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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 2005

Sunday September 4: Edwin Justus Mayer wrote a play based on the autobiography of the Italian Renaissance artist Benvenuto Cellini. The first 1924 production of The Firebrand was a big hit on the Great White Way. In 1945 Kurt Weill teamed up with Mayer and librettist Ira Gershwin to create what they hoped would be a successful "opera for Broadway." The Firebrand of Florence never even came close to the receipts the original play brought in at the box office. Impresario Max Gordon withdrew it from the Alvin Theater after a mere 43 performances. As a musical creation The Firebrand of Florence has its moments, but it is not consistently memorable the way "Three Penny Opera" is, even though Weill thought it was the best thing he had written for the lyric theater to date. All his music passed into show business oblivion until the "opera for Broadway" was revived in concert performance in 2000. For the spoken dialog producer Paul Curran substituted a narrator who provides some campy, postmodern commentary between the musical numbers. Stephen Banfield, reviewing Firebrand for the Kurt Weill Newsletter (Fall, 2003 issue), objects to the way the narration trivializes both the stage action and Weill's music. Fanfare magazine's reviewer Adrian Corleonis concurs (Fanfare, July/Aug, 2004), but he admits the world premiere Capriccio recording of The Firebrand of Florence has great sonics, and Sir Andrew Davis and the concert singing cast did everything they could to enhance Weill's music. Every singer's dictation is perfect, so you can hear every word of Ira Gershwin's lyrics, which were perhaps the saving grace of this show. Davis leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Firebrand was produced in cooperation with the Kurt Weill Foundation and BBC Radio Three.

Sunday September 11: For years Beethoven struggled with the composition and revision of his one and only opera. The three-act opera that was staged in Vienna in 1805 bore the name Leonore. The premiere was a flop. It was followed by a second production in 1806 in a new, trimmed-down version, ending up eight years later retitled Fidello, after having been reworked and further shortened into two acts. Fidelio the "rescue opera" of 1814 lacks some of the emotional urgency and revolutionary ardor of the 1805 Leonore, as well as many pages' worth of absolutely beautiful music Beethoven decided to cut from the score. The complete 1805 Leonore, with a few little interpolations from the 1806 version, was taped in Dresden in 1976, with Herbert Blomstedt leading a stellar cast of German singers of that era. I broadcast it in its Berlin Classics CD reissue on Sunday, December 7, 1997. Only thereafter did I present the standard 1814 Fidelio for the first time on this program on Sunday, October 18, 1998, working from the latest Fidelio then out on CD, released through Telarc, with Sir Charles Mackerras conducting. Another 1805 Leonore came out through DGG Archiv in 1997, this one with John Eliot Gardiner leading a period instrument group Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique, with the Monteverdi Choir and a cast of singers from German, some British. Gardiner has tinkered a bit with the score. He also permits a few 1806 interpolations. This recording won highest praise in Fanfare magazine from not one but two of its reviewers, James H. North and Marc Mandel. They both note one drawback. Leonore may remind a lot of listeners of "The Magic Flute," not just because of the beautiful folk-music-like vocal numbers, but because, like Mozart's singspiel, Leonore has spoken dialog. The dialog is omitted in Gardiner's concert performance conception of the work. He substitutes a narrator who jogs the musical numbers along with a rather stilted commentary on the stage action. This detracts from the in-performance immediacy of Leonore's inherent operatic theatricality.

Sunday September 18: We focus this Sunday on one of the most important British composers of the twentieth century: Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). VW's first great masterpiece was his first symphony, A Sea Symphony of 1910. It's actually a huge cantata not far removed in conception from Schonberg's Gurrelieder. Like Schoenberg's work, it has a high-powered literary text: the verse of America's venerable poet Walt Whitman. A Sea Symphony is also very much a choral extravaganza, since it was intended for the Leeds Festival and follows in part the oratorio tradition British music festivals of the nineteenth century had established. The BBC Symphony Chorus, the Philharmonia Chorus and the Trinity College of Music Chamber Choir joined forces to perform A Sea Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall in London, September 10, 2001. Leonard Slatkin directed the massed voices, with vocal soloists soprano Joan Rogers and baritone Simon Keenlyside and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. BBC recorded it live in performance and released it on its own CD label in 2004. Fanfare's Bernard Johnson thinks this recording is absolutely wonderful (Fanfare, March/April, 2005). Thinking of great literature to set to music, throughout her career as a composer VW was fascinated with John Bunyan's allegory The Pilgrim's Progress. He set various passages from the book several times, culminating in a full-scale opera Pilgrim's Progress (1951). In 1942 BBC broadcast a radioplay series of the entire book in 38 episodes, prepared by Edward Sackville-West, and starring John Gielgud as Christian, the incidental music by Vaughan-Williams, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and chorus under the direction of the late, great Sire Adrian Boult. In 1991 musicologist Christopher Palmer adapted it in a one-hour-long digest version for three speakers, treble solo, chorus and orchestra. Once again a much older Gielgud portrays Christian. Richard Pasco is the Evangelist in the Hyperion Records studio production. Matthew Best conducts the Corydon Singers and City of London Sinfonia.

