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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 2009

Sunday September 6th: Theofanidis, The Refuge. Labor Day is the holiday specifically the working people of America, so for the Sunday of the Labor Day weekend I will present a lyric theater piece that honors those who immigrated to this country and joined the ranks of the American workforce. The Refuge (2007) was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera as part of its long ongoing "Song of Houston" community music making project. Librettist and poet Leah Lax personally interviewed hundreds of immigrants in Houston, getting them to tell the stories of their lives. Most of them came to Houston to find work. Lax distilled all those personal stories into a series of scenes that tell the collective history of seven ethnic communities: African, Vietnamese, Mexican, Pakistani, Indian, Soviet era Jewish, and Central American. Composer Christopher Theofanidis set the scenes to music, scoring them for folk instruments peculiar to each group and calling for appropriate traditional styles of folk singing. The vocal principals are members of the Houston Grand Opera studio. They are joined by a children's chorus and the Orchestra of Houston Grand Opera, Patrick Summers conducting. A 2008 Albany Records release on two compact discs. I dedicate my broadcast of The Refuge to the memory of Louis "Studs" Terkel (1912 - 2008), who, in his long career in radio, recorded the voices of so many American workers talking about their lives.
Keep listening after The Refuge for a chamber opera by Ernst Krenek (1900 - 91), What Price Confidence (1945). Krenek was Austrian by birth. He circulated as a conductor in German opera houses. His jazz-opera Johny Spielt Auf (1926) was enormously popular all over Europe, but it scandalized and outraged the Nazis, who branded it Entartete Musik or "Degenerate Music." (It was aired on this program on Sunday, January 9, 1994. Krenek fled to the United States in 1938 and thereafter functioned as an American composer. He wrote his own libretto for What Price Confidence with Herman Melville’s story The Confidence Man in mind. Four singers and a pianist recorded Krenek's Victorian drawing room comedy at the Purchase Arts Center Concert Hall in Purchase, New York. Phoenix Edition issued the recording on a single silver disc in 2008 in its "Modern Times/Krenek Edition" series. Krenek prepared a German Language version of his chamber opera, Vertrauenssache (1962), a cpo recording of which I broadcast on Sunday, January 30, 2000.

Sunday, September 13th: Strauss, Elektra. This'll be the third time over a span of decades when I will be presenting Richard Strauss’ Elektra (1909), his operatic take on the ancient Greek tragedy, derived ultimately from Sophocles’ drama, reworked into a very successful German language play in 1903 with a modern perspective on the old story by Hugo Hofmannsthal, his stagework subsequently taken up by Germany's preeminent opera composer. Elektra, the Opera, was but one of the fruits of the collaboration between Hofmannsthal and Strauss. The title role requires a soprano who possesses real vocal power and stamina. (This is not easy music to sing!) On Sunday, October 15, 1989 it was Brigit Nilsson in a vintage Viennese recording released on London LP’s. On Sunday, May 2, 1993 it was Hildegard Behren’s turn, recorded live in semi-staged performance at Boston’s Symphony Hall in 1988 and issued on PHILIPS compact discs. Now we get to hear a monaural taping from 1953, derived from the archives of West German Radio Cologne. Astrid Varnay sang the role in a broadcast studio production. Baritone Hans Hotter portrayed Elektra’s brother Orestes and her sister, Chrysothemis, was Leonie Rysanek. Richard Kraus conducted the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The Austrian label Capriccio has, just this year, made this truly historic audio document available in digitally remastered sound on two CDs.

Sunday, September 20TH: Nielsen, Saul and David. Denmark's leading symphonist of the late Romantic era, Carl Nielsen (1865 - 1931) also wrote two operas: the comedy Maskarade (1906), a recording of which I have aired twice (Sunday, June 23, 1995 and August 14, 2005) and a Biblical tragedy Saul and David (1902). After their staged premieres both of these works passed immediately into the Danish national operatic repertoire. The Unicorn recording of Maskarade was sung in the original Danish. Saul and David was sung in English translation for the 1976 Unicorn Records release on three stereo LPs. The Radio Denmark tapings were made following a broadcast of Saul and David from Copenhagen on March 27, 1972 that was internationally disseminated through the European Broadcasting Union. Jascha Horenstein conducted the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the John Allis Choir. Saul, King of Israel, is the distinguished Bulgarian basso Boris Christoff. Saul's daughter, Michal, is Swedish soprano Elizabeth Soderstrom. The shepherd, David, is English tenor Alexander Young.

