Hugo Weisgall: Six Characters in Search of an Author
Liner Notes   Cat. No. 80454     Release Date: 1994-01-01

Lyric Opera Center for American Artists; Members of the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra, Lee Schaenen

A momentous event in American opera—and the vibrant performance enshrined on these discs—took place in Chicago at the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists (the junior company of the Lyric Opera of Chicago) in 1990. This event went almost unheralded; it was only noticed locally, and (save for an enthusiastic review by The New Yorker's Andrew Porter) it was ignored afterward by a national press interested on the one hand in star singers and on the other in the latest "cutting-edge" atrocities.

Nevertheless, Hugo Weisgall's Six Characters in Search of an Author (1956), with a libretto by the Irish playwright Denis Johnston, showed itself, in the National Public Radio broadcast several months later of the Chicago performances, to be a masterpiece of American opera. It is now plain that Six Characters deserves to be placed on the level of such vastly important works as Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts (1928), Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe (1956), and Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra (1966) (New World Records 80322).

It goes without saying that the recriminations, guilt, and hatreds that suffuse the opera are the very stuff of twentieth-century angst; not surprisingly, they are the very stuff of opera itself. It is by no means the smallest achievement of Six Characters as a work for the lyric stage that it manages so completely to link the historical preoccupations of opera with the abiding psychological atmosphere of contemporary life and culture. On the philosophical level, the opera takes over, and deepens, Pirandello's lifelong concern with the inescapably nihilistic questioning of the metaphysical nature of reality.

One must not overlook for a moment that it is music, and only music, that has made Six Characters the artistic miracle that it undoubtedly is. First and foremost, Hugo Weisgall is an extraordinary musician, with an easy command of all the literature and materials of music. He is known primarily for his operas, a long string of which constitute the largest single contribution in the history of American opera.

He has always written—and Six Characters is certainly no exception—in a difficult style, harmonically knotty, even though always clearly scored. His writing has often seemed post-Bergian, with its combination of a high level of chromaticism and what might be called the avoidance of the avoidance of tonality. What is so remarkable about Weisgall as an operatic composer is his ability to write music that impresses solely as music and at the same time mirrors the stage in a consistently uncanny way.

It is this combination of musical independence and dramatic relevance that so distinguishes Six Characters. In composing the opera, Weisgall drew on many sources: updated Gregorian chant, the nineteenth-century German synagogue service, early twentieth-century Italian verismo, and Schoenbergian expressionism. Like Pirandello himself, whose original play has its roots in the life of the playwright's native Sicily, Weisgall draws on his entire artistic and human background to create his work.

The stature of the musical outcome of Six Characters is proved by one simple fact: Unlike most American operas, and unlike almost all operas written since World War II, Six Characters contains vocal material—notably the arias for the Coloratura and the Stepdaughter in Act I—that can be excerpted from the opera, and performed independently in concert. What gives these arias their precious attribute of autonomous existence is sheer songfulness, extended, ripe, and memorable.

Much the same can be said, too, about the immense power of the opera's end, with its gathering intensity of melody. Indeed, it is the profusion of melody, pleasurable to sing, play, and hear, that marks the entire score of Six Characters, and gives it its distinguished place among American operas.

Lyric Opera Center for American Artists

Hugo Weisgall: Six Characters in Search of an Author

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Six Characters in Search of an Author: Act I
Hugo Weisgall
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Six Characters in Search of an Author: Act II, Part I
Hugo Weisgall
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Six Characters in Search of an Author: Act II, Part II
Hugo Weisgall
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Six Characters in Search of an Author: Act III
Hugo Weisgall
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