Simanaitis Says

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THE OPERA AIN’T OVER… until we wish each other a Merry Christmas! And here’s Part 2, following yesterday’s Part 1. Today’s Christmas operas include one of Russian folklore, one that’s Hollywood-based, one celebrating a wartime truce, one first performed on TV, and, echoing Part 1’s La Bohème, one that’s not particularly Christmasy.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera cribs its title from Nikolai Gogol’s short-story folk tale Christmas Eve. It’s set in an 18th century Ukrainian village where the widow Solokha helps the Devil steal the moon. Maybe she’s a witch. Solokha’s son Vakula the Smith wants to marry Oksana, who demands that he bring her a pair of the Tsaritsa’s slippers. Patsyuk the Sorcerer has vareniki (sort of like pierogi, only more magical) jump into his mouth. Vakula has the Devil jump out of his sack. Vakula settles for the Tsaritsa’s boots, so does Oksana, and all ends happily.

Soprano Yevgeniya Mravina portrays Oksana at the premiere of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve, at the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, December 10, 1895.

Jimmy Stewart, Heldentenor? Jake Heggie transformed the Jimmy Stewart holiday favorite It’s a Wonderful Life into an opera. Houston Grand Opera performed its premiere on December 2, 2016. I’ve never seen it, but I sure enjoy SNL’s parody of the movie.

Saturday Night Live opener, December 15, 2018.

Silent Night: An Opera in Two Acts, composed by Kevin Puts, made its premiere at the Ordway Theater, Saint Paul, Minnesota, on November 12, 2011. This opera was also based on a film, Joyeux Noël, 2005, which in turn is based on the factual Christmas Truce/Weinnachsfrieden/Trȇve de Noël of World War I. This short-lived truce took place spontaneously, without official directives, during Christmastide 1914. British, French, and German soldiers crossed trenches and exchanged seasonal greetings, food, and souvenirs. Some engaged in friendly football matches.

The 1914 Christmas Truce, as depicted by Frederic Villiers in the Illustrated London News, January 9, 1915.

In Act 1 of Heggie’s Silent Night, German soldier Nicholas, an opera singer in civilian life, hears Scottish soldiers singing across no-man’s land. He responds with Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. Soon, the Scots respond with pipers accompanying Nicholas. It’s a moving scene, all the more dramatic representing the actual unauthorized truce.

Amahl and the Night Visitor, by Gian Carlo Menotti, was commissioned by NBC and premiered by the NBC Opera Theatre on December 24, 1951. It was the first opera specifically composed for television in America.

There was drama in its TV production: Even as the airdate approached, Menotti had yet to finish the score. The performers received final passages of the opera just days before the live broadcast. Menotti’s life partner, fellow composer Samuel Barber, helped complete the orchestration. Arturo Toscanini conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra in the dress rehearsal; Thomas Schipper conducted for the broadcast.

The original broadcast of Amahl and the Night Visitors, December 24, 1951.

Amahl is disabled and can walk only with a crutch. What’s more, he’s a teller of tales so his mother doesn’t believe him about seeing an amazing star. Nor does she believe him at first about three regal visitors at the door.

The Three Kings are kind to Amahl, though his mother initially relishes the opportunity of stealing some of their gold. King Melchior sings, “Oh, Woman, You Can Keep That Gold,” because the Christ Child has no need of earthly wealth. Once the mother understands the kings’ mission, she repents. Amahl, having nothing else to give, offers his crutch for the Christ Child, and his leg is miraculously healed. He leaves with the Three Kings to make this offering.

Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel has nothing to do with Christmas. Indeed, this opera is (pun alert) a grim story. However, like Mozart’s The Magic Flute, it’s a kid-friendly opera that’s often performed around holiday time.

However, it wouldn’t be appropriate to wear my opera T-shirt, the one with “Murder, Treachery, Adultery, and Incest—All Sung to your Favorite Tunes.” Wouldn’t you know, the T-shirt omits cannibalism. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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