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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera
Your "Lyric Theatre" program with Keith Brown
Programming Selections for the Months of November/December 2004

Sunday, November 7: World War One officially ended on November 11, 1918. That date, traditionally known in Europe as the Feast of St. Martin, became our present-day Veterans' Day holiday in the United States, with that in mind, I present this Sunday the absolutely perfect opera for the upcoming occasion: Nancy Van de Vate's All Quiet on the Western Front (1999), based on perhaps the greatest war novel of all time, Erich Maria Remarque's, In Western Nichts Neues, "All Quiet on the Western Front," (1929). The novel has been made into a movie at least three times since it appeared in print, but this is the first time it has ever been cast in operatic form. Nancy Van de Vate (b.1930) took ten years to complete this opera, her fourth such work. It was recorded in Vienna in 2001-02 for Vienna Modern Masters, for release on two CD's. Toshiuki Shimada conducts the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra, with eight vocal soloists. Sung in German. Bob Walsh will be your host this Sunday.

Sunday, November 14: All the Italian opera serie of George Frideric Handel have now been committed to silver disc in recent, historically informed interpretations. Can the same also now be said of the tragedies lyriques of Jean Baptiste Lully? We must now be close to covering the entire Lully canon. The brand new world premiere Ambrasie/Pera de Lausanne recording of Lully's Roland (1685) has got to fill one important gap. Lully was at the height of his powers when he penned Roland. In fact he was nearing the end of his career as a composer. He was to die prematurely in only two years' time. Roland has found exactly the right interpreter in conductor Christophe Russet. He's one of the brightest lights among the young, up-and-coming generation of baroque period-instrument specialists. Russet leads the ensemble he founded in 1991 Les Talents Lyriques. On Sunday, October 20, 2002 I presented the first-ever commercial recording of one long-neglected Lullian lyric tragedy: Persee (1682), which Russet recorded with Les Talents Lyriques for the Naďve label. Russet's take on Roland reflects the same high standard of inspired baroque musicality witnessed in Persee.

Sunday, November 21: Peter Grimes (1945) was Benjamin Britten's first full-length opera. It remains perhaps the single, absolutely quintessential English opera. It boosted English national opera in general into a new prominence on the international operatic scene. Its story arises out of the environs of Britten's boyhood. The setting is a fishing village on the Eastern coast of England, in the region known as East Anglia. The plot exposes all the nasty little secrets and hypocrisies of the townsfolk. Central to the story is the figure of Grimes himself: a wretchedly poor, sadistic, self-torturing soul. Peter Grimes is a societal tragedy played out against the background of the stormy weather that blows ashore from the North Sea. In 1958 the composer himself conducted a recording studio production of Peter Grimes with his lover tenor Peter Pears starring as the psychotic fisherman, augmented by the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. I have broadcast that classic London ffrr recording twice before, in LP format on Sunday, March 2, 1986 and again in CD release on Sunday, March 10, 1996. Is Britten's own interpretation the last word on his masterpiece? That formidable interpreter of English music Sir Colin Davis has taken on the challenge. He leads the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Tenor Glenn Winslade in Grimes, with soprano Janice Watson as Ellen Orford the village schoolteacher, who also sympathizes with the fisherman's plight. Recorded in London at the Barbican in January of 2004, the orchestra's own record label LSO Live wasted no time in getting Peter Grimes out to the public on two CD's.

Sunday, November 28: My lyric theater offering for this Sunday of the Thanksgiving holiday springs directly from the literary culture of New England, the region that gave the nation its own specifically American Feast-day. Scott Everly's three-act opera The House of the Seven Gables (2000) is based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's great American novel, first [published in 1850. Everly wrote his own libretto, after having reread the novel closely, and the story of his opera follows the original book closely as well. IN 1992 Everly received a National Endowment for the Arts Grant to compose this work, which was intended to receive its premiere production by the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater. As part of his personal preparation for composing he spent six weeks in Salem, Massachusetts. He was permitted to sleep overnight in one of the bedrooms of the creaky, spooky seventeenth century wooden structure. The house itself is practically a character in both novel and opera. Albany Records released The House of Seven Gables on two CD's in 2001.

Sunday, December 5: Although it was composed by an American, Samuel Barber's Vanessa (1958) is a tale of thwarted love among the well to do of a Northern European country. Vanessa is a wintertime story, set in snowy weather a century ago, when ice-skating often served as a vehicle for courtship. A New Year's Eve party figures importantly in the third act. The lonely ending of this story should remind us that the winter holiday season may be a happy time for some folks, but others feel more isolated and unloved than ever. Ibsen or Chekhov could easily have written a similar tragedy involving unwanted pregnancy and suicide, but is was Gian Carlo Menotti, and opera composer in his own right, who wrote the libretto. Samuel Barber (1910-81) was, more specifically, a gay American composer, and Gian Carlo was in truth his longtime companion. The characters Menotti dreamed up for Vanessa are pretty nasty and unlikable. Why then was Barber inspired to write such wonderful melodic music for them? One way of explaining the incongruity is to think of this opera as "high camp." At least that's how Fanfare magazine's reviewer Walter Simmons thought of Vanessa when he praised the CD reissue of the RCA Victor recording, made in early stereo sound only a month after the opera's stage premiere at the Met (Fanfare, Jan/Feb '91). The Met's vocal luminaries of the 'fifties took the principal roles: soprano Eleanor Steber as Vanessa, "a lady of great beauty," tenor Nicolai Gedda as the suitor Anatol and Regina Resnick as Erika, Vanessa's niece. Dmitri Mitropoulos conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus. The CD reissue I intended to broadcast on Sunday, December 14, 1997 was suddenly preempted, but you veteran listeners might remember hearing the original RCA LP release on Sunday, December 18, 1984. Walter Simmons reiterated his praise of the RCA Vanessa, especially noting how Steber was so perfect in the title role, in the pages of the Sept/Oct 2004 Fanfare. This time he was reviewing a new rival Vanessa recording put out this year by Naxos in its "American Opera Classics" series. American conductor Gil Rose leads the National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine and the "Dumka" Ukrainian National Capella. The vocal soloists are all Americans, too, and according to Simmons all top-notch people. They sing beautifully and convincingly, and the orchestra plays beautifully, too, conforming to a remarkably high international standard of excellence. Simmons gives the Naxos Vanessa a very high overall rating.

