Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment: Smiles and Tears

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On March 2, movie houses around the globe will screen Gaetano Donizetti’s opéra comiqueLa Fille du régiment (1840), live from the Metropolitan. The performance will star the soprano Pretty Yende and the tenor Javier Camarena. If until the late 1960s, general managers would want to stage the opera for a favorite soprano, since then it has been programmed subject to the availability of a tenor with a very secure upper register. Indeed, absent a tenor blessed with a high extension, La Fille du régiment will not be on the boards. 

The Met premiere of Donizetti’s work was staged in 1902 for Marcella Sembrich; it was revived in 1917-18 for Frieda Hempel. Our story begins in December 1940 when a new production was mounted for the company’s then reigning coloratura, Lily Pons. By that time, France had been at war with Germany for more than a year; the United States would enter the conflict a year later. Newspapers all over the country carried a photograph of the finale of La Fille du régiment in which, in place of the traditional French Tricolor, the flag of France occupied by the Nazis, French-born Pons waved the Cross of Lorraine of General Charles De Gaulle’s Free French. The Met orchestra played first “La Marseillaise” and then, as the Stars and Stripes were brought to the front of the stage and the Cross of Lorraine was dipped in tribute, “The Star Spangled Banner.” Some among those present were sure to remember that in 1918, three days after the Armistice, Hempel had interpolated the moving World War I anthem, “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” 

Pons was the Met’s preeminent coloratura from her 1931 debut to her departure from the company nearly three decades later. Through concerts, movies, radio, and recordings, her name had become a household word. Her rendition of “Salut à la France (Hail to France)” shows off the technique that captivated her fans. The cadenza at the aria’s conclusion, replete with a flute accompaniment reminiscent of the “Mad Scene” of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, exploits her fluency in embellishment and astonishing ease in alt, in the very highest notes of the soprano range.

Thirty years later, the Met revived La Fille du régiment. The new production brandished two superstars, the soprano Joan Sutherland and the tenor Luciano Pavarotti. On February 17, 1972, when Pavarotti nailed the nine high Cs of his first act aria “Ah, mes amis (Ah, my friends),” often omitted by less intrepid singers, the audience belonged to him, and since then audiences will not be denied the signature moment of the evening. And what is more, spectators, at least at the Met since Juan Diego Flórez’s stunning feat in 2008, consider an encore obligatory. Here is Pavarotti as he fires off his volley of high Cs in a live 1967 London performance..

The popularity of La Fille du régiment owes much to the virtuosic hurdles it poses to the principal singers. But Donizetti’s rich melodies and elegiac manner are also intrinsic to the score. At the end of Act I, Marie, the daughter of the regiment, bids a tearful farewell to her cherished troops. “Il faut partir (I must leave)” summons the soprano’s most long-breathed legato, an opportunity that Beverly Sills embraces in this 1970 live performance.

Tonio, the tenor role, also has a long moment of deep sentiment. In Act II, he pleads with Marie’s mother for permission to marry his beloved. Flórez’s elegant style is a perfect match for the elegant phrases of “Pour me rapprocher de Marie (To bring me close to Marie)” in this 2007 Vienna performance.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Adriana Lecouvreur Redux

Every decade or so, the Metropolitan Opera revives Adriana Lecouvreur, the only title in Francesco Cilea’s oeuvre that can be said to figure, however marginally, in the contemporary repertoires of international opera companies. Adriana is back at the Met this season and was seen in cinemas “Live in HD” earlier this month.  Like the far better-known Giacomo Puccini, Cilea (born in 1866, died in 1950) was an adherent of Verismo, or more accurately of the “giovane scuola (the young school.  See our post of January 3, 2018, “What is Verismo?”  And like Floria Tosca, Adrienne Lecouvreur was a diva, though not a fictional 19th-century Italian opera star but a historical 18th-century French tragedienne.
Cilea began work on Adriana Lecouvreur in 1900 after the 1899 success of L’Arlesiana, the other of his compositions that continues to have some currency. Premiered at the Teatro Lirico of Milan, Adriana, together with L’Arlesiana starred the young Enrico Caruso who contributed to the success of both works. In 1907, Adriana opened the Metropolitan season with Caruso opposite the soprano Lina Cavalieri. A run of only three performances tells the story of the sorry reception Cilea’s work received in New York that year. The most authoritative New York reviewer deemed that Cavalieri “has neither beauty of voice nor excellence of song to recommend, but who can make pictures.” Following its initial fiasco, it took almost sixty years, and the persuasive powers of the reigning prima donna, Renata Tebaldi, for the opera to return to New York. Bad luck ensued once again: in vocal crisis, Tebaldi cancelled her last appearances.
In those sixty years, Adriana was very much alive in Italian theatres. And after 1950, Magda Olivero, who had come out of a nine-year retirement at the behest of Cilea himself, made the title role her own. We are fortunate to have a transcription of a 1959 Naples performance where she replaced an indisposed Tebaldi. Here is Adriana’s entrance aria, “Io son l’umile ancella (I am the humble handmaiden),” preceded by a few spoken lines from Racine’s tragedy, Bajazet, that the actress is about to perform on the stage of the Comédie Française. Adriana rehearses two deliveries, the second in a more emphatic style that better suits the text. There follows the aria in which Adriana explains to the assembled admirers that she is a mere servant of the author’s genius. Conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni described the Olivero magic that brought the Naples audience to its feet, as it had and would so many others: “the shade and light of the vowels, the detached notes, the light legato, the true legato, the space between the words” (for more on Magda Olivero, see our posts of September 9, 2014, "Magda Olivero, 1910-2017 , and September 16 2014, “More Magda Olivero: Two Death Scenes”

