In an ideal world, Hindemith’s 1961 on-act opera “The Long Christmas Dinner” would be be a perennial holiday favorite, alongside Menotti’s 1951 “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”
Both operas use a deceptively simple tonal language, making the music sound accessible without being cliche or trite. And both offer fresh takes on traditional holiday narratives.
“Amahl” is associated with the Christmas story, while “The Long Christmas Dinner” looks at a more personal holiday story — the American family. This one-act opera traces the history of the Bayard family through several generations of Christmas dinners. There are marriages, births, deaths, and family falling-outs, all told in a marvelously economic fashion.
Hindemith’s music makes connections between the constant parade of characters — motifs for one generation are reinterpreted for the next. The opera opens with the first Christmas in a new house, and ends ninety years later with the final Christmas at that same house. Hindemith’s opening music is referenced in the closing, helping provide dramatic closure to the work, while hinting that life for the Bayard family will go on.
Thornton Wilder’s libretto should resonate with anyone who has grown up with holiday family dinners. There are the comfortably familiar family stories, the interplay between family members, the remembrance of those passed, and the excitement of new additions to the family, both spouses and children.
This performance works quite well, I think, and effectively carries the drama (although seeing it might help me keep all the characters straight more easily). Leon Botstein conducted what sounded to me like a simple, straight-forward performance of the work. The singers blended well in ensemble, and delivered clean, clear solo performances, making it easy to understand every word.
To me, it was an ideal presentation of a work that should appeal to more than just opera aficionados. Thornton Wilder’s insights into family traditions, illuminated by Hindemith’s music should resonate with most people, I think. But it can also conjure up a ghost or two, which perhaps keeps it from being a holiday favorite.
Beautifully recorded and highly recommended.
Paul Hindemith: The Long Christmas Dinner
Libretto by Thornton Wilder
Camille Zamora, Sara Murphy, Catherine Martin, Kathryn Guthrie, Glenn Seven Allen, Scott Murphree, Jarrett Ott, Josh Quinn
American Symphony Orchestra; Leon Botstein, conductor