Sunday, December 12: This Sunday yet another lyric theater work based on a famous novel, this time Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1891). Philip Feeney (b.1954) wrote incidental music for a ballet adaptation of the story, as commissioned by the Northern Ballet Theater of Manchester, England. Feeney specializes in ballet scores. He has written the music for Northern Ballet's productions of Cinderella and Dracula. The concept of these productions goes way beyond dancing; they are dramatic storytelling stage works that emphasize the music, both orchestral and vocal. Feeney's complete score for Hunchback had to be edited down some for release through Black Box records in 1998 on a single generously timed CD. John Pryce-Jones leads the Northern Ballet Theatre Orchestra, with singers from Opera North, featuring soprano Miranda Bevin in solo capacity. Following this enchanting piece, which might also remind you a little of another Christmas holiday ballet mainstay, The Nutcracker Suite, will be plenty of vocal music of the season.

Sunday, December 19: Longtime listeners to this program will remember the name Rutland Boughton (1878-1960) in connection with his Celtic opera The Immortal Hour (1923). I have broadcast it three times over the past couple of decades. Hyperion, the same British label that gave us the world premiere recording of The Immortal Hour, also has delivered to the public the first-ever issue on CD of Boughton's Christmas opera Bethlehem (1915). Boughton set to music the verse of the fourteenth century Coventry Nativity Play in a simple but eloquent style suitable for amateur performance. At appropriate moments between the narrative portions for solo singers he inserts some absolutely lovely arrangements of traditional English carols. The tunes Boughton himself composed sound like real English folk songs, so much so that his famous colleague Ralph Vaughn Williams was convinced Boughton had been collecting authentic folk melodies from among the rural folk of Gloucestershire. Vaughn Williams must have attended a performance of Bethlehem. Community productions of it were mounted all over the British Isles. In time, both Bethlehem and The Immortal Hour, despite their enormous popularity, faded into oblivion. Alan G. Melville, who conducted The Immortal Hour for Hyperion, gave Bethlehem the same sensitive interpretive treatment. He directed two thoroughly professorial ensembles, the Holst Singers and City of London Sinfonia. A few vocal passages and a dance sequence has to be cut to fit Bethlehem onto one eighty-minute Hyperion CD. Much seasonal music will follow.

Sunday, December 26: One very good way to survey the music of J.S. Bach for orchestra and voices is to listen to the Weihnachtsoratorium, the "Christmas Oratorio," BWV 248 (1734). The Oratorio is a pasticcio in eighteenth century Italian parlance, i.e. a composite work patched together from other pieces of music. Bach culled through various cantatas, sacred and secular, that he had previously written to complete what is essentially a six-part cantata cycle for six of the important feast days of the twelve traditional days of the Christmas season in the ecclesiastical calendar. So, this cantata cycle constitutes a "Best of Bach" compilation. There are many fine recordings of the Christmas Oratorio, several of which I have presented over the past couple of decades. Our WWUH classics library has recently acquired the new Channel Classics release of the Weihnachtsoratorium, on two silver discs, with Jos van Veldhoven conducting the singers and players of the Netherlands Bach Society. This is a thoroughly historically informed recorded interpretation, which Fanfare magazine's Brian Robins has rated very highly (Fanfare, Jan/Feb 2004).

 A big thank you to my colleague Bob Walsh for substituting for me on Sunday, November 7th. The recording he will be presenting of Nancy Van de Vate's All Quiet on the Western Front comes on loan for broadcast from the collection of Rob Meehan, former classical announcer and specialist in the alternative music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Rob also loaned his recording of Scott Everly's The House of Seven Gables, Philip Feeney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Rutland Boughton's Bethlehem. All the other recordings are to be found in our station's ever-growing library of classical music on disc. Thursday Evening Classics Composer Capsules continued firmly established himself alongside Bartók and Dohnányi as a powerful force in Hungary's developing musical culture. Kodály produced a steady stream of music (his most famous works being the opera Háry János and the orchestral suite from that opera) and important educational works (which have collectively become known to music educators as the Kodály method). In the years after the Second World War he was honored by countless academic, musical, and political organizations around the globe; in 1961 he served as president of the International Folk Music Council, and, in 1964, as honorary president of the International Society of Music Educators.

WWUH: November/December Program Guide 2004 ©

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