Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

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.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

New York City Opera Reborn, 2: Ottorino Respighi’s La Campana Sommersa

In a post published in March 2015, we wrote of a gala concert at the Rose Theatre, a venue within the Time-Warner complex on Columbus Circle. Here was an occasion to support the rebirth of the New York City Opera founded in 1943 and dissolved in 2013. At the time of the concert, sponsored by the NYCO-Renaissance, it was not clear whether that ultimately successful group, led by Michael Capasso, or another, would inherit the name and the meager remaining resources of the once proud City Opera which had been for decades the second lyric stage of the nation’s cultural capital. 

The relaunch of the company began inauspiciously in January 2016 with a poorly received production of Puccini’s Tosca. Subsequent offerings have, for the most part, shied away from the core repertoire, leaving the canon to the powerful grasp of the Metropolitan. And in so doing, the New York City Opera redux has subscribed to the mission that served its predecessor well for so long.

This season opened with the coupling of the standard rep Pagliacci with Rachmaninoff’s rare one-act Aleko. There followed Tobin Stokes’s contemporary chamber opera, Fallujah, and a very successful revival of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. The run of Respighi’s La Campana Sommersa (The Sunken Bell) has just concluded. The season will end with the New York premiere of Peter Eötvös’s Angels in America.

La Campana Sommersa, one of Respighi’s twelve operas, has not been heard in New York in nearly ninety years. It was one of four contemporary premieres that the then Metropolitan general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, presented in the 1928-1929 season, a record the company has not duplicated and that the reborn City Opera can look to for inspiration.

The source of La Campana sommersa was the 1896 play Die versunkene Glocke by the German dramatist, Gerhart Hauptmann. One of the most prestigious voices in early 20th-century literature, Hauptmann won the Nobel Prize in 1912. At the time of the Met premiere of La Campana sommersa New York was familiar with the theatre of Hauptmann and with the music of Respighi. The composer enjoyed world-wide acclaim in the concert hall. Conductors determined to flaunt a great orchestra in a virtuoso show piece had only to program Respighi. No less a champion than Arturo Toscanini included the symphonic poem The Pines of Rome in his first concert with the New York Philharmonic in 1926, as did Andris Nelsons in his inaugural concert as music director of the Boston Symphony in 2014.

A philosophical fairy tale that foregrounds an interspecies love affair, the plot of La Campana sommersa is reminiscent of Dvořák’s Rusalka. Enrico, a master-forger, injured when his new bell is toppled into a lake by a mischievous faun, regains his health through the mediation of Rautendenlein, a water sprite. He is enchanted by the elfin creature, abandons his wife and children, and forges a new bell and a mountain-top temple for the worship of the Sun and the eternal youth of Humanity. He is gripped by remorse when his children bring him an urn filled with the tears of his wife, who has drowned herself in the lake. As the opera ends, Enrico desperately searches for Rautendelein who bestows a kiss on him as he dies. The subject is rich in vivid contrasts. Human beings share the world with sprites, elves, and fauns; Enrico works with iron and stone, Rautendelein is a creature of the water; responsibility to family and community cede to the desires of the artist; Christianity is at war with Paganism. While the uneven score and murky libretto go a long way towards explaining the opera’s neglect, we were struck by the opulent orchestration and the dramatic force and expressive vocal line of two episodes in Act III. The excerpts that follow are drawn from a 1956 RAI transmission conducted by Franco Capuana.

First we hear the confrontation between Enrico and a Christian curate. The master-forger, his voice echoing his bells, joyously sings of his vision of the new temple. The horrified cleric accuses him of heresy and reminds him of wife and family. The tenor is Umberto Borsò, the bass Plinio Clabassi.


There follows an ecstatic love duet between Enrico and Rautendelein. The soprano is Margherita Carosio, one of Italy’s most popular lyric-coloraturas of the inter-war and immediate post-war periods.


Two complete performances of La Campana sommersa are available on Youtube.


Saturday, March 25, 2017

Fidelio: Echoes of 1941

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In our Grand Opera: The Story of the Met (University of California Press, 2014), we lean on contemporary reports for this evocation of what is arguably the single most memorable performance of Fidelio in Met history. The star on that occasion, the evening of February 14, 1941, was by all accounts, the conductor, Bruno Walter.

