BARAB: Little Red Riding Hood / Margaret Astrup, Jennifer Caraluzzi, sopranos; Hernan Berisso, baritone; ad hoc orchestra; Andrew Gordon, conductor / Centaur CRC3508
I wonder if anyone besides those who lived through the late 1950s and into the ’60s really remember Seymour Barab and how wonderful he was. The publicity blurb for this release tell us that Little Red Riding Hood was his first and most successful comic opera (actually an opera comique with spoken dialogue, like his later Snow White and Rose Red), but Barab wrote a ton of wonderful music during those years that is still delightful to hear. How many of you remember his setting of A Child’s Garden of Verses (recorded by Russell Oberlin) or Dorothy Parker’s Songs of Perfect Propriety (sung, and recorded, by the wonderful Barbara Cook)? Or, for that matter, his updating of Snow White and Rose Red?
Be that as it may, this sprightly, lively performance of Barab’s Red Riding Hood will make you smile and perhaps even more than that. Conductor Andrew Gordon and his cast of three not only deliver their lines with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek, but they can all sing without wobbles (a miracle!) and they have perfect diction (double miracle!). The only problem was that the album cover didn’t indicate which soprano was singing Red Riding Hood and which one the Mother, so I had to go to YouTube where I found a recording of Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by Margaret Astrup. She’s definitely our mother and grandma (singing the latter in a cracked, nasal voice, very much in character), so Caraluzzi is our Red Riding Hood.
Barab’s genius was in being able to write for children without writing down to them. Thus his jokes, although sometimes a bit corny, are always funny because they presume that his audience of children are bright and not a bunch of dunces. Puns were always a part of his librettos, which he normally wrote himself, but there were also little jokes on being a child…having to mind one’s manners, not talking to strangers, all the time showing the kids that being a bit of a smart-aleck was not only fun but important to survival in our modern world. In Red Riding Hood, the wolf makes it clear in his introduction that he’s not a vegetarian, so please don’t bother giving him fruits or veggies to eat, so later when Red Riding Hood describes the “delicious” strawberries in her basket, the wolf yells out, “STOP it! You’ve gone and ruined my appetite!”
So of course when the wolf dresses up as Grandma (who isn’t eaten, she hides in a closet) and Red Riding Hood is attacked, she talks about all the various ways one can serve strawberries: shortcake, pudding, ice cream, souffles, etc., until the wolf almost upchucks and runs outside to save himself. The friendly woodsman kills him with his axe, and they all live happily ever after (apparently this was the only Grandma and Riding Hood eater in the neighborhood). Listening to this, I was also reminded of the old Fractured Fairy Tales version of the story, in which the wolf was blown up by a substitute “basket o’ goodies” loaded with dynamite. Ah, yes, they don’t write those fairy tales like they used to!
A splendid fun release, highly recommended for those days when Beethoven and Mahler just seem to dour and deep for your mood.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley