Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Verdi Requiem: "Opera in Ecclesiastical Dress"

On December 2 the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast was devoted to the company’s 53rd iteration of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem. The Requiem was first performed at the Met in 1901 on the occasion of the composer’s death; he had died earlier that year. Among those similarly honored in memoriam have been John Kennedy in 1964 and Luciano Pavarotti in 2008. This season’s edition was dedicated to the recently deceased baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

Verdi’s masterwork has a complex genesis. It was born when Verdi proposed that a requiem mass be forged in tribute to Gioacchino Rossini who died in 1868. Each section, according to the plan he presented to his editor, Ricordi, would be assigned to a contemporary Italian composer of opera or sacred music, thirteen in all, and all now largely forgotten with the exception of Verdi himself. The Rossini requiem was scheduled for premiere in 1869, then cancelled and not performed until 1988 in Stuttgart; it has been recorded and can be accessed on Youtube. Just a few years later, with the 1873 death of Alessandro Manzoni, author of the epic nineteenth-century novel I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), Verdi determined to compose a requiem on his own. He conducted his opus in 1874 on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death in the church of San Marco in Milan. The second performance took place soon thereafter at La Scala. Verdi toured his Requiem to theatres and auditoriums in Paris, London, and Venice.

In fact, the Requiem, scored as for grand opera, replete with a large orchestra and chorus and four soloists, had not been meant for a liturgical setting. As Verdi contemporary, conductor Hans Von Bülow, quipped, here was an “Opera in ecclesiastical dress.”
Towards the end of second section, the “Dies irae,” is the tenor aria “Ingemisco” which carries with it the indelible imprint of Verdi’s late manner. The despair of the sinner, mitigated by his hope for redemption, is powerfully expressed through the repetition of first-person pronouns.

Ingemisco tamquam reus,                                          I groan, as one who is accused,
culpa rubet vultus meus,                                            guilt reddens my check;
supplicanti parce, Deus.                                              spare Thy supplicant, O God.
Qui Mariam absolvisti,                                                Thou who absolved Mary,
et latronem exaudisti,                                                 and harkened to the thief,
mihi quoque spem dedisti.                                         Has given hope to me.
Preces meae non sunt dignae,                                    My prayers are worthless,
sed tu bonus fac benigne,                                           but Thou, who art good and kind,
ne perenni cremer igne.                                              Rescue me from everlasting fire.
Inter oves locum praesta,                                           With Thy sheep give me a place,
et ab hoedis me sequestra,                                         and from the goats keep me separate,
statuens in parte dextra.                                            Placing me at Thy right hand.

We have chosen the “Ingemisco” from a 1970 performance of the Requiem conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The singer is Placido Domingo early in his long career, his voice fresh, clarion, and alert to the drama.

Immediately following “Ingemisco” is “Lacrymosa,” scored for the four soloists and chorus. The text of the prayer is drawn not from scripture but from a poem by a 13th-century Franciscan monk, Thomas of Celano, and the infinite sadness of the music is intoned not by a single voice but by the weaving of multiple voices conventional in liturgical music.

Lacrymosa dies illa,                                                     Tearful that day shall be
qua resurget ex favilla,                                               when from the ashes shall arise
judicandus homo reus.                                                Guilty man to be judged.
Huic ergo parce, Deus,                                                Spare him the, O God,
pie Jesu Domine,                                                         gentle Lord Jesus,
dona eis requiem. Amen.                                            Grant him eternal rest. Amen

This “Lacrymosa,” recorded in 1967, is sung by a quartet of singers at their peak, Leontyne Price, Fiorenza Cossotto, Luciano Pavarotti, and Nicolai Ghiaurov. Herbert von Karajan conducts the chorus and orchestra of La Scala.

