By Andrew Clements
September 2, 2015
Though, or perhaps because, he was a very fine amateur musician,Thornton Wilder generally discouraged attempts to turn his plays into operas. But he did write the libretto for one opera, Louise Talma’s The Alcestiad, and agreed to adapt his 1931 play The Long Christmas Dinner as a text for Paul Hindemith. First performed in Mannheim in 1961, it was Hindemith’s final opera. The premiere was given in German translation, and subsequent recordings of the work have all used that version; this is the first disc of The Long Christmas Dinner to return to Wilder’s original English text.
Lasting less than 50 minutes, the chamber opera encapsulates the history of a single family, the Bayards, across 90 years, through a succession of Christmas feasts. Characters enter from one side and depart from the other as the decades and the generations roll by. It’s a subtle, wonderfully understated examination of the changing relationships within a family, and of the ways in which society is evolving around them. There are births, marriages and deaths, and finally lonely old age, and Hindemith’s score matches the light touch with which Wilder’s text deals with this complex web of issues.
The almost entirely diatonic score is continuous and interlaced with thematic connections, though embedded in it there are also miniature set pieces – a lazy waltz, a whirling tarantella – and the opening prelude is based on the Christmas carol God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. A harpsichord gives a vaguely baroque feel to some of the textures, but the orchestration generally allows the voices to carry the narrative, in which the sextet that sends one of the sons off to the trenches of the first world war is the expressive centre of gravity.
The performance under Leon Botstein preserves that lightness and subtlety very carefully, and while it’s sometimes difficult on disc to make enough distinction between the characters (there are 11 roles, some of which are doubled here), the basic conceit of the narrative works perfectly. All the performances gel, though Camille Zamora as the two Lucias, and Sara Murphy as Ermengarde, who ends the opera imagining the family continuing without her, are a bit special.
Original full story here.