Composer Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964) and playwright
Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) met during 1937 and their first
collaboration was on the film, “The Spanish Earth,” from
the same year.
Lillian Hellman’s successful play, “The Little Foxes,” is a tale of
family intrigue and greed. In 1946, Blitzstein received a
commission from the Serge Koussevitzky Foundation and
composed an opera, “Regina,” based upon Hellman’s play and
named for the main protagonist. Ms. Hellman was very
protective of her script, and after a three-year quarrelsome
exchange between these two artists, “Regina” premiered in
1949, 10 years after the play’s debut. Like Blitzstein’s other
stage works, it is a “play opera,” or a “Broadway opera,” in the
vein of similar efforts by Jerome Kern, Kurt Weill, and
George and Ira Gershwin.
Having survived the Great Depression, Marc Blitzstein joined
the American Communist Party during the 1930’s. This opera
is infused with a strong social consciousness, and is about a
greedy American family in the South. The conniving money
and power struggles are so intense that when Regina’s
husband, Horace, has a heart attack, she refuses to provide
his medicine and allows him to die.
Although this recording was performed by the Scottish Opera
Orchestra and Chorus with an international cast, it had an
idiomatic American “feel,” due in no small part to the
involvement of John Mauceri. As a longtime colleague and
friend of musical icon, Leonard Bernstein, the two conductors
worked together to fully realize Blitzstein’s true vision of
“Regina.” In fact, Bernstein had been an admirer of Blitzstein’s
music since the 1930’s. While at Harvard, Bernstein gave a
1939 performance of Blitzstein’s most famous stage work,
“The Cradle Will Rock,” and the two men established a
This 152-minute, two-CD set is a version of the “Regina” score
with the restoration of music which had been cut when it was
initially performed. Many of the problems with the score were
related to the aforementioned conflicts with playwright Lillian
Hellman. In all probability, this recording can lay claim to
reflecting Blitzstein’s original version, and Maestro Mauceri
should receive big kudos for bringing it to life.
The outstanding performance features bass Samuel Ramey
providing a deep, resonant portrayal of “Horace Gibbons.”
Baritone James Maddalena is best known for his portrayal
of “Richard Nixon,” in John Adam’s opera, “Nixon in China.”
In this recording of “Regina,” he acquits himself well in the
role of “Oscar Hubbard.” To quote the liner notes, in the
title role, mezzo-soprano Katherine Ciesinski is a perfect,
“Alabamian Clytemnestra,” circa 1900.
Seriously, all of the performers did a fine job, and I
can scarcely imagine Maestro Mauceri leading a better
performance of this work. As usual, the sound engineering
by the folks at Decca Records was good, and I’m glad that
this project was supported by producer Michael Haas.
Marc Blitzstein’s score contains elements of Dixieland
and Ragtime music, even going as far as to incorporate a
Ragtime ensemble into the opera’s Prologue. The accessible
style of the music reflected the musical theatre idiom that
Blitzstein preferred, while also demonstrating his mastery of
orchestral composition which totally served the drama.
This opera was my introduction to Blitzstein’s music, and
I look forward to exploring his other works, such as his
“Airborne Symphony.” This set was accompanied by an
informative booklet that included the libretto, essays and
time lines of the lives of both Marc Blitzstein and Lillian Hellman.
This is an important recording, and a fine one. Now, how
about a production of “Regina” on DVD?