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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera

Sunday Afternoon at the Opera
Your "Lyric Theatre" Program with Keith Brown
Programming Selections for the Months of September & October 2008

SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 7TH: If any of his music could be considered at all "popular," then Arnold Schönberg's gigantic cantata Gurrelieder (1913) is his most popular work, and it has been relatively frequently recorded. Today will be the fourth time in a quarter century of opera broadcasting when I will be presenting it. Some of the twentieth century's greatest conductors have essayed these "Songs of Gurre" for five vocal soloist, speaking voice, chorus, and a huge symphony orchestra: Rafael Kubelik and the musical resources of Radio Bararra for DGG (broadcast Sunday, December 8, 1986), Riccardo Chailly with the singers and players of Radio Berlin on the London label (Sunday, May 23, 1993), Robert Craft with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Simon Joly Chorale for Naxos Records (Sunday, October 2, 2005). Gurrelieder stretches the musical concepts of Wagner to their uttermost development. Schönberg spent the better part of a decade composing his setting of a cycle of love poems by the nineteenth century Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen. Gurrelieder bears comparison with Mahler's monumental Eighth Symphony. This time Zubin Mehta gives us his take on Schönberg's music. He conducts the New York Philharmonic and New York Choral Artists. A great baritone singer of times past, Hans Hotter is the speaker. Soprano Eva Marton heads the list of singing soloists. The recording venue was Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, NYC. Sony classical released Mehta's Gurrelieder on two CDs in 1991.

SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 14TH:   It's Pavarotti time again! Time to listen to another one of the landmark recordings of Puccini operas the late superstar tenor made for Decca/London from 1972 - 78 with other stellar operatic singers of the period. In 2003 Decca reissued the four familiar Puccini warhorses of the repertoire in a nine-CD box set. Thus far Turandot has gone out over the airwaves (Sunday, May 11, 2008). Now comes Tosca, taped in 1978 with Nicola Rescigno directing the London Symphony Orchestra and Wandsworth Boys’ Choir. Soprano Mirella Freni takes up the title role. In two previous broadcasts of other historic Tosca recordings (Sunday, June 1, 2003 and November 2, 2003) the focus of interest was the Tosca of that diva of divas Maria Callas. (First Mexico City, 1952 and then Milan/LaScala, 1953 in both instances opposite her tenor of choice Giuseppe DeStefano as Cavadarossi.) You’ll get to hear Pavorotti working his magic on one of his signature operatic passages, E lucevan le stelle.

SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 21ST:  Charles Gounods Romeo et Juliette (1867) comes at the apex of the composer’s career. It was an enormous popular success, but was preceded by two operatic failures. The score exists in several versions. Modern productions of this work usually combine the best elements of the Opera Comique version with the Grand Opera version. This French lyric adaptation of Shakespeare ignores one important point in the original play. The Capulets and Montagues are left hanging without reconciliation after the death of the two lovers. On Sunday, May 12, 1985, I broadcast the earlier of two recordings conductor Michael Plasson made of Romeo et Juliet with the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. This first one was the 1978 EMI release known in this country on three Angel vinyl discs. What you’ll be listening to today is an even older stereo LP release from EMI, the 1968 taping with Alain Lombard leading the Orchestra and Chorus of the Paris Opera. In the Plasson recording Romeo is tenor Alfredo Kraus and Juliette is soprano Catherine Malfitano. Two Italian operatic superstars of the era take the lead roles under Lombard’s baton: Franco Corelli opposite Mirella Freni.

SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 28th: Gaetano Donizetti was an amazingly prolific composer of operas in the balcanto style. One of the gems of belcanto, the forty fifth of sixty nine such works he wrote, was Gemma di Vergy, which opened with great success at LaScala in Milan the day after Christmas, 1834. It played there, then all over Italy, then all over Europe including St. Petersburg in Russia, finally reaching New York City in 1847. Gemma remained his most popular opera to the very end of the nineteenth century. Then it vanished from the repertoire until 1975 when the diva Monserrat Caballé had it revived, since the title role suited her voice so well. It was recorded musically complete for the first time in concert performance at Carnegie Hall, New York, March 16, 1976. CBS Masterworks issued Gemma di Vergy the following year on three stereo LPs. This opera presents a gothic romance set in France at the time of Joan of Arc. Gemma herself is a noblewoman spurned by the knight she loves and served by a murderous Arab servant who is mad for her. Several principals from the Met joined Madame Caballé in the Carnegie Hall taping. Eve Queler conducted the Schola Cantorum Chorus and the Opera Orchestra of New York. I last broadcast Gemma working from those same Columbia Masterworks LPs on Sunday, December 18, 1988.

