Aside from the works of Shakespeare, it is not common to see many of the plays that inspired great operas. Even less common, and almost unheard of, is to see both a play and an opera in the same concert. A truly revolutionary music director, Leon Botstein programmed just that – both an opera and the play from which it was derived. Thornton Wilder wrote The Long Christmas Dinner in 1931, chronicling 90 years of Christmas dinners around the same table. With a practical set and a versatile cast, characters come and go through life and death portals on either side of the stage in order to effectuate a seamless timeline. It wasn’t until 1961 that Hindemith finished his operatic setting with minor alterations, essentially staying true to Wilder’s innovative oeuvre.

Leon Botstein © Ric Kallaher
Leon Botstein
© Ric Kallaher

This music-lover doesn’t feel confident assessing the execution of the play, but after having seen the original drama first, one is forced to make comparisons to the opera. The singers’ actions on stage were under special scrutiny in this case because the quality of music is generally more important than the quality of acting in an opera. Understandably, subtleties like using a knife and fork at the dinner table were thoughtless as a soprano, for instance, concentrated on climbing up and down scales rather than the movement of cutting a turkey. Climactic moments in the opera like the fight between the father and his son paled in comparison to the play. Actors Ryan-James Hatanaka and Michael E. Salinas delivered an exceptionally poignant argument, while tenors Scott Murphree and Glenn Seven Allen fell short in their execution. Both singers are equipped with sumptuous voices able to carry a tune. Unfortunately, Allen head-banged eighth notes at the table to keep time with the orchestra, both distracting and unattractive, and Murphree’s voice sounded like it was suffering from intense strain in the upper register, incapable of reaching the desired intensity. Also a bit unpalatable, Kathryn Guthrie’s coloratura came off unrestrained, often defunct of shape and succinct direction. However, Camille Zamora, Sara Murphy, and Josh Quinn all delivered professional performances, demonstrating deliberate understanding of Hindemith’s compositional style.

Jarrett Ott was the true star of the evening, singing the role of Roderick and Sam. Ott’s rich voice in conjunction with masterful phrasing could bring Hades to tears. The character Sam is introduced near the middle of the opera as a young soldier who goes off to fight in the Great War, a part made brief in Wilder’s play. Wilder finished his work just before the start of the Great Depression. There’s no doubt that Hindemith’s experience with the Second World War gave him the incentive to extend the soldier’s role, offering a sentimental duet between the soldier and those who stayed in the house; the soldier sings that he will return from battle while the family sings that they “talk of the seasons”. In addition to Ott’s brilliant voice, soprano Catherine Martin was an exceptional talent whose lush overtones gave rise to a sound that resonated to all parts of the hall. Undoubtedly capable of doing great justice to Wagner, Martin carried her part tastefully in the more intimate setting.

© Jito Lee | Lincoln Center
© Jito Lee | Lincoln Center

Throughout the performance, Botstein and the musicians of the American Symphony Orchestra delivered an excellent show of musicianship. Of special note, Hindemith wrote a particularly interesting harpsichord part executed proficiently by Christopher Oldfather. Even though the chamber-sized orchestra shared the stage with the vocalists, the precise control of the instrumentalists was never overpowering.

Overall, the performance quality from the singers was all over the map, but Jarrett Ott and Catherine Martin are definitely the rising stars to watch. It is comforting to know that Leon Botstein continues to stay true to American Symphony Orchestra’s mission set out by Stokowski – to make classical music accessible and affordable to everybody. Putting the opera in context of the play in which it was derived is a novel effort, and one wishes to see more of this type of performance in the future, though it might take half the day for the likes of Otello.

***11