Sunday, September 27TH: Wagner, Lohengrin. This, Richard Wagner's most popular opera, looks forward in its handling of the Grail legend to Parsifal. Wagner entrusted its premier in 1850 to Franz Liszt, who conducted it in musically complete form at the court theater in Welmar, Germany. (Wagner was then in political exile in Switzerland.) Lohengrin secured Wagner's financial success as an opera composer and won him an international reputation. Opera houses all over Europe performed it, but the liberties taken with its score enraged him. Lohengrin was often treated like a traditional opera of numbers, i.e. a sequence of recitatives and arias which could be omitted, shortened, or shuffled around to suit a particular production. Such productions ignored Wagner's concept of the integral “music drama.” Wagner sought to build his own opera house at Beyreuth precisely so that his operas could be performed uncut and staged according to his specific instructions. It's been a long, long time since I last aired a recording of Lohengrin. That was on a Sunday exactly twenty two years ago, when I worked from the CD reissue of the 1964 EMI recording with Rudolph Kempe leading the Vienna Philharmonic and chorus of the Vienna State Opera and starring tenor Jess Thomas. The Hanssler/Profil recording you’ll hear today originated in Cologne and was produced by West German Radio in 2008. The Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov directs the West German Radio Cologne Symphony Orchestra, the Prague Chamber Choir, and the choruses of North German and West German Radio. Our Heldentenor in the title role is Johan Botha, a native of South Africa.

Sunday, October 4th: Haydn, La Fedelta Premiata. Longtime listeners to this program will remember my broadcasts in the late 1980s of the operas of Josef Haydn. Yes, opera lovers, Papa Haydn wrote at least a dozen of them, yet they have remained largely unknown and unperformed for fully two centuries. With the assistance of the Haydn authority H.C. Robbins Landon, conductor Antal Dorati, who recorded all 104 Haydn symphonies, prepared the surviving manuscript scores for a recorded cycle of the Haydn operas for the PHILIPS label. One of the finest of them I broadcast on Sunday, September 25, 1988: La Vera Costanza (1779). The PHILIPS world premiere recording of La Fedelta Premiata (1780) I aired on Sunday, June 7, 1987. I have come across more recent recordings of these operas in the Brilliant Classics 150 CD compilation "The Haydn Edition." A recording of La Vera Costanza from Brilliant’s reissue collection went over the air just this past Spring (Sunday, May 17th). It was a studio recording, like those on the old PHILIPS vinyl discs, made in Amsterdam in 1990, with a period instrument ensemble, the Catharijne Consort, conducted by Frank von Koten. The same conductor also recorded La Fedelta Premiata during the 1994 Haydn Festival. He directed the Eszterhazy Orchestra and Chorus, with vocal soloists. The performance took place in the Haydnsaal, the "Haydn Hall" at Eszterhazy Castle in Eisenstadt, Lower Austria, where Haydn himself resided and composed so many masterworks for his patron the Hungarian Prince Eszterhazy. La Fedelta Premiata or "Fidelity Rewarded" was written for the grand opening of the newly rebuilt opera house on the grounds of the other Eszterhazy palatial residence in Hungary. It was an instant success and went on to play to sell-out audiences in Vienna. This opera is styled a drama pastoral giocosa, i.e. a romantic melodrama with comic elements. The story proceeds on the premise that it is better to be considered unfaithful in one's affections and be thrown into the sea as a human sacrifice and devoured by a monster. The finale of the second act is one of the crowning glories of the eighteenth-century Neapolitan operatic style.

