Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Tristan und Isolde Opens Met 2016-2017 Season

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As the Metropolitan Opera prepares to open its 2016-2017 season on September 26 with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and we return to OperaPost, the music press is focused on the financial straits which continue to plague the company in its 131st year. The arts pages tell a persisting story of rising costs and declining box office and, occasionally, call on a spectrum of stakeholders to suggest what can be done about it.

In the midst of so much justified hand wringing, it may be useful to take a moment to glance backwards. The last seven or eight years hardly constitute the only extended period in which the company faced worrisome deficits. In fact, its very first season, 1883-1884, ended in fiscal collapse. The manager, Henry Abbey, withdrew after just one ruinous season. Some decades later, the Great Depression threatened the Met’s very existence. In both instances, that of the 1880s and that of the 1930s, it was Wagner who saved the day. But not Wagner alone. The survival of the fledgling Met depended on its roster of fabled Wagnerian singers, Lilli Lehmann and Albert Niemann among others. And the survival of the Metropolitan during the Depression depended in large measure on the Tristan and Isolde of Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad, the two mighty pillars of a brilliant Wagnerian epoch.

Melchior came to the Met first, in 1926. It was not until several seasons later that he reached his full potential. Dubbed “Tristanissimo” by Toscanini as a result of his work at Bayreuth with the exacting maestro in 1930, he became the leading Wagner tenor of his time, and in retrospect, indisputably the greatest heldentenor of the 20th century. But Tristanissimo needed an Isoldissima. She was not long in coming. Her name was not Kirsten Flagstad; it was Frida Leider. Here are Melchior and Leider in a 1929 recording of the Act II duet from Tristan und Isolde. Exceptional is the degree of dynamic inflection, the soft yet precise attacks. Leider and Melchior caress the text through subtle crescendos and diminuendos. The “Liebesnacht” is a showcase for their prowess in bending heroic voices to the register of intimacy, then lifting them to the peak of emotional outburst.

Leider’s presence on the Met’s Wagnerian Olympus was alas short-lived, a mere twenty-eight performances in two seasons. Unwilling to accept the reduced fees the management imposed in light of the depressed economy, and in the face of increasing difficulty in obtaining leaves from her home theatre, Berlin, under the Hitler regime, Leider declined to sign her contract for 1934-1935. To replace her, Met general manager Gatti-Casazza engaged Anni Konetzni, a confirmed star in Europe, who could only commit to the first half of the season. Needing to engage a second soprano to cover the second half, he took a chance on a Norwegian who had had much less experience on the international circuit than Konetzni. Some twenty-two years into a career almost exclusively confined to Scandinavia, Kirsten Flagstad had sung everything from operetta to the lyric heroines of Carmen and Faust to the more dramatic Aïda and Tosca, all in Norwegian or Swedish. Only when conductor Artur Bodanzky heard her in rehearsal in the vast New York auditorium did he realize how uniquely prodigious was this new Met artist. Of the seven Wagnerian roles she took on in her debut season it was Isolde that elicited the greatest acclaim.

Here, in a late 1940s recording Isolde’s Act I “Narrative and Curse,” Flagstad’s titanic voice encompasses the character’s love for Tristan and her rage at his betrayal. Brangäne’s few lines are sung by Elisabeth Höngen. Issay Dobrowen conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Through the rest of the decade, Flagstad and Melchior were not only the most famous Wagnerian singers at the Met; they were at the heart of a constellation of Wagnerian exemplars. Little wonder audiences wTere mad for Wagner. Here is the Met’s box office story from 1935 to 1941. Receipts for his operas came in consistently and significantly above the average. The company rested on the shoulders of Flagstad and Melchior. Their Tristan und Isolde was the most popular draw of all five seasons. In fifty-six performances, Flagstad was the sole Isolde, Melchior her Tristan in all but three. In the course of its seven Met seasons, the team of Flagstad-Melchior racked up 202 performances, a company record. The miraculous coincidence of the Norwegian soprano and the Danish tenor was as serendipitous for the Met’s balance sheet as it was for the history of Wagner singing.

