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Commentary

16 Nov 2004

Manhattan School of Music to Present Hoiby's A Month in the Country

LEE HOIBY: A Month in the Country Libretto by William Ball after the play by Ivan Turgenev The Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater presents Lee Hoiby's A Month in the Country on Wednesday, December 8 and Friday, December 10...

LEE HOIBY: A Month in the Country

Libretto by William Ball after the play by Ivan Turgenev

The Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater presents Lee Hoiby's A Month in the Country on Wednesday, December 8 and Friday, December 10 at 8pm, and Sunday, December 12 at 2:30pm in the School's John C. Borden Auditorium, with an opera preview scheduled for 6:30pm on December 8 in Greenfield Hall. Steven Osgood conducts the opera, which is directed by Ned Canty. Composed in 1964 on a commission from the New York City Opera, A Month in the Country has a libretto by William Ball based on Ivan Turgenev's play of the same name. Originally titled Natalia Petrovna, the opera was first performed in 1964 by the New York City Opera. The opera was then revised in 1981 for a performance at New England Conservatory, and was retitled accordingly.

Synopsis: (Two acts, 4 scenes; set in the 1840s, on the provincial, serf-holding estate of the Islaev family, many miles from Moscow) Natalia Petrovna Islaevna, bored with Arkady her preoccupied husband, and with her overly ardent cavalier, the well-known poet Rakitin, with the afternoon cardgames and aimless bickering of her mother-in-law Anna and her silly retainers, bored and with the routine, isolation, uselessness and dependency of her existence, exhibits extremes of mood as she and Rakitin come to realize that she has fallen in love with her son's new tutor, an educated young peasant named Belaev.

Her unassimilable passion maddens Rakitin, confuses Belaev, awakens the sexual awareness and jealousy of Vera, her young niece, unleashes the wrath of her mother-in-law, and escapes her husband entirely. Only the subsidiary comic courtship of two servants, the scheming doctor and Lisaveta (Anna's companion, piano teacher to Kolya and Vera) ends satisfactorily.

Steven Osgood, conductor, is artistic director of American Opera Projects, a company dedicated to the development of new operas. He conducted the premiere production of Jonathan Sheffer's opera Blood On the Dining Room Floor in a five-week off-Broadway run in 2000. Mr. Osgood prepared the premiere of Tan Dun's Marco Polo, and conducted the premiere of Tan's second opera Peony Pavilion that toured Vienna, London, Rome, Paris and Berkeley. He has also conducted many of Tan's orchestral works, including a recent appearance with the Gulbenkian Festival Orchestra conducting Orchestral Theater II. Dedicated to contemporary music, Mr. Osgood served as Assistant Conductor for the world premieres of Bright Sheng's Madame Mao and Peter Lieberson's Ashoka's Dream, as well as the American premieres of Hans Werner Henze's Venus und Adonis, and Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de loin.

Mr. Osgood was guest conductor and music director of the New West Symphony's Music's Alive Festival in 2001, and has been a member of the Music Staff of the Santa Fe Opera since 1997. His work has brought him to many of North America's foremost opera houses, including Canadian Opera Company, the Lake George Festival, and the San Francisco Opera. He also maintains active relationships with The Juilliard School and Manhattan School of Music. Mr. Osgood has worked at New York City Opera since 2001, and made his main stage City Opera debut in April 2003 conducting La bohème. He conducted Lortzing's Der Wildschütz at the School in 2002.

Ned Canty, opera and theater director, most recently directed Falstaff at the Israeli Vocal Arts Institute in Tel Aviv. Among his many other productions are Don Giovanni for Florida Grand Opera; The Barber of Seville for Connecticut Opera; Lucky Girl for the McCarter Theater; the American premieres of Voice in the Forest and Tears of the Knife at the Henry Street Chamber Opera; A Midsummer Night's Dream, L'italiana in Algeri, and The Rake's Progress at Wolf Trap Opera; Madama Butterfly for the New York City Opera national company; Il campanello at the Teatro Comunale in Casalmaggiore, Italy; L'elisir d'amore at the Shanghai Grand Theater in China; and L'incoronazione di Poppea and Il trionfo dell'onore for Yale Opera. As a director and fight director he has also worked widely, for such organizations as the Washington Opera and the Princeton Shakespeare Company, among many others. He was a two-time nominee for the Gielgud Directing Fellowship. A future project is The Mikado for Opera Theater of St. Louis.

