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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera
Your "Lyric Theatre" program with Keith Brown
Programming Selections for the Months of November and December 2009

Sunday NOVEMBER 1ST: Verdi, Requiem/Bruckner, Mass in F Minor. Today, the ancient traditional Day of the Dead, is also known in the Christian calendar as the Feast of All Saints, and is celebrated with a special mass. I often present a musical mass for the dead at this time of year. Twice before I have aired Giuseppe Verdi's well-known Requiem. Verdi intended to memorialize two important deceased figures in the national life of his generation: the revered Opera composer Giaocchino Rossini, who died in 1868, and the Italian writer and patriot Alessandro Manzoni (1785 - 1873). Only the final section of the Requiem was composed specifically on the occasion of Rossini's passing. Verdi completed his setting of the Plenary of the Roman Catholic Missa pro defunctis in 1874. His music of the liturgy is certainly as emotional and operatic as anything he wrote for the operatic stage. Now for a truly historic recording of the Requiem, recorded in August, 1939 by Italian HMV at the Opera House, Rome, with Tullio Serafin conducting the resident chorus and orchestra. The lineup of vocal soloists couldn't be bettered in their day: soprano Maria Caniglia, mezzo Ebe Stignani, the immortal tenor Benjamino Gigli, and baritio Ezlo Pinza. Audio engineer Ward Marston, renowned specialist in historic recordings, transferred into digital format the surviving twenty 78 rpm pressings of this Requiem for CD release in 2001 through Naxos Records.
There's time remaining to listen to a new recording of a work that's contemporaneous with the Verdi Requiem: Anton Bruckner’s F minor mass (1868), the last of three settings of the Ordinary of the Latin liturgical text. "

Sunday, NOVEMBER 8TH: Rossini, Tancredi. This is Rossini's first great opera seria, written for the famous Teatro La Fanice in Venice in 1813, when the composer was a mere twenty-one years of age. Tancredi took Europe by storm. It remained so popular that it influenced Wagner half a century later, when he quoted a Rossini tune in a chorus in Meistersinger. Rossini changed the original happy ending of the opera for a revival in Ferara, giving it a surprising tragic twist. The music for the alternate final scene, when the mortally wounded knight is married to his beloved Amenaide, was rediscovered in the early 1970s. The American diva Marilyn Horne championed the Farrarese death scene. She made it her own in the 1985 CBS masterworks release of Tanoredi, recorded live-in-performance in coproduction with the Italian record label Fonicentra, Ralf Weikert conducts the La Fenice orchestra and chorus. Tancredi is a mezzo role. In the eleventh century A.D. the noble knight defended Christian Sicily against Saracen invaders from North Africa. Tancredi’s betrothed Amenaide is soprano Lella Curberli.

Sunday, NOVEMBER 15TH: Beethoven,Fidelio. This will be the fourth time in more than a quarter-century of lyric theatre broadcasting when I will be presenting a recording that originated at the Glyndebourne Festival. The previous three broadcasts were of historic recordings, and all of them of Mozart's operas: Cosi Fan Tutte from the first recorded Festival production in 1935 (Seraphim LPs transferred from 78 rpm discs), then Le Nozze di Figaro from the 1955 Festival (RCA Victor mono LPs) and again Le Nozze from 1962. That last broadcast was on Sunday, December 14, 2008, this time working from a compact disc issue of original tapings through Glyndebourne’s own label. We can thank John Barnes for archivally recording literally thousands of Glyndebourne performances from the late 1950s onwards. One of his last recordings was of Beethoven's Fidelio in August, 2006. Only once previously have I aired Beethoven's 1814 "rescue opera." That was on Sunday, October 18, 1998, when you heard Sir Charles Mackerras’ historically informed interpretation on Telarc CDs. For Glyndebourne it was Mark Elder conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Glyndebourne Chorus. The rescuer Leonore is soprano Anja Kampe. Her husband Florestan is tenor Torsten Kerl.

Sunday, NOVEMBER 22ND: Ward, The Crucible. This year’s Opera offering for Thanksgiving reflects upon the ugly side of the history of our New England founding fathers. The Pilgrims or Separatists of the Plimoth Plantation - the folks who gave the first Thanksgiving feast – were a rather humble lot. Their neighbors, the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, were by contrast more prosperous colonists and more doctrinaire in their colonial regime. America's great twentieth century playwright Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, his drama about the Salem witchcraft trials of 1962, during the era of the McCarthy hearings: the Cold War witchhunt was to root out communists and homosexuals in the State Department. While working on The Crucible it occurred to Miller that the drama could easily be adapted for the operatic stage, and so it was in 1961 at the commission of the New York City Opera that Robert Ward (b. 1917) wrote the score for operatic production so highly praised it garnered the Pulitzer Prize and Critics Circle Citation for 1962. Ward’s music for The Crucible is colored with folk melody and rugged hymntune harmonization. CRI, Composer’s Recordings Incorporated, originally released the New York City Opera recording of The Crucible on stereo LPs.

