to us in a form that demands special preparation for modern performance. Mass in B Minor is a title given to this work in the nineteenth century. Although certain portions of it were played publicly in Bach’s lifetime, he never witnessed a complete performance. The entire score was assembled and reworked from several earlier works in the last two years of the master’s life. It constitutes his choral/orchestral testament to posterity, much like "The Art of the Fugue." Nevertheless, we don’t know exactly what Bach’s real intentions were for this music. All of its sections are way too long to use in a church service, and to render it suitable for the modern concert hall it has to be edited to some extent. Conductor Martin Pearlman consulted Bach’s autograph score in preparing to tape the Mass in B Minor for Telarc. The recording sessions took place in Mechanics Hall in Worchester, Massachusetts in 1999. Pearlman leads the singers and players of Boston Baroque.
     The Requium, k.626, was the last music Mozart ever wrote, I incomplete to begin with. Shortly after Mozart’s death three of his students attempted to fill in the missing parts of what he has already sketched out. They composed more music besides so as to finish the work and honor the original commission Mozart received. The results have never been regarded as entirely satisfactory. The great Mozart scholar H.C. Robbins Landon has prepared a new performing edition of Mozart’s marvelous fragment. This edition is arguably the best-ever reconstruction of the Requium, which conductor Bruno Weil has taken up in his recorded interpretation for Sony Classical in Sony’s Vivarte series. Weil directs the Tafelmusik period instrument ensemble and Tolzer Boys Choir.

Sunday November 12: Last Sunday, two musical monuments of the eighteenth century. This Sunday, two works for singers and orchestra by two of the giants of German Romanticism in the final phase of the musical style. Die Ruinen von Athen ("The Ruins of Athens," 1933) is Richard Strauss’ adaptation of Beethoven’s opus by that name. Strauss combined it with Beethoven’s ballet music for "The Creatures of Prometheus" to fashion an hour-long lyric theater entertainment for orchestra, chorus and three vocal soloists. Strauss’ longtime collaborator Hugo Von Hofmannsthal provided the libretto. In 1999 Koch/Schwann issued Die Ruinen von Athen on a single CD as Volume Nine in its series "The Unknown Richard Strauss." Karl Anton Rickenbacher conducts the chorus and orchestra of the Bamberg Symphony.
    Gustav Mahler’s Das Leid von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth," 1910) is a much better known item to concertgoers. Mahler subtitled it a "Symphony," but it is structured rather like a gigantic cantata for two solo voices. The composition follows in the direct line of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Mahler took for his text six Chinese poems in German translation. Das Lied von der Erde expresses inextinguishable hope wrung from the composer’s deepest despair. This music was Mahler’s last gift to the world. He did not live long enough to hear it performed. Gustav Mahler was himself a distinguished opera conductor. Many greats of the baton have interpreted "The Song of the Earth" and the other Mahler symphonies. Certainly one of the best of the lot was Jascha Horenstein (189901874). Here was a conductor who really knew how to sculpt the sound of the hundred-piece Mahlerian symphony orchestra. He got the most out of the members of the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra when Das Lied von der Erde was taped in live radio broadcast on April 28, 1972, very near the end of Horenstein’s career. Alto Alfreda Hodgson and tenor John Mitchinson sang their hearts out for him. BBC records has just this year released that definitive recorded interpretation in its Legends series.

Sunday November 19: America’s wonderful twentieth century musical eccentric Harry Partch (1901-74) was fascinated with ancient classical Greek drama and myth. He rendered Eruipides’ tragedy The Bacchae into modern American terms in his opera (if you can call it that!) Revelation in the Courthouse Park (1960). I broadcast the recording of the 1987 American Music Theater Festival production of Revelation on Sunday, February 3, 1991. King Oedipus (1951) is Partch’s take on Sophecles’ tragedy by that name. Partch originally used William Butler Yeats’ English translation of Oedipus as his libretto, but was forced later into working up his own wordbook for his musical creation. The glory of Yeats’ poetry is preserved in the recording of the 1952 Mills College production of Oedipus. This recording has lain dormant for decades – that is, until its text finally fell into public domain. Now it is resurrected and replaces the LP issue of the 1954 Sausalito production of Oedipus as the definitive recording of this work. The Yeats’ Oedipus comes in a 1998 three CD Innova release that includes excerpts from the Gate 5 version of Revelation in the Courthouse Park. You’ll hear those extracts, too, this Sunday, plus other music of Partch for voice and experimental microtonal instruments.

