Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Friday, January 1, 2021

Rigoletto on Film: II

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During this time of Covid, and with theatres dark all over the world, opera on film remains a particularly welcome alternative to live performance.

In the first installment of our discussion of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s version of Rigoletto ( we looked at the effect of camera movement and editing on his staging  of Verdi’s opera for the screen. Here we turn to the impact of natural and historic architectural environments on the experience of opera on film. Ponnelle’s Rigoletto was sold to the public, at least in part, on the strength of its location shooting. He asked his camera to draw the viewer’s gaze to the magnificent Renaissance structures of Mantua, Parma, and Sabbioneta that house the action. He further surprised the operatic audience with the natural environment chosen for the lyric drama’s final sequence. Rigoletto (Ingvar Wixell) and his dying daughter Gilda (Edita Gruberova) are afloat in a small boat on what we take to be Mantua’s river, the Mincio. Thanks to the artifice of cinematic editing, images of a shimmering river are spliced to an imagined 16th-century Italian cityscape in the background.


For those of our readers who have seen and heard Ponnelle’s Rigoletto (available on Youtube,, his staging will have breathed new life into one of Verdi’s most popular works and, perhaps, more emphatically, into two frequently excerpted arias, “Caro nome” and “La Donna è mobile.” Here are exceptional renditions of these perhaps too often heard chestnuts.

 “Caro nome,” Gilda’s musing on the name of the mysterious youth with whom she has fallen in love, is sung by Mattiwilda Dobbs who made her 1956 Met debut as Gilda following her success at La Scala, Covent Garden, and San Francisco. The first black singer to be cast as a romantic lead on the 39th Street stage, she sang primarily in Europe. In this commercial recording, Dobbs captures her character’s innocence and ardor with warmth and the assured execution of the filigreed ornaments.


Richard Tucker sings the Duke’s “La Donna è mobile (xxWoman is Fickle),” one of the catchiest tunes in all of music. Tucker, whose total of leading tenor Met performances is surpassed only by Giovanni Martinelli and Enrico Caruso, kept the role of the callous young Duke in his repertoire for the whole of his tenure in the company. He captures the libertine's swagger with the energy, spinning tone, and pellucid diction that marked his more than 30-year-long career.



Sunday, August 23, 2020

Rigoletto on Film: I

 We choose Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, staged by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1932-1988), as the first entry of our new format ( Rigoletto was the sixteenth of Verdi’s twenty-eight operas, and the first of the extraordinary trio (together with Il Trovatore and La Traviata) composed between 1851-1853. The opera was wildly successful at its Venice premiere and has been a fixture of the core repertoire of the world’s lyric stages ever since.

 Ponnelle was among the most inventive and successful director/designers of his generation. He worked extensively in Europe and in the United States, leaving a rich legacy of opera on television and film much of which is available for purchase as DVDs and accessible for streaming on xxYoutube. His stunning cinematic adaptations also include Madama Butterfly and Le Nozze di Figaro.

The question raised most urgently by our subject is this: How and to what effect does the experience of opera on film, or better, opera as cinema, that is freed from the constraints of the proscenium, differ from that of opera viewed and heard in the opera house or, indeed, in the movie house during a live telecast? Cinema’s camera movement and the processes of studio editing focus and refocus our gaze to a far greater degree than can lighting and direction for the stage or the movement afforded stage-bound television cameras.

Two elements of cinema privileged in its powerful vocabulary begin to answer the question: cinema’s ability to effect radical as well as subtle shifts in point of view both through camera distance and angle and through editing; its capacity to shoot both natural and built environments. These devices, mediated by the masterful hand of Ponnelle, further the suspension of disbelief. They conspire to counter the artifices of sung dialogue, of stage sets, and of the compression of a breathless narrative that unfolds in what appears to be a matter of days. Camera movement and editing prevail in many scenes, most emphatically in this nine-minute Act 2 sequence that captures the complexity of Rigoletto’s being.

 In this clip, Rigoletto swings from despair at the disappearance of his daughter, to rage at the courtiers who tricked him into abetting her abduction, to contrition as he pleads for her return, to horror on discovering that she has been raped by his master, the Duke of Mantua. The musical and dramatic gestures, thrilling hurdles for the baritone (here the excellent singer/actor Ingvar Wixell), find their reflection in Ponnelle’s visual gestures. The tragic figure of the court jester as he staggers across the curved balcony is intercut with shots of the courtiers who stare from below. Roving cameras catch the action in the foreground without losing sight of the elaborate architecture of the background, the late 16th-century Teatro all’Antica of the northern Italian town of Sabbioneta. At the very moment Rigoletto grasps that his beloved Gilda has been deposited in the Duke’s chambers, that the trap has succeeded, he is himself trapped by the camera against an unyielding wall. Shot and counter-shot of the Duke’s curtained bed and Rigoletto’s fury conspire with the music and libretto to tell the painful tale. Then, in a shot of prolonged duration, Rigoletto, proceeding on his knees from courtier to courtier, begs for their pity. The bed curtains part to reveal the Duke’s brazen leer in shocking closeup. The image of Gilda, face down on the bed, unleashes her father’s wrath, now laced with shame. That same image excites the courtiers’ obscene curiosity. In the end, the series of angle/reverse angle shots positions Rigoletto as dominant. He dispatches his tormentors who exit in a mocking dance.

In our next post, again devoted to the Verdi/Ponnelle Rigoletto, we will look closely at the film’s climax for the effect of location shooting on the experience of the operaphile at the movies.


Monday, August 10, 2020

How to Access Subtitles in Rigoletto Post

 If  you do not see subtitles when you open the link to the Rigoletto performance we included in our last post, just click on "cc" (closed caption) in the lower right-hand corner of the video.R

Saturday, August 8, 2020

A New Turn for OperaPost: Opera on Film

In this time of darkened theatres whose reopening for the 2020-2021 season is very much in question, especially in the United States, we propose to add a second format to our blog. Ours is an attempt to compensate, in some small way, for the irreplaceable live performance.

By opera on film we mean not the telecast of staged performances, such as the Met Live in HD, but performances that are genuinely cinematic, that is freed from the confines of the stage and directed and produced as movies. Two weeks in advance of publishing a new post, we will provide a link to the subtitled opera on film that we have chosen for its musical and dramatic qualities. Our intention is to give those who wish sufficient time to view the movie before receiving our post. 

Our first entry will be Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1983 film of Verdi's Rigoletto. Director Ponnelle's locations are the historical sites of Parma and Mantua among Northern Italian cities. The first-rank cast principals are Luciano Pavarotti, Edita Gruberova, and Ingvar Wixell. Riccardo Chailly conducts the Vienna Philharmonic.

And here is the link.


So, happy viewing and listening. We would appreciate your comments regarding our blog's "new turn" and the Rigoletto post that will be published on or about August 22.

Friday, July 17, 2020

The Met on the Air: From 1910 to 1932

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound. 

We pick up the story of the Saturday Afternoon broadcasts where we left off in our May 3, 2020 post, “The Met: Looking Back in a Time of Pandemic."Since the middle of March, during these months of closure in response to the urgency of social distancing, the company has each day streamed, without charge to the audience, Met performances from its video archive. This initiative born of the current crisis can be counted a giant step in the long journey that began inauspiciously on January 12, 1910 when, alas, the first two transmissions from the old house on 39th Street and Broadway were doomed by an inadequate apparatus. Olive Fremstad’s Tosca, Emmy Destinn’s Santuzza, and Enrico Caruso’s Canio were barely audible to the handful of listeners who held telephone receivers to their ears. Two decades would elapse before exigent general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza would allow himself to be persuaded that microphones and amplifiers had met the fidelity demands of grand opera. Gatti’s resistance was no doubt abetted by worry that the broadcasts would compromise in-house receipts. In 1931 the Met began the project of inveigling itself into millions of homes across the country, advancing the elusive ambition of naturalizing the stubbornly European art form. The deal struck with NBC provided for the transmission of twenty-four partial performances from the 39th Street stage in 1931-32 and again 1932-33 at the then hefty fee of $120,000 per year. 

The first nation-wide broadcast, the Christmas Day Hänsel und Gretel, was carried by more than one hundred stations on both the Red and Blue (later ABC) NBC networks and by shortwave around the world. The composer and critic Deems Taylor narrated the action over the music, to the distress of many listeners. Almost from the start, announcer Milton Cross was the unmistakable voice of the Met. During his introduction and the intermissions, in orotund tones and purple prose, he told the story of the opera, described sets and costumes, and added his own enthusiastic observations to the applause. Cross’s more than four-decade unbroken streak ended with his death in 1975. 

The radio audience of the first broadcast season, 1931-32, heard only one complete opera, the inaugural Hänsel und Gretel. Each of the remaining transmissions was limited to an hour. Despite the time constraint, the offerings allowed for a sampling of the company’s core repertoire, the annual Bohèmes, Traviatas and Walküres, the belated Met premiere of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, and occasional novelties such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko and Deems Taylor’s own Peter Ibbetson. On the roster were many of the world’s preeminent singers. Only scratchy fragments remain of the 1931-32 fare. We have therefore chosen to recall the first broadcast season through commercial recordings made by the very same artists in the very same roles they sang over the airways that year.

Georges Thill, the leading French tenor of the interwar period, sang with the New York company from Spring 1931 to Spring 1932. In his 1930 recording of Faust’s address to Marguerite’s dwelling, “Salut, demeure chaste et pure,” Thill deploys his signature sweet timbre, pellucid diction, and refined style. Thanks to a technique rare among his peers, he reaches the aria’s climax in a breathtaking high C taken in head voice.

Beniamino Gigli, on the other hand, was for most operaphiles the undisputed premier Italian tenor of the interwar period. Here, at the opening of Act IV of La Bohème, he is joined by the elegant baritone Giuseppe De Luca, a Met mainstay for two decades. In the jocular first section of the duet Rodolfo and Marcello exchange jabs about their lost lovers; in the lyrical second section, “O, Mimì, tu più non torni,” they bemoan their loss.

In the 1920s and early 1930s, Lucrezia Bori owned the title role of Verdi’s La Traviata. For Met audiences, the soprano’s moving, very personal, sometimes eccentric reading of the role defined Violetta. We hear Bori in a 1928 recording of “Ah, fors’è lui” and “Sempre libera.”

The return of Bellini’s Norma to the Met repertoire in 1927 was hailed as a landmark in the performance history of the opera. [See our previous post Thunderous applause was showered on Rosa Ponselle. And to this day, she is considered by many (including Maria Callas, the Norma of her generation) the Druid priestess for the ages. Ponselle’s 1929 recording of “Casta diva” and its cabaletta, “Ah! bello a me ritorno,” is a lesson in both phrasing and agility.

In 1940, nine years after the first NBC transmission, Texaco took on the prestigious sponsorship of Met broadcasts. Texaco’s sixty-three-year run remains the longest span of corporate support in radio history. And for nearly ninety years, Met broadcasts have generated a pool of opera consumers readily and repeatedly tapped for often sorely needed revenue. Such was the case during the Depression through the “Save the Met” campaign (once again see our post of early May). And such we hope will be the case upon the Met’s reopening, announced recently for New Year’s Eve 2020, when a faithful and grateful public will no doubt recall the months and months of daily video streaming that helped it survive its personal and cultural isolation.