Sunday, October 11TH: Vivaldi, La Fida Ninfa. Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1747) is known today for his instrumental works: those hundreds of concertos, The Four Seasons being the most famous ones, and to be sure he was famed in his time as a violin virtuoso. But, as a composer, he staked his career on his operas. Vivaldi wrote at least 49 of them, making him one of the single most prolific opera composers in musical history. His lyric stage works are filled with melodic invention and reveal an incredible flair for the dramatic, if you examine the scores of these compositions closely. The manuscript scores of most of Vivaldi's colossal operatic output reside in the National Library of the Northern Italian city of Turin. Jean-Christophe Spinosi and other conductor-researchers have endeavored to bring all this glorious music to public attention in new historically informed recordings issued through the French label Opus111/Naive in its series. In recent years I have broadcast several CD sets from the series: La Verita in Cimento (1727) on Sunday, February 29, 2004, the serenata La Senna Festegiante (1726) on October 24, ‘04 and Orlando Furioso (1727) on June 5, ’05. Most recently issued last year on Naive silver discs is a pastoral opera La Fida Ninfa ("The Faithful Nymph”, 1732). Spinosi leads his period instrument ensemble Matheus.

Sunday, October 18TH: Catalani, La Wally. Puccini's fame has overshadowed the considerable artistic achievement of his friend in student days, Alfredo Catalani (1854 - 93). Both boys come from Lucca and from musical families who had relations with each other in the town. Catalani for his part was more musically conservative than his younger contemporary. Yet he became an astute orchestrator of opera on a par with the Germans Weber and Wagner. For his acknowledged masterpiece La Wally (1892) Catalani looked to the German-speaking North for inspiration. Well, not very far north of Milan and the La Scala opera house - the Swiss Alps, to be exact. Opening night witnesses were much impressed by the headstrong beauty Wally and her tragic love for the Huntsman Hagenbach, and the critics praised Wally's yodeling song in Act One. That historic diva soprano Renata Tebaldi is heard as the femme fatale opposite legendary tenor Mario del Monoca as Hagenbach. Fausto Cleva conducted the Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra and the Lyric Chorus of Turin in a now classic 1969 Decca/London recording of La Wally. You'll hear again today that same set of three vinyl stereo discs I last broadcast on Sunday, December 2, 1990. This broadcast was prompted by a listener request.

Sunday, October 25th: Weber, Oberon. This opera is Carl Maria von Weber's last and most wondrous operatic creation. Although its libretto was based on a poem by the German poet Wieland, Oberon (1826) was conceived as an English-language theatrical entertainment. Already ailing from tuberculosis, Weber exhausted himself preparing the score of Oberon for its much heralded London production. He died in London immediately following the triumphant premiere the day before he was due to depart by ship for Germany and home. Later on the opera was performed in Germany to a German word book. The original English Oberon, or the Elf King’s Oath had long passages of spoken word dialogue. All that has been eliminated from the 2005 PHILIPS two CD release, which is the soundtrack of a costumed and semi-stage performance given at the Theatre du Chatalet, in Paris in 2002. John Eliot Gardiner directs the period instrument Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monterverdi Choir. A narrator, Roger Allam, provides brief and tasteful commentary, moving forward the tale of magic and chivalry from one musical number to the next. Writing in Fanfare magazine (Jan/Feb, 2006 issue) reviewer Raymond Tuttle states "this PHILIPS production is as fine an Oberon as has appeared on disc.”
Thanks to Rob Meehan, who loaned to me for broadcast his copies of two opera recordings: Theofanidis’ The Refuge and Krenek’s What Price Confidence. Rob is a private collector, a former Classics DeeJay at WWUH, and a specialist in the alternative musics of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. From my own collection comes Weber's Oberon. All the other featured programming in this two month period comes from our station’s ever-growing library of classical music on disc. Thanks also go to Vickie Hadge of Virtually Done by Vickie for her assistance in the preparation of these notes for publication.

Copyright©WWUH: September/October Program Guide, 2009

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