Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Rosa Ponselle: Becoming an (American) Diva

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In the first of our recent posts on Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, we included the magisterial aria, “Casta diva,” sung by Rosa Ponselle. Her Met debut is one of the astonishing Cinderella stories in the performance history of opera. And from that dazzling start she went on to become one of the unforgettable vocal artists of the last century.
Opposite the world-famous tenor Enrico Caruso in the Met’s very first performance of Verdi’s La Forza del destino (November 15, 1928) was a twenty-one-year-old soprano who had never had a voice lesson--let alone sung on an operatic stage. She had been born Rosa Ponzillo in Meriden, Connecticut in 1897 to parents who had immigrated from Caserta, very near Naples, Caruso’s home town. The first musician in a non-musical family was her beloved sister Carmela, ten years Rosa’s senior, who, discovered by the church organist, had studied music and eventually moved to New York to make her living as a café singer.
In the meanwhile, Rosa sought work as a pianist in local nickelodeons and occasionally as a singer in movie theatres. At age nineteen, she joined Carmela in New York. Together they formed an act promoted as “Those Tailored Italian Girls,” mixing popular songs, Broadway show tunes, and operatic arias. The sisters, both endowed with dark, smooth, flexible voices, were immediate hits and were soon propelled to the pinnacle  of the vaudeville circuit, the Palace, where they commanded top dollar.  Here they are in “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye,” recorded in December 1919.  In this rendition, the familiar song becomes a vehicle for voices of operatic power exercised in authentic bel canto style. Note, in particular, the interpolated virtuoso cadenza redolent of Bellini.
But Ponslle aspired to a grander stage some blocks down Broadway from the Palace. In May 1919 her agent arranged for an audition with Caruso. She sang “Pace, pace” from La Forza del destino, in anticipation of the upcoming premiere of Verdi’s opera that fall. The great tenor, duly impressed, introduced her to the Met’s general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza. That she fainted during “Casta diva” did not discourage Gatti from contracting her for six operas (in only six months) for the 1918-1919 season, at $150 a week, considerably less than her fee touring in Keith’s vaudeville shows. She sang more than twenty times in five works, all of which she had to learn, including two Met firsts and a world premiere.
Here is Ponselle in “Pace, pace,” the glorious aria from her debut role. Still in love with Alvaro, the perpetrator of her cruel destiny, the solitary, penitent Leonora begs for peace. In this 1928 recording, at the peak of her career, Ponselle, ever alive to her character’s despair and agitation, varies dynamics and sustains phrases with rock-solid assurance and her accustomed tonal splendor. The crescendo and decrescendo of the opening note have rarely been matched.
Also in 1928, Ponselle recorded the last moments of La Forza del desino with her frequent superlative collaborators tenor Giovanni Martinelli and bass Ezio Pinza.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Norma, 2: Two Duets and a Transcendent Final Ensemble

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In the first of the two posts we devote to Vincenzo Bellini’s 1831 work (see Norma 1: Raising the Bar), we illustrate the opening act through three excerpts. The first is a rendition of “Casta Diva” in which the legendary American soprano of the 1920’s and 1930’s, Rosa Ponselle, in the role of the Druid priestess vowed to chastity, offers a prayer to the moon goddess. In the second clip, the Franco-Italian Gina Cigna, active in the 1930’s,  as Norma, in duet with Ebe Stignani as Adalgisa, a novice priestess, sings “Ah, rimembranza,” a recollection of the passionate onset of her love for the Roman proconsul Pollione. In the last excerpt, the trio that concludes the act, Maria Callas as Norma, Giulietta Simionato as Adalgisa, and Mario Del Monaco as Pollione confront the tragic consequences of their intertwined transgressions.

In this post, we continue to review the parade of great Normas of the past, Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé, leading to the contemporary Sondra Radvanovsky, who tonight will open the 2017-2018 Met season in the exacting title role.

