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CHRISTMAS OPERAS PART 1

ONE OF MY OPERA T-shirts reads “Murder, Treachery, Adultery, and Incest—All Sung to your Favorite Tunes.” In marked contrast, and what with the approaching holiday, I went looking for operas associated with Christmas. I found several, with tidbits a’plenty for Part 1 today and Part 2 tomorrow.

The Metropolitan Opera’s home, Lincoln Center, New York City, at Christmastime. Image by Ralph Daly from Birmingham.

Puccini’s La Bohème opera of bohemian love in Paris isn’t Christmas-themed per se. However, the opera’s general popularity and its Act II Christmas setting make it perennial holiday fare.

M

Make Your Own World of the TheatreAll You Need is a Pair of Scissors and Glue, by Rosemary Lowndes and Claude Kaïler, Angus & Roberts, 1982. Shown here: Act II, Café Momus.

Act II has the guys and their girlfriends enjoying a raucous Christmas Eve party at Café Momus in Paris’s Latin Quarter, where, among other hijinks, they con Musetta’s rich gentleman friend into picking up the tab. There’s also a colorful parade with everyone celebrating the holiday.

A Metropolitan Opera production of La Bohème, Act II at Café Momus. Image by Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera.

Il Gran Natale di Christo Salvator Nostro, The Great Nativity of Christ our Savior, one of the earlier operas of any kind, was composed by Giovanni Battista da Gagliano and Jacopo Cicognini. It was first performed on Christmas day 1622, this day of performance and religious theme getting around general closures of public theaters during Advent, the four weeks up to and including Christmas Eve.

Theater shutdowns during Advent continued well into the 19th century. Things got lax by the middle of the 1800s, though, and composers turned to Christmas themes, popular as well as religious.

Gogol’s Christmas Eve, part of his 1829–1832 collection Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, inspired two Russian composers of note, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, to write Christmas operas. By the way, one of Gogol’s satiric short stories, The Nose, inspired a modern opera of the same name by Dmitri Shostakovish. The Nose has nothing to do with Christmas.

Nikolai Vasilevich Gogol, 1809–1852, Russian writer and dramatist of Ukrainian origin. His Christmas Eve is based on Ukrainian folk tales.

Tchaikovsky’s Vakula the Smith isn’t nearly as popular an opera, nor as frequently performed, as his Eugene Onegin, for example. Vakula the Smith was performed only 18 times, at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre in 1876. And, apparently, for good reason.

Vakula the Smith, cover of a piano score.

Eventually, even Tchaikovsky didn’t think much of it: “… the style of Vakula is not operatic, but symphonic… there is no correspondence between the music and what is taking place on stage.” In 1885, he revised the work as Cherevichki, The Slippers. This revision has been performed as recently at 2009 at The Royal Opera House Covent Garden.

Oleg Videman as Vakula in a 2005 performance of Tchaikovsky’s Cherevichki at La Scala, Milan. Image by AlfaPegas.

Tomorrow’s Christmas operas in Part 2 include Rimsky-Korsakov’s Gogol-inspired Christmas Eve, a Christmas-movie-based opera, another celebrating a wartime truce, a Gian Carlo Menotti opera composed specifically for TV, and a Humperdinck opera that’s non-Christmasy but nonetheless perennial holiday fare.

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

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