The Metropolitan Opera at Christmas time with a large poster for Humperdinck's opera Hansel and Gretel displayed in the window
The Metropolitan Opera at Christmas time with a large poster for Humperdinck's opera Hansel and Gretel displayed in the window

Christmas operas are operas which are thematically based on either the Nativity of Jesus or secular Christmas stories. The earliest Christmas operas appeared in the early 17th century, not long after the creation of the art form. Because of the ban on secular theatrical works during the season of Advent, these early Christmas operas, while elaborately staged, were based on religious themes relating to the Nativity. By the mid 19th century the ban on secular operas during Advent had ceased, and operas based on a wider array of Christmas themes, such as Santa Claus and King Wenceslaus, emerged. Several operas have been inspired by Charles Dickens' 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, including works by composers Bernard Herrmann and Thea Musgrave. The story of the Magi has also been the basis of several operas, including Gian Carlo Menotti's 1951 opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. Initially written for television performance, Menotti's opera has become the only modern Christmas opera to earn an enduring place in the live opera performance repertoire. In the 21st century, composer Kevin Puts' Silent Night (2011) achieved critical success and won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2012.

History

Mr. Fezziwig's Ball, from the first edition of Charles Dickens's 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, the inspiration for numerous Christmas operas
Mr. Fezziwig's Ball, from the first edition of Charles Dickens's 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, the inspiration for numerous Christmas operas

The first Christmas operas, dating from the early 17th century, had librettos based on the Nativity of Jesus and were privately performed. At various times well into the 19th century, public theatres in Italy and other Catholic countries were closed during the season of Advent, the four weeks up to and including Christmas Eve. The opera season customarily recommenced on St. Stephen's Day, 26 December.[1] Numerous world premieres have taken place in Italy on that day, although all were on secular subjects and unrelated to Christmas.[a] The prohibition of secular theatrical performances during Advent was to some extent circumvented by the performance of azioni sacre, operas on religious themes, often with elaborate staging. One of the earliest Christmas operas of this type was Giovanni Battista da Gagliano and Jacopo Peri's Il gran natale di Christo salvator nostro (The Great Nativity of Christ, Our Saviour), first performed on Christmas Day 1622.

The second half of the 19th century, when the Advent restrictions were no longer in place, saw new operas on a variety of Christmas themes and usually premiering during the Christmas season, a practice which has continued into the 21st century. Some have been directly based on the Nativity itself or figures closely connected to it such as the Three Magi, while others have focused on Christmas celebrations or traditional figures such as Father Christmas, Knecht Ruprecht, or King Wenceslaus. Nikolai Gogol's short story Christmas Eve has been the inspiration of three Russian language operas: Tchaikovsky's Vakula the Smith (1876) and its revised version Cherevichki (1887), and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Christmas Eve (1895). At least nine Christmas operas have been based on Charles Dickens's novella, A Christmas Carol, including one in German and one in Italian.[2]

On Christmas Eve 1950 Gian Carlo Menotti's Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors was premiered by the NBC Opera Theater as the inaugural presentation made by the newly created Hallmark Hall of Fame.[3] The first opera written specifically for television, it was immensely popular at its premiere and was dubbed by Life magazine as a Christmas Classic in 1952.[4] Menotti never intended for the work to remain solely confined to the medium of television, and Amahl and the Night Visitors has since been the only Christmas themed opera to become an enduring part of the live opera performance repertory; particularly with smaller opera companies and at colleges and music conservatories.[5] While predominately overlooked by larger opera houses, Amahl has been performed and recorded by The Royal Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The success of Menotti's opera is also credited with inspiring the future investment in Christmas specials on American television which resulted in the creation of more than 50 Christmas operas and musicals for that medium.[6]

Although Amahl and the Night Visitors has enjoyed a measure of success, no Christmas opera to date has been able to achieve the same wide popularity as Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker or Handel's Messiah.[7] Several 21st century composers have attempted to create a popular Christmas work for the opera medium, including Mark Adamo whose Becoming Santa Claus was well received at the Dallas Opera in December 2015.[7][8][9] Also successful is John Adams' Christmas opera-oratorio El Niño (2000) which has been semi-staged by several opera companies and orchestras internationally. Of further importance is Kevin Puts' Pulitzer Prize winning opera Silent Night (2011) which has been staged by several American opera companies and by the Wexford Festival Opera in 2014.[10][11][12] The original 2011 production of that work by the Minnesota Opera was filmed for the PBS program Great Performances.[13]

While not based on Christmas themes, some operas based on fairy tales or nursery rhymes such as Massenet's Cendrillon,[b] Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, and Victor Herbert's Babes in Toyland have been traditionally performed during the Christmas season. Hansel and Gretel, which premiered in Germany on 23 December 1893, has been a Christmas staple at the Metropolitan Opera since 1905. On Christmas Day 1931 it became the first opera to be transmitted live on the radio from the Met.[15] Puccini's La bohème, whose first two acts take place on Christmas Eve, is also frequently presented at some point during the Christmas season, especially at the Metropolitan Opera, London's Royal Opera House, and Opera Australia.[16][17][18]

List of Christmas operas

Stage setting for the Prologue of Per la festività del Santo Natale in its first performance (Rome, 1727)
Stage setting for the Prologue of Per la festività del Santo Natale in its first performance (Rome, 1727)

The following is a chronological, but not exhaustive, list of operas with librettos explicitly based on Christmas themes.

17th and 18th centuries

19th century

Oleg Videman as Vakula in a 2005 performance of Tchaikovsky's Cherevichki at La Scala, Milan
Oleg Videman as Vakula in a 2005 performance of Tchaikovsky's Cherevichki at La Scala, Milan

20th century

The vocal score for Leroux's opera Les cadeaux de Noël which premiered in Paris on Christmas Day 1915
The vocal score for Leroux's opera Les cadeaux de Noël which premiered in Paris on Christmas Day 1915
The final scene of Pavel Helebrand's 1996 opera Jesličky svatého Františka (The Nativity Scene of Saint Francis) in one of its many performances in Ostrava
The final scene of Pavel Helebrand's 1996 opera Jesličky svatého Františka (The Nativity Scene of Saint Francis) in one of its many performances in Ostrava
Frederic Villiers' depiction of the 1914 Christmas truce, the setting for Kevin Puts' 2011 opera Silent Night
Frederic Villiers' depiction of the 1914 Christmas truce, the setting for Kevin Puts' 2011 opera Silent Night

21st century

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Among the operas which have premiered in Italy on St. Stephen's Day are Donizetti's Anna Bolena and Lucrezia Borgia, Bellini's Norma, and Rossini's Aureliano in Palmira.
  2. ^ Cendrillon is particularly popular in France for Christmas performances.[14]
  3. ^ Giovanni Battista da Gagliano (1594–1651) was the younger brother of Marco da Gagliano.[19]
  4. ^ Jacopo Cicognini (1577–1633) was the father of Giacinto Andrea Cicognini.[20]

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