In 1952, when Maria Callas sang her first London Norma, the brief part of her confidante, Clotilde, was taken by a company member of the Royal Opera, the spinto Joan Sutherland, who was currently singing Verdi’s Aïda and Amelia (in Un Ballo in Maschera). Seven years later Sutherland became an overnight sensation and a global superstar as one of Callas’s bel canto heroines, Lucia di Lammermoor. Sutherland took immediate possession of the dramatic-coloratura roles that Callas had reclaimed from neglect, and added many of her own. In 1963 in Vancouver, it was Sutherland’s turn to become Norma, the supreme test for her voice type. The Adalgisa of the occasion, a role Bellini had written for a high soprano, soon appropriated by mezzo-sopranos, was the mezzo Marilyn Horne. Horne lightens the texture of her voice to suggest the youth and innocence of her character. Equal to Sutherland in the florid repertoire, she matches her partner in precision of articulation, of embellishment, and, of tone.

The duet, “Mira, O Norma,” from a 1970 television program made just after Horne’s Metropolitan debut as Adalgisa, provides evidence of the affinity of the two divas. Just prior to the duet, Norma has resolved to kill herself and deliver her children into the care of their father, Pollione, and especially of Adalgisa. Adalgisa calls forth the children as she beseeches Norma to live for their sake. The two women pledge eternal friendship in the joyous caballeta.


Another key figure in the bel canto revival of the late 20th century was Montserrat Caballé. In her repertory of extraordinary variety, the operas of Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini hold a privileged place. We hear her as Norma in a 1974 festival performance at the Roman theatre of Orange. This excerpt captures Caballé in customary command of the scene’s florid requirements, and particularly alert to the character’s explosive temperament. Her Pollione is Jon Vickers in what, for him, was a rare bel canto excursion.

Incited by Norma, the Druids have risen up against the enemy Roman occupiers and have captured Pollione. In this duet, Norma first vows to spare Pollione’s life if he promises to give up Adalgisa. He refuses. Norma then threatens that her rival will perish along with all the Romans. Pollione offers his own life in exchange for that of Adalgisa.


The Norma of the Met’s opening night 2017, Sondra Radvanovsky, has the full barrage of technique, memorable timbre, range, and expressivity that we associate with her predecessors. In the opera’s finale, moved by Pollione’s gesture of self-sacrifice, Norma summons the Druids and confesses that she has betrayed her vows. She pleads with her father, the Archdruid Oroveso, to spare her children. He succumbs to her entreaties. Pollione, now filled with love and admiration for Norma, follows her onto the funeral pyre. Radvanovsky deploys to heart-rending effect the ethereal pianissimo called for by Bellini’s characteristically long phrases, yet she is able, with her enormous instrument, to cap the climactic moments with brilliant fortissimos. The selection is from a 2015 performance in Barcelona.




Monday, September 18, 2017

Norma, 1: Setting the Bar

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The 2017-2018 Metropolitan Opera season opens on September 25 with Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma (1831), in a new production directed by Sir David McVicar and designed by Robert Jones. Awaited with high anticipation is the return to the title role at the Met of Sondra Radvanovsky whose 2013 performances were justly cheered. And this time, she will be joined by Joyce DiDonato, another superb belcantista, in the part of Adalgisa. The opera will be telecast Live in HD on October 7.

Set in ancient Gaul, Bellini’s opera tells of the sacrilegious liaison between Norma, a Druid priestess, and the enemy proconsul, Pollione. The Roman, tired of Norma, the mother of his two children, has become infatuated with a younger priestess, Adalgisa. Infuriated at his betrayal, Norma comes to forgive her repentant lover, and the two accept death in a sacrificial fire. 

Bellini’s opera was first performed at the Met in German in 1890 and then in the original Italian beginning in 1891. It was revived after three decades, in 1927, for Rosa Ponselle. The principal role calls for creamy legato, emphatic recitative, and lyric and dramatic coloratura, all executed within the refined parameters of bel canto. Ponselle’s rendition of the score’s most famous aria, “Casta diva (Chaste goddess),” a prayer to the moon, was recorded the following year in the studio of the Victor Talking Machine Company. The forceful resolve of the recitative, the rapture of the prayer, and the agitation of the cabaletta are plied by the American soprano without apparent effort. Through a broad dynamic range, the characteristically dark Ponselle voice remains ideally equalized. Setting the bar for all future Normas, Ponselle brought a work of bel canto genius into the Met repertoire at last and for good.


