Review: The Long Christmas Dinner CD
Janie McCauley reviews the Bridge Records CD release of the original English language version of Paul Hindemith’s final opera, “The Long Christmas Dinner”,” with a libretto by Thornton Wilder.
The wait from the 1961 premiere performance of The Long Christmas Dinner to the first recording of the Hindemith-Wilder opera was unusually long—forty-four years. Throughout this period stage productions of the opera remained exceedingly rare. Then in 2005 Schott Music of Mainz released a recording on the Wergo label, titled Das lange Weihnachtsmahl, conducted by Marek Janowski, who had led a successful studio concert of the opera in Berlin in August 2004. The recording features a German text created by Hindemith from Wilder’s carefully crafted English libretto. It offered Hindemith and Wilder enthusiasts an excellent opportunity to recognize the opera as a masterpiece. Reviewers called the Hindemith-Wilder collaboration “happy . . . on both sides, . . . a successful match-up dramatically, theatrically and spiritually.” Yet the hand of Wilder is completely absent from the Wergo production.
On December 19, 2014, Maestro Leon Botstein, a notable champion of little-known masterpieces, turned around the fortunes of this treasure of a one-act opera that had fallen into near-obscurity. He programmed the Hindemith/Wilder piece at the American Symphony Orchestra’s performance at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall and paired it with a fully staged production of Wilder’s 1931 play by the same name, the work upon which the libretto is based. Botstein’s brilliant design gave the New York audience what was likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear these two works on the same program. For the libretto, Wilder reshaped his one-act play, cutting the text and at the same time adding a significant amount of new writing to suit the exigencies of opera. The result is a taut telescoping of ninety years in the life of an American family. The drama is played out over a series of annual Christmas dinners in some forty-five minutes on the stage. Wilder envisioned a simple set representing a family dining room, furnished with a table prepared for Christmas dinner. The entrance portal to the room is designated in Wilder’s stage directions as the “door of life,” and the exit, “the door of death.” The plot includes several births, a stillbirth, marriages, deaths of adult family members, a son’s angry rejection of the family, the abrupt leave-taking of an aging unmarried daughter, and the ill-fated departure of a son in military uniform.
In August 2015, Bridge Records released a CD of the opera performed in the original English libretto by Wilder and recorded live at the December 2014 production at Alice Tully Hall. The performance is compelling, and the recording technique, lively, warm and crisp. As conductor, Botstein shaped the sound beautifully yet subtly, fulfilling well both the technical and artistic demands of Hindemith’s score for a thirty-six-piece orchestra and eleven singers. The result is a sophisticated performance with fine musicianship that matches the high caliber of the score. But this sophistication is tempered with transparency and tenderness as the inescapable cycle of birth and death unfolds.
Hindemith’s score immediately confronts the audience with the familiar and the wry in a prelude that features a haunting fragment of the British carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” Introduced by two flutes, it is eventually taken up by horn, oboe and trumpet in a whirlwind of harmonics, rhythms and modulations. This prelude is reprised at the end of the opera.
Among the highlights of the Bridge recording is Mother Bayard’s quiet, complacent ariosa in the first scene, sung beautifully by Sara Murphy, a dramatic mezzo-soprano who also played the role of Cousin Ermengarde.
Making a clear vocal delineation between the two characters, Murphy brought the performance to an affecting end with the spoken final line. In response to “They’re building a new house,” a line from a letter she reads, Ermengarde speaks two words after the orchestral accompaniment has faded away: “Fancy that!”
The score is replete with intimate ensemble singing that suggests the unpretentious conversations that characterize family holiday talk. Hindemith and Wilder crafted several duets, trios and quartets. The trio that appears at the end of the first part of the opera, was sung as a contemplative canon with clear-cut rhythms and gorgeous harmonies by Lucia (Camille Zamora, soprano), Roderick (Jarrett Ott, baritone) and Brandon (Josh Quinn, bass-baritone). Although Zamora’s diction was to a degree affected here and occasionally elsewhere in the score, the trio did not fail to underline the major motif of the libretto: “How long have we been in this house? . . . The time passes so fast.”
The Scene 4 trio, sung by Charles (Glenn Seven Allen, tenor), Roderick and Brandon in homophonic style, introduces a dramatic, colorful quintet reminiscent of a chorale prelude. At the end of this piece the sound dwindles to a near-whisper as Roderick goes out. Another lovely highlight among the vocal ensemble pieces is the tender duet by newlyweds Leonora (Kathryn Guthrie, mezzo-soprano) and Charles in Scene 6.
The climax of the opera comes in the Scene 9 sextet with its “grandioso” instrumental accompaniment and bittersweet tone. The voice of Sam (also sung by Ott), a fearful World War I soldier who is returning to the front, is heard counter to the other five singers, who lightly chatter about the Christmas dinner. Throughout the performance Botstein carefully maintains a balance between the singers and the orchestra, allowing the words of Wilder’s libretto to carry clearly.
Thurmond Smithgall conceived, produced and supervised the performances and provided fiscal support and musical guidance for the production of the CD. He and the Lanie and Ethel Foundation were generous supporters of the project. The creative team for the production included Jonathan Rosenberg, director; Zane Philstrom, scenic designer; Olivera Gajic, costume designer; and Peter West, lighting designer.
If it was a long wait for the premiere English recording of the opera, the well-executed Leon Botstein/Bridge production is appropriate compensation. Now that The Long Christmas Dinner has been preserved in a well-executed English recording, hopefully this stage-worthy work has turned the corner and will be performed frequently in the future by both professional and workshop ensembles.
HINDEMITH: The Long Christmas Dinner ; Libretto by T. Wilder.
American Symphony Orchestra/Leon Botstein, cond. David Starobin, producer. Becky Starobin and Thurmond Smithgall, Executive Producers. Bridge Records 9449; 2015; TT: 48:49
Janie Caves McCauley holds a PhD degree in English literature with a specialization in Shakespeare from Miami University of Oxford, Ohio. She has twice been awarded a post-doctoral fellowship in Shakespeare studies at Princeton University. An interdisciplinary scholar in literature, theater and music, she has been a faculty member at Bob Jones University in the English and Theatre Arts departments since 1974.