Although less patently operatic than “Ingemisco,” “Lacrymosa” is based on a theme originally composed for an opera, Verdi’s Don Carlos. Deleted from the score just prior to the work’s 1867 Paris world premiere, the episode in question follows upon the assassination of Rodrigue. Having bowed to political necessity in allowing the murder of his noble courtier, King Philippe is wracked by guilt. His son, Carlos, laments the loss of his dearest friend. The clip comes from a 1996 Paris staging. José Van Dam (Phlippe) and Roberto Alagna (Carlos) are conducted by Antonio Pappano.

The Requiem concludes with “Libera me,” a prayer not integral to the mass itself; it is intended to be pronounced after the funeral. Like “Ingemisco,” “Libera me” is a first-person supplication, an expression of individual terror in the face of death and the wrath of God.

Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna,                      Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death
in die illa tremenda,                                                    on that dreadful day,
quando coeli movendi sunt et terra,                          when the heavens and earth shall be moved,
dum veneris judicare saeculum per ignem.               when Thou shall come to judge the world by fire.
Tremens factus sum ego et timeo,                             I am full of fear and I tremble,
dum discussio venerit atque ventura ira.                  awaiting the day of account and wrath to come.
Dies irae, dies illa,                                                       Day of wrath, day of mourning,
calamitatis et miseriae,                                               day of calamity and misery,
dies magna et amara valde.                                       that day great and most bitter.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,                      Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.                                          and let perpetual light shine upon them.

Verdi is at his most operatic in this, the last section of the Requiem. The composer awards the highly emotional aria to the soprano. He demands a two-octave range deployed in extreme contrasts of high and low, loud and soft. The “Verdi soprano” descends to her low C again and again; she caps the piece with a high C unfurled above the thundering chorus; she floats the middle section in an ethereal pianissimo, ending with an octave vault to a perilous high B-flat. In a concert from the 1982 Ediburgh Festival, superlatively conducted by Claudio Abbado, we hear Welsh soprano Margaret Price. When at her best, as Price is here, there was no one better. She invests her famously pure timbre with a dramatic urgency that conveys the full measure of fearsome awe at the final judgement.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Lawrence Tibbett, 2: All-American Divo

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In our last post we traced the beginnings of Lawrence Tibbett’s remarkable operatic career and, in particular, his towering renditions of many of Verdi’s baritone roles. But it was not the Verdi wing of the repertoire alone that Tibbett expanded under the direction of the Met general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza (he ruled in New York from 1908 to 1935), but also the American wing that Gatti, more than any other general manager before or since, embraced and promoted. Among the more successful American works for which Tibbett helped draw an audience were Deems Taylor’s The King’s Henchman (1929) and Peter Ibbetson (1931).

Then there was the now iconic American role that Tibbett might have sung but, to the disappointment of many, did not. In the mid-1930’s, the Met’s great benefactor and president of the Metropolitan Opera Association, Otto Kahn, had hoped that George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess would have its premiere on 39th Street. Tibbett would certainly have been cast as Porgy. But Gershwin rebuffed the company’s skimpy guarantee of only two performances; he took his opera to Broadway instead. However, Tibbett did get to sing the role of Porgy in the first recording of excerpts that was produced just days after the October 10, 1935 Broadway opening. (Porgy and Bess had its belated Met premiere in 1985).

Here is “I Got Plenty of Nothin’” from that 1935 recording. Tibbett is, as you will hear, a rare artist able to meld the technique required for opera and the folk/Broadway style Gershwin contrived for Porgy’s rollicking introductory number.

Together with frequent concert and radio appearances, it was his movie career that made Tibbett a household name in America. He was recruited by Hollywood at the advent of talking pictures alongside classical and popular vocalists Grace Moore, Fanny Brice, Marilyn Miller, and others. Tibbett went to M-G-M. He was first cast as the lead in The Rogue Song, a role that won him a best-actor Oscar nomination in 1930. He quickly made three more films for the prestigious studio and returned in 1935 for two Twentieth-Century Fox productions. The first of these, the positively reviewed Metropolitan, is one of the few Hollywood movies that mounted fully staged, uncut versions of operatic excerpts.

