Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Friday, May 29, 2020

In Memoriam: Jessye Norman, 1945-2019

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Jessye Norman died on September 30, 2019. We should not expect to see her like again. Vocally, dramatically, and physically, she dominated world stages throughout a career that spanned four and a half decades and an astonishing diversity of styles: those of the Baroque, 20th-century modernism, spirituals, jazz, the American songbook. Happily for us, the wide compass of her operatic repertoire of forty roles was captured on CD and DVD.

Norman was, of course, a dramatic soprano. Had she followed convention, she would have found a prominent place in the core offerings of premier opera companies. Her power and sumptuous timbre marked her as a worthy successor to, say, Zinka Milanov in the Italian canon or Kirsten Flagstad in the German. But she deviated from the prescribed path early in her career by eschewing Verdi (except for two rare operas she performed only in the recording studio) and avoiding the Wagnerian diva’s obligatory Isoldes and Brünnhildes. And she never engaged with the most popular opera composer of the 20th century, Puccini. In the peak years of Norman’s international fame she embraced Purcell, Berlioz, Richard Strauss, Janáček, Bartók, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Poulenc, and in doing so, was instrumental in reshaping the taste of the public and the standard offerings of the major lyric theatres.

In 1969, at only twenty-four, Norman made her opera debut with the prestigious Deutsche Oper in Berlin as Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The Thuringian princess became one of her favored roles. In her ecstatic entrance aria, “Dich teure Halle (O cherished hall),” Elisabeth invests the space with memories of her beloved minnesinger Tannhäuser and her joy at his return. In a 1985 London concert the audience gives an extended ovation to the singer’s stunning exhibition.



Another of Norman’s early Berlin roles was the Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. In the exquisite “Porgi, Amor (Love, grant me respite)” she entreats Amor to rekindle the affection of her philandering husband. Norman’s impeccable legato and clarity of attack limn the introspection of the Countess, her heroic voice hushed to the finely spun piano dynamics. We hear the soprano in the 1971 recording of the complete opera, conducted by Colin Davis.

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Ariadne in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos was, by far, the role Norman sang most frequently in her nearly one hundred appearances in over more than thirteen seasons at the Met. Both the comic Prima Donna of the Prologue and the tragic Ariadne of the opera seria suit the soprano’s temperament and her prodigious vocal resources. Norman negotiates the more than two-octave span of the aria, “Es gibt ein Reich (There is a kingdom),” from G sharp, well below the comfort zone of most sopranos, to high B flat, much of it forte, with remarkable evenness of timbre. Her crystalline diction conveys the despair of the Cretan princess, abandoned by her lover Theseus on the deserted isle of Naxos, as she begs for the deliverance of death. We hear Norman in a 1988 Leipzig recording led by Kurt Masur. A DVD of her Met Ariadne, made the same year, is available on Youtube.

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Post Script: Jessye Norman was the object of deep affection and high regard in France. She was the recipient of several official honors, including the Légion d’honneur. A measure of the esteem she enjoyed was the choice of Norman, an American artist, to sing “La Marseillaise” in the spectacular celebration of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution on July 14, 1989. Draped in the Tricolor that recalled “Marianne,” the national personification of the French Republic, she stood at the foot of the obelisk at the center of the Place de la Concorde and unfurled her huge voice in this extravagant rendition of what is arguably the most stirring of national anthems.





Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Met: Looking Back in a Time of Pandemic

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It has been some months since Operapost published its last entry. We take up our blog again, glad to be joining the individuals and organizations that are bringing more and more music into our isolation. Their number and reach tell us how very crucial music is at this moment and how critical the diffusion of music of all genres has become.
Over the years, our posts have centered largely on the history of New York’s dominant opera company, the Metropolitan. The Covid-19 pandemic that has attacked New York so cruelly, draws us once again to the Met’s past, particularly as we contemplate its future. In this installment, we look to three critical periods of the company’s history: that of the 1918 Spanish flu, of the Great Depression, and of the 1969 stand-off between management and labor that shut the theater for months. How the company fared during and after these crises may help us to anticipate how the Met will survive the current humanitarian and economic catastrophe.

Although New York was hit less hard than nearby Boston and Philadelphia during the three waves of the Spanish flu it endured between September 1918 and February 1919, the city suffered a terrible blow.  Thirty thousand New Yorkers of a total population of 5,600,000 died. Theaters and other entertainments, including the Metropolitan Opera, remained open for the entire 1918-1919 season--albeit under stricter regulation and inspection by the Department of Health. And despite its full  performance schedule, in the ten years that separate 1911 from 1921, the 1918-1919 season saw the deepest dip in gross box-office receipts.

