I love to mark anniversaries of musical rarities and today we have one of the rarest. On this day in 1963, Paul Hindemith conducted the first English performance of his final opera, The Long Christmas Dinner at Julliard. With an English libretto adapted by Thornton Wilder from his own 1931 play, this opera is known of by fans of both men, but almost completely unknown. For proof, scroll down this post for the YouTube clip or free audio sample from Rhapsody that I customarily provide. Sorry, I don’t have one. Unless you caught one of its rare performances, you could only learn it from the score.
That’s because this opera went scandalously unrecorded until December 2008, when the music publisher Schott released a recording on their WENGO label under the direction of Marek Janowski. Unfortunately for Wilder fans, this recording employs Hindemith’s German translation (as Das Lange Weihnachtsmahl) from a Mannheim production in the 1960s. (View recording on Amazon. | View libretto on Amazon.) I just ordered it, so I shouldn’t even be talking about it myself! But today’s the opera’s birthday and we’re working on other great topics (for those who may have noticed the relative slowdown of our posting frequency lately), so I wanted to sneak this one in. It was either that, or a roundup of unlucky musical moments in honor of Friday the 13th.
So to sample the work, all I’ve got for you is this 3-minute excerpt on the Schott site.
The Long Christmas Dinner has the kind of gimicky-but-eloquent premise Wilder liked. “The” Christmas dinner is actually a succession of 90 Christmas dinners spanning four generations in the life of the Bayard family. Here’s what the Thornton Wilder Society has to say about the play:
As with his later play, Our Town, Wilder uses the small details of family life to represent its essence. Repetition, telescoped time, the use of similar names over the generations all show family life at its core. Time is a second key theme. Time goes on, but slowly. Little changes. Three generations of Bayard mothers, all of whom lose a child, comment that, “Only the passing of time can help these things.” The family’s rebellious sons complain about the slowness and dullness of small town life. Their observations are in sharp contrast to the short length of the play: events pass in stage time. Family life encompasses generations of families; a brief play can sharpen our perception of this truth by the speed of its pacing. The minimalist set design and meager props also remind the audience that it is witnessing theater, but that theater can represent life at its most universal.
I’ll follow up after I actuall hear the thing. In the meantime:
Review of the recording on The Toynbee Convector.