Sunday, November 29TH: Heggie, Three Decembers. Jake Heggie has quickly established himself as a major figure among contemporary American composers of opera. On Sunday, February 22, 2004 I broadcast his Dead Man Walking (2000), the "death penalty" opera. Heggie’s third and latest work Three Decembers (2008), was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera. It's based on a short play by Terrence McNally, Some Christmas Letters, written originally for an AIDS benefit in December, 1999. We look in on the lives of a family scattered from Hartford to San Francisco to Barbados to Broadway. AIDS and homophobia create tensions in the tale. We witness how time changes the attitudes of the family members towards each other over Christmas holiday seasons spaced a decade apart from 1986 to 1996 to 2006. Heggie intended the role of the mother, the actress Madelaine, expressly for the distinguished mezzo Frederika von Stade. Patrick Summers conducts a chamber ensemble drawn from the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra. The world premiere recorded production of Three Decembers was issued on two CDs through Albany Records in 2008.

Sunday, DECEMBER 6TH: Bach, B Minor Mass/ Lang, The Little Match Girl Passion. This is, among many things, the season for choral singing. So many choral societies give special concerts in the pre-Christmas period. A monument of the choral repertoire, of course, is Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor (1749). Some regard it as the single greatest musical setting of the Roman Catholic liturgy ever composed. Yet it was never performed in its entirety in his lifetime. The title we know it by today was supplied in the nineteenth century. Bach assembled its various sections from choral music held previously written for his Leipzig church cantatas, augmented by other numbers conceived for other purposes or audiences. It's actually a pastiche composition something like his Christmas Oratorio. Amazingly, the whole work possesses a unified, indeed organic integration. It’s the final statement of the master at the end of a long career of writing for human voices and instruments that accompany them. The Mass in B Minor is much recorded. I’ve presented it twice before in December of 1993 and 2005. This year you'll hear a historically informed interpretation from Mark Minkowski and the period instrument ensemble he founded Les Musiciens du Louvre. They were recorded in 2008 in the wonderful sonic environment of the church of San Domingo de Bonaval at Santiago do Compostela, Spain. In accordance with the latest scholarship about Bach’s choral music, the chorus consists of a mere ten voices, two to a part, with a vocal soloists drawn from this small group. Minkowski's Mass in B Minor was issued on two CDs through the French label Näive.
At this time of year we ought to remember the plight of the poor and desperate, giving the oncoming cold winter nights. American composer David Lang (b. 1957), co-founder of New York City's Bang on a Can music festival, won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in music for The Little Match Girl (2007). Lang fashioned the libretto himself, basing it on H.P. Paul's 1872 English-language translation of Hans Christian Anderson's famous tale, and elevating the story to a higher plane which aspires in the direction of the St. Matthew Passion of Bach. There are no Bach quotations in Lang's Passion setting, and no suffering Jesus, but the techniques of the old Lutheran Passion oratorio are employed along with verses from St. Matthew's Gospel. The Little Match Girl Passion was recorded in a church in Copenhagen for release through Harmonia Mundi USA in 2009. Paul Hillier directs the Ars Nova Copenhagen and the Theatre of Voices. Some of the singers also play percussion instruments as called for in Lang’s score.

