Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Carmen: High and Low

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On February 11, 2017, the Metropolitan Opera will broadcast via radio its matinee of Carmen. Only Puccini’s La Bohème and Verdi’s Aïda surpass Carmen in number of Met performance, one thousand and counting. 

Bizet is, together with Ruggero Leoncavallo and Pietro Mascagni, one of only three composers of multiple operas to have just one of his many titles boast a place in the standard repertory, and so prominant a place to boot. Pagliacci ranks ninth; Cavalleria rusticana tenth. Other of the composers’ operas, Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles, for example, or Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz, or Leoncavallo’s Zazà make it to the bills of international houses only sporadically.

Carmen was performed by the Met during the company’s first season, 1883-1884, in Italian, and then in German until 1891. It did not come into its own, however, until the management saw its way to the original French and brought together a cast--Emma Calvé, Jean de Reszke, Emma Eames, and Jean Lassalle—described by the Times as “near to justifying the epithet ‘ideal.’” Calvé set what still stands as the single-season record for a singer in a single major role, thirty-one performances. Abandoning all restraint, the exigent New York critic, Henry Krehbiel, called hers “the most sensational triumph ever achieved by any opera or singer.” We hesitate to include a clip of Calvé’s Carmen here; the poor quality of early recordings does not do her voice justice. You can find a number of her arias on Youtube.

Until the 1930s the Met’s star sopranos, Calvé, Geraldine Farrar, Maria Jeritza, and Rosa Ponselle in turn, claimed Carmen for themselves. Occasionally a mezzo-soprano would have a go at the part. The role’s range accommodates both higher and lower voice types. The darker or lighter timbre is each congenial in different ways to the character’s shifting moods. In the 1940s, a mezzo-soprano, Risë Stevens, tilted the balance to the deeper voice. Photographed in ads for Camels and Chesterfields brandishing Carmen’s signature cigarette, occasionally cast in the movies and frequently heard on the radio, Stevens was one of the most widely recognized classical artists of the period. Since she first took on the role (she sang it 124 times for the Met, second only to Calvé), Carmen has belonged nearly exclusively to the mezzo.

Here are clips of two of Carmen’s arias, the “Habanera” and the “Gypsy Song.” The “Habanera” is sung first by American soprano Leontyne Price. This excerpt is drawn from a complete recording of the opera, her sole assumption of the role. For purposes of contrast, Price is followed by Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Obraztsova in a live performance at the Vienna State Opera. Price binds the notes of the music’s coiling phrases in a hypnotic, silvery legato. Obraztsova conveys the character’s humor and appeal in the warmth of her sound.

French soprano Régine Crespin’s “Gypsy Song” comes from a complete recording of the opera. Again, for purposes of contrast, American mezzo Maria Ewing is here excerpted from a live performance from Glyndebourne. Crespin foregrounds the elegance of Bizet’s music with a voice both sumptuous and finely focused. For Ewing, the aria is not a showpiece, but rather a fierce expression of Carmen’s independent nature. In this emphatic public moment, the mezzo succeeds in inviting us into her private thoughts.


For eight seasons, beginning in 1914-1915, Geraldine Farrar sang sixty-five performances of Carmen, all but four of the company’s total in this period. Her charisma, beauty, and stagecraft led to a sustained Hollywood career, beginning with Cecil B. De Mille’s silent adaptation of Carmen. In her screen debut, Farrar exhibits the flashing dark eyes, the beguiling smile, the supple body, and the singularly uninhibited presence that defined her in the opera house. Alas, her movies predate the 1926 advent of the “talkies.” Here is a clip that weds the soprano’s image to her earlier recording of the “Gypsy Song.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Salome: She Danced But One Night

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On December 17, 2016, the Metropolitan Opera will broadcast over radio its Saturday afternoon performance of Richard Strauss’s  Salome. Salome has held its own in the Met’s repertoire since 1934. It is, of all of the composer’s operas, second only to Der Rosenkavalier in number of performances put on by the company, and far ahead of ElektraDie Frau ohne SchattenArabella (see our posts of April 14, 2014 and December 6, 2016), and the rare Capriccio and Die Agyptische Helena. But between its premiere on January 16, 1907 and its return on January 13, 1934, it was entirely absent from the 39th Street stage. Here is the story.

The Met general manager was Heinrich Conried, born in Silesia. He had worked in the theater in Berlin as an actor and stage manager, and had emigrated to the U.S. as a young man. Conried had come to work in the bustling world of German theatre in New York. In 1903, after significant success in creating a German repertory company, he was appointed Met general manager with no experience and precious little knowledge of grand opera.

