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Hoiby: Bon Appetit!, This Is The Rill Speaking / Eastman Opera Theater

Release Date: 05/06/2008 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1028   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Lee Hoiby
Performer:  Kathryn CowdrickLauren IezziJordan WilsonJulia Cramer,   ... 
Conductor:  Benton Hess
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Eastman Opera Theatre Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 57 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

HOIBY Bon Appétit! 1 This Is the Rill Speaking Gil Benton Hess, cond; Kathryn Cowdrick ( Julia Child ); 1 Julia Cramer ( Judy ); Jordan Wilson ( Willy ); Kate Hannigan ( Mother/Allison ); Brent Arnold ( Read more class="ARIAL12i">Keith/Father/Earl ); Lauren Iezzi ( Maybelle/Peggy ); Joey Wilgenbusch ( Tommy/Manny ); Eastman Op Theater O ALBANY TROY 1028 (57:07 Text and Translation)

I have heard several lovely art songs by Lee Hoiby (b. 1926), but I realize I’ve never before heard one of his operas. Summer and Smoke , after the Tennessee Williams play, is perhaps his most renowned. I’ve noticed increasing performances of his work in recent years; Hoiby is one of those composers who were considered “irrelevant” by postwar modernists, as he falls much more into the Rorem-Barber-Menotti camp of American high lyricism. Fortunately he’s lived long enough to see times change back to his point of view, and we can listen to this music with a much less biased filter than existed a couple of decades back.

These two one-act operas are light in different ways. I can’t resist making the obvious quip that Bon Appétit! (1987) is a soufflé, considering its subject matter. Specifically, it is an almost literal transcription of a “French Chef” episode where Julia Child (the solo singer in the opera) bakes a chocolate cake. The piece is sweet, funny, and elegant. Hoiby’s language is very much that of mid-century French music (I immediately thought that Poulenc’s La voix humaine would be a natural dramatic pairing to its comedy).

This Is the Rill Speaking (1992) isn’t much longer (around a half-hour), but while similarly gentle in tone and sound, it has much more emotional weight. From a short play by Lanford Wilson, the piece is a concise evocation of life in an American town in the 1950s, centered on a boy, Willy, coming of age and beginning a quest for sexual identity. Both Wilson and Hoiby (with the aid of his longtime librettist/editor Mark Shulgasser) sketch telling portraits of characters with incisive strokes. The feeling is a mix of such referents as Our Town and Knoxville: Summer of 1918 . There are memorable tunes (Willy’s evocation of a bridge being torn down), and at the end all the characters unite in a ravishing sextet where all their thoughts are fused into a communal reverie. Indeed, this conclusion is the payoff that the music needs and the composer delivers. (By the way, a “rill” is a small stream. Willy dreams of being a nature writer who will speak in the voices of inanimate natural objects, and phenomena.)

My one criticism of Hoiby’s work, based on this sample, is that it can be too gentle and mellifluous for its own good. The orchestration is clear and transparent, but often thin—but then that does help for the voices to be heard and understood. This issue comes more to the fore in Bon Appétit! I remember Julia Child as being rather more exuberant, rambunctious, and also a bit awkward—a true and beloved original of the sort television now fears and tries to weed out. Hoiby’s score to my taste is a little too proper and limpid. It could use a little more comic drama, especially when she drops the pan!

But This Is the Rill Speaking is very satisfying and worth the price of admission. Also, the young singers are all excellent. Kathryn Cowdrick should be saluted in particular for some of the best English enunciation I’ve heard in ages, though all the singers in the companion opera distinguish themselves this way as well. It’s encouraging to see how young American vocalists instinctively understand the drama in musical theater nowadays, a legacy from our popular musicals that is working its way into operatic practice. And of course, this is also a tribute to the composer’s writing for voice. Bravo to all.

FANFARE: Robert Carl

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Works on This Recording

Bon Appetit! by Lee Hoiby
Performer:  Kathryn Cowdrick (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  Benton Hess
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Eastman Opera Theatre Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
This is the Rill Speaking by Lee Hoiby
Performer:  Lauren Iezzi (Mezzo Soprano), Jordan Wilson (Baritone), Julia Cramer (Soprano),
Brent Arnold (Bass), Joey Wilgenbusch (Tenor)
Conductor:  Benton Hess
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Eastman Opera Theatre Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 

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