    Dates: Dec 8 & 10 at 8 pm and Dec 12 at 2:30 pm
    Location: John C. Borden Auditorium
    Price: $20; $15; half price for seniors and students
    Contact: Concert Office 917-493-4428


Notes on A Month in the Country

by Mark Shulgasser

The enigmatic Russian writer Ivan Turgenev was born on his parents' estate in 1818. Although more an aesthete and an observer than a social activist, he supported the emancipation of the serfs, and his writings antagonized the repressive tsarist authorities. Consequently he spent much of his life in Europe, notably as an awkward appendage to the Paris-based household of the great diva, Pauline Viardot, whom he adored.

Turgenev did not seem to take this play very seriously. It was his last theatrical occupation, after a string of one-act vaudevilles, written for the pasteboard Moscow stage. A young literary dilettante who wrote plays mainly in order to hang around actresses, he now seemed to have indulged, while living in Paris, in something completely uninteresting and unplayable. In defense of its talky five hour playing time, he disparaged it as a novel in dialogue, not intended for the stage. He called it The Student, then, Two Women, as if he didn't quite know what it was about. Soon after, he found his sure voice in prose with the immediately popular Hunting Sketches of 1851, followed by the string of novels on which his reputation rests. Yet the situation and characters of this play recur unmistakably, even monotonously, in his writings and his life. Not until 1856 did he allow a version to be printed, deciding on the title A Month in the Country.

It was not produced on stage until 22 years after its writing, and then only because an ambitious young actress coveted the role of Vera and the attention that was accorded the now-famous author. The production was not successful, another one seven years later fared better; the text was again cut and reworked, without Turgenev's participation, of course emphasizing the role of Vera. (The actress herself became an object of one of Turgenev's "amities amoureuses".) Not until Stanislavski rediscovered the play in 1909, producing it in his own version and style in his epochal pre-war London seasons of the Moscow Art Theatre, did it join the world stage.

That Turgenev's principal masterpiece (for how many still read his novels?) should be bi-genred, unfinalized, and authorially almost unacknowledged, is perfectly characteristic of his unique perfume, his brilliant, abject sophistication. As he remarked to Tolstoy, 'I am a writer of a transitional period. I am fit only for people in a transitional state."

Before Turgenev's play was produced at all it had been subjected to whimsical tsarist censorings, edited and re-edited, and mangled and revised for native and émigré periodicals and presses. It now thrives as many people's ideas and images of an unknown and uncertain "original", through reductive adaptations, revisions, versions, free translations, a malleable vehicle for influential directors, furthering various, even contradictory, theatrical and political positions; now the essence of Russia in the 1840s, now a timeless psychological gossamer, now the font of theatrical realism, now a setless, actionless dream, now a proto-socialist critique, now a bourgeois relic, an anglified classic, a lightweight period frolic, an attack on marriage, a comedy, a tragedy. The program of the Hoiby/Ball premiere read "suggested by Turgenev's A Month in the Country."

In short, for all the play's specificity of period and locale, and its so-called realism, it promiscuously makes itself available to forceful collaborators, offering up for redefinition that archetypal dramatic configuration: the eruption of eros in a complex household.

In the New York City of 1964, appearing in the guise of an opera by composer Lee Hoiby and librettist William Ball, A Month in the Country once again gathered up into its mysterious hems ("I am saturated with femininity," Turgenev wrote) the living concerns of a new team.

Ball, having had his first New York success directing Ivanov, a rediscovered Chekhov play, was obtained by Zelda Fichandler to help her new Arena Stage in DC. This is where he became enamored of A Month in the Country, which he directed in the Emlyn Williams 1943 adaptation (originally a vehicle for Michael Redgrave's Rakitin). The next season, 1959, Ball heard Lee Hoiby's first opera, The Scarf, a one acter based on Chekhov, at the New York City Opera where Ball was directing Weisgall's Six Characters and Mozart's Cosi. Ball immediately asked Hoiby to consider collaborating with him on setting the Turgenev. He also invited Hoiby to contribute incidental music to a work he was staging at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, The Tempest.

