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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera
Your "Lyric Theatre" program with Keith Brown
Programming Selections for the Months of September and October 2002

Sunday September 1: On the Sunday of the Labor Day holiday weekend I always program an American opera, often one with a story that reflects somehow on the experience of American working people. In William Bolcom’s A View From the Bridge the focus is on Italian immigrant stevedores living and working in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn a half century ago. Their tragedy is played out in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. With the passing of Aaron Copeland and Leonard Bernstein musical America has come to recognize William Bolcom (b. 1938) as one of the single greatest living American classical composers. Bolcom enlisted the help of America’s greatest living playwright, Arthur Miller, in fashioning an opera libretto out of Miller’s original 1955 play. Lyric Opera of Chicago commissioned the opera for its 1999-2000 season. New World Records promptly released the world premiere recording of A View From the Bridge in 2001. Dennis Russell Davies conducts the Chorus and Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Sunday September 8: Who would now believe that the audience at La Scala jeered and heckled Rosina Storchic while she tried to sing the role of Cho-Cho San publicly for the first time in the premiere 1904 production of Puccini’s immortal Madam Butterfly. A hostile clique in the opera house seems to have made the initial performance such a terrible failure. Puccini made some quick revisions in the score for a second production of Butterfly three months later in Brescia. Every succeeding performance from that point onwards put audiences in tears and brought down the house with their hysterical applause. We know Madama Butterfly best today in its further revised 1906 “Paris version.” The original 1904 La Scala version has been recorded for Naxos, with Gunter Neuhold conducting the Bremen Philharmonic State Orchestra and Bremen Theatre Chorus. A young Ukrainian soprano, Svetlana Katchour, is heard as Cho-Cho San, opposite British tenor Bruce Rankin as the faithless American naval officer F. B. Pinkerton. The last time I aired any other recording of Madama Butterfly was long, long ago on Sunday, October 7, 1984!

Sunday September 15: Wound you believe the most eccentric artistic icon of the twentieth century, Salvador Dali, wrote an opera, with himself cast in the starring role? Etre Dieu (1974) makes a god of the artistic creator, who contends with the god of all creation. How’s that for a grandiose subject! Would you also believe that little old Hartford played a special role in Dali’s rise to international fame? Charles “Chick” Austin, the pioneering director of Hartford’s own Wadsworth Athenaeum, was one of the first people in the arts in America to champion the Spaniard Dali’s work. Dali came to Hartford at Austin’s behest, and here he was feted out as a VIP. Actually, Igor Wakhevich composed the music for Dali’s “cosmogonic tragedy in three acts”, but Dali was very much in control of the entire creative project. In 1992 Eurostar/Sin Qua Non issued Etre Dieu on three CD’s in a suitably Daliesque and grandiose blue velvet box. Boris de Vinogradow conducts the Symphonic Orchestra Paris. There is also a big battery of special percussion instruments and a rock band in the audio mix. Listen and decide for yourself if Dali is a true genius, or perhaps an eccentric artist of a lesser order, or just a pompous flim-flam man. Etre Dieu is so weird I have entrusted it to a guest host for presentation.

Sunday September 22: Pelleas and Melisande (1902) was Claude Debussy’s only excursion into full-fledged operatic form. This opera was the dream of Debussy’s youth going back to 1889, when he first saw and was much impressed by a production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at Beyreuth. Yet Debussy’s final product is not at all in Wagner’s vein of music drama. Both operas show us a page out of the literature of medieval courtly love. The libretto of Pelleas et Melisande, however, was derived from a stage play by the controversial Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, a contemporary of the composer. Pelleas has a not-so-courtly extramarital affair with the young and beautiful wife of his much older half brother. The whole tragic tale is set forth in the haunting melodic phrases and dreamy pastel tonal colorations so characteristic of the musical style of impressionism. I first broadcast Pierre Boulez’ interpretation of Pelleas on EMI/Angel LP’s way back in October of 1985. Then on Sunday, September 27, 1992 came the reissue of this same recording on Sony Classical compact discs. Bernard Haitink has also recently interpreted Pelleas et Melisande for Radio France who have a special line of CD recordings drawn from select airtapes. Haitink led the National Orchestra and chorus of Radio France in a live concert broadcast performed before an audience at the Theatre des Champes Elyeese in March of 2000. Soprano Anne Sofie von Otter receives top billing in the role of Melisande.