Sunday September 25: Now you get to hear one of the most singular operas of the eighteenth century: Carl Heinrich Graun's Montezuma (1755). C. H. Graun (1703-59) was primarily a composer of operas at the court of King Frederick of Prussia. The king himself provided the libretto of Montezuma. It was the most politically radical operatic text of its time. Frederick was entirely in sympathy with the conquered Aztecs and their hapless leader. The king shows an unashamedly anti-Christian bias. Montezuma appears never to have been performed anywhere outside of Prussia, but the opera made its mark on musical posterity. Its score was published in 1904, long before the modern revivalist interest in baroque performance practice. Excerpts from it were set forth on a Decca LP circa 1968. The 1992 Capriccio CD recording is the world premiere of the complete opera on disc. David Johnson wrote favorably about this recording in the May/April, '93 number of Fanfare magazine. He finds a few faults with the singing cast (mostly Latin American or Spanish sopranos), but concludes that, all in all, "…this Montezuma belongs in the collection of all adventurers in the byways of opera." Unlike his contemporary J. S. Bach, Graun was a musical progressive. His score for Montezuma prefigures many aspects of the "reform operas" of Gluck. The dacapo arias have been streamlined and the recitatives are very sensitively set. Capriccio has given Graun's magnum opus the best possible recorded treatment. The Deutsche Kammerakademie, says David Johnson, is an excellent orchestra. (It is, however, not a period instrument ensemble.) All singers and players are under the sure-handed direction of Johannes Goritzki. I last broadcast these Capriccio CD's on Sunday, February 12, 1995.

Sunday October 2: The Gurre Lieder (1913) of Arnold Schoenberg stretch the musical concepts developed by Wagner to their outermost limits. Schoenberg spent the better part of a decade composing his enormous cantata-type setting of a cycle of poems by the nineteenth century Danish writer, Jens Peter Jacobsen. The Gurre Lieder also bear comparison with Mahler's monumental eighth symphony. Like Mahler's song cycles, these "Songs of Guree" were worked up from piano-accompanied versions into full score for vocal soloists, multiple choirs and a huge orchestra, to which Schoenberg added a part for speaking voice. This is one of Schoenberg's most frequently recorded works, despite the supersize performance resources required. I've broadcast it twice before, once back on Sunday, December 14, 1986. That was Rafael Kubelik's interpretation, with the beefed-up musical forces of Radio Bavaria. You heard it on old DGG LP's. This is the sort of grand music that really shows off the digitally processed sonic magnificence of the compact disc. London Records issued it on silver disc in 1985, with Riccardo Chailly conducting the singers and players of Radio Berlin. That recording you heard on Sunday, May 23, 1993. Among several more recent Gurre Lieder on CD is a Naxos release from earlier this year. Robert Craft conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra and Simon Joly Chorale. Naxos offers the two-CD package as the first volume in a new series "The Robert Craft Collection: The Music of Arnold Schoenberg."

Sunday October 9: Over the years, I have aired a number of recordings of lesser known works of the Italian verismo period, among them Mascagni's Lodoletta (Sunday, April 2, 1995), L'Amico Fritz (Sunday, June 7, '92) and Parisina (Sunday, December 3, 2000); Montemezzi's L'Amore del Tre Re (October 12, '86), Cilea's L'Ariesiana (June 1, '97), Catalini's La Wally (December 2, '90) and Giodana's Madame Sans Gene (April 30, 2000). Well, have you ever heard of Domenica Alaleona (1881-1929)? He was better known in his day as a musicologist and writer on musical aesthetics. He also wrote over 600 musical compositions, only one of them an opera Mirra (1920). Puccini and Mascagni both praised this work. Unfortunately it was never a popular success. Musically, it is very progressive and a bit tonally challenging to the ear, in something like Busoni's style. But the subject! The incestuous love of a daughter for her father might well have turned people off, no matter that the story came out of Ovid's Metamorphoses and was handled with subtlety. Mirra was revived for the very first time since its premier at Jesi, Italy in 2002. Radio France picked up on it in live performance in Paris in November, 2003. The Naïve CD issue of this opera is so good. Fanfare's critic William Zagorski said of it, "…we have an effort that far transcends mere documentation" of what might otherwise have been just a musicological oddity (Fanfare, July/Aug '05 issue).

