The New York Times
Two-Course Feast of Stage and Song
By Anthony Tommasini, December 21, 2014
It would be fascinating to see a performance of Sardou’s play “La Tosca” followed by a production of Puccini’s enduring operatic adaptation. Or, imagine other such double bills of a play and opera: Maeterlinck’s and Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,” Oscar Wilde’s and Richard Strauss’s “Salome.” Of course, these fantasy pairings would be marathons.
On Friday at Alice Tully Hall, the conductor Leon Botstein put the idea into practice, but with a more manageable pairing. First, a small cast of excellent actors, directed by Jonathan Rosenberg, performed Thornton Wilder’s one-act play “The Long Christmas Dinner,” which had its premiere at the Yale University Theater in 1931. This delicate, charming and profound work follows an American family over 90 years through periodic visits to Christmas dinners at the household table.
Then, using the same effectively simple set (designed by Zane Pihlstrom) and similar costumes (by Olivera Gajic), an appealing cast of singers, with Mr. Botstein conducting the American Symphony Orchestra, performed Hindemith’s 1961 operatic version of “The Long Christmas Dinner,” for which Wilder adapted his play into a libretto.
Each work is roughly 40 minutes, which made for a pragmatic double bill and a fresh holiday-season offering. Here was a tangible demonstration of the contrasting ways theater and opera can handle dramatic narrative.
Wilder’s play opens with the family’s first Christmas dinner in its new house. Roderick Bayard, a solid young man who runs the family firm, slices a turkey as Lucia, his cheerful wife, looks on along with the matriarchal Mother Bayard, who recalls a period in her childhood when, she claims, Indians lived where the house now stands.
A few years go by and hearty Cousin Brandon, who has come to run the business with Roderick, joins a Christmas dinner. As a touch of eerie timelessness, the table, festooned with flowers, slants downward. A gold-tinged tablecloth drapes off to one side, making a rumpled path to a realm of death. The first to traverse it, naturally, is Mother Bayard (Claire Moodey).
Before long Roderick and Lucia’s children, Charles and Genevieve, take places at the table. Others leave it, including, Roderick (the charismatic Lars Berge). The changing customs of society and the increasing prosperity of the family become table talk, though mundane conversation riffs keep turning up. Unmarried middle-aged Cousin Ermengarde comes to live at the house. Charles marries Leonora, a young pretty thing, and their first child dies in infancy. They then have twins, Sam and Lucia II, and another son, Roderick II, who winds up dying a soldier in war.
Wilder’s simple idea of tracing the history of a family through snippets of Christmas dinners had a powerful effect in this sensitive performance. Every family that regularly shares holiday meals has had to grapple with a shifting roster of participants.
Hindemith found a musically astute collaborator in Wilder, who was an accomplished amateur musician. Besides cutting the text of the play considerably, Wilder wrote new rhymed lyrics for arias and ensembles. Stylistically, this opera shows Hindemith in his tart Neo-Classical mode. Seeing darkness and tension below the deceptively mundane surface of Wilder’s play, Hindemith tapped into those emotions though this searching, restless score.
In the instrumental music that sets the scene, the tune of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” pokes through, though it is fragmented, given contrapuntal twists and harmonized with “wrong note” chords. Hindemith’s vocal lines deftly follow the flow and contours of speech. Over all, the music is an intriguing blend of jumpy energy and weighty solemnity. There are some compelling ensembles, especially a sextet in which Sam sings a steadfast melodic line while other family members converse in background chatter. Mr. Botstein drew a colorful, sure-paced performance from the orchestra.
As in the play, several performers are assigned multiple roles. The sopranoCamille Zamora brought dignity and glowing sound to Lucia and, later, Lucia II. The baritone Jarrett Ott was a robust Roderick, also Sam. Josh Quinn as Brandon, Glenn Seven Allen as Charles, Catherine Martin as Genevieve, Kathryn Guthrie as Leonora, and Scott Murphree as Roderick II were all strong.
The rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Sara Murphy was especially endearing as Mother Bayard and, later, Cousin Ermengarde. In the final moments of the opera, left alone, old Ermengarde reads a letter bearing news that the children of a new generation are building a new house in another state. “Fancy that,” she says.