The Ford philanthropy supported the opera project and the choice of Russian subject matter would have pleased their humane and internationalist interests; the choice now it can be seen as an anticipation of détente, although ill-timed to appear so soon after the Cuban missile confrontation and the assassination. But for William Ball the significance of the play had less to do with current world politics than with theater history, and the goal of an American regional theater. It was, simply, the core work of the revered Stanislavski Moscow Arts Theatre, and the Moscow Arts Theatre was the paradigm of the repertory theater company as an art-dedicated commune, enriching its environment with ritual enactments, of-the-people and for-the-people, independent of the commercialism of Broadway, a necessity for any significant city. The same Ford Foundation initiative that supported this and the other Julius Rudel /NYCO American Opera commissions at the City Center also helped to launch Ball's American Conservatory Theater, which, after wanderings through Pittsburgh and Chicago, landed securely in San Francisco where it continues to thrive.

Ball was a "father" of the regional theater movement, a brilliant director with the ability to put much serious classical and modern repertory vividly before unsophisticated audiences. His direct, energetic style clicked with the pre-AIDS San Francisco sensibility in things like his shirtless, gymnastic Taming of the Shrew. (Unfortunately he went under in the epidemic, and took his life in 1992.) He was loyal to his obsession with A Month in the Country, producing a new stage adaptation by "Willis Bell" in 1978. Ball's approach to the play is in agreement with remarks of the great Soviet director Anatoly Efros: "Adaptation of the script is necessary. . . We lace it into a tight corset, yet it is full of a fire and gaiety which is often blazing; so let its harsh and startling colors appear and the reaction of the characters be a hundredfold sharper and more dramatic."

The critical reception in the days when New York had so many daily papers is of interest. Harold Schonberg of the New York Times found worthwhile at least the closing octet, "probably modeled after the closing quintet in 'Vanessa,' except that it is better--more natural, ringing truer." On the other hand the libretto diverged from the critic's pre-existing image of the play. Ball had introduced "travesty" and "burlesque" into the "sensitive . . . delicate . . . and equally delicate" play. (A few months later Schoenberg found Britten's new Midsummer Night's Dream "calculated," "obvious," "superficial," and "merely cute.")

On the other hand, Martin Gottfried in Woman's Wear Daily called it "a wonderful new opera, a loveliness steeped in sadness and, at once, lightness." The World-Telegram and Sun's Louis Biancolli found it "wholly unexpected . . . the world premiere of a truly fine American opera based on a truly fine Russian play." Variety thought that only a few "easy fixes" were needed for "an opera that has much promise of being kept in the repertoire, and even spreading to other companies." Even without those easy fixes the opera was well received in Washington the following season. Paul Hume (the critic who clashed with President Truman over Margaret's singing talents) compared the final octet to the Rosenkavalier trio and the Meistersinger quintet. The musicologist/critic Irving Lowens wrote of "the clean simplicity, the beautiful eloquence of the vocal lines. There is no question about this lyric gift; his melodies are more compelling by far than those of his teacher Menotti." Most telling was a later consideration by Frank Merkling, editor of Opera News. "Indulging in neither breast-beating nor serial cerebration" the opera was "curiously novel for its very lack of chic; it simply went about the business of fulfilling all the functions of an opera successfully."

Yet the opera waited fifteen years for another spin. To give it a fresh start the composer withdrew the title Natalia Petrovna, reverting to the original. Much consideration was given to those easy and not-so-easy fixes. Judicious remodeling, from which works of commercial theater typically benefit prior to being reviewed, but which current economics prevent for opera, was incorporated into the 1981 New England Conservatory production. A large change in tone was achieved, for instance, by replacing the lively accordion dance that had introduced the second act with a more serious prelude. Gradually, and almost entirely through the attentions of university and conservatory opera departments, A Month in the Country is attaining its rightful place in the American opera repertory.


Biographical note on Lee Hoiby

Lee Hoiby was born in Wisconsin in 1926 of Scandinavian extraction. His maternal grandfather was a violinist and teacher who emigrated from Denmark. His aunts comprised a touring all-girls saxophone band, and like Brahms, he was forced by his father to entertain in alcoholic dives, leading him to rebel against any form of pop music, while unavoidably imbibing the idiom. Important European musicians in flight from Hitler forgathered at the remarkable war-time music department of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Among them were performers like the Pro Arte Quartet, led by Arnold Schoenberg's son-in-law Rudolph Kolisch, from whom Hoiby inbibed the highest levels of European musicianship. They also introduced him to the music of Schoenberg and Webern, which he viscerally rejected. His prodigious pianistic gift was nurtured by Gunnar Johansen, the Danish virtuoso who privately recorded the complete keyboard works of Bach, Liszt and Busoni. Johansen passed Hoiby on to his own pianistic mentor, the Busoni acolyte Egon Petri, with whom he studied at Cornell and Mills College.

