Hindemith (The) Long Christmas Dinner
Hindemith’s final and least known opera, based on a 1931 play by Thornton Wilder, Das lange Weihnachtsmahl (‘The Long Christmas Dinner’) is – like his earliest essays in the genre – cast in a single act. Unlike them, however, it is a subtle and luminous conception, with none of the provocative and lurid (although undeniably exciting) Expressionism of his twenties. What catches the ear from the start are the limpid scoring and vocal lines, developing the beauty of tone found in the orchestral Marienleben songs and more intimate passages in Die Harmonie der Welt.
The opera depicts in 50 minutes a remarkable domestic panoply set across 90 years, encapsulated during the Christmas dinners of the Bayard family. Wilder conflates these (culminating in the Great War) into a freely evolving single event, with characters emerging from one side of the stage (denoting birth) and leaving by the other (denoting death).
Hindemith and Wilder blurred the distinctions between several characters and their descendants to underline familial continuity, appearing, being developed and reprised like musical themes. Chief among them is Lucia, sung radiantly by Ruth Ziesak, who dominates the first six scenes until departing, only to reappear briefly as her granddaughter in Scene 9. Lucia’s husband Roderick – sung solidly by Herman Wallén – eventually returns as his grandson Sam. Ursula Hesse von den Steinen brings great dignity to her portrayals of ageing matriarch Mother Bayard (who recalls when native Americans lived hard by) and Cousin Ermengarde, whose last exit through the dark door leaves the old house finally empty.
Janowski directs a fluent, superbly paced account, sung well throughout, accompanied by some splendid orchestral playing. Wergo’s sound is rich, so it is a shame they did not add another piece, the otherwise unavailable sketch Hin und zurück, perhaps.