More telling than the comparison between the Spanish flu and Covid-19 on the operations of the company is the comparison of the effects of the strike of 1969 with the current closure. (See our three posts on labor-management conflict at the Met, Ars et Labor: 1. The Met, 1906-1966, Ars et Labor: 2. The Met, 1969, Ars et Labor: 3. The Met, 1980). Under General Manager Rudolf Bing, the Met shut its doors for three months, from September to December. When the company finally opened the delayed season, the average percentage of filled seats fell from 96% to 89%. A significant number of patrons failed to renew their subscriptions. Eleven years later, in 1980, when yet another contract dispute threatened the season, subscriptions still lagged behind the 1969 tally by 16%. We should note that as recently as the 2016-17 season the capacity at the Met was 67% and the strength of its financial profile is not nearly what it was in the late 1960s.

The current predictions of depression-level unemployment in the coming months suggest that even a fleeting  glance at the effects of the Great Depression on the Met may be instructive. The company stayed afloat, unlike the Chicago Civic Opera forced to go under by its balance sheet. The fragile equilibrium that obtained through 1929–30 was undone by the more than 10% decline in subscriptions in 1930–31 and another 10% the next year.  Principal singers, with very few exceptions, agreed to reductions in contracts and fees. Ticket prices were lowered; the lost revenue was offset by a major reorganization. As 1932–33 began to take shape, and more than one-tenth of the city’s population was on public or private assistance, the season was shortened from twenty-four to sixteen weeks, and subscription costs were halved and individual ticket prices reduced in order to generate more robust sales. But the drastically reduced prices did little to spur subscriptions. The company took to the radio in a “Save the Met” campaign. Within two months the $300,000 goal was achieved. An astonishing one-third of the total was contributed by radio listeners. (We will devote our next post to the story of the Saturday afternoon broadcasts.)

The Met was, in no small part, “saved” also by the box-office draw of a late-1930s contingent of superlative Wagnerians. (See our  three posts, Wagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: I, The Dramatic SopranoWagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: II, The Heroic TenorWagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: III, Other Voices) on this remarkable moment of Met performance history.) The stars of this cohort were the Norwegian dramatic soprano Kirsten Flagstad and the Danish heldentenor Lauritz Melchior. The Flagstad-Melchior team guaranteed a full house in the seven seasons they sang together in New York—a stunning average of nearly thirty performances per season. We hear them at their peak in this 1939 studio recording of the duet that marks the triumphant finale of the prologue to Götterdämmerung. As the lovers declare their transcendent passion, Brünnhilde urges Siegfried on to new heights of heroism. Like the audiences of the Great Depression, we too are lifted out of our gloom by the boundless exuberance of these voices.




Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Dialogues des Carmélites: Poulenc’s Magnum Opus

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In May 11, 2019, the Met “Live in HD” will present this season’s revival of the company’s long-lived and beloved production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. The design and direction were new in 1977 when the Met introduced Poulenc’s work into its repertoire. Forty-two years and eight revivals later, it is one of the company’s oldest extant productions and Dialogues the most often performed opera composed in the second half of the 20th Century. 
Poulenc’s subject had a long, circuitous, and highly unusual genesis, originating in a tragic episode of the Reign of Terror related in a 19th-century memoir by Mère Marie de l’Incarnation, a Carmelite nun who had survived the destruction of the her convent and the execution of its religious community during the French Revolution. The memoir served as the source for a 1931 novella, “The Last on the Scaffold,” by German author Gertud von Le Fort. In its turn, the novella inspired a film scenario for which the celebrated novelist, Georges Bernanos, was commissioned in 1947 to write the dialogue. His text was subsequently adapted for the theater. The play was first staged in Germany in 1951 and then in France in 1953. Urged by his publisher to undertake a project for which he had well-known deep affinities, Poulenc completed the libretto and score of Dialogues des Carmélites in 1955. The opera was premiered in 1957 at Milan’s La Scala in Italian, in accord with the composer’s dictate that the text be sung in the vernacular of the audience.

