In Review > North America

The Long Christmas Dinner

NEW YORK CITY
American Symphony Orchestra
12/19/14

On December 19 at Alice Tully Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra offered a uniquely instructive lesson in the art of adaptation, pairing Thornton Wilder’s 1931 one-act play The Long Christmas Dinner with Hindemith’s 1961 operatic setting. Using the same set and most of the same costumes, director Jonathan Rosenberg did a fine job presenting both works simply and coherently, echoing staging where practical. Unfortunately, while being able to compare the two made for a fascinating exercise, the opera’s impact was diminished by direct comparison. For one thing, when watching the same events unfold twice in a row it’s easy to lose interest. More problematic was the fact that the music doesn’t add enough to make up for what gets lost in translation. 

The meal of the title is indeed lengthy: a seamless telescoping of ninety years of such dinners with the Bayard family, beginning with the first Christmas in Lucia and Roderick’s new house, then moving through several generations until the final dinner is served to the house’s lone inhabitant, a distant cousin. The scenes in the play allow for richer character development than their more quickly progressing musical equivalents. For example, in the play, we experience the first daughter, Genevieve, as an impetuous, exuberant teenager before she succumbs to the bitterness of spinsterhood. The opera shortchanges her youth, so her character doesn’t register with the same poignancy. The actors managed subtle indications of aging by pitching their voices lower, while the singers were constrained by their defined vocal ranges, which never altered. In the play, family tropes handed down through the generations elicit a knowing chuckle from the audience. In the libretto, penned by Wilder himself, characters instead comment on their repeated behaviors rather than exhibit them: “We talk about the weather.” By adhering to a consistent musical vocabulary that suggests a disjointed Americana as if seen through a kaleidoscope, Hindemith missed an opportunity to herald each new generation with a shift in musical style. As a result, the transitions in the opera are muddier and more confusing. Most effective are the set pieces, particularly a spare trio for tenor, mezzo-soprano and soprano musing on the passage of time and a sextet with five characters making pointillistic observations while the sixth, a son off to war, tries to memorize his family in a sustained legato line.

The actors set the bar fairly high, especially the ladies. Hannah Mitchell provided the warm heart of the play as Lucia/Lucia 2, Arielle Goldman made a compelling Genevieve, and young Claire Moodey was credible as both dowagers. Soprano Camille Zamora looked strikingly like her counterpart Mitchell, but her cool timbre made her a more brittle Lucia/Lucia II. Catherine Martin exhibited a forthright mezzo as Genevieve, while Sara Murphy was an earthy, maternal presence as Mother Bayard and cousin Ermengarde. As Leonora, the town beauty who marries into the family, actress Libby Matthews was darkly sensual, unlike the wholesome, blond Kathryn Guthrie, though Guthrie’s high coloratura made her similarly exotic in the circumstances. As Charles, the central patriarch, tenor Glenn Seven Allen held the stage (as did actor Michael Salinas), and he sang with a precision and clarity. Baritone Jarrett Ott was sober and resonant as Roderick and Sam, the serviceman; actor Lars Berge brought a lighter touch to both roles. Bass-baritone Josh Quinn had less to do as cousin Brandon than Ryan-James Hatanaka in the play, but both communicated the same arc from brashness to boredom. Tenor Scott Murphree brought more vocal than dramatic tension to his brief turn as the rebellious Roderick II. Conductor Leon Botstein drew a smooth, transparent reading from the ASO. spacer 

JOANNE SYDNEY LESSNER

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