“Walter made his way to a podium that sat high on the raised floor of the pit. Conductor and players were visible throughout the performance. The Leonore Overture No. 3 provoked an outburst that lasted more than a minute; at the opera’s conclusion, the ovation for the cast was punctuated by shouts of ‘Walter.’ European audiences knew him as a conductor of opera as well as symphony; America had known him only in concert, never in the opera house. He first appeared in the United States in 1923 with the New York Symphony Orchestra. He returned frequently as guest from coast to coast. No conductor, with the exception of Arturo Toscanini, had more cachet.

Walter’s Fidelio belongs to that rarified theatrical category in which history, work, composer, and performer come together to inscribe a single narrative. Here was a moment in which the grave issues confronting the nation converged with those engaged by the masterwork. These same issues intersected with the biographies of the lionized artists. Uncompromising, defiant, Beethoven and Walter were conflated in a common profile whose prominent feature was the massive cranium of genius. The deteriorating situation overseas—an all-too-present story of oppression and persecution--reverberated in the ardent libretto and score. As the conductor put it some years later, ‘In the first act of Fidelio . . . we witness the hand of the tyrant. In the second, we observe the victim, bent but unbroken. In the finale, we see the Minister of State, representative of goodness, and share in the glorious apotheosis of brotherhood.’

The media blitz surrounding Walter’s debut imbricated the Fidelio scenario and the exemplary life told and retold in the national press, in newsreels, and on the radio: an illustrious musician of German-Jewish origin, having escaped religious and political persecution by fleeing first Germany, and then Austria, and finally France, takes refuge in the United States, and for the first time in his long career conducts an American performance of a magisterial work by one of nineteenth-century Europe’s titanic composers, a fierce champion of freedom. Fidelio’s place in the Walter mythology was further privileged by the fact that the first work he conducted at the Met was also the last he chose to perform in Munich and then in Berlin. Had Walter not left, like so many who shared his liberal views and/or Jewish heritage, he might have suffered a fate much like that of Florestan, the idealistic hero of Fidelio, imprisoned by order of a tyrant. There the parallel ends. Leonore, Florestan’s loving wife, disguised as the eponymous youth, rescues her husband from the political prison of the villainous Don Pizarro.”
Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad was the Leonore of Bruno Walter’s debut. She first appeared with the company in 1935. Her success was such that the management sought to showcase her Wagnerian voice in as many roles as possible. Fidelio was a logical vehicle for her second season, an uncomfortable choice for general manager Edward Johnson. Less than a year prior to Flagstad’s initial New York appearance, Lotte Lehmann had made her own thrilling Met debut. Lehmann was celebrated for her Leonore. The Austrian soprano was understandably miffed when she was passed over in favor of the newcomer.
We, however, are fortunate to hear them both. And they offer their markedly different temperaments and strengths to Leonore’s great aria “Komm Hoffnung (Come hope)” in which the character, disguised as a male turnkey, manifests her determination to save her husband, a political prisoner, from death. Flagstad’s version, from a 1950 Salzburg Festival performance conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, includes the powerful introductory recitative “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? (Monster! Where do you go?) addressed to Don Pizarro. If the soprano, late in her career, is ill at ease with rapidly articulated passages, and if her highest notes are too hard-rimmed, the beauty and size of her voice and her commitment to the heroine’s courage compensate for these shortcomings.
The Lehmann rendition, from a 1927 recording, unfortunately lacks the recitative. The aria demonstrates the soprano’s irresistible intensity, her exemplary diction, her unforgettable timbre, and her skill at turning her short-breathed vocal technique to expressive advantage.
The Florestan of the 1941 Walter performance was Belgian tenor René Maison, frequently heard at the Met in French opera and as the lighter Wagnerian heroes. His plaintive sound is suited to the anguish of the shackled Florestan, despairing in the outcry of his opening recitative “Gott, welch ein Dunkel hier! (God, what darkness here!),” ecstatic at the vision of his beloved Leonore at the aria’s end (“Ein Engel, Leonoren, Leonoren der Gattin so gleich (An angel, Leonore, my wife so like [a fragrant rose]).”
On April 1, 2017, the Met’s most recent edition of Beethoven’s only opera will be broadcast via radio. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

La Traviata Revisited


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The production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata the global audience will view on March 11, 2017 has been acknowledged as one of general manager Peter Gelb’s successful importations. Director Willy Decker’s interpretation travelled to the Met in late 2010 bearing the prestige of the full-blown Regietheater (director’s opera) concept that was the darling of critics and public at its 2005 Salzburg premiere. While some New York reviewers saw this Traviata as a Eurotrash challenge to the performance practice of the fourth-most-frequently-programmed title in the repertoire, many applauded the Met’s determination to train a contemporary lens on to a canonical nineteenth-century narrative.

