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The University of Hartford

Sunday Afternoon at the Opera
Your "Lyric Theatre" program with Keith Brown
Programming Selections for the Months of September and October 2004

Sunday September 5: For the Sunday of the Labor Day weekend I have an opera for you that is not just about American working people, but quite specifically about New England working folk. Edward Thomas’ Desire Under the Elms is styled “An American Folk Opera” by the composer. Edward Thomas (b. 1926) is well known in the commercial music industry as a writer and producer. This opera was hi pet project, his labor of love, which gestated over a long period 1975-89, finally premiering at New York’s City Center. Thomas’ Desire is based on Eugene O’Neill’s famous play, as adapted for the lyric stage by Joe Masteroff. The story tells of a covetous old farmer and his hardworking sons, who stand to inherit the farm. You could call what happens a Yankee tragedy. The tough old man ends up working the land alone. Thomas’ operatic lovechild is now available to the public on two Naxos compact discs in their “American Opera Classics” line. In July of 2000 it was recorded in London’s Abbey Road Studio, with the close consultation of the composer. George Manahan conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. In the singing cast is the star American tenor, Jerry Hadley as Peter, one of the half-brothers.

Sunday September 12: Now is the peak season for the biggest of Atlantic storms, the hurricane. These huge tropical gales have wrecked many a ship in centuries past, especially along the most common path hurricanes take off North America’s eastern seacoast: over the Island of Bermuda. Only occasionally does a really big ship-sinking hurricane reach New England’s shores. Bermuda is said to be the setting of William Shakespeare’s late comedy The Tempest (1611). The Bard’s imagination was fired by accounts of voyages to the New World. Englishman saw strange marvels and beauties there. This play is also said to be Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage. It goes marvelously well over the air, as do all of Shakespeare’s plays, because they rely on his poetic spoken word, rather than on the visuals, i.e.: stage scenery or costumes, in order to work their theatrical magic. Our recording of The Tempest comes from the Caedmon label’s complete recorded series of his plays as produced by the Shakespeare Recording Society. Taped in 1963, The Tempest includes in its cast Michael Redgrave as Prospero, ruler of the enchanted Isle, Hugh Griffith as the monster Caliban, Vanessa Redgrave as the fairy being Ariel and Anna Massey as Prospero’s beautiful daughter, the innocent Mrianda. I last broadcast these Caedmon stereo discs on Sunday, August 14, 1988.

Sunday, September 19: Of the fifteen operas Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) wrote in the course of his prolific music-writing career, Julietta is the one best known outside his native country. It is based upon Georges Neveux’s play The Key of Dreams. In Martinu’s opera a young man named Michel pursues Julietta, the beautiful girl of his dreams through the street of a little town whose inhabitants constantly frustrate his search with their lack of memory. Only a madman would try to live forever in his dreams, but in the end that seems to be what Michel wants to do. Every faction in Martinu’s surrealistic musical world is turned into reality and vice versa. The comic is juxtaposed with the nightmarish. Martinu wrote Julietta specifically for the Prague National Theater, who premiered it in 1938. The vocal and instrumental resources of this national cultural institution were marshaled for a 1964 stereo LP recording released through Supraphon, the Czechoslavak state record label. I last presented the LP set on Sunday, February 16, 1986. After almost four decades Supraphon has reissued Julietta on two compact discs. It’s the exact same old recording but still the definitive interpretation, sung in Czech language, with Jarslav Krumpholc conducting.