In the summer of 1906, Conried found himself in Dresden where he attended a performance of Strauss’s recently completed one-act opera, Salome, based on Oscar Wilde’s notorious French play. On his return to New York, Conried corresponded with the famously greedy Strauss for the rights to perform Salome at the Met, rights that Strauss granted for an exorbitant fee. Conried had the bad judgment to schedule a semi-public dress rehearsal on a Sunday in January, at about the time the audience of socialites and critics would be arriving at the theater straight from their devotions in church. His Salome, Olive Fremstad, was a fiercely engaged performer, bent on as realistic a depiction of her characters as possible. She had taken the trouble to visit the city morgue to ascertain the weight of a human head so as to carry the severed head of John the Baptist, made of paper maché, and resembling the baritone who played the role of the Prophet, with the requisite effort.

At the rehearsal, Fremstad proceeded to the lip of the stage, as the press reported, to “kiss the gelid lips” of John. She played the whole of the role of the depraved daughter of Herodias in the same spirit. Two days later, at the first performance, Fremstad repeated her act, with only somewhat less fervor. Nonetheless, as was reported, women swooned, men left their seats during “The Dance of the Seven Veils,” and the Executive Committee of the Met board, headed by J. P. Morgan, was up in arms. The board met to vote unanimously that the remaining scheduled performances be cancelled, despite the protestations of Conried and others. And so Salome danced just once on the Met stage before she was banned for twenty-seven years. What would Morgan and his cronies have thought of the 2004 performances in which Karita Mattila stood in the altogether, having shed the last of her seven veils?

This Saturday’s Salome is Patricia Racette. The list of nearly thirty Met singers who have essayed the arduous role of the Judaean princess spans a wide gamut of female voices, from mezzos Grace Bumbry and Maria Ewing to lyric Catherine Malfitano. Fremstad was a dramatic soprano. Among the other Brünnhildes and Isoldes who lent their heroic timbre to Salome have been Marjorie Lawrence, Astrid Varnay, Hildegard Behrens, Gwyneth Jones, and the dominant Wagnerian of the second half of the 20th century, Birgit Nilsson. The composer, who himself wished that Salome be sung by a youthful voice, tried to persuade Elisabeth Schumann to perform it, and even offered to alter the orchestration and transpose a number of passages. Schumann, the ideal light, high soprano for his Rosenkavalier Sophie, wisely declined. One Met star, Teresa Stratas, had the ideal sound and temperament, if not the volume. She never sang the role on stage. But she did commit her compelling portrayal to video. Here are two excerpts from the final scene, conducted by Strauss specialist, Karl Böhm.

We conclude with the art of the sensational Bulgarian soprano, Ljuba Welitsch. Her debut as Salome in 1949 set off one of loudest and longest ovations in Met history. Welitsch’s voice, at once crystalline and warm, cuts through the galvanic instrumentation to convey the youth and the sexual frenzy of Salome with unflagging power. Here are the final moments from a commercial recording made in the 1940s.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Arabella 2: More Angels in Vienna

Two-and-a-half years ago, in a post of April 14, 2014, we promised a continuation of  the discussion of Richard Strauss' Arabella, a promise we keep belatedly for operaphiles of all stripes and for Straussians in particular (please see Arabella 1: Angels in Vienna in our blog archive in the right-hand column).

No retrospective of Arabella, however selective, can fail to acknowledge Viorica Ursuleac and Lotte Lehmann, favorites of the composer. Bitter rivals, they each coveted the 1933 Dresden world premiere. Strauss wanted Clemens Krauss to conduct; Ursuleac, Frau Krauss, was part of the deal. Lehmann had to settle for introducing this Viennese opera to Vienna. Both singers had voices more hefty than the lyric and spinto sopranos who have taken on the role since the 1950s. Despite their heroic sound, Ursuleac and Lehmann connect deeply to the modern Arabella, a young woman who exercises her courage not on mythological mountaintops but in the habitats of 19th-century society. Ursuleac, with the first Mandryka, Alfred Jerger, and her husband-conductor, recorded the end of Act III at the time of the premiere. Through the awful sonics you can hear her resplendent top and her expressive diminuendo.

Also at that time, Lotte Lehmann recorded the Act I monologue, “Mein Elemer”; here she displays her uniquely passionate tone and crystalline diction.