Dialogues des Carmélites traces the spiritual journey of Blanche de la Force (an invention of von Le Fort), a young aristocrat, from the eve of the French Revolution to the darkest days of the Terror. Act I defines the morbidly fearful Blanche as she determines to leave her ancestral home in search of refuge in a Carmelite convent. The Old Prioress of the religious order, the high-born Madame de Croissy, cautions Blanche that the convent is not a refuge but a house devoted to prayer. In the complete recording of the cast of the 1957 Opéra de Paris premiere, we hear Denise Duval as Blanche and Denise Scharley as Madame de Croissy. Duval created the leading soprano roles in Poulenc’s three operas, the last two, Dialogues des Carmélites and La Voix humaine composed specifically with her voice and artistry in mind. Although mezzo-soprano Scharley never sang in North America, she pursued an active European career. Her sensational Madame de Croissy is at once commanding in her declamation of the rigorous rule of the order and tender towards the fragile, new postulant.

 

At the close of Act I, Blanche is witness to the agony of the dying Madame de Croissy and to the blasphemous imprecations of the woman who had been for so many a model of piety.
  
In Act II, the New Prioress, Madame Lidoine, evokes her own humble birth as she exhorts the nuns to humility in the face of the imminent Terror. She exhorts them also to shun the temptation of martyrdom, a diversion from the duty of prayer. Régine Crespin, she too a member of the first Paris cast, renders the forthright message of her extended monologue with her characteristic creamy timbre.


In Act III, the New Prioress comforts the congregation, imprisoned in the Conciergerie while awaiting the guillotine. She assents to the collective vow of martyrdom, reminding her flock that, in the Garden of Olives, Christ himself knew the fear of death. The sumptuous voice of Jessye Norman fills that phrase with overwhelming feeling.

The opera’s finale enacts the execution of the Carmelites. They sing in a chorus of diminishing numbers the serene prayer, “Salve Regina,” punctuated by the brutal sound of the falling blade as one by one each goes to her death. At the very end, Blanche, who had escaped arrest, and whose fear of life and death runs through the narrative, joins her sisters as the last to ascend the scaffold and the last to be heard. The unforgettable emotional charge of the scene is realized through the unflinching depiction of the horrific event and the joy of spiritual transcendence that flows from the protagonist, finally free of her own terrors. This video is excerpted from a recent South American production.




Monday, April 29, 2019

Wagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: III, Other Voices

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In the first of three linked posts (http://operapost.blogspot.com/2019/03/wagners-last-golden-age-at-met-i.html) we undertook a fleeting review of the dramatic soprano during the fourth and last Wagnerian Golden Age at the Metropolitan Opera. The second post (Wagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: II, The Heroic Tenor) was devoted to the Heldentenor, and specifically to Lauritz Melchior. In the third and last post of the series we turn our attention to other voices that drew clamoring audiences to 39th Street and Broadway during the brilliant Wagnerian decade of the 1930s--the Jugendlich dramatischer (literally the young dramatic soprano), the dramatic mezzo, and the Heldenbariton (the heroic baritone).

The Jugendlich dramatischer is endowed with a lyric instrument suited to the gentler vocal demands placed on Elsa, Elisabeth, and Eva, the heroines of Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, and Die Meistersinger. Her repertoire extends to Mozart’s Contessa and Verdi‘s Aïda. So it was for the versatile Elisabeth Rethberg who took on nearly thirty German, Italian, and French roles at the Met. We hear her in a 1932 recording as Elsa in Act I of Lohengrin. A warm yet silvery sound and limpid legato suffuse her recital of the dream in which a virtuous knight comes to her rescue.


Another remarkable Jugendlich of the time, Lotte Lehmann, yearned to sing Isolde, one of the great Hoch dramatischer roles. But she understood that while dramatic sopranos might poach in the precinct of the lyric soprano, the reverse was fraught with peril. She feared for the survival of her voice. In this 1930 recording she lent her passionate temperament to the “Liebestod” but never sang the whole of Isolde’s long and arduous part.
   

The Wagnerian dramatic mezzo sometimes ventures into lead soprano territory—Ortrud in Lohengrin, Kundry in Parsifal—but is most often obliged to content herself with important yet secondary parts. Here is Kerstin Thorborg whose rock-solid technique fills out Brangäne’s exceptionally long phrases as she warns the adulterous Tristan and Isolde of the danger that awaits them.


Friedrich Schorr was the undisputed dominant Heldenbariton of the interwar period. In New York and elsewhere he was called on to sing Wotan (three “Ring” operas), Amfortas (Parsifal), Kurwenal (Tristan und Isolde), the Dutchman (Der Fliegende Holländer), and Hans Sachs (Die Meistersinger). In this 1927 recording, he applies his sweet tone and silken phrasing to Wolfram’s hymn to the Evening Star from the last act of Tannhäuser.