Not surprisingly, Ponselle’s bar has often eluded the reach of her successors. One episode drawn from the history of the Met features the great Kirsten Flagstad. The Wagnerian soprano had heard Ponselle in act 3 of Norma during a 1935 gala. In fact, much of act 3—the legato of the recitative “Teneri figli (Dearest children),” the andante section of the duet “Mira, O Norma (Behold, O Norma)”—was well suited to Flagstad. But there was reason for caution: she had never undertaken a bel canto role or a role that demanded dramatic coloratura. Nonetheless, Flagstad was game to give it a try. In fall 1935, after an encouraging run-through, a coach was enlisted to infuse her delivery with the apposite style. But Flagstad soon determined that Norma was not for her and asked to be released from her commitment, saving herself and her fans from what she feared would be a disappointment.

It was the Franco-Italian dramatic soprano, Gina Cigna, one of the reigning queens of La Scala in the 1930s, who took on the next Met Norma in her debut season, 1936-1937. She was embraced by public and critics for her ample, sensuous voice, her acting, and her dignified presence. As you will hear in this excerpt from a complete recording of the opera made in Italy in 1937, Cigna’s dark timbre is similar to Ponselle’s. The selection is from the first of the two sublime duets sung by Norma and Adalgisa, here the opulent Ebe Stignani, “Ah, rimembranza (Oh, what memories).” As the tormented Adalgisa, vowed to chastity, confesses her transgressive desire, Norma recalls her own rapturous awakening to love.



At the very end of the duet, Norma realizes that Adalagisa’s beloved is none other than Pollione. The faithless seducer interrupts their colloquy. There ensues a trio that concludes the act, among the most riveting pages in music drama. Norma vents her wrath, Adalgisa, expresses her horror at the perfidy of her would-be suitor, and in his defense, Pollione invokes the irresistible power of love. The excerpt from this live recording of the opening of the 1955 La Scala season begins with the thunderous applause that followed the “Ah, rimembranza” of Maria Callas and Giulietta Simionato. We first hear the electrifying Callas, the most celebrated Norma since Ponselle. At the peak of her powers in her signature role, she emits an outburst of energy that in no way inhibits the accuracy of her articulation and the fullness of her tone, and she caps the scene with a phenomenal high D. Her partners, Simionato as Adalgisa and Mario Del Monaco as Pollione, represent the stellar level of singing that prevailed in Milan in the mid-1950s.


N.B. This is the first of two posts we will dedicate to Bellini’s Norma.
                                                              

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Met Galas 2: Star Power, 1966/2017

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In our latest post, we sketched the Met careers of so many remarkable artists who participated in the 1966 gala--or might have, and evoked the names of their illustrious predecessors seated on the stage throughout the celebration. In the present post, we scroll back to the gala concert of this past May and contrast it with the gala produced half a century earlier. We are interested in presentation, repertoire, and roster above all. This comparison is telling in gauging the relative strength of the company’s brand then and now.

First, presentation. On the set of Tannhäuser’s Hall of Song, the 1966 gala arrayed thirty-one retired stars who answered a roll call, each taking a place on the stage to the cheers of the crowd. The history of the Metropolitan back to Giovanni Martinelli’s 1913 debut paraded before an audience attuned to the emotional pitch of the occasion. And as the honored guests made their entrances, a section of the chorus also seated on the stage rose in tribute: the sopranos for Elisabeth Rethberg and Marjorie Lawrence, the altos for Marian Anderson and Risë Stevens, the tenors for Martinelli and Richard Crooks, the basses for Alexander Kipnis, and so on in homage to these and many, many more beloved principals of the past. When Lotte Lehmann walked in, everyone stood.

By way of contrast, at the 2017 gala former stars whose performances had deeply touched the audience seated in the house were absent from the proceedings. Replacing the collective memory of treasured evenings embodied by the artists in full view, video clips of more than two dozen productions were seen in projections. The visuals served as backdrops for the live performers. And the music was interrupted by clips from interviews with luminaries such as Leontyne Price, James Levine, and Marc Chagall. This filmed material was an inescapable referent to Peter Gelb’s promotion of production, direction and design, and of his focus on the Met as a media platform. But it did little to foreground voice and interpretation, the stuff that draws fervent operagoing. The affective impact of the 1966 roll call was largely lost.