Later in Act I, Maurizio arrives and declares his love for Adriana, praising her beauty in the short aria “La dolcissima effigie (The sweetest of semblances).” The passionate, devil-may-care tenor is Rolando Villazon; the aria is from a 2007 recital CD.

At the beginning of Act II we meet Adriana’s rival in love, the Principessa di Bouillon. She is unsure of Maurizio’s affections, anxious over their forthcoming tryst, and yet hopeful that the evening star will smile on their affair. In this 1955 video excerpt from Italian television, we see Fedora Barbieri, a leading exponent of the dramatic mezzo-soprano manner. Barbieri offers an object lesson in the explosive style apt for the agitated opening section, and the broad lyric effusion of the final lines.

In Act IV, Adriana meets her death by breathing the scent of flowers poisoned by the enraged Principessa. Tebaldi, in a recital disk made in the mid-1950s, gives an account of “Poveri fiori (Poor faded flowers)” that shows her in peak form, her honeyed timbre in service to the long, legato phrases and the subtlest changes of dynamics.

Post Script: If Adriana is Cilea’s gift to sopranos, the tenor lead of L’Arlesiana is his present to tenors. Federico, love-sick for the unnamed and unseen woman from Arles, envies his companion, the sleeping shepherd. He yearns for the oblivion that would allow him to forget the faithless object of his infatuation. In this 1928 recording, with great simplicity and palpable sincerity, Tito Schipa captures Federico’s despair in the unbearable heartbreak of the culminating phrase, “Mi fai tanto male. Ahimè! (You wound me so deeply. Dear God!).” 

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Centenary of Giacomo Puccini’s "Il Trittico"

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In just a few days, a century will have separated this season’s revival of Il Trittico from the evening of December 14, 1918 when the Metropolitan Opera thrilled to stage the world premiere of Puccini’s triptych, Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi. The lionized Puccini, the most celebrated opera composer of the time, was not in the theatre in 1918 as he had been in 1907 for the Met premieres of Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly and in 1910 for the world premiere of La Fanciulla del West. His new three one-act operas were scheduled to be staged a little more than a month after the Great War Armistice of November 11. Trans-Atlantic travel remained risky; Puccini thought it prudent to stay home.
The enthusiasm that preceded the gala event was short-lived when faced with the public and critical reception of two of the short works.  Il Tabarro, Puccini’s slice of proletarian life, his sole foray into the heart of verismo (see our post “What Is Verismo?”), was attacked for its squalid realism, for the paucity of lyric passages, and for the perceived monotony of the river motif that meanders through the score. Il Tabarro was heard for two seasons and then not again at the Met until the mid-1940’s. Suor Angelica was scorned as “over an hour of almost unrelieved female chatter”--despite  Geraldine Farrar’s moving portrayal of the heartbroken nun, torn from her illegitimate child and ultimately driven to suicide. She and her Sisters were banished from the Met stage for fifty-seven years. Gianni Schicchi, a hilarious demonstration of the composer’s farcical vein, cornered all the praise and was immediately welcomed into the company’s repertoire. It was paired with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei tre re, and more startlingly with Strauss’s Elektra and Salome and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

Puccini’s conception of Il Trittico as a unity, shattered at the Met after only two seasons, prevailed at last in 1975, and the three panels have not been parted since.* The composer himself was after opposition and sought the heightened charge resulting from the narrative and musical contrasts that define the trio. Critics have proposed structural and thematic keys to the “wholeness” of the triptych. Our own reading is a gloss on Puccini’s notion of contrast. In Il Trittico we have what amounts to a clash of genres: Il Tabarro, a melodrama, comes up against the tragedy of Suor Angelica which, in turn, is reversed by the comedy of Gianni Schicchi.