On the verge of a career as a concert pianist Hoiby was offered, on the basis of a few compositions submitted without his knowledge, a full scholarship to study composition with Gian Carlo Menotti at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Menotti subjected Hoiby to two years of strict Palestrina counterpoint, then infected him with operatic ambitions. He worked closely with Menotti as assistant during the period of the historically unique simultaneous successes on the world operatic and Broadway stages, of The Consul, The Saint of Bleecker Street, and The Medium. The effectiveness of Hoiby's 1957 one-act opera The Scarf was noted at the first Italian Spoleto Festival, and it was produced at the New York City Opera the following season. Hoiby's next opera, Natalia Petrovna (NYCO, 1964; revised version, A Month in the Country, 1980) was praised by the distinguished Washington critic Paul Hume as bearing a closing octet "of overwhelming beauty, a supreme moment in opera." Hoiby's 1971 setting of Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke (with libretto by Lanford Wilson) was declared "the finest American opera to date" by Harriet Johnson of the New York Post. Still, the mid-twentieth century prejudice against tonality and lyricism, combined with Hoiby's own professional and social independence, worked against widespread recognition. In 1981 Peter Davis wrote of a new production of Summer and Smoke in New York Magazine that "Perhaps ten years ago, music of this sort, unabashedly drenched in ardent melody, was considered something of an embarrassment. Today such an attitude seems childish and irrelevant."

Hoiby continued to pursue lyric opportunities with his 1986 setting of Shakespeare's final play, The Tempest, (for the Des Moines Metro Opera) of which Opera Magazine (London) wrote that it was "redolent of Das Rheingold and Richard Strauss, but even so was melodically, harmonically, and musically, pure Hoiby," while the Christian Science Monitor found it "superbly singable and downright beautiful". He has recently completed a lavish three-act setting of Romeo and Juliet, which has yet to be produced. Other operatic works by Mr. Hoiby include the one-act comedy Something New for the Zoo (1979); the musical monologues The Italian Lesson (1981, text by Ruth Draper) and Bon Appetit! (1985, text by Julia Child) which ran off-Broadway and toured nationally with Jean Stapleton, and a one-act chamber opera, This Is the Rill Speaking (1992, on the play by Lanford Wilson). Recent vocal chamber works include a music-theater piece on texts of Virginia Woolf called What Is the Light? for Claire Bloom and the 92nd Street Y; Rain Forest for voice, wind quintet and piano, on prose poems of Elizabeth Bishop for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival; and Sonnets and Soliloquies, a group of Shakespeare settings for soprano Jennifer Foster and the Miro String Quartet, to be premiered at the Arizona Chamber Music Festival next March. Also of note among his larger compositions for the voice is his 1991 setting of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s I Have a Dream for baritone and orchestra, which has had memorable performances by baritone William Stone and bass-baritone Simon Estes.

Hoiby's immense contribution to the song repertoire is recognized by American singers everywhere. His style is an elegant and unobvious bridging of the lyrical worlds of Verdi and Gershwin, which can be profoundly moving or smoothly good-humored, but skirts entirely the modernist obsession with "originality". He turns frequently to texts of great literary and civic value. His exemplary performer has been the great American soprano Leontyne Price, who, from 1964 until her retirement in 1996, introduced many of his best known poem settings and arias to the public, including "The Serpent" of Roethke, "Be Not Afeard" (from The Tempest), the Dickinson songs, the "Evening" of Wallace Stevens, "Lady of the Harbor" and "Where the Music Comes From."

Hoiby has also made significant contributions to the piano repertory (in addition to his demanding song accompaniments), including two piano concertos and a volume of solo piano works published by G. Schirmer. His choral music is performed in churches throughout the USA and in Great Britain. Indeed, some of his most substantial works are in that form, including the Christmas cantata A Hymn of the Nativity (text by Richard Crashaw), the oratorio Galileo Galilei (libretto by Barrie Stavis), and an accrual of works for voice, chorus and orchestra on texts of Walt Whitman which have been gathered into a full evening's program called A Whitman Service. He has written chamber music in numerous combinations, including sonatas for violin, 'cello, Pastoral Dances for flute and chamber orchestra, Schubert Variations (nonette) and Dark Rosaleen (Rhapsody on a theme by James Joyce) just recorded by the Ames Piano Quartet and to be released by Albany this winter.

For more information on Mr. Hoiby and his work, visit his website at www.leehoiby.com.

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