Rethberg, Lehmann, Thorborg, Schorr, and the other artists mentioned in our two previous posts formed a constellation surrounding the two most luminous stars, Flagstad and Melchior. There is not today, nor has there been since 1950, a roster of singers sufficient to sustain a Wagnerian golden age at the Met or, indeed, anywhere.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Wagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: II, The Heroic Tenor

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In our last post (http://operapost.blogspot.com/2019/03/wagners-last-golden-age-at-met-i.html), we undertook a fleeting review of the dramatic soprano during the fourth and last Wagnerian Golden Age at the Metropolitan Opera. During the first of these, 1884-1891, all opera at the Met was sung in German and Lilli Lehmann was the company’s prima donna assoluta; the second, 1895-1901, was dominated by the leading tenor of his time, Jean de Reszke and sopranos Lehmann and Lillian Nordica. New Yorkers owed the third, 1903-1917, to conductors Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini, and sopranos Olive Fremstad and Johanna Gadski. Our focus here, as it was in our previous post and will be in our next, is on the fourth, the 1930s and 1940s. We devote the present installment to the Heldentenor. We should add that since the middle of the 20th century, there have, of course, been extraordinary Wagnerian singers (Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers to name only two), but there has not been a cohort strong enough to stand side by side with the earlier eras of Wagnerian excellence, the last of which closed circa 1950.

In 1926, just as electrical recording technology began to do justice to the power and refinement of great Wagnerian voices, Lauritz Melchior made his Met debut as Tannhäuser. At first, the young Dane created only a modest impression. The Herald Tribune wrote, “An improved variety of that disheartening species, the Wagner tenor.” In his first two seasons with the company, Melchior appeared a scant seven times, then took a year’s sabbatical. It was not until the 1932-1933 season and the advent of a fabulous partner, soprano Frida Leider, that reviewers recognized his unique instrument and surpassing gifts. Melchior became the leading Wagner tenor of the 1930s and 1940s, and in retrospect, indisputably the greatest Heldentenor of the 20th century. Kirsten Flagstad, to be sure, was the foremost Hoch Dramatischer, but Leider, Marjorie Lawrence, Helen Traubel, and Astrid Varnay attest to the deep well of ranking sopranos in this period. Melchior had the field to himself: more than 500 performances between that 1926 Tannhäuser and his final Lohengrin in 1950. By a wide margin, he holds the house record for every one of Wagner’s Heldentenor roles.

As we hear in countless commercial recordings and transcriptions of live performances, Melchior’s voice rides above the wave of the composer’s massive orchestration all the while taking the measure of passages of lyric tenderness. With a rock-solid lower octave, a legacy of the first five years of his career when he sang as a baritone, Melchior negotiates the top of the range with unparalleled stamina, brilliant timbre, and clarity of dictionHere, in a live 1941 broadcast conducted by Toscanini, are the final minutes of Act I of Die Walküre. Having at last revealed his identity to Sieglinde, his sister and soon-to-be lover, Siegmund draws the sword his father, the god Wotan, had embedded deep into an ash tree. The titanic feat finds expression in Melchior's unstinting delivery of the high-lying phrases. Traubel is the Sieglinde.



When Melchior and Flagstad starred together in the late 1930s, the Met’s box-office receipts soared. Their most popular draw was Tristan und Isolde. Little wonder that the exacting maestro Toscanini dubbed Melchior “Tristanissimo.” This 1939 recording of the end of the “love duet”lustrates how stunningly matched were Melchior and Flagstad, the quality of their huge, beautiful voices, a breath span that enables both to easily encompass the longest phrases.






We see and hear Melchior live on television in 1951 in Lohengrin's Act III narration. The "Swan Knight" explains the mystery of his name and provenance. At the age of sixty-one, the tenor sustains the long phrases with the bright metal of his voice intact.



p.s. In the mid-1940s, Melchior curtailed his Met performances and began to enjoy success in Hollywood movies as an amiable, avuncular character actor. In Two Sisters from Boston (1946), one of four films he made for M-G-M, he sings Walter’s melodious “Prize Song” from Die Meistersinger, a Wagner opera not in his New York repertoire. The sequence frames a comic reconstruction of an early 1900s acoustical recording session. The two characters who appear at the beginning are played by June Allyson and Jimmy Durante.