Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Rusalka and the Slavic Revival

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.
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

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.

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.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Carmