Review: Opera News | Hindemith: The Long Christmas Dinner
Here’s a welcome release – the first English-language recording of The Long Christmas Dinner, Hindemith’s 1960 opera adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s play, with a libretto by Wilder himself. Although Wilder’s original libretto was (unsurprisingly) in English, the only previous recording of the work is of the German translation Hindemith made later. American Symphony music director Leon Botstein resurrected the original version of this one-act opera last year at Alice Tully Hall for a rare performance, paired intriguingly with a presentation of Wilder’s original play. Bridge Records captured the live performance of the opera in this recording.
Like the play, the opera traces the joys and sorrows of the Bayard family over a series of Christmas dinners that span ninety years. Major life events (births, marriages and deaths) are represented symbolically, by the exit of an aging matriarch or the entrance (sometimes immediately following) of a surprisingly ambulatory new mother proclaiming, “Look! Look at my child!” Hindemith and Wilder telescope the fleeting decades with skillful concision, highlighted by the inclusion of several mysterious, shimmering ensemble pieces that specifically reflect on the passage of time (“How long have we been in this house?”). The composer’s cheerfully chugging textures and characteristically pungent, neoclassical musical language are well-suited for capturing the bustle of holiday preparations, yet he manages to tinge even the joyful, upbeat sections with subtly wistful nostalgia. When characters specifically summon events from their pasts, Hindemith provides a distinctive version of Copland-esque Americana that is eloquent but not sentimental. His use of dissonance to signify brooding or impending death is subtle and sure-handed. The high point of the opera is a stunningly beautiful sextet, in which young Sam (the clarion-voiced baritone Jarrett Ott), on leave from military service, tells his family to “Do what you do on Christmas Day.” As the family chats lightly, Sam sings a soaring descant above them (“I shall hold this tight! I shall remember you so!”) to a wondrously vibrant triadic accompaniment. This turns out to have been his requiem; his sister sings a lament for him (“He was only a boy”) before the number has concluded.
Soprano Camille Zamora portrays both Lucia and, later, her own granddaughter (Lucia II); this serves nicely to encapsulate the cyclic nature of time’s generational flow. Zamora sings with an appealing sparkle that she sustains even as she assures her own daughter not to grieve upon her death; this quality also serves her well in Lucia II’s role as peacemaker. In addition to playing Sam, baritone Ott brings a reassuring, enveloping quality to Roderick, the first Lucia’s husband. Bass-baritone Josh Quinn is rugged and self-confident as cousin Brandon. Charles (Glenn Seven Allen) and Leonora (Kathryn Guthrie) bring matching timbres—simultaneously bright and tender—to a lilting, harmonically unusual marriage duet. Later, they are joined by Genevieve (mezzo Catherine Martin), the self-declared spinster, for a sweetly contemplative trio (“Time flies so fast”). Mezzo Sara Murphy plays both Mother Bayard, who has a nostalgic reverie in the first scene, and cousin Ermengarde, who is left alone at the end to sing a final meditation, which Murphy renders with exquisite poignancy. Tenor Scott Murphree brings the requisite charisma and vocal brashness to the role of Roderick II, the errant rogue who renounces his family ties. Martin’s Genevieve generates considerable drama in her own farewell aria. The American Symphony Orchestra plays with great precision and beauty under Botstein, who has guided them intrepidly through adventurous repertoire such as this for a quarter of a century.