Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Met Reopens: Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones

On September 27, the Metropolitan will open its 2021-2022 season with a company premiere, Terence Oliver Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My bones, its Music Director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting. The event has sparked intense interest and much excitement. The gala evening will mark the first operatic performance on the Met stage since the theater went dark on March 11, 2020 just as COVID began to crush New York City. Anticipation of the suspenseful reopening has been heightened by the rush of articles and interviews that have poised operaphiles and many new to the genre to receive the first opera composed by a Black artist in the nearly 140-year history of the Metropolitan. James Robinson and Camille A. Brown are the co-directors of this production. Brown and Kasi Lemmons make history as well as the first Black director and librettist to be engaged for the Met’s mainstage.  

Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Blanchard’s second opera (his first was Champion [2013]) had its world premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2019. This restaging is a co-production of the Met, the Los Angeles Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago.  

Librettist, actress, and film director Lemmons (her most recent movie is Harriet [2019], the life of Harriet Tubman) has provided a strong dramatic structure for journalist and opinion writer Charles Blow’s coming-of-age memoir. The protagonist is enacted by two characters, the adult Charles and his seven-year-old self, Char’es-Baby. The narrative is framed by the episode in which the twenty-year-old Charles is driving back to his home in rural Louisiana after a long absence, hell-bent on murdering Chester, his mother’s cousin, who had abused him when he was but a boy. The story unfolds in flashbacks, in scenes of his mother and her fellow chicken-pluckers at work, of the impending rape, of his religious awakening, and of his escape from the confines of the rural South thanks to a college scholarship. Disillusioned in love, Charles telephones his mother and learns that Chester has returned. The opera ends as it begins, Charles in his car, a gun by his side, ultimately convinced by his younger self to abandon thoughts of vengeance and to look ahead instead to his own future. The title, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, is borrowed from the prophet Jeremiah who vowed not to speak God’s name although “the 'Word' was in my heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones which wanted vent.” Blow’s memoir, a bildungsroman of sorts, is the "word" that wanted venting.

Blanchard’s score is indebted to his success as a jazz trumpeter and as a composer of music for the screen. A jazz quartet will partner with the Met orchestra on an eclectic musical commentary inflected by gospel, R&B, big-band, and classical instrumentations. We conclude this post with two excerpts from Fire Shut Up in My Bones. The first clip features soprano Karen Slack who created the role of Billie, Charles’s mother, in the work’s Saint Louis premiere.



Baritone Justin Austin sings Charles’s arioso, “Peculiar Grace.”

Will Liverman is the Met’s adult Charles. Sopranos Angel Blue and Latonia Moore assume the principal female roles. The opening night performance will be heard on the Met’s audio website and on Sirius/XM. The October 23 performance will be seen in the Live in HD series and will be retransmitted as part of the regular Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts on January 8.



Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Lost Season, April-May 2021: Il Pirata

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In the final two months of the lost season, April and May 2021, audiences were deprived of the company premiere of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking starring Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Etienne Dupuis, and Latonia Moore, and three important revivals: Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten with Nina Stemme, Elza van den Heever, Michael Volle, and Klaus Florian Vogt; Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd with Matthew Polenzani and Joshua Hopkins; and Vincenzo Bellini’s Il Pirata, with Diana Damrau, Javier Camarena, and Christopher Maltman. For the present post we have chosen to focus on Bellini’s opera, not heard at the Met since 2002-2003.

Il Pirata had its highly successful world premiere at Milan’s La Scala in 1827, launching Bellini’s career as a major composer for the lyric stage. Neglected in the early 20th century, Il Pirata found a champion in Maria Callas who first sang Imogene at La Scala in 1958, then in a New York concert performance in 1959, now available on CD. Imogene became a congenial role for sopranos, notable among these Montserrat Caballé and Renée Fleming, with the range and the bel canto technique to meet its virtuosic demands. The Met’s first Pirata was mounted for Fleming in 2002; Marcello Giordani was Gualtiero, the pirate, and Dwayne Croft, the husband. Had Covid not intervened, the 2021 revival would have featured Diana Damrau, Javier Camarena, and Christopher Maltman.

We learn from the back story that, years before, Gualtiero and Imogene had been in love. Against her will, Imogene had been forced to marry Ernesto, Duke of Caldora. Thereupon, Gualtiero, the Duke’s rival, took to piracy. The opera reunites the three protagonists, the distraught wife, the jealous husband, the disconsolate lover.