Sunday September 26: It’s well known how Sir Arthur Sullivan aspired to compose greater things than those mere comic operettas he turned out in collaboration with W.S. Gilbert. Its also well known how Ivanhoe (1891), the England grand opera upon which he lavished such care was such a big disappointment in the long run. Sullivan wrote a lot of other “serious” music, including two oratorios and a large-scale dramatic cantata The Golden Legend (1886), which is a setting of passages from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s long narrative poem of the same name. Although the Leeds Choral Festival commissioned it, Sullivan makes only moderate use of the chorus in The Golden Legend. Yet it became enormously popular among amateur choral societies in Britain. Only Handel’s Messiah was more frequently performed. Then early on in the twentieth century it passed out of the repertoire and was forgotten. The British Hyperion label has resuscitated on silver disc many of Sullivan’s neglected compositions, thanks in part to the cooperation of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society and the D’Olyly Carte Charitable Trust. For the 2001 recording of The Golden Legend Ronald Corp conducted the New London Orchestra and London Chorus with five vocal soloists. These two Hyperion CD’s were picked up for distribution in the US through Musical Heritage Society. In listening to Sullivan’s unfailingly melodious score, opera lovers might well be reminded of Gounod’s Faust (1859). The storyline of the cantata certainly takes after the Faust legend.
There’s time remaining this afternoon for a small scale opera with plenty of ethnic color, on I have broadcast three time before: La Vida Breve (“The Short Life,” 1913) by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946). The work closely resembles a zarzuela, the species of popular musical comedy in Spain. Falla wrote six zarzuelas at the start of his career, as a composer, La Vida Breve, however, is no romantic comedy, but a downright tragedy in which her faithless lover betrays an innocent gypsy girl. Falla’s score is redolent of the folk music of the Spanish province of Andalusia, and, yes, the little opera has a flamenco dance sequence. Our new Naxos Opera Classics of La Vida Breve features an all native Spanish-speaking cast of singers. Curiously, one of them, mezzo-soprano Alicia Nafe sang the leading role of Salud the gypsy girl on the Telarc CD I aired on Sunday, July 11, 1993. This time Nafe is heard in the supporting role of the grandmother, La Abuela. In our 2004 Naxos issue Mazimiano Valdes conducts the Asturias Symphony Orchestra and Prince of Asturias Foundation Choir.

Sunday October 3: Over the past couple of decades all the Italian opera serie George Frideric Handle have received definitive, historically informed recordings. Siroe 91728) has got to be the most obscure of all of them. The libretto for Siroe, Re di Persia, originally written by Pietro Metastasio, had already been set to music by Domenico Sarro, Tommaso Albinoni and Leonardo Vinci before Handel and his usual librettist Nicola Haym laid hands on it. Haym altered Mestastro’s text to suit theatrical conditions in London. Handel’s Siroe ran for eighteen performances at the Haymarket Theater, and then sank into total oblivion until the present day. The Craze for Italian opera in London was fading by the year 1728. Just before Siroe opened John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera had appeared on the scene to great acclaim. The satire of The Beggars’ Opera took aim directly at Siroe and its ilk. Elsewhere in Europe Metastasio’s Siroe wordbook would continue to be taken up by perhaps thirty composers. Handel’s Siroe was taped in the broadcast studio of West German Radio of Cologne for release this year on two silver discs through Harmonia Mundi of France. Andreas Spering conducts the Capella Coloniensis period instrument ensemble with six vocal soloists.

Sunday October 10: Our station’s record library has recently acquired not one but two new CD sets of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (“The Marriage of Figaro,” 1784). Today we will check out the one issued under the French Harmonia Mundi label. Mozart’s masterpiece receives a truly singer-oriented interpretation from Rene Jacobs, much recorded countertenor singer turned conductor. He leads the period instrument ensemble Concerto Koln. Those knowledgeable about singers who specialize in 17th the 18th century music will immediately recognize the name Veronique Gens. Her voice and technique have been much praised, especially when she was under the direction of William Christie of Les Arts Florissants. She is heard as the Countess Almaviva, along side another top-drawer specialist soprano Patrizia Ciofi as the Countress’ chambermaid Susanna.

Sunday October 17: George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935) is probably the single most frequently heard opera on this program. I’ve featured it at least three times before – Once, on Sunday, July 2, 2000 in Duke Ellington’s jazz recreation of Gershwin’s score. The best commercially available recording of Porgy and Bess, the 1951 monaural studio recording of the complete opera, has finally become available anew in CD format. The 1968 Odyssey series LP reissue of the even older Columbia Masterworks LP set served well enough on Sunday, May 29, 1994. The sound of those vinyl platters has been digitally improved for the CD reissue. The important thing about the old Columbia recording is its wonderful lead singers: Lawrence Winters as Porgy and Camilla Williams as Bess. Lehmann Engel conducted. Sony has brought this historical recording back to the public in its Columbia Masterworks Heritage line. This Sunday Bob Walsh will be my substitute presenter.