Sunday, December 13TH: Britten, Children’s Crusade/ Nielsen, Aladdin incidental music/Pigs Could Fly compliation. The suffering of one little girl in Copenhagen is tragic enough. Consider a whole army of holy innocents marching off to their doom! Benjamin Britten, who wrote a quantity of excellent music for boy trebels, essayed the subject of the Children's Crusade in a mini-cantata he styled a "Ballad for Children's Voices and Orchestra." He composed it in 1968 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Save the Children's Fund. Britten worked from a translation into English of Berthold Brecht’s poem in German reflecting upon the European youngster’s movement to redeem the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in 1212 A.D. Brecht makes reference to children’s sufferings in the Nazi Holocaust and Second World War. The Wandsworth School Boys’ Choir and boy treble soloist recorded it under the composer's direction for Decca/London. Britten’s score for the Children's Crusade calls for organ and piano accompaniment  with many special effects on percussion instruments.
Fantasy and fairytale hold the stage in the Christmas pageants we remember from our own childhood. Carl Nielsen wrote lengthy incidental music for Aladdin, a Danish Fairytale Drama in five acts that was splendidly produced at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen in 1919. If you like Grieg’s incidental music for Peer Gynt, you might take to Nielsen's Aladdin, since it has the same components: dances, orchestral mood pieces, vocal solos and choruses, and spoken-word melodrama. Those voiceovers with orchestra were treated as purely instrumental numbers when Aladdin was recorded for the British Chandos label in 1992 in the Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen, in coproduction with Radio Denmark. Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducts the Danish National Chamber Choir and Symphony Orchestra. Keep listening for twentieth-century music for children's choir in the Pigs Could Fly CD compilation from Naxos Records. The New London Children's Choir, under its founder Ronald Corp’s direction, gives us the works of Britten, Sir Arthur Bliss, John Rutter, Vaughn Williams, and others, with two pieces by Corp himself.

Sunday, December 20TH: Saint Exupery, The Little Prince/Eybler, Die Hirten bei der Krippe . It's often said that the Christmas holiday season belongs to the children. With that truism in mind I try to program a "children's opera" on one of the Sundays in December. Rachel Portman's "Magical Opera" The Little Prince, which premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 2003, is based on the enormously popular book of the same name by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. First published in 1946, Le Petit Prince quickly established itself as a children's classic. Portman was convinced it would be perfect material for an Opera that would appeal to audiences of all ages, like Humperdinck’s fairytale opera Hansel und Gretel. She conceived The Little Prince as a lyric stagework specifically for children. When it was filmed by BBC, a talent search was conducted throughout Britain to find the best child performers. BBC audio-recorded and filmed their production of Portman's opus at Abbey Road Studios, London in 2004, with David Charles Abell conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra. The Little Prince soundtrack came out on two Sony classical CDs.
The time of the birth of Jesus draws nigh, and since it's "the reason for the season," a nativity oratorio would surely be in order following our children's Opera. Joseph Leopold Eybler (1765-1846) was a student and close friend of Mozart. He was even of physical assistance to the musical genius in his final illness as he worked on his Requiem. Mozart entrusted the task of completing the Requiem to Eybler, and Mozart's widow seconded her husband dying request. Eybler felt inadequate and turned down the offer. But he was a significant Viennese classical composer in his own right, witness his wonderful Christmas oratorio Die Hirten bei der Krippe zu Bethlehem ("The Shepherds at the Manger in Bethlehem," 1794). If you like Haydn's "Creation" you'll love Eybler’s work. The score of the Christmas oratorio is to be found in the Austrian National Library. Conductor Wolfgang Helbich took it up, preparing it for modern performance with instrumental parts he had to compose himself for the missing ones in the closing choral number. Helbich leads the period instrument ensemble I Febiarmonici, the choir of Bremen cathedral, the Alsfeld Vocal Ensemble and vocal soloists. The Eybler Christmas oratorio was recorded in 1999 for the German cpo label in coproduction with Radio Bremen.

Sunday, December 27TH: Haydn, Die Jahreszeiten. Once again the old year rolls around to its wintry conclusion. With that great annual cycle of change in mind, this last Sunday of 2009 is devoted to the original German language version of Josef Haydn's oratorio Die Jahreszeiten ("The Seasons," 1801). Haydn looked to English poetry as inspiration for his enormous box office success, Die Schöpfung ("The Creation," 1798). Milton's Paradise Lost and the King James Bible were the sourcebooks for its German libretto, as compiled by Austria's cultural mentor Baron Van Swieten. For "The Seasons" Van Swieten drew upon the verse of Scottish poet James Thompson in Brockes’ 1745 German translation. Van Sweiten hope the composer would work a second time a musical wonder such as he had performed on Milton's epic. And so Haydn did, but this time the solos are sung not by angels but by peasants who observe the seasonal alterations in the weather. Naxos Records now offers us its 2006 release of Die Jahreszeiten. Conductor Morton Schuldt Jensen’s handling of the Haydn’s score is historically informed, to be sure, but he leads a modern instrument ensemble, the Leipzig Chamber Orchestra, with the Chamber Choir of the Leipzin Gewandhaus

Copyright©WWUH: November/December Program Guide, 2009

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