We have chosen the sequence in which Tibbett sings Figaro’s entrance aria, “Largo al factotum,” during a make-believe rehearsal. His virtuosic rendition demonstrates the individuality of his timbre and of his phrasing, and the brio of his acting. (In his more than six hundred Met performances he never played Rossini’s crafty barber.)

The full measure of Tibbett’s presence and appeal bursts forth in another sequence from Metropolitan. He sings one of his recital favorites, Oley Speaks’s setting of Rudyard Kipling's poem "On the Road to Mandalay.”

Clip of “On the Road to Mandalay”

In the soft start of the repeat, as he elongates the phrase “Come you back to Mandalay,” the baritone’s voice and personality are as irresistible to us as they are to the old musical mentor he is seen addressing.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Lawrence Tibbett: Becoming an (American) Divo

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Unlike Rosa Ponselle’s beginnings in opera (see Rosa Ponselle: Becoming an (American) Diva, 10/5/17), baritone Lawrence Tibbett’s operatic career began inauspiciously. His knees shaking during the whole of his 1923 Met audition, as he recounted it, he cracked on the high note. He was dismissed by the general manager with a curt “thank you.” Three weeks went by before Giulio Gatti-Casazza agreed to a second hearing. A far less agitated Tibbett sang the “Credo” from Otello. This time, Gatti was impressed enough to hire the twenty-seven-year-old Californian who had never sung in opera, not in New York, not anywhere. Tibbett was expected to master twenty-seven roles in his debut season, mostly comprimario and secondary parts, two leads, and one role for bass. In the next year or so, he was little noticed by public or press.
Tibbett got his big break in his second season. Gatti cast him as Ford, the second baritone role in Verdi’s Falstaff. But rehearsals went poorly for the inexperienced singer, who was challenged by a weak musical memory and a difficult score. The formidable, almost all-Italian cast included Antonio Scotti as Falstaff. In fact, the revival had been staged expressly for Scotti’s twenty-fifth anniversary with the company. During rehearsal, annoyed that Tibbett’s on-the-job training was slowing things down, the Italian baritone and his veteran Italian colleagues engaged in mocking exchanges over the novice’s histrionic and vocal difficulties. Although he had never set foot in Italy and did not know Italian, Tibbett got the drift. He was furious. Then came the night of the first performance, January 2, 1925. Tibbett sang the bitter aria that concludes the first scene of the second act with an extra dose of passion. During the ovation that followed, the principals took their bows. Then Scotti came out alone. But the audience kept up the clapping, stamping, whistling, and, finally, to make its will perfectly clear, began shouting, “Tibbett, Tibbett.” Meanwhile, assuming the tribute was for Scotti, Tibbett had repaired to his dressing room two floors above. The conductor did his best to carry on with the performance, but the audience, presuming that Tibbett had somehow been denied a solo bow, would not let up. Gatti acceded to the public reluctantly; attention had shifted from the honoree of the evening to the humble newcomer: “An American audience had decided that one of its own nationality should be properly recognized for his talent” (Times). The sixteen-and-a-half-minute demonstration subsided at last and the curtain rose on the next scene. From then on, Tibbett was given increasingly important assignments and with his assumption of the title role in the Met’s first Simon Boccanegra in 1932, he was uncontested as the company’s leading baritone in the Italian and French repertoires. He sang the last of his 603 Met performances on March 24, 1950. Tibbett was the first and remains, arguably the greatest, of a line of extrordinary American baritones: John Charles Thomas, Leonard Warren, Cornell MacNeil, Sherrill Milnes, and most recently Thomas Hampson.  
Tibbett’s successful audition aria, the “Credo” from Otello, forecast the return of Verdi’s opera to the Met repertoire in 1937 after a long and puzzling hiatus of twenty-five seasons. The revival came at the peak of Tibbett’s career, his voice refulgent, his charisma compelling, his dramatic and musical acumen at their sharpest. Here is Tibbett in a 1939 recording. He captures Iago’s complex praise of evil in the elasticity of his phrasing and dynamic range.
In the course of his Met career, Tibbett sang more than thirty leading roles, eight of which were in operas by Verdi. Missing was that of  Renato in Un Ballo in maschera, a title that reentered the repertoire only in 1940, by which time the baritone had undergone a serious vocal crisis and had reduced his appearances on 39th Street. Here is his rendition of Renato’s third act aria, “Eri tu.” The character expresses both his anger towards the man he believes to be his wife’s lover and his tenderness towards the woman he has lost. Tibbett employs his high pianissimo to especially touching effect.
The test role for all Verdi baritones is, of course, Rigoletto. Tibbett performed it thirty-two times with the company. In this excerpt, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” he thunders the jester’s rage at the courtiers who have abducted his daughter; then, in heartrending supplication, he throws himself on their mercy.
Our next post will feature Tibbett in a wing of the repertoire that he made distinctly his own—American opera.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Rosa Ponselle, 2: An American Diva

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In our previous post, “Rosa Ponselle: Becoming an (American) Diva,” we sketch the beginnings of Ponselle’s astonishing musical journey. Here we continue our evocation of her storied operatic career.
There had, of course, been many American divas before Ponselle’s 1918 Metropolitan debut, among them Lillian Nordica, Emma Eames, and Geraldine Farrar. These and other predecessors had a key formative experience in common: all had performed on European stages, most had European training. Ponselle alone was entirely home grown; the Met was her conservatory. Her operatic appearances elsewhere included only a handful of performances in London and Florence, and these came late in her career. Despite her success abroad, her fear of foreign audiences never left her and she was quick to make her way back to New York.

In her nearly two-decade-long Met tenure, Ponselle took on more than twenty roles, including the world premiere of an American opera and seven company premieres in the Italian, French, and English repertoire. The most lasting of these firsts expanded the Verdi corpus to encompass La Forza del destino (see our previous post), Don Carlo, and Luisa Miller. She was also the Elvira in the 1921 revival of Ernani, which had been absent from the Met since 1903. One reviewer put it this way: “It is a matter of wonder at that she can sing this music lightly and rhythmically, yet in full voice with the timbre of a dramatic singer.” And wondrous is her execution of Elvira’s opening aria, “Ernani, involami,” replete with incisive recitative and passages of florid singing that explore the limits of the soprano’s range. Here, in one of the most prized Ponselle recordings, her rich, dark voice articulates a long-breathed trill that would be the envy of a light coloratura in, say, Lucia di Lammermoor.

Ponselle never sang a Puccini role. Mimì and Cio-Cio-San were unsuited to the size and color of her voice; Tosca was the property of Maria Jeritza in the 1920s and early 1930s; Manon Lescaut belonged to Lucrezia Bori and Frances Alda. In 1923, she did however record Manon’s “In quelle trine morbide.” The soprano’s seemless legato captures the protagonist’s realization that she has exchanged the precious love of the impoverished student Des Grieux for the empty luxury of her rich protector Geronte.

In her final Met years, Ponselle was driven to Carmen by her interest in the role, of course, and also by her insecurity at the top of the range. Audiences loved her, not so the critics who complained of the liberties she took with Bizet’s rhythms and who carped at her outsized gestures. Hollywood, on the other hand, alive to the diva’s popularity, was intrigued. Two decades earlier, Geraldine Farrar had become a moving picture star in a pre-talkie “Carmen” (see our post of January 4, 2017). The trite “home hither” postures of Ponselle’s gypsy, captured in this test, were a bad omen. In any case, as reported by Peter G. Davis in The American Opera Singer, the artist sabotaged her chances at M-G-M by demanding an outrageous fee.


A 1937 Met Carmen on tour in Cleveland was Ponselle’s last hurrah. You can hear it on Youtube. Her voice still sumptuous, she retired early to Villa Pace, her Maryland home. She was only forty.

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.