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The Long Christmas Dinner, Alice Tully Hall, New York — review
From the Financial Times of Mon, 22 Dec 2014 17:52:06 GMT
The operatic version of ‘The Long Christmas Dinner’©Jito Lee

The operatic version of ‘The Long Christmas Dinner’

Say this for Leon Botstein. His conducting may be more notable for efficiency than for dynamic vitality, but he puts together intriguing programmes. And so it was on Friday at Lincoln Center when he celebrated the holidays — provocatively, he allows — with a half-theatrical, half-musical, totally inspired tribute to the playwright Thornton Wilder (1897-1975).

As president of Bard College and guardian of the American Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1962 by none less than Leopold Stokowski, Botstein juggles demanding careers with apparent nonchalance. On this happy occasion he concocted a double-header that began with a performance of Wilder’s short play, The Long Christmas Dinner (1931), and ended with Paul Hindemith’s genial operatic version of the same work (1963).

On paper the repetition threatened to be boring. At Tully Hall, it turned out to be compelling.

The decor, a gently surreal dining room cleverly furnished by Zane Pihlstrom, remained unchanged. So did the basic action scheme, sensitively created by Jonathan Rosenberg. Only Olivera Gajic’s deft costumes reminded the viewer that the dinner in question spans 90 years and four generations in the life of a single all-American family. In this context, narrative time becomes a mundane matter of evolution.

Essentially, The Long Christmas Dinner remains an ensemble challenge that engages seven actors for the play and eight singers for the opera. The ASO effort proved that performers who do not sing tend to be more suave onstage than those who do. Still, both casts demonstrated worthy dedication to a noble cause.

Incidental intelligence: Wilder’s play left a decisive impression on Orson Welles, who referred to it in Citizen Kane (1941). The film includes a nine-year montage delineated in one extended vignette. “I did the breakfast scene thinking I’d invented it,” Welles admitted. “When I was almost finished, I suddenly realised that I’d unconsciously stolen it from Thornton.” No matter. According to the historic movie-wizard, Wilder was pleased.

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