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SUNDAY OCTOBER 5TH: Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998) was the next most eminent British composer of the twentieth century after Benjamin Britten. Tippett’s The Knot Garden (1971) is technically a comedy along the lines of Cosi Fan Tutte, but because its story involves the decay of a marriage and its uncompromisingly challenging musical style, this lyric stagework is a browknitter anyway. The wife in question here lives in the fantasy world of her walled garden. Her sister is a freedom-fighter who was tortured for her beliefs. A gay couple (a young white musician and his black partner) also figure in the plot. A knot garden is actually a maze of shrubbery, alluding to the confused emotional condition the characters all share. Baritone Raimund Herincx is the husband Faber. His wife Thea is mezzo Yvonne Minton. Colin Davis conducts the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The composer himself was present at the recording sessions of The Knot Garden, employing the cast of Covent Garden’s staged premiere production. The world premiere recording came out on a pair of PHILIPS stereo vinyl discs. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been reissued in compact disc format. The last time I presented The Knot Garden was on Sunday, February 10, 1986.

SUNDAY OCTOBER 12th: I Masnadieri or “The Brigands” was the opera Verdi wrote immediately after Macbeth, the first of his early masterworks to be successfully revived in the twentieth century. I Masndieri had a fairly strong premiere in London, of all places, in 1847. Jenny Lind, the famous “Swedish Nightingale” was in the cast. In Italy, however, it didn’t do as well as his previous operas, which exulted Italian nationalism. The music for “The Brigands” is on a par with that of his truly great Macbeth. As a piece of singing it imposes great demands. The group of singers assembled by PHILIPS for recording sessions in 1974 more than meets the challenge. The acknowledged diva soprano Monserrat Cabellé tops the bill, with tenor Carl Bergonzi and baritone Ruggero Raimondi in the leading male roles. Lamberto Garelli conducts the Ambrosian Singers and New Philharmonia Orchestra. I last broadcast these PHILIPS stereo LPs on Sunday, June 5, 1988.

SUNDAY OCTOBER 19TH: “To my mind Solomon is probably the most magnificent…of all the Handel oratorios,” so said conductor John Eliot Gardner about his historically-informed recorded interpretation for the PHILIPS label. I broadcast his period instrument Solomon on vinyl discs on Sunday May 4, 1986. Handel’s orchestral scoring for this work is more lavish than that for Messiah, and the writing for chorus even more monumental. Messiah actually lacks the sharp delineation of character in the vocal parts for the Queen of Sheba, the two harlots, etc. so typical of Handel’s Italian operas. The dramatic situation of the quarrel over the infant, with the king’s surprising judgment, was irresistible to Handel’s operatic imagination. Beyond that, the overall effect of the oratorio is one of a celebration in music of the Augustan Age, re. mid eighteenth century Hanoverian England. I value historical authenticity, yet on Sunday, April 2, 1989 I aired Sir Thomas Beecham’s modernization of Solomon on early stereo Angel LPs. Beecham led his own Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Beecham Choral Society. Today we return to the real baroque article with Harmonia Mundi’s 2007 release of Solomon. Daniel Reuss conducts the original instrument ensemble Akademie für Alte Music Berlin and the RIAS Kammerchor, the chamber choir of Radio Berlin. Listen thereafter for more of Schönberg’s music for chorus and orchestra on Sony Classical, with Pierre Boulez leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BCC Singers and Chorus.

SUNDAY OCTOBER 26TH: The opera for Halloweentide this year is Der Freischütz (1821) by Carl Maria Von Weber. I reserved it for the last Sunday in October because it has the requisite spooky elements. In Germany early on in the nineteenth century the Romantic Movement stimulated an interest in things medieval, in old folkways, local superstitions and the supernatural generally. All of this is reflected in the most progressive lyric stagework in German language up to that time. As in the German folk opera known as Singspiel, there is spoken dialog not sung recitative between the arias and choral numbers. The Freischütz of the title is a huntsman or rather a marksman who shoots charmed bullets. These can only be obtained in the haunted “Wolf’s Glen” hidden deep in the Bohemian forest. Way back on Sunday, October 25, 1987 I presented the 1958 EMI recordings of Weber’s masterpiece, with Josef Keilberth conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Soprano Elizabeth Grümmer made a wonderful Agathe under Keilberth. She sang this role previously in a West German Radio Cologne broadcast on March 20, 1955. Erich Kleiber directed the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a nonstaged performance before an audience, with theatrical sound effects supplied. The airtape was carefully edited, retaining extensive spoken dialog. Unfortunately, Annchen’s Romance and Aria in Act Three was cut. Soprano Rita Streich was ideal in that part. Famous names in German opera half a century and more ago fill out the cast. The monaural soncis of the original tape are remarkably good. The 1955 Kleiber Freischütz has been reissued several times in digitally enhanced remastering for silver disc. The Italian label Urania is the latest to take it up. Fanfare magazine reviewer James H. North wrote about both the 1989 Hunt Productions and 2005 Urania reissues. Comparing it to the CD rerelease of the Keilberth interpretation, North says the Kleiber Freischütz remains his favorite historical performance, partly because Grümmer’s voice in 1955 was in better form than it was three years later.
The historic Kleiber Freischütz recording comes out of my own collection of opera on silver disc. All the other featured recordings are in the station’s ever-growing library of classical music LPs and CDs. Thanks to Vickie Hadge of Virtually Done by Vickie for the preparation of these notes for publication in the Program Guide.