Geraldine Farrar as Suor Angelica

Florence Easton as Lauretta

Claudia Muzio and Giulio Crimi as Giorgetta and Luigi

The depiction of the misery and hopelessness of indigent barge workers on the Seine in Il Tabarro is punctuated by brief outbursts of rage and passion from the lovers, Luigi and Giorgetta. But the only true aria falls to the master of the barge, sung just before the opera’s melodramatic climax. Michele’s “Nulla, silenzio (Nothing, silence)” elevates the character to grandeur, so graphically portrayed by baritone Tito Gobbi. The aria traces the devastation felt by Michele through three stages—conjecture as to who is, in fact, the lover of his wife, Giorgetta, the imaginary capture and murder of his rival, and finally, the descent of the two men into the depths of the river, to the death that brings peace.

The most extended (thirteen minutes) confrontation in Il Trittico occurs at the center of Suor Angelica. Banished to the convent for bearing an illegitimate child, the unhappy nun has not heard from her family for seven years. Her aunt, the Zia Principessa, comes to secure her signature on a legal document. Angelica, desperate for news of her little boy, turns on her merciless tormentor. In this clip, Patricia Racette is Angelica, Ewa Podles the Zia Principessa. Contralto Podles unleashes the immense power of her`voice in this rendering of the implacable woman.


Upon learning of the death of her son, Angelica pours out her grief in “Senza mamma, o bimbo (Without your mother, o child).” Here is the wrenching Ermolena Jaho.

Gianni Schicchi, an ensemble piece, boasts the most familiar aria of Il Trittico. Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro (O, my beloved daddy)” has been, from the first night, beloved by audiences. We are here privy to the silvery timbre and early unaffected manner of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in a recording conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

The very original tenor aria, ”Firenze è come un albero fiorito (Florence is a flowering tree)” evokes Florence through its monuments, its florescence of arts and letters, and the vigor of the city’s newcomers, “la gente nova,” disdained by the old families. Rinuccio persuades his snobbish relatives to ask for the help of the clever Gianni Schicchi, the father of his beloved Lauretta. Vittorio Grigolo conveys the energy of the youth, and easily scales the heights of the tessitura.

·       * The one exception: Il Tabarro occupied the bill with Pagliacci for an opening night gala in 1994. Domingo was the Luigi, Pavarotti the Canio, and Teresa Stratas did double duty as Giorgetta and Nedda.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Così fan tutte: Bridging the "Buffo" and the "Serio"

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On March 15, 2018, the Metropolitan Opera launched its new production of Così fan tutte, the fifth setting in the company’s 135-year history of Mozart’s 1790 opera. Prior to the current season, the work had been performed by the Met nearly 200 times. By way of comparison, and as a measure of the place of Così fan tutte in the Met’s Mozart repertoire, the two other works based on Lorenzo Da Ponte’s librettos, Don Giovanni (see our post of Oct. 16, 2016) and Le Nozze di Figaro (see our post of Sept. 26, 2014), have been performed more frequently by a factor of almost three and more than two respectively.

 How to explain this discrepancy? One answer harkens back to the opera’s origins. Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century a cascade of blame fell on the libretto: cognoscenti charged it with triviality (the comedy hinges on the well-worn conceit of disguised identity) and, worse, with immorality (the plot tests the fidelity of women tempted by sexual desire).

The Met’s first production of Così (1921-1922) recorded box-office receipts well below average despite its critical success. The opera returned only in 1951, three decades after its premiere, to finally secure a place in the core repertoire. Until then, Mozart’s presence was generally limited to Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro, and Die Zauberflöte. Così, La Clemenza di Tito, and Idomeneo were rarities seen primarily, if at all, in festival programs.

 The opera has only six characters: two pairs of lovers, Ferrando and Dorabella, her sister, Fiordiligi and Guglielmo; the cynical libertine, Don Alfonso; and the sly Despina, maid to the two women. In a mocking retort to his young friends, dead certain of the constancy of their betrothed, Don Alfonso proposes an experiment. Ferrando and Guglielmo will feign departure for military service only to return disguised as Albanians, ready to court each other’s beloved.

 At first, Fiordiligi resists the advances of the false Ferrando. She declaims her resolve in the aria “Come scoglio (like a rock),” a bravura piece marked by leaps of ten and twelve notes that in the farcical context parodies the conventions of opera seria. In this 1983 recording, soprano Lucia Popp overcomes the challenges of “Come scoglio” with prodigious dexterity, range, and temperament.

Enchanted by Fiordiligi’s emphatic assertion of steadfast devotion to her betrothed, Ferrando sings meltingly of the power of love, “Un'aura amorosa (a breath of love).” Here is Léopold Simoneau, one of the foremost Mozart tenors of his generation. His refined art and sweet timbre are heard in a complete recording of the early 1950s that introduced a wider public to Così fan tutte.