Sunday October 16: Today we go back to the very roots of the genre to listen to Claudio Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione de Poppea (1642). Any recorded performance of an opera from the dawn of the baroque is necessarily a reconstruction. The earliest opera composers rarely wrote out their music in full score. They concentrated only on the vocal melody or recitative and the continuo bass line. Twice before I have presented two historically informed recordings of this masterwork of Monteverdi's old age. First came period-instrument pioneer Nikolaus Harnoncourt's Poppea for Telefunken/Das Alte Werk (Sunday, November 20, 1988). That old 1973 recording was on vinyl discs. The 1988 CD recording of Poppea that I presented on Sunday, September 23, '90 arose from an Opera London stage production, with Richard Hickox leading the City of London Baroque Players, Poppea was recorded again at the 1997 Munich Opera Festival for the Farao Classics label. Ivor Bolton conducted five members of the Bavarian State Orchestra playing strings, with a varied continuo ensemble of harpsichord, chamber organ, bass lute, viola da gamba, guitar and harp. After a gap of thirty years during which he wrote liturgical works for San Marco in Venice, Monteverdi returned to the genre he had created in 1607 with L'Orfeo to write a new work that astounded even his own students in the boldness of its conception. Monteverdi took his libretto from the Latin historian Tacitus, who described one of the sleaziest characters in Roman history: the emperor Nero. His mistress Poppea is the worst sort of conniver. In the story only old Seneca the Roman playwright comes off as a truly noble Roman. Bob Walsh substitutes for me this Sunday.

Sunday October 23: I continue my series of broadcasts of new recordings of the operas of Antonio Vivaldi with Arsilda, Regina di Ponto (1716), the third of twenty complete opera serie that have come down to us. What is presented on three CPO silver discs is a guesswork reconstruction of Vivaldi's score from a pile of much reworked manuscript pages preserved in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin. Vivaldi hastily rewrote the music for many scenes where the Venetian censors required changes in libretto. Federico Maria Sardelli conducted the first staged performance of Arsilda in 285 years at the 2001 Opera Barga Festival in Italy. West German Radio of Cologne co-produced the world premier recording. The singing of the seven cast members and the Coro da Camera Italiana, not to mention the idiomatic playing of the Modo Italiano period instrument ensemble, is so right-on-the-money that Fanfare critic Brian Robbins told his readers "…this is unquestionably one of the best Vivaldi opera sets of recent years" (Fanfare, July/Aug, '05).

Sunday October 30: Our Halloween-tide opera is Verdi's Macbeth (1847, rev. 1865). Among his many early operas this one is now acknowledged as his first true masterpiece. It inaugurates the composer's glorious middle period of La Traviata, Rigoletto and Il Trovatore. Verdi's mind was attuned to all the fantastic and horrific elements in Shakespeare's Scottish play, especially the witches, who have an even more important rôle in the opera than they do in the original Elizabethan stagework. Those nineteenth century "gothick" elements make this opera perfect for broadcast at this time of year. I last aired Macbeth on Sunday, October 29, 2000, when I obtained on loan from the Hartford Public Library's CD collection a 1986 Hungaroton release starring Italian baritone Piero Capuccilli as the ill-fated Thane of Cawdor, with Lamberto Gardelli conducting. Our WWDH classics library has three old LP recordings of Macbeth. The oldest one, released through RCA Victor in 1959 in early stereo sound, features the cast, chorus and orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera. I broadcast that one on Sunday, November 15, 1987. There's also a London three-disc boxed set from 1965, with the American conductor Thomas Schippers leading the Chorus and Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia of Rome. The singing cast is all-Italian, with the sole exception of the Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson, heard as Lady Macbeth. Her irresolute husband is baritone Giuseppe Taddei.

  In this two-month period of programming I am indebted once again as in times past to a private collector Rob Meehan for the loan for broadcast of his recordings of The Firebrand of Florence and A Bunyan Sequence. Beethoven's Leonore and Graun's Montezuma come out of my own collection. All other featured recordings come from our station's ever-growing library of classical music on silver disc.

WWUH: September/October 2005 Program Guide ©

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