We have chosen two excerpts that feature Maria Callas. The first is drawn from the Act II duet, “Tu mi apristi in cor ferita (You opened my wounded heart).” The furious Ernesto exacts from his wife the confession that she had, indeed, loved Gualtiero who, at this point, was falsely reported drowned. At the same time, Imogene rejects the accusation that she had been unfaithful to her husband. Constantino Ego is the baritone in this live 1959 Carnegie Hall performance.

Imogene’s mad scene is the opera’s conclusion. Delirious, she has a vision of her husband, now dead, together with their son. She is shocked by a fanfare announcing Gualtiero’s death sentence. Her frenzy grows as she imagines the scaffold being readied for his hanging. This excerpt is drawn from a 1959 concert in Hamburg. We are privileged to hear Callas’s masterful fusion of Imogene’s state of mind with Bellini’s elegant phrases while we see her face and hands convey the depth of the character’s anguish.

Post script: During the florid cabaletta of the final scene Imogene repeats the phrase “Il palco funesto (the fatal scaffold).” The word “palco” has a very different meaning in the context of the theater where it signifies a box. At the 1958 La Scala revival of Il Pirata, Callas, who was feuding with Antonio Ghiringhelli, the company’s intendant, pointed at Ghiringhelli’s box as she hurled the words “palco funesto” in his direction.






Monday, August 2, 2021

The Lost Season, March 2021: Nabucco

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Unrelated to the pandemic, in fact more than a year before the rush to closure, the Met announced that its stage would be dark during all of February 2021. The winter month had proven to be particularly slow. In compensation, the season would be extended into June 2021. Covid rendered the matter moot for the moment. Plans for 2021-2022 adhere to the revised calendar. 

Despite the shutdown, the Met was again in the news in March 2021. The death of James Levine in Palm Springs on March 9 at the age of 77 was widely reported eight days later. The cause was pronounced to have been cardiopulmonary arrest with Parkinson’s Disease as a contributing factor. The many obituaries and articles surrounding Levine’s life and the long-brewing scandal that ended his illustrious forty-six-year career as the Met’s conductor, music and artistic director tell the story of the rise and fall of one of the most powerful and influential actors in the history of the company.

The orchestra Levine developed into one of the world’s most admired instrumental ensembles over his decades on 39th Street and at Lincoln Center was, it too, in the news in March. Met musicians had been furloughed without pay since the previous April. A day after word of Levine’s death reached the readers of the New York Times, the musicians’ union agreed to come to the bargaining table in exchange for partial pay for its members for eight weeks while negotiations were in progress. That management would be demanding permanent cuts in orchestra salaries to help off-set the $150 million loss in earned revenue incurred since the start of the lock-down was made explicit at the outset. The offer had been on the table since December. The Met chorus had accepted a similar deal in February. In fact, the Met orchestra was the last of U.S. major ensembles to consent, however reluctantly, to partial pay. The cost to the orchestra had been high. Ten of its ninety-seven members had opted to retire during the pandemic, in stunning contrast to the two or three who would make their exit in a typical year. Many had felt obliged to leave New York City for less expensive communities near and far. A few had sold their instruments in order to pay their bills while on unemployment.  

The cancellations in March 2021 included a new production of Don Giovanni (Peter Mattei, Gerard Finley, Ailyn Pérez, Isabel Leonard), and revivals of Giulio Cesare (Iestyn Davies, Kristina Mkhitaryan), Lulu (Brenda Rae), Rusalka (Sonya Yoncheva, Piotr Beczala), and Nabucco (George Gagnidze, Anna Netrebko). We have chosen to highlight Nabucco, not heard at the Met since 2017.

Verdi himself dated his extraordinary trajectory as a composer not from his first opera but from his third, Nabucco, premiered in 1842 at La Scala. The title entered the Met repertoire relatively late, opening night 1960. General Manager Rudolf Bing’s predilection for Verdi had already accounted for the important revivals of the long-neglected Don Carlo in 1950 and Ernani in 1956, and the company premiere of Macbeth in 1959. This string of successes was interrupted by the tepid reception that befell Nabucco. The work failed to survive its first season. Four decades later, in 2001, with a spectacular scenic investiture and a competent array of principal singers, reviewers and public finally embraced Verdi’s early work; the projected 2021 revival would have been its sixth.

Under the stewardship of James Levine, whose Met career began towards the end of the Bing era, the company remained strongly committed to Verdi. Levine was on the podium for seventeen of the composer’s operas including the house premieres of three rarities, I Lombardi, Stiffelio, and I Vespri Siciliani. And it was Levine who led Nabucco’s popular new production in 2001. Here he conducts the orchestra and chorus in the beloved anthem “Va', pensiero, sull'ali dorate (Go, thoughts, on golden wings).” The Israelites, slaves in Babylon, mourn their lost homeland.