An intriguing parenthesis: On October 23, 1983, on the occasion of its 100th birthday, the company threw itself a two-part gala, matinee and evening. In the very final segment, a phalanx of former Met stars constituted an onstage audience once again. What in the world could Zinka Milanov have been thinking as she sat just feet away from Price and Luciano Pavarotti, at their absolute best in the act 2 duet of Un Ballo in maschera? And what could Eleanor Steber have been feeling during Kiri Te Kanawa’s “Dove sono”? When the final curtain rose, the dozens and dozens of artists crammed on the stage struck a deeply moving tableau of the Met past and present.

In 1966, retired stars were visible on the stage from the beginning to the end of the concert; in 1983, their presence was invited only for the final segment of the evening show; and in 2017, they had no role at all, save for the fleeting images of a chosen few on the big screen.

With regard to programming, in large measure the 1966 and 2017 galas are similarly conceived. Undisputed chestnuts dominate both bills. The crucial expansions of the repertoire into the baroque, the Slavic, and the contemporary wings, championed by James Levine (see our book, Grand Opera: The Story of the Met), are only marginally present, testimony perhaps to the unflagging desire of a well-heeled public for the familiar hits of the operatic core.

And finally, if the metrics of star power in a given epoch are difficult to determine, the depth of any opera company’s principal asset, its roster, is not. Take, for example, the sopranos who participated in the 1966 gala. Eight had already or would one day be cast as Mimì in La Bohème, the title most frequently performed at the Met: Kirsten, Albanese, Tebaldi, Mary Curtis-Verna, Teresa Stratas, Steber, Caballé, Gabriella Tucci. Among the artists who sang in the 2017 concert only Kristine Opolais, Sonya Yoncheva, and Anna Netrebko had taken on this iconic role. And to date, only Netrebko has shown the box-office appeal of Licia Albanese, Renata Tebaldi, or Montserrat Caballé. There were eight Carmens onstage in 1966; in 2017, Elina Garanca was the sole artist to have sung Bizet’s eternal gypsy.

Many factors combine to explain the downward trend in attendance that has haunted Gelb’s Met. In 2015-2016, ticket sales fell to 66% of capacity. In the late 1990s, capacity was at 90%. During the final seasons at the Old Met, the “Sold Out” sign was a frequent disappointment to eager ticket seekers. Our close look at two galas separated by fifty years tells us that the decline in the number of bankable divas and divos bears a large share of responsibility for the company’s perilous fiscal straits.

But while the breadth and depth of the 1966 roster is a far cry from that available to the current Met management, the 2017 gala featured several stars who would have shone on any stage at any time. Here in concert and in commercial recordings are Joseph Calleja, Sonya Yoncheva, Elina Garanča, and Joyce DiDonato in the same arias they sang this past May.

Calleja, who has been with the company more than ten years, will be in the lustrous cast of Norma that opens the 2017-2018 season. The immediately recognizable quality of his vibrant timbre and the security of his range are displayed in Rodolfo’s “Che gelida manina.”


Sonya Yoncheva made her company debut as Gilda in 2013. Since then she has excelled in the lyric and spinto roles of Violetta, Desdemona, and Mimì.  In this “Mi chiamano Mimì” we hear her fresh and persuasive phrasing. La Bohème is one of three operas starring Yoncheva to be telecast “Live in HD” in 2017-2018. The others are Verdi’s Luisa Miller and Puccini’s Tosca.


Elina Garanča is familiar to the Met’s worldwide audiences from her performances in the “HD Live” telecasts of Carmen and Cenerentola. Her refined rendition of “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” is a riposte to the excess of many Dalilas.


Featured in next season’s new productions of Norma and Massenet’s Cendrillon is Joyce DiDonato. Here she delivers a stunning “Bel raggio lusinghier” from Rossini’s Semiramide. As always, the mezzo bends her bravura technique to her portrayal of the character.



Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Met Galas 1: Star Power, 1966/2017

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The 2016-2017 Met season ended on May 13 with a performance of Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac. A week earlier the company had put on an anniversary gala in celebration of its fifty years at Lincoln Center.
In this post, we describe, following first-hand reports and recordings of the event (much of which can be heard on Youtube), a comparably glittering evening, the farewell of 1966. In comparing that gala to the recent 50th anniversary commemoration we take a close look at the staging, the repertoire, and most particularly, on the roster of stars. This comparison, that we will pursue further in our next post, may be useful in shedding light on the straits in which the company finds itself today.

