Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

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.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Rusalka and the Slavic Revival

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In the wake of the seismic geopolitical shifts of the late 1980s, the collaboration with the unstoppable Russian maestro, Valery Gergiev, who for a decade, 1997 to 2008, was principal guest conductor at the Met, and the tide of Eastern European singers, finally allowed to flow freely into the United States, the map of the Met’s repertoire was redrawn. Between 1990 and 2014, and especially under general manager Joseph Volpe (1990-2006), the Slavic project premiered eight Russian and Czech works: Janáček, Kat’a Kabanová, The Makropulos Case, From the House of the Dead; Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, The Nose; Prokofiev, The Gambler, War and Peace; Tchaikovsky, Mazeppa. Eight others were reintroduced and/or more regularly revived: Borodin, Prince Igor; Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades; Janáček, Jenufa; Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina; Smetana, The Bartered Bride; Stravisnky, The Nightingale. Such was the astonishing musical turn towards Eastern Europe.

Our subject in this post is Rusalka (1900), which will be presented “Live in HD” on February 25 in a new production. Its composer, Antonín Dvořák, known primarily for his orchestral and chamber pieces, also left a corpus of ten operas, of which Rusalka is, by far, the most often performed. This fairy tale work was first produced at the Met in 1993 and has had five revivals since. It has proven to be the most popular of the Slavic novelties, due perhaps to the first interpreter of the title role, Gabriela Beňačková, and then to the affection of Renée Fleming for the part. At Beňačková’s Met debut, the Wall Street Journal went out on a long, justifiable limb: “This is the most ravishing voice in the world.” Beňačková won all hearts with Rusalka’s apostrophe to the moon. Here she sings the exquisite melody in a 1988 Prague concert.

At Rusalka’s Met premiere, Dvořák’s aria was already familiar to many in the audience. They had heard it as a recital showpiece favored by lyric sopranos. A transcription of a 1950 San Francisco concert conducted by Pierre Monteux preserves for subsequent generations the wondrous timbre and the soaring ease of Dorothy Maynor whose public appearances were confined to the concert halls of Europe, and the U.S. and Latin America. An African-American artist, she was excluded from the operatic stages of her native country.

A few words for those unacquainted with the libretto. Rusalka, a wood nymph, has fallen in love with a prince who swims in her lake. She addresses her desire to the moon in her Act I aria, and begs a witch to transform her into a human being. In exchange, Rusalka is obliged to renounce the power of speech. The Prince arrives, falls in love, and carries her off to his castle. But by the time of the wedding he tires of his silent betrothed and betrays her with a Foreign Princess. In the final act, Rusalka returns to her lake and regains her voice. The repentant Prince begs for a last kiss, knowing that it will kill him. Rusalka reluctantly grants his wish, and mournfully sinks into the depth of the water. Here is their final duet sung by Kristina Opolais (the Met’s current Rusalka) and Czech tenor Pavel Cernoch, who is at present scheduled for a Met debut.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Romeo and Juliet X3

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To begin, a word about Roméo et Juliette’s long history at the Metropolitan. Charles Gounod’s opera was first produced in Italian during the company’s inaugural season, 1883-1884. It was not sung in French until opening night 1891, when French itself was at last heard at the Met. The currency of Roméo et Juliette, and the composer’s even more popular Faust, can be measured by the near monopoly these titles enjoyed as opening night fare during the “Gilded Age.” In fact, one or the other opened the season all but once between 1891 and 1900. A witty wag dubbed the Met the ”Faustspielhaus.” During the thirty-year period beginning in 1938 Roméo et Juliette was given in only two seasons. It reentered the core repertoire in 1967 and has been frequently revived ever since.

New this season, Bartlett Sher’s staging of Roméo et Juliette counts as one of the Metropolitan’s few successful recent productions. Those who were fortunate to be in the audience at the Lincoln Center house or at a “Live in HD” screening witnessed a performance faithful to the narrative as presented in the libretto, movingly sung and acted by the principals, Vittorio Grigolo and Diana Damrau, and beautifully conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Michael Yeargen’s unit set, a nod to Elizabethan stage practice, favored the fluid unfolding of the action. It served the youthful exuberance of the doomed couple particularly well.

Shakespeare’s play (circa 1595) has been adapted to legitimate, musical, and dance stages endless times. At least eight operas (the most famous by Bellini, Zandonai, and Gounod) are based on the story of the “star-cross’d lovers.” We offer below three versions of the tragic scene in which Romeo and then Juliet take their own lives. We begin with Shakespeare’s text, continue with a ballet danced to Sergei Prokofiev’s score (1935), and conclude with Gounod’s final scene (1867).

The traditional staging, décor, and costumes of the 1976 telefilm starring Christopher Neame and Ann Hasson adhere faithfully to Shakespeare’s scenario and text. Preceded by Romeo’s duel with Paris, Juliet’s betrothed, then interrupted by Friar Laurence, whose herbal brew produced Juliet’s simulated death, and followed by a guard who alludes to the heavy toll Verona has paid for the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues, the final private minutes of the lovers are embedded in the social context of the narrative.

Kenneth Macmillan’s choreography (1965) was first performed by the world’s then most celebrated ballet team, Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, both extraordinary actors. The hyper-expressive physical conventions of ballet that so fittingly capture extreme emotions are unabashedly present when Romeo “dances” with Juliet whose inert body he mistakes for dead. Magically rendered by Fonteyn is Juliet’s evolving consciousness that it is Romeo who has died, and her evolving determination to take her own life.

The Met’s new production of Roméo et Juliette, to which we return, originated at the Salzburg Festival in 2008 where the principal roles were taken by Rolando Villazon and Nino Machaidze. The vocal crisis that would have such a devastating impact on Villazon’s career obliged the lowering of several of the role’s high notes. It did nothing however to inhibit the passionate energy and generous outpouring that marked him as one of the most exciting tenors of his generation. By allowing Roméo and Juliette an uninterrupted final duet in which they sing their short-lived joy at being reunited, then their despair as death overtakes them, Gounod allows the couple a privacy that excludes family and society. The only available clip, from Austrian television, has German subtitles.

Post-script: In 1947, the Met cast Roméo and Juliette with ideal interpreters, Jussi Björling and Bidu Sayão, but only twice. Fortunately, one of the performances was broadcast. We urge you to search for excerpts from this Saturday matinee on Youtube.