On learning that she was born a slave and not, as she had thought, the daughter of Nabucco, the king of Babylon, Abigaille vents her rage in the recitative of her Act II extended aria. In the lyrical section, “Anch'io dischiuso un giorno (I too once opened my heart),” she confesses her love for Ismaele, a Jewish nobleman enamored of Nabucco’s true daughter, Fenena. Finally, in the vehement cabaletta, "Salgo già del trono aurato (I already ascend the golden throne)," Abigaille’s anger once again erupts as she claims the crown of Babylon. In this concert performance, Julia Varady fearlessly navigates the extreme upper and lower ends of the soprano range and spins out the intervening legato phrases.

The ensemble that closes Act II of Nabucco, “S'appressan gl'istanti d’un ira fatale (The moment of direst wrath is fast approaching),” is among the most thrilling of the opera’s many concerted pieces. Presumed dead, Nabucco returns to reclaim his crown from Abigaille and to order the death of the Israelites. In this clip, drawn from a 1981 Verona performance, the principals are headed by Renato Bruson and Ghena Dimitrova. The Roman Arena is a fitting frame for this Biblical spectacle.



Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The Lost Season, December 2020-January 2021: Die Zauberflöte

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New Year’s Eve 2020 promised a gala audience the first night of a new production of Die Zauberflöte and a celebrated conductor in just his second engagement at the Met. The very popular Mozart opera was not to be the abridged English-language version typically offered during the holiday season but the full-length version in German. The director, making his Met debut, was to be Simon McBurney whose staging had premiered in Amsterdam. And the conductor, perhaps today’s most renowned maestro, Gustavo Dudamel, the music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and lately announced also as the next music director of the Paris Opéra. The New Year’s patrons would have enjoyed a particularly good view of “The Dude,” as McBurney’s design called for a raised pit.

Although Die Zauberflöte stands high in the list of operas most often performed in the Met’s history—20th in rank, just after Tristan und Isolde—the company presented this title only sporadically between 1900 and 1942 when, foregrounding the appeal to a young audience and long sections of spoken dialogue, the text was given in English as The Magic Flute. Conductor Bruno Walter lent his prestige and his affinity for Mozart to the project. The fairy tale opera has maintained its place in the Met’s core repertoire since then. Walter led the next new production in 1956. The original German text, not heard since 1926, returned with the highly acclaimed Marc Chagall décor first seen in the opening season at Lincoln Center, 1966-67, conducted by Josef Krips. General manager Joseph Volpe cancelled the production announced for 1991, pleading insufficient time for preparation and borrowed instead David Hockney’s sets commissioned by San Francisco. Audiences and critics adored Julie Taymor’s puppets and masks and George Tsypin’s kinetic, fantastic world in 2004.

The first Zauberflöte excerpt in this post is drawn from a 1966 Berlin concert performance. The Tamino, Fritz Wunderlich, died in a tragic accident just weeks before his scheduled Met debut that very year. His technical and stylistic perfection, along with an exceptionally beautiful timbre, positioned Wunderlich as the foremost Mozart tenor of the post-war generation. In the aria, “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön (This Image Is Enchantingly Lovely),” Tamino falls in love with Pamina while gazing at her portrait.

In Act II, the evil Queen of the Night beseeches her daughter, Pamina, to murder the virtuous high priest, Sarastro, who presides over a peaceful brotherhood of worshippers. Her daunting aria, “Der Hölle Rache (Hell’s Vengeance),” demands the agility and extended high range of the coloratura soprano (four F’s above high C) and the power of a dramatic soprano. Cristina Deutekom, in a 1971 TV movie, exhibits that rare combination.

Sarastro voices his benevolence in a serene hymn to his temple, “In diesen heil’gen Hallen (Within these Sacred Halls).” The customary province of the deep bass, the basso profundo, René Pape’s more lyric basso cantante executes the long phrases in an unbroken stream of sound. This 2006 recording is conducted by Claudio Abbado.

The despairing Pamina, believing that Tamino no longer loves her, contemplates suicide in the doleful “Ach, ich fühl's (Ah, I can feel it).” Here, in a performance from the 1956 Salzburg festival, Elisabeth Grümmer, a Mozart-Strauss specialist who sang all too rarely in the United States, spins out the aria in a seamless legato that plumbs the character’s infinite sadness.