Sunday September 29: the fifteen operas of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov display a wealth of Russian legend upon the lyric stage. These fantastic tales are framed in brilliantly scored music derived from Russian song and dance. Rimsky-Korsakov also touched upon Russian history in the quasi-legendary period of the first tsar, Ivan the Terrible. The Tsar’s Bride (1899), his ninth opera, sets forth a story of young love, political intrigue at the highest levels of Ivan’s administration, xenophobia and peasant superstition. A poisonous love potion figures tragically in the plot. I have broadcast this opera before, on Melodiya/Angel LP’s dating from the 1970’s, on Sunday, January 15, 1989. Today’s featured recording was made in 1992, and like the old Melodiya release, also employs the performing resources of the Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow. Andrey Chistiakov conducts an all-native Russian-speaking cast. Our new recording appears on two French Harmonia Mundi compact discs.

Sunday October 6: Many of the lesser known of Vincenzo Bellini’s eleven operas have been revived successfully, but I Capuleti ed I Montecchi (1830) is the single one that seems to have fared worst in the twentieth century. That’s hard to understand, because audiences at its premiere in Venice were absolutely delirious over it. This is actually a “Romeo and Juliet” love story. Bellini originally gave the role of Romeo to a female mezzo soprano – a vocal oddity harkening back to the singing of the male castrati in heroic parts. Tenors were later substituted for the mezzos as Romeo. A lesser composer rewrote the whole third act. These disfigurements of Bellini’s score for I Capuleti ed I Montecchi in no way ruined his splendid vocal writing. A 1976 recording of this Bellini’s third opera for Emi restores most of the composer’s intentions for its musical actualization. Soprano Beverly Sills is Juliet. English contralto Jane Baker is Romeo with the legendary Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda cast in the role of Tebaldo. I last broadcast these Angel/EMI LP’s on Sunday, November 11, 1990.

Sunday October 13: Giovanni Battista Sammartini (1698? -1175) was a pioneer in the writing of symphonies in the progressive or “pre-classical” style of the mid eighteenth century. He was one of Gluck’s teachers, and wrote a few operas himself, also in progressive operatic style, in addition to a vast body of vocal music for the churches of Milan. Memet (1732) could be classified in the sub-genre of “Turkish opera,” so popular in those days, the most famous example of which is Mozart’s Abduction From the Seraglio. Sammartini’s music for Memet sounds a little more baroque than pre-classical to my ears. This opera, however, is so advanced stylistically that it couldn’t be mistaken for one of the later Italian opera serie of Handel. The Italian label Dynamic released the world premiere recording of Memet this year. This is not a period instrument recording, but it’s obvious all singers and players involved were well versed in eighteenth century musical practice.

Sunday October 20: It isn’t every day that a world premiere recording of one of the many long-forgotten lyric stageworks of Jean Baptiste Lully appears on silver disc. Persee (1682) is one of the finest examples of the tragedie lyrique, the genre of French baroque grand opera that Lully invented. Persee was staged for the first time in modern times in Sienna, Italy, then quickly restaged in September 2001 in France and subsequently recorded for the Astree label. Christopher Rousset leads the period instrument ensemble Les Talens Lyriques and the Chorus of the Baroque Music Center of Versailles.

Sunday October 27: I figure you listeners will be up to a little dose of the satanic at Halloweentide. The Faust legend has been the inspiration for many operas, some of them world-famous, like Gounod’s opera of the name. Arrigo Boito (1842-1918) composed his Mefistofele (1868/75) in considerable fear of failure. Although he was a fine opera librettist and music critic, he lacked confidence in his personal powers of musical composition. He knew that in writing a score on the scale of Wagner’s music dramas he was going against the tide of Italian operatic convention. Mefistofele is a vast mural of sound far removed from the stylistic confines of Verdi. Mefistofele was a grand flop at its premiere, but after the necessary revisions it became a success considerable enough to qualify for entry into the international operatic canon. In Boito’s conception the devil himself is the real star of the show. America’s great basso of our time Samuel Ramey is heard as the demon Mephistopheles in a recording of Boito’s masterwork made in Hungry with the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra and Hungaroton Opera Chorus. The cast of vocal principals is truly world class. Tenor Placido Domingo is Faust, with Hungary’s own Eva Marton featured in the dual roles of Marguerite and Helen of Troy. The late Giuseppe Patane conducts the entire ensemble. A Sony Classical release on two CD’s. I last broadcast these same silver discs on a Sunday exactly eleven years ago.
In preparing this two-month period of programming I have relied upon my usual supplier of recording of challenging modern “alternative music,” Rob Meehan, who used to host a classics show way back in the late 1970’s. Rob has loaned me his copies of Bolcom’s A View From the Bridge and Salvator Dali’s Etre Dieu. Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride comes from my own collection of operas on CD. Everything else featured in these notes is drawn from our stations ever-growing library of classical music on CD.

Copyright©WWUH: September/October Program Guide, 2000

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