The flighty Dorabella succumbs to a new love well before her sister. But by the middle of the second of the two acts, Fiordiligi, ridden by guilt at the prospect of betraying Guglielmo and filled with ardor for the disguised Ferrando, sings “Per pietà (I beseech you.)” We have chosen the affecting rendition of Sena Jurinac who was a key member of the great post-War Mozart ensembles in Vienna and Glyndebourne.

A comic opera, Così fan tutte ends happily--if ambiguously. Love triumphs. But love for whom? The joyous finale gives no clue whether order has been restored along with the original pairing of Fiordiligi and Guglielmo, Dorabella and Ferrando, or whether, switching partners, two new couples have been formed.

Over the decades, efforts to sanitize the tale of the risqué wager and its buffo-serio onsequences ranged from relatively minor emendations of the text to liberal tamperings with the plot to jettisoning Da Ponte’s libretto altogether and replacing it with another, all the while retaining Mozart’s magnificent score. In some instances, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, alert to the damnable charade, take their turn in tricking the tricksters. And in one extreme example, a libretto based on Calderón de la Barca was substituted for the original. That the faithless characters were women and not womanizers, such as Count Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro, stoked the claims of immorality and denied Fiordiligi and Dorabella the forgiveness of public opinion.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Parsifal: Succès de Scandale

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The year was 1903, the inaugural season of the Met’s new general manager. And the flamboyant Heinrich Conried was dead set on making a splash. What better way than to issue an extraordinary prospectus announcing the company premiere of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal (1882)?  And what would set off a bigger firestorm than a Christmas eve opening?  Cries of foul and shame emanated from musical, legal,and religious quarters on both sides of the Atlantic, originating at Wahnfried, the home of Cosima, Wagner’s widow, and finally descending on New York. Cosima’s imprecations, befitting her vocation as keeper of the flame, were fueled by the contention that the Metropolitan’s proposed staging was an outrageous violation of copyright law. Her attorneys went to work, arguing that the Met should be enjoined from producing the opera. The moral argument went like this: that playing Wagner’s Bühnenfestspiel (stage-consecrating festival drama) on an ordinary operatic platform was an act of heresy.

The New York Protestant establishment took the attack further, charging that the work itself was sacrilegious. From influential pulpits clergy held that the flower maidens were nothing other than a “red light legion,” the representation of the “Lord’s Supper” an “amusement for the sake of gain.”

The Parsifal case was ultimately dismissed on this simple legal finding: that the copyright did not extend to the United States. By the time the judge rendered his decision, preparations for Parsifal were well along. Most astounding had been the advance ticket sales, reputedly the greatest ever seen in New York. Weeks before the opening, the American Journal reported melodramatically, “Women Faint amid Crush for Seats to Parsifal. Many of Them Took Places in Line before Daylight and Were Too Weak to Reach the Window When It Was Opened.” Mail orders flooded in so thick and fast that their processing required a room of its own. Against odds of all sorts, Conried had brought off an operatic coup as memorable as any in the Metropolitan annals.

The premiere began at the unlikely hour of five o’clock. The doors were shut at the start of the prelude and, exceptionally, no one arrived late. A hush was reported to envelop the auditorium at the end of the almost two-hour-long act 1, in imitation of Bayreuth’s reverent response to the consecration of the Holy Grail, a practice that persisted at the Met well into the twentieth century.

Many returned in evening clothes for the second act, the flower maidens, Kundry’s attempted seduction of Parsifal, the spear arrested in midair, and the collapse of the castle of Klingsor, the reprobate knight. The audience erupted into a seven-minute ovation at the dramatic climax of Act 2. Similar receptions have greeted productions of Parsifal since. Here, for example, in a clip from a 1993 Berlin performance, is the overwhelming Kundry of Waltraud Meier, with Poul Elming.

Act 3 reverts to the ceremonial timelessness of the opening act. Here are the final minutes of the sublime “Good Friday” scene in which Parsifal, returning from his years of wandering, no longer “the guileless fool,” is baptized by Gurnemanz. The passage is drawn from a 2015 Berlin performance conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Gurnemanz is sung by bass René Pape, the present lead interpreter of the roleParsifal is Wolfgang Koch, Kundry is Anja Kampe.

The opera ends as Parsifal, the redeemer, armed with the spear that pierced Jesus on Calvary, releases Amfortas from his suffering, takes up the Holy Grail. and blesses the brotherhood of knights. In this clip from the 1981 Bayreuth Festival, conducted by Horst Stein, Siegfried Jerusalem is equal to the transcendent lyric and heroic utterances of Parsifal, the new King of the Grail.


Note: We provide a full account of the Met’s 1903 Parsifal in our book, Grand Opera: The Story of the Met. On February 17, 2018, this season’s Met Parsifal can be heard both streaming and on the radio.