At eight o’clock on April 16, 1966, the curtain came up on the farewell concert at the Old Met on 39th Street and Broadway; it came down at 1:25 the next morning. The program featured no fewer than fifty-seven artists, among them scores of now legendary Met names. Some, such as Dorothy Kirsten, Robert Merrill, and Regina Resnik, who had begun their careers under the regime of the former general manager during the 1940s, would go on to sing at the new Met. Especially moving were the turns of those for whom this would be the last hurrah. A long ovation greeted Licia Albanese’s “Un bel dì”; to shouts of “Save the Met,” she kissed her fingers and bent to touch the floor. Another was for Eleanor Steber as Vanessa. This line from Samuel Barber’s quintet was no doubt achingly poignant: “Let me look around once more. Who knows when I shall see this house again!” The most thunderous applause was reserved for Zinka Milanov. Near the end of the concert, with Richard Tucker, she sang the final duet from Andrea Chénier. Bravos mixed with cries of “We love you, Zinka” lasted a full five minutes.

Dorothy Kirsten’s selection was “Depuis le jour.” Here she sings the aria from Louise in a commerical recording. Kirsten’s value to the company was alrewady evident in the 1947-1948 revival of Charpentier’s opera. In this clip, the soprano exhibits the impeccable technique that would serve her through more than thirty years at the Met, the purity of her silvery timbre, and the ease with which she floats the notes in the upper register.


It came as no surprise that Licia Albanese chose “Un bel dì” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, the opera in which she made her Met debut in 1940. Cio-Cio-Sanxx became her signature role; she sang it last  in 1965-1966, the season that marked her farewell together with that of the Old Met. This rendition of the aria, from a 1958 recording of the complete opera, gives a sense of the urgency and passion that were Albanese’s trademark.


The gala served also as a showcase for the first sixteen years of general manager Rudolf Bing’s regime and more specifically for the artists he had contracted during his tenure: Cesare Siepi, Nicolai Gedda, Jon Vickers, Régine Crespin, James McCracken, Teresa Stratas. Siepi made his company debut as King Philip in Verdi’s Don Carlo on the triumphant opening night of Bing’s first season, 1950-1951. He immediately established himself as the Met’s leading bass and held that position for more than twenty years. Philip’s majesterial xx aria, “Elle giammai m’amò,” was his to sing at the gala. As we hear in this 1970 televised concert in Cologne, his velvet timbre and seemless legato remained intact.


When Jon Vickers sang in Die Walküre, audiences could forget that, beginning in the second half of the 20th century, Wagner singing began the decline that continues to this day. This 1963 concert performance of Siegmund’s ecastatic “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond,” his contribution to the 1966 gala, captures the tenor at his intense, compelling best, his timbre brilliant, his immersion in the music complete.


Five of the superstars Bing had brought to the Met were also on the program: Renata Tebaldi, Franco Corelli, Birgit Nilsson, Montserrat Caballé, Leontyne Price. The Bing era coincided with Price’s ascension to the very peak of international stardom. Here, in a 1963 excerpt from the televised “Voice of Firestone,” she reprises Leonora’s “D’amor sulle ali rosee” from Il Trovatore, the opera of her company debut in 1961, as she did again in the 1966 concert. Shimmering tone, ease of emission, grandeur, and Verdian style are at her bid with an authority available to very few.



A number of dazzling newcomers in 1965-1966 who would figure prominently on future rosters. Grace Bumbry, Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov, James King, Alfredo Kraus, Sherrill Milnes, and Renata Scotto, were not present at the April 1966 adieu. There were other, even more notable absences, Lauritz Melchior and Helen Traubel, both of whom had had bitter clashes with Bing. Then there were the stars Bing drew to the Met who had shone brightly and then had disappeared for various reasons in the years before the gala. Joan Sutherland had left in 1964 of her own volition and would return in 1966–1967. Antonietta Stella was dismissed after just four seasons, likely because she challenged the general manager’s interdiction of the solo bow. Cesare Valletti had been let go for reasons still obscure. Victoria de los Angeles was offended when Bing chose Eileen Farrell for Manuel de Falla’s Atlantida. Farrell herself (not a Bing favorite) sang only forty-seven Met performances, a total that would have been far greater had she taken on the Wagnerian heroines to which she was so splendidly suited. The most glaring absence at the farewell was the voice of the most famous diva of all, that of Maria Callas.