Sunday November 26: After hearing today’s opera, you may want to eat spaghetti rather than the leftover turkey of this past Thursday’s Thanksgiving feast. La Farciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West," 1910) is Puccini’s "American Opera," to be sure, but the style of the music is pure Italian verismo. It premiered at the old Met in New York City with opera immortals Emmy Destinn as Minnie and Enrico Caruso as the outlaw Dick Johnson. The recording I aired on Sunday, September 20, 1992 has a young American soprano Mara Zampien cast as Minnie opposite Placido Domingo as Dick. That Sony Classical recording was made live at La Scala. This Sunday we go back to an historic recording of La Funciulla, made in Rome in very early stereo sound in 1958. The diva Renata Tebaldi is Minnie with Mario Del Monaco as Dick. Also of note: Giorgio Tozzi is heard as Jake Wallace, and the Met’s own Cornell Macneil as Jack Rance. Decca/London has reissued this classic Fanciulla on two analogue to digital remastered CD’s.

Sunday December 3: Next in line after Puccini, Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) was certainly the most important composer of the verismo style in Italian opera. Outside of his youthful work Cavalleria Rusticana (1890), which won him international fame, few of his fourteen other operas are ever performed or recorded. The comic L’Amico Fritz (1891) is revived occasionally. I broadcast the old 1969 Angel LP recording of it on Sunday, June 7, 1992. Then the first Sunday in April of 1995 I broadcast Mascagni’s tearjerker Lodoletta (1917) in a Hungaroton CD recording that starred American soprano Maria Spaeagna. Mascagni’s previous opera, the Renaissance-period tragedy Parisina (1913) was a considerable success on the stage in its day, but the world premiere recording of this work had to wait until 1999, when it was revived for the Radio France Montpelier Festival and taped live in studio performance.

Sunday December 10: Certain good spoken-word dramas translate naturally into opera. William Alwyn (1905-1985) wrote an opera in two acts after a famous play by the Swedish playwright August Strindberg. Alwyn’s Miss Julie (1977) premiered not on stage but as a BBC 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 ago. Alwyn himself wrote the libretto for his opera. Soprano Jill Gomoz 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.

Sunday December 17: Many of the 67 operas of Gaetano Donizetti, while they are no longer in the standard repertoire, are near masterpieces of bel canto writing. They may not be of quite the same high stature as La Fille du Regiment, but they nevertheless pass a grand melodic sonority and overarching musical design. One such work is Poliuto (1838), which comes along as a milestone in the internationalization of Italian opera in the nineteenth century, moving towards blockbuster works like Verdi’s Aida. Poliuto is a lyric tragedy in three acts to a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, who later on collaborated with Verdi. The story of the opera is set in the period of the later Roman Empire, when the Christian sect was being actively persecuted by the imperial government and adherents were worshipping underground in the catacombs. A live recording of Poliuto was made in Rome in December 1989 for the Italian label Nuova Era. Jan Latham-Koenig directs the chorus and orchestra of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. Tenor Nicola Martinucci is heard in the title role of Poliuto, the recent Christian proselyte. Veteran baritone Renato Brunson is cast as Severo, the Roman proconsul who sentences Poliuto and his bride to death in the arena.

Sunday December 24: Long ago on Sunday, August 14, 1983 I programmed Harrison Birtwhistle’s little lyric entertainment Punch and Judy (1968), which he styled "a tragic comedy and comical tragedy." Gawain (1991) however, is a full-scale opera. For its story Birtwhistle looked to the medieval Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The action begins and ends at Christmas in King Arthur’s court. Gawain was commissioned by the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, where is premiered. For the 1994 Covent Garden revival the score was revised and rather truncated in certain scenes. In that form Gawain received its live world premiere recording, produced in association with BBC Radio Three. Elgar Howarth conducts the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House. A Collins Classics release.

Sunday December 31: With its rousing final chorus in praise of champagne, Johann Strauss’ immortal Die Fledermaus (1874) is the obvious programming for New Year’s Eve. Given that the entire second act of the operetta is a party, it certainly fits in with the festive occasion. Actually, the French play on which the opera is based, Le Reveillono, is set on Christmas Eve. That fact only goes to strengthen the association of Die Fledermaus with the Yuletide season. There’s a Nightingale Classics Fledermaus currently in circulation, recorded in Budapest in 1998 with Friedrich Haider directing the chorus and orchestra of the Hungarian State Opera. IN the singing cast is Czech soprano Edita Gruberova as Adele. Hers is the one name on the roster that opera lovers the world over will recognize instantly.
    Let me thank Rob Meehan, former classics deejay at WWUH, for loaning me for broadcast the Innova recording of Harry Partch’s King Oedipus. Rob is a private record collector specializing in twentieth century alternative music. Bob Chapman is another name I frequently mention with gratitude in theses pages. He is the music librarian at the Hartford Public Library, and a former professional opera singer. With Bob’s kind permission and by special arrangement with the HPL I have on loan four weeks worth of lyric theater programming: Puccini’s "Girl of the Golden West," William Alwyn’s Miss Julie, Donizetti’s Polluto and Birtwhistle’s Gawain. The rest of the recordings come from our station’s ever growing library of classical music on disc.

Copyright©WWUH: November/December Program Guide, 2000

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