Sunday October 24: This Sunday we focus on two small-scale lyric theater works of the Baroque that fall into the category of the Italian serenata of the French divertissement. You have already heard Antonio Vivaldi’s serenata La Senna Festeggiante (1724) once before, on Sunday, May 4, 2003, paired with Vivaldi’s only other surviving work in this genre Gloria e Imeneo. Robert King traversed them both with his own King’s Consort for the Hyperion label. The French legate in Venice commissioned Vivaldi to write La Senna Festeggiante to celebrate the accession of the French King Louis XV to the throne. Vivaldi incorporated some aspects of the style of the French Baroque into his score, and the scenario plays out on the banks of the river Seine (La Senna) looking towards the palace of Versailles. Roberto Alessandrini also essayed this serenata for the French Opus 111 label. Fanfare magazine’s Brian Robbins reviewed both releases very favorably. It was very difficult for him to choose one over the other. Today I’ve chosen for your audition Alessandrini leading the period instrument group Concerto Italiano.
On another previous occasion, Sunday, March 3, 2002, you got to hear some of the sacred choral compositions of Henry Desmarest (166101741). Like his contemporary Marc Antoine Charpentier and other colleagues, Desmarest was unable to get a full-scale Lullian-style tragedie lyrique mounted on stage. Lully, who invented the art form, dominated the musical scene in the court of Louis XIV. He had a monopoly on opera productions at Versailles. The competition had to wait until Lully died in 1687 to get their major operas produced. Also like Charpentier, Desmarest wrote at least eight small lyric stage works for various noble patrons. One gem that has survived in manuscript is La Diane de Fontainebleau (1686). In the autumn the king customarily left Versailles for Fontainebleau Palace to do some hunting. There Desmarest found his golden opportunity to reach the monarch’s ears. He crafted a beautiful score for a pageant involving Diana, goddess of the hunt, and her dancing attendants. You’ll hear it today from the singers and instrumentalists of La Simphonie du Marais, directed by Hugo Reyne. Playing period instruments and wearing period costumes, complete with the men’s vast curly perukes so popular at court, they recorded La Diane at Fontainebleau in1997. The world premiere CD release appeared under the French Audivis/Astree label.

Sunday October 31: Halloween is considered very much a children’s holiday. I have the perfect offering for the trick-or-treaters: Griffelkin (1955), an “opera for children of all ages” by America’s bad-boy composer Lucas Foss (b.1922). Griffelkin premiered on NBC television, the network hoping to build upon the huge success of televising Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. Griffelkin never made as big as splash as Amahl. It went on to a 1956 stage production at Tanglewood, then it was forgotten about for four decades, until it was revived by the Boston Modern Opera Project, coinciding with the composer’s eightieth birthday. How could a work that rivals Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen receive so little attention? Fanfare magazine’s reviewer John Story says of the world premiere Chandos recording, “Griffelkin… is one of the most utterly delightful works I have ever heard… (it) takes the magic world of children’s stories and makes a masterpiece for all ages. It should be in the repertoire of opera houses worldwide. That it is not regularly performed in the opera houses of the English speaking world is nothing short of a scandal, one that I hope this marvelous recording will do much to change.” (Fanfare, May/June 2002). As for the story Foss treated musically, it concerns the youngest imp in Hell, who is sent into our mortal world to cause trouble. Griffelkin ends up performing a particularly good deed, for which his demon elders punish him by making him become a real boy.
I am pleased to present to the listening public my own recording of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Sullivan’s The Golden Legend in the course of this current two-month round of programming. Everything else featured through theses nine weeks comes out of our station’s ever growing library of classical music on disc, with the two exceptions of the CD reissue of the 1951 Porgy and Bess and Lucas Foss’ Griffelkin. Both of those recordings come on loan from the private collection of Rob Meehan, former classics host here on WWUH in the 1970’s. Thanks to Rob for his longtime contribution of broadcast material, and thanks also got to my radio colleague Bob Walsh for substituting on Sunday, October 17.

Copyright©WWUH: September/October Program Guide, 2004

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