San Francisco Opera Center

The Long Christmas Dinner
  • The Long Christmas Dinner

Paul Hindemith is generally thought of as one of the important twentieth-century composer, along with Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern. Bartok. Shostakovich, and Prokofiev. He began his career as an iconoclast, shocking audiences with his dissonances; but in his later music, composed in the United States, his style became more bland and academic, emphasizing in particular certain neo-Baroque elements in rhythms, structures, and sororities. Throughout his career he composed operas: the grotesque Cadillac (1926), to a story by E.T.A. Hoffman about a compulsive artist-criminal; Hin und Zuruck (1927), a twelve- minute comic tour de force; News vom Tage (1929), a witty satire on divine; Wir bauen eine Stadt (1931), a charming children's opera; Mathisder Maler (1938), an opera-libretto on the life of the painter Matthias Grumewald; Die harmonie der Welt (1957), an opera-oratorio on the life of the astronomer Johannes Kepler; and - at the very end of his life (he died in 1963) - The Long Christmas Dinner (1961), a musical version o the one-act play of the same name by Thornton Wilder. Each of these operas has some significance in the history of the genre, and they have had occasional productions; some of them have even been recorded. But it is not often one has a chance to attend a live performance of a Hindemith opera, so that I was delighted to go no further than San Francisco to attend two of them, one from early in the composer's career, and one from very late.

The operas were Hin und Zuruck ("There and Back") and The Long Christmas Dinner, and they were performed in the showcase series of the San Francisco Opera Center, a training center for young singers. the location of these performances was interesting. A giant industrial building in the seedy Mission district, formerly the San Francisco Machine Shop, has been converted with city and foundation funds into a vast black-box theater named Theater Artaud, on whose narrow stage, before long ranks of raked wooden seats, various dancers, musicians, performances artist, and theatrical companies perform. Conditions are not ideal in this building, but the acoustics are excellent, and the two Hindemith operas, with their minimal demands for scenic effects and their small orchestras, fit quite decently into the space provided for them there. the musical direction, by Robert Baustian, was thoroughly professional, as were the singers - among whom there were some very promising voices, especially soprano Deborah Voigt, a Brunhilde-like lady with real Brunhilde potential. These were thoroughly staged performances, conveying the dramatic intentions of the operas with effectiveness if not with brilliance. They gave the audience a good opportunity to assess Hindemith's skills in two areas of his operatic composition. I cannot say I really enjoy, either opera, but I am nevertheless glad I went.

There and Back is a piece of exuberant silliness about a jealous man, a suspicious letter to a lady, a revolver, and a killing. Its plot is tawdry, simplified melodrama - intentionally so. But that plot leads to a gimmick, the gimmick being the reason of the entire work. After the lady has been shot dead, a bearded sage enters and philosophize about time: it does not matter in which direction time goes, he tells us, since things will be the same whether time moves ahead in reverse. Immediately his theory is demonstrated by the reversal of the action and music. The dead lady rises, the shot is heard once again (this time preceding the man's threat that he is going to fire it), the maid who had bought the suspicious letter takes it back, breakfast is not eaten (as earlier) but expelled, and at the final chord the situation is exactly what it was at the beginning of the opera. This, of course, proves nothing philosophically; it is a mere jeu, pleasantly amusing but nothing more. the reversal of the music is cleverly carried out, though the lack of really distinctive motifs in the part makes it hard discern their reversal in the Cond; the general impressions is one exuberant busy-ness in the orchestra and of declamation and parody in the voices. What one is aware of, above all, is the device itself, rather than any purely musical or dramatic qualities in the way the device is realized.

The Long Christmas Dinner is more sober style, but the harmonies and motive patterns are recognizable of the same composer, and once again the chief carrier of musical meaning is the orchestra Hindermith's liberty to posed a great problem. Wilder's play shows several generations of an American family at a series of Christmas dinners all treated as single Christmas dinner. years pass characters age and die, children grow up, marry, have children of their own, and after many decades the old way of life has passed away and the family house is almost empty. It is a stunning play, simple, profound, and beautiful; the "gimmick" of the ling Christmas dinner is o mere trick but a marvelous theatrical way of representing the passage of time in the everyday life of ordinary people. In the play, that everyday life is represented in the repetitious, prosaic, flat language of the characters, which ultimately is made into a special kind of poetry by its very flatness and repetitiveness. But this type of dialogue is not easy to set to music intense and expressive texts. Hindemith did a workmanlike job in setting Wilder's words. The declamation usually has natural-sounding cadences; the orchestra supports it with expressive or witty "comments"; the music responds to the dramatic requirements of the moment. But although there are a few sections where the music rises to the emotional level of the text, the overall impression is that the music is always pretty much the same, a modest, unobtrusive servant with nothing to say of it's own. Dan Balestrero's stage direction brought out the poignancy and charm of the script, although not at all as beautifully as the late Alan Schneider in his production of Wilder's play at UCSD a few years ago. But - except at such exceptional moments as the soaring ensemble when one of the family's sons is going off to war- the music does not seem to add anything significant to the play, which would probably be much more touching without it. This is not a very good thing to say about an opera. But perhaps there are subtleties of expressiveness in the score that the young singers did not underline or perhaps one needs further acquaintance with the opera to appreciate its musical value. At first hearing, I must confess, it did not make much of an impression.

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