Decker emptied the stage of whatever might distract from his reading: that the protagonist is stalked by two implacable foes, her illness and the patriarchal society that engulfs her. Banished were the picturesque mock-ups of nineteenth-century France indulged in previous editions, notably in Franco Zeffirelli’s two extravagant Met antecedents; the luxurious ballroom, the charming country hideaway, the splendid gambling house, and the dying woman’s bedroom were jettisoned in favor of a bare, curved wall, a bench, a few boxy modern sofas, and a giant clock. Violetta exchanged her long gowns for a short red dress and white slip.
Franco Zeffirelli production: 1998

Willy Decker Production: 2010

The dumb show enacted at the start prefigures the end. As the conductor gives the downbeat, Violetta enters, staggers slowly across the stage, doubled over in pain, and then collapses into the arms of her aged doctor, an incarnation of death whose recurring presence haunts the action. When the final notes of the mournful prelude fade away, the chorus of menacing merrymakers, male and female dressed alike as men in dark business suits, is propelled by the feverish rhythm toward the lone, frightened woman in red. A moment later, she morphs into the dissolute party girl. Decker’s La Traviata has become a high-profile addition to the company’s slim stock of illuminating rereadings.

The composer based his story on La Dame aux camélias (The Lady of the Camellias), Alexandre Dumas, fils’ clamorous stage success. La Traviata alone, among Verdi’s nearly thirty operas, depicts a woman of his own time. By in large his heroines are drawn from the hyperbole of Romantic melodrama and of grand historic events—Lady Macbeth, Joan of Arc, Abigaille in the court of Babylon, Leonora in medieval Spain, Aïda in Ancient Egypt to name only a few. The country house where Violetta renounces her dream of love and the Parisian bedroom where she dies are locations familiar to Verdi’s contemporary audience.
As the composer charts the transformation of his protagonist from the carefree, pleasure-seeking courtesan of Act I, to a woman seeking true love, finding it, losing it, then regaining it moments before her death in Act III  he demands various and distinct registers of expression. Like the famed stage and screen actresses, Bernhardt, Duse, Nazimova, Garbo, who coveted the role of Dumas’ Marguerite Gautier, sopranos of all stripes have embraced the theatrical and musical challenges of Verdi’s Violetta, high coloraturas, lyrics, spintos, and even heroic dramatics. Few have succeeded in meeting all of its claims.
This comment on La Traviata features a single artist, the Catalan Montserrat Caballé, at three turning points in the libretto. The first demands the mastery of florid singing, the second of declamation, and the third of legato. Caballé is that rare soprano proficient in the range of expressivity demanded by Verdi’s evolving protagonist.
If Caballé’s portrait of the consumptive demi-mondaine was abetted neither by her looks nor by her acting skills, her voice and passion made Violetta come alive. Here is her “Sempre libera” with tenor Carlo Bergonzi, excerpted from a commercial recording. Profligate in the emission of resplendent high notes, fluent in the embellishments, Caballé captures the frenzy of the young woman in a spectacular coloratura display.

Violetta’s Act II idyll is brutally interrupted when she comes face to face with the reality that, given her past, society will not allow her happiness. She bids an anguished farewell to the bewildered Alfredo, pouring out a flood of tone in her plea that he love her as much as she loves him. This is one of the moments in the score where Caballé, a full spinto, deploys vocal resources unavailable to the light coloraturas who often sing the part. Here is her "Amami, Alfredo" drawn from the same recording.


In Act III, the dying heroine draws comfort from a letter sent by Alfredo’s father, all the while knowing that the end is upon her. Here, Caballé’s extraordinary breath control and her legendary piano singing sustain the long legato phrases of “Addio del passato,” ending in an ethereal final note. This 1974 aria is drawn from a live performance.