We cannot end this post without putting in a word for the often neglected Josef Metternich. The Met was rich in great baritones in the mid-1950s: Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Ettore Bastianini, George London. Metternich was there as well, but for just three seasons—twenty-three performances between 1953 and 1956, predominantly in Verdi roles. Although he received generally excellent notices, he never approached the popularity of his superstar colleagues. Metternich sang Mandryka to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s Arabella in the album referenced in our 2014 post. In Mandryka’s semi-solo scene in Act I (Theodor Schlott sings the few lines allotted to Arabella’s father), Metternich is master of the shifting rhetoric of the piece; his splendid, bright instrument deftly navigates this difficult test of rhythm and range with propulsive energy.

New York never heard Metternich in Arabella, perhaps because the opera was sung in English, and not in the original German, when he was with the company. He shows off his Italianate legato in this 1953 German-language rendition of the "Prologo" of Pagliacci.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Return of William Tell

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Audiences of our time know Rossini best for his comic operas (opere buffe) composed for Italian theatres on Italian librettos--Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola, L’Italiana in Algeri. We are generally less familiar with Rossini’s opere serie (serious operas) of which Guillaume Tell (1829) is certainly the grandest. It also marked his farewell to the lyric stage.

By the 1820s, Paris was the center of the opera world and Rossini’s base of operations. Guillaume Tell was commissioned directly for the Paris Opéra and set to a French text. Two of his earlier opere serie had been premiered in Italy in Italian and then adapted into French for the Parisian stage (Maometto II [1820] became Le Siège de Corinthe [1827], Mosè in Egitto [1818] turned into Moïse et Pharaon [1828]). But it was Guillaume Tell that had a profound influence on what was to become known as le grand opera français. The genre demanded four or five acts, a historical subject, usually a revolt against political oppression (as in the legend of the Swiss hero William Tell who led the fight against the Austrian occupiers) or religious persecution (as in Halévy’s La Juive [1835] and Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots [1836]). Also expected were spectacular scenic effects, a significant role for the orchestra and chorus, and an extended ballet sequence during Act III, all to the measure of the rich resources of the French national theatre.

The Metropolitan first staged Guillaume Tell in its second season, 1884-1885, in German, at the start of the seven-year span when the entire repertoire was sung in that language. In 1894-1895 it was revived in Italian, and then again in Italian in 1923 in a shortened version, as had long been the custom. It was performed from time to time on Broadway and 39th Street until 1932, and then, not again, until this fall when it was finally presented by the Metropolitan in a nearly five-hour version, and in the original French. Of late, the opera has enjoyed a rebirth not only in New York but in major European houses—London, Paris, Munich, Turin, Bologna, Warsaw. One explanation for its absence is no doubt the difficulty of putting on so large scale and lengthy a piece, and the challenge of casting the leading tenor role. The memory of the work has been kept alive during the Met’s eighty-four-year hiatus by the final section of its often performed overture. Here the La Scala orchestra is conducted by Riccardo Muti.

The libretto of Guillaume Tell inserts romance into the early 14th-century narrative of popular uprising. In Act II, Mathilde, a Hapsburg princess, finds refuge in the “Sombre forêt (dark forest)” where she confesses her love for the Swiss Arnold. The aria is an example of the style Rossini continued to refine for his French audience. The soprano’s line calls for both legato and flexibility although less rigorous than the virtuosic florid singing dominant in the composer’s Italian works. In this clip from a complete recording of the opera, Montserrat Caballé negotiates the sinuous phrases with the luminous tone and soft attacks that are her trademark.

The composer cast Tell’s most extensive stretch of solo singing not as an “aria,” a set piece, but as an enhanced recitative integral to the “scene.” The turbulent episode of Tell’s arrest is followed by the feat that made him the stuff of legend: shooting the arrow through the apple perched on his son’s head, as ordered by the Austrian tyrant. In “Sois immobile,” itself a moment of stasis, of reflection, Tell instructs his son to be still. As you will hear, most of the unembellished music lies in the comfortable middle of the baritone range. The singer is Gabriel Bacquier.

In “Asile héréditaire (refuge of my birthplace)” the bereaved Arnold addresses his devastated home, laments the loss of his murdered father, and commits himself to rebellion against the Austrian oppressor. The aria repeatedly rises to the tenor’s high register; the rousing call to arms of the cabaletta repeatedly ascends to the stratospheric high C. Arnold was written for Adolphe Nourrit, the leading tenor of the Opéra, master of the voix mixte (mixed voice) that allowed for lightly attacked and sustained high notes. In 1836 Gilbert Duprez astounded Paris with stentorian high Cs, the “ut de poitrine,” and changed tenor technique forever. The despondent Nourrit, having failed in his attempt to conquer the new sound, jumped to his death from a Naples hotel window in 1839. The clip we have chosen features Juan Diego Flórez, a singer of exceptional grace, who easily masters the high tessitura of the aria.

The last excerpt is from a Paris performance of 2003. This is the transcendent finale, led by baritone Thomas Hampson: the Austrian despot is no more, the sun shines on the free Swiss people.

The Metropolitan Opera will not be screening its long awaited new production of Guillaume Tell “Live in HD.” Rossini’s opera will, however, be broadcast via radio on March 18, 2017.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

World War II and the Met Roster, 3: Ebe Stignani, the Absent Amneris

In June 2014 we published two posts centered on the impact of World War II on the Met roster, the first on June 11 and the other on June 21 (see our blog archive in the right-hand column). The Met's revival this fall of its well-worn 1988 Aïda (it is scheduled for live internet streaming on November 5) prompts us to tell the story of the extraordinary Italian mezzo-soprano, Ebe Stignani, whose Met debut in 1939 fell victim to impending hostilities.

That year the New York Times carried an article titled “Ten Italian Artists Detained in Italy” (October 6). According to the report, "officials of the company had gone to the Italian pier ... expecting to meet a contingent of singers, but none of the expected artists was on the boat.” Imagine their surprise! The Met was later informed that the singers were unable to secure passports. Among the ten, all of whom had already obtained visas from the US authorities, was Ebe Stignani. The next day, the Times offered this explanation: that several of the artists, including Stignani, had been booked for performances in Italy “and it is feared that should the war continue the artists might not be able to get passage back to Italy in time for their scheduled appearances.” Besides, should the US declare war, the singers might find themselves unable to return to Italy for the duration. So it was that Stignani did not fulfill her contract with the Met and New York audiences were deprived of an unforgettable Amneris, Aïda's Egyptian rival.

In this excerpt from a 1946 complete recording of Aida, Stignani is the despairing Amneris who realizes that she has brought the death sentence upon her beloved Radamès

We pick up the trail of Ebe Stignani and the Met in 1950, general manager Rudolf Bing’s first season. Verdi’s Don Carlo was the opening night bill. Months before, Bing had asked his friend, conductor Alberto Erede, to suggest a cast worthy of his inaugural production. In his reply to Bing of January 18, 1950, Erede recommended Renata Tebaldi or Delia Rigal, in that order, for Elisabetta, Boris Christoff or Cesare Siepi for King Philip, Giuseppe Taddei for Rodrigo, Mario Del Monaco for Carlo. Tebaldi was busy in San Francisco; Christoff was contracted, then denied a visa for suspected Communist sympathies. Bing eventually chose Robert Merrill for Rodrigo and Jussi Björling for Carlo. For the Countess Eboli, Erede was explicit in rejecting Stignani because of her age (she was then only forty-seven and in phenomenal voice) and because he doubted that “her appearance would be acceptable for an American audience,” although, he conceded, “she is still very good.” In all likelihood "appearance" weighed heavily in the rejection. Erede’s choice, Fedora Barbieri, was awarded the role.

Ebe Stignani did sing in the United States, but not nearly to the extent that opera fans would have wished: she gave a string of recitals in 1948, including one rapturously received in Carnegie Hall, was engaged by the San Francisco Opera in 1938 and 1948, by Philadelphia and Detroit in 1951, by Chicago in 1955. In a 1971 Opera News interview, Stignani responded to the question, “why did you never sing at the Met?” with, “I simply do not know. They did not call me again. Why talk about it?”

Right at the start, from the time of her 1925 debut, it was apparent that Stignani had one of the truly great voices of the 20th century. Toscanini engaged her for La Scala just a year later; she was a major star until her retirement in 1958. Featured in complete opera recordings of the 1930s and 1940s, she was the preferred mezzo opposite Maria Callas in many post-war albums, both pirated and commercial.

The phenomenal sound of Stignani, huge yet finely controlled, rich in harmonics and texture yet even in its registers, is best appreciated in her live recordings. It was the theatre, not the studio, that inspired her most compelling singing. Here she is in a 1953 La Scala performance of Il Trovatore. The tenor is Gino Penno, who sang briefly at the Met. The gypsy Azucena narrates first her mother’s death at the stake, then, her own horrific error when in a paroxysm of vengeance she mistakenly threw her own child into the blaze. Her expressive voice and diction made Stignani a great actress. The knowledgeable Milan audience, unable to restrain itself, begins its ovation before the aria is finished.

We end with an excerpt from the 1953 film adaptation of Aïda, starring a very young Sophia Loren in the title role, her voice dubbed by Renata Tebaldi, and the American actress Lois Maxwell lip-syncing Stignani's Amneris. In this scene (somewhat abridged), the Egyptian princess tricks her Ethiopian slave into confessing her love for the Pharaoh's general.