Of course, for so many well-rehearsed reasons, those glorious seasons of the late 1930s cannot be replicated. Nor can those fabulous Verdi seasons of the 1950s, as another example. Still, there is at least one lesson to be drawn from the past: when superstars head the cast, the Met fills its seats to the relief of its bottom line. Of late, that distinction has fallen to too few—Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann. The company can only hope that Nina Stemme’s Isolde will do the same as Tristan opens the season for the first time since that privilege fell to Flagstad and Melchior nearly eighty years ago.

As a preview, here is Stemme in a concert reading of Isolde’s “Liebestod,” conducted by Daniel Harding.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Mascagni’s Iris at Bard Summerscape

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Note to our readers: We will be resuming regular postings of this blog at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera season in late September 2016. In the meanwhile, here is a comment on a performance we attended this summer in upstate New York.
Each year, the festival at Bard College, led by its president, Leon Botstein, exhumes an opera unfamiliar to today's audiences. This summer it was the turn of Iris. Mascagni’s opera (1898) was born in the heyday of Italian verismo, between two of Puccini’s great successes, La Bohème and Tosca. The prolific composer of the Cavalleria rusticana (1890), a perennial favorite, was ever intent on varying his subject matter and style with each new work. Iris, his seventh opera, reflects the contemporary vogue for orientalism. The Bard production (as seen by us on July 29, 2016), staged by James Darrah, designed by Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock, concedes little to the exoticism of the libretto.

Iris is surely one of the most cruelly abused of all the many ill-fated heroines of opera. Knocked unconscious and kidnapped by a procurer, unknowing that the place in which she is held is a brothel, and still a virgin, she flings herself into a sewer when her father, literally and figuratively blind, curses her for sins she has not committed. In the end, she is transfigured by the sun god she worships.
The opera enjoyed considerable success in the early 20th-century, only to see its popularity wane soon thereafter. Mascagni himself brought Iris to New York in 1902 as one offering of his disastrous American tour. The Met staged the opera in three separate seasons with starry casts: first in 1907 with Eames and Caruso, in 1915 with Bori conducted by Toscanini, and in 1931 with Rethberg and Gigli. In all, it achieved only a paltry company total of sixteen performances. Sporadically revived in Italy through the 20th century, in recent years there has been a flurry of interest in Mascagni’s all but forgotten work, with its many pages of full-throated melody and its rich orchestral palette.

Conducted by Botstein, well cast (with an outstanding young tenor Gerard Schneider) and, for the most part, intelligently staged, the Bard Iris made a strong case for the opera’s musical qualities. The libretto could not be salvaged.
Three recorded excerpts convey Mascagni’s lyric gift. The first, “Apri la tua finestra,” a serenade sung to Iris by her would-be seducer Osaka, has appealed to generations of tenors. The gentle strumming of the strings is flattering accompaniment to beautiful timbre and scrupulous phrasing. Osaka, in the guise of Yor, the son of the sun god, urges the innocent girl to open her window and yield to his entreaties. Antonio Cortis, active in the 1920s and 1930s, supplies tone of beguiling sweetness and an impeccable line in this 1929 recording.

In Act II, Iris awakens in the sumptuous bordello which, in her naiveté, she mistakes for Paradise. Osaka, more urgently and erotically, continues his seduction, extolling, one after the other, the physical attributes of his prey. Giuseppe di Stefano, in a live performance from Rome (1956), is here at the peak of his form, the character’s desire manifest in his voluptuous timbre. The Iris is Clara Petrella, in the 1950s one of Italy’s foremost sopranos.

In response to Osaka’s ardent pleas, Iris refuses physical love in one of Mascagni’s most original arias, “Un dì, ero piccina.” She recalls hearing the tale of a young girl who dies in the embrace of an octopus. The lesson is clear: the act of love leads to death. The composer punctuates the soprano’s precipitous recital with outbursts of emotion. In this 1931 recording, Maria Farneti, a Mascagni specialist, finds the happy balance between beauty of tone and clarity of diction, indispensable to an artist in the verismo tradition.


The opera's most famous pages are its prelude and "Inno al sole (Hymn of the Sun)." Iris concludes with the stirring choral theme. This version is conducted by Giuseppe Patanè.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Don Pasquale: The Basso Buffo

Top of Form
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On March 12, 2016, the Metropolitan Opera will broadcast via radio its matinee of Gaetano Donizetti’s comic opera, Don Pasquale. The eponymous role generally falls to a specialist in the comic characters of Mozart (Leporello in Don Giovanni, for example), or Rossini (Don Bartolo in Il Barbiere di Siviglia), or, of course, Donizetti himself (Dulcamara in L’Elisir d’amore). The success of the basso buffo hangs on the ability to regale the audience, to incite its laughter, more than it does on the quality of the voice. Above all, the bass must have the nimble diction that delivers rapid-fire patter, source of much of the fun. Often drawn from the company’s second rank, the basso buffo is nevertheless expected to carry significant musical and theatrical responsibility, yet he is rarely an opera’s focal point. Don Pasquale departs from this norm. In this ensemble work for a quartet of singers, the basso buffo is the central figure.

If we are to believe the reviewers, Salvatore Baccaloni was the first Met Pasquale, in the forty years since the opera’s company premiere, to grab and hold the spotlight. In the 1940 revival, and only then, did the basso buffo take full charge by upstaging his colleagues. The matinee broadcast, which we had access to in a recording, the one cheered by critics present in the opera house, does justice to Baccaloni’s outsized personality, reflected in his rich, shuddery voice; the delighted audience is frequently heard in appreciative response to his antics. Even the cool and acerbic Virgil Thomson agreed that the afternoon belonged to the bass, whom he compared to actors of genius Mary Garden, Fyodor Chaliapin, W. C. Fields, and Raimu! Baccaloni, who reigned as the Met’s principal basso buffo until the debut of Fernando Corena in 1954, continued to sing with the company until 1965.

Here is Baccaloni in a 1932 Italian recording of the Act III duet between Don Pasquale and Doctor Malatesta (the baritone is Emilio Ghirardini). Pasquale, a rich, stingy old bachelor, has been tricked into a mock marriage by his friend, Malatesta. Pasquale believes he has found proof that his much, much younger, spiteful, and spendthrift “wife,” Norina, is cheating on him, and with Malatesta, is elated at the prospect of catching her “in flagrante.” The second part of the duet requires the rapid-fire delivery to which we made allusion above.

In a 1979 video of this same duet, with subtitles in English, the great Welsh buffo Geraint Evans offers a Pasquale less broad than Baccaloni’s, but just as funny. He and Russell Smyth, the Malatesta, both anglophones, are adept at articulating the patter of the conclusion. 

The rendez-vous of Norina and her young lover, Ernesto, is a passage of sustained lyricism that we count among the most ravishing in all opera. First, Ernesto, Pasquale’s nephew who wants to marry Norina, sings a lilting serenade. Cesare Valletti, who took the role in the Met’s 1955 revival, was the company’s principal tenore di grazia through the 1950s. He tempers the over-the-top protestations of love declaimed for Pasquale’s benefit with his customary sincerity, sweet timbre, and command of subtle dynamics.

Following the serenade, without pause, Ernesto and Norina, their voices echoing and entwining, sing a love duet designed to enrage the presumably cuckolded Pasquale. “Tornami a dir” is a test for the singers as they match phrasing, stress, and tonal beauty at pianissimo level. In this 1930s recording, Tito Schipa and Toti Dal Monte ply their bel canto techniques to achieve a remarkable unison.

Like all operas designated “buffa,” Don Pasquale ends happily. The foolish faux husband, having seen the error of his ways, gives his blessing to the young couple.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Manon Lescaut Refashioned

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On January 18, 1907, Giacomo Puccini, by then an international celebrity, made a delayed entrance into the theater on Broadway and 39th Street. The high seas that held up the liner on which he had sailed were to blame for his late appearance. The Metropolitan premiere of his Manon Lescaut was already well underway. Spotted by the audience at the first act intermission, he was saluted with a fanfare and then an ovation insistent to the point that he was obliged to leave his box so that the show could go on. Puccini’s stock in New York had risen rapidly in the wake of the 1900–01 Met premieres of La Bohème and Tosca. Scarcely a month after the first night of Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly premiered as well, prepared under the composer’s stern eye. While Puccini was pleased with the Met’s Manon Lescaut and with the performance of the star, Lina Cavalieri, he was decidedly unhappy with its Madama Butterfly and with Geraldine Farrar’s Cio-Cio-San. Farrar would nevertheless go on to be the most frequent and beloved Butterfly in the company’s history.
Three years later, in 1910, on its first tour abroad, the Met brought to Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet its very best, including Manon Lescaut, with Enrico Caruso as Des Grieux. In deference to Jules Massenet and to his French Manon, composed in 1884, nine years before the Italian Manon Lescaut, and based on the same text, Abbé Prevost’s 1731 novel, the opera had never before been heard In France. (We recount in its detail the nationalistic uproar aroused by the Met’s foray into Paris in our book, Grand Opera: The Story of the Met.)
On March 5, 2016, the Met’s new production of Manon Lescaut, the sixth in the company’s history, will be simulcast “Live in HD” on screens across the globe. We were in the house for the second performance, on February 15. Like many in the audience, we were disappointed that the scheduled tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, had had to cancel due to illness. He was replaced by Roberto Alagna who had only a couple of weeks to prepare for his role debut in this particularly challenging part. As disappointing as Kaufmann’s absence were the sets by Rob Howell and the direction of Sir Richard Eyre. The decision to move the action from 18th century Amiens, then Paris, then Le Havre, and finally to Louisiana, as the text makes explicit, to mid-20th-century France under the German Occupation, ostensibly for the benefit of a 21st-century audience, turns out to have been misguided at best. Without attention to narrative coherence, the updating of costumes and props (here in any case strangely cartoonish) is not convincing justification for the transposition of time and environment. But we leave a more exacting appreciation of the many missteps of the production to those of our readers who have yet to witness this most recent of Peter Gelb’s imports, this time from Baden Baden.
For a sense of what New Yorkers missed, here is Kaufmann, not on the Met stage, but recently at London’s Covent Garden in Des Grieux’s opening aria, “Donna non vidi mai (Never have I seen a woman),” Puccini’s passionate expression of young love at first sight.
Des Grieux, falling instantly in love, persuades Manon to run off with him at the end of Act I. But by the beginning of Act II, the flighty, mercenary Manon, who has taken up with a rich sugar-daddy, expresses regret for having left her penniless, handsome young chevalier. She contrasts the cold luxury provided by Geronte, her protector, with the humble warmth of the love nest she shared briefly with Des Grieux. Here Eileen Farrell sings “In quelle trine morbide (In these soft laces).” Dramatic soprano Farrell, who never sang the role of Manon, tapers her enormous voice to express, with utter simplicity, the young woman’s regret.

The highlight of Act II is Manon and Des Grieux’s passionate love duet of reconciliation. In spring 1956 Licia Albanese and Jussi Björling sang two incandescent performances of Manon Lescaut at the Met under the inspired direction of Dimitri Mitropoulos. The excitement they generated is preserved in a commercial recording made at the same time. 

In the opera’s final act, Manon, dying of thirst and exhaustion, sings the despairing “Sola, perduta, abbandonata (Alone, lost, abandoned).” In summer 1970, we were present in Verona’s vast arena where Magda Olivero so thrilled the audience that, at the opera’s end, the public rushed onto the stage to surround the legendary diva. She had sung the aria lying head-down on a steeply raked incline!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Maria Stuarda, Donizetti's Scottish Queen

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On February 20, 2016, the Metropolitan will broadcast the matinee of Maria Stuarda across the country and beyond via radio. The Met premiere of this 1835 work by Gaetano Donizetti took place in 2012, almost one hundred and eighty years after it was composed. The star of that occasion was Joyce DiDonato who scored a stunning success for herself and for the company. The previous season, 2011-2012, it was Anna Netrebko who played Donizetti’s queen in Anna Bolena (1830), and who collected equally enthusiastic reviews.
This current season has seen the revivals of both Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena, and will see the Met premiere of Donizetti’s third “Tudor” opera, Roberto Devereux (1837), to be simulcast “Live in HD” on April 16, 2016. For the first time since Beverly Sills took on the challenge of all three Donizetti queens (Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII; Mary, Queen of Scots, the daughter of James V of Scotland; and Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry and Boleyn) at the at the New York City Opera in the 1970s, all three will be played by the same artist, Sondra Radvanovsky.
Only Maria Stuarda has been sung by both sopranos and mezzo-sopranos, in the case of the Met by mezzo DiDonato and this year by soprano Radvanovsky. A comparison of Beverly Sills in the nostalgic Act I aria and its agitated cabaletta, “O nube!...nella pace del mesto riposo,” with Janet Baker singing the same aria, gives a sense of the distance between this piece sung by a high soprano and by a mezzo. Baker takes the aria and cabaletta a half-step lower, and more obviously, Sills’ top notes are significantly higher and her embellishments far more intricate. That the Sills version is in the original Italian and the Baker in English only adds to the contrast. Were it Radvanovsky, a dark-voiced spinto soprano, in the place of Sills, the opposition would be less acute.

We were in the house on February 1 for this season’s second performance of Maria Stuarda. As Maria, Radvanovsky met the formidable role with lustrous timbre, a dynamic range from silvery, floated pianissimo to rich, thunderous fortissimo, a thorough understanding of the bel canto style, and compelling acting. Sir David McVicar’s traditional staging was marred by his decision to endow Elizabeth with a pronounced limp and a masculine manner that flirted with caricature. The sumptuous costumes of John Macfarlane compensated somewhat for the drab sets.

We signal two other productions of this work. We saw the first, a transmission of a 2008 La Scala performance in high definition, on a New York movie screen. The Maria Stuarda, Mariella Devia, an acknowledged exemplar of bel canto singing, and the Elisabetta, Maria Caterina Antonacci, a riveting singing actress, are equal to the high tension Donizetti supplied in this ahistorical meeting of the two queens. Here, in the final moments of Act I, Maria, no longer able to bear the humiliation meted out by Elisabetta, hurls the unforgivable insult that her cousin is the illegitimate daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. 

The other performance we recall here is one we attended at Berlin’s Staatsoper in October 2006. If we complain above about the current Metropolitan design and direction, about its bland and entirely forgettable sets and sometimes misguided staging, we hasten to note that what made the German production memorable is better forgotten. The overture was played not by the orchestra clearly visible in the pit but by an antiquated, scratchy disc that turned on a decrepit record player. Our fear was that the whole of the score would be heard thus. But, happily, no. The orchestra finally took over and the singers sang live. The production was based on the premise that the titanic late-16th-century battle royal between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots could be best understood by a contemporary audience as a version of the sibling rivalry between the aged sisters of the 1962 movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The Bette Davis-like costume of the English queen, her smeared lipstick, her long braids, her sadism, and Mary’s Joan Crawford-like wig and outsized eyelashes, the wheelchair she leaves only for her bed or to crawl about on the floor are unmistakable signs of the production’s debt to Hollywood iconography. As you will see in this clip from the Berlin production, the Protestant Elizabeth has the last absurd gesture: she slits the Catholic Mary’s throat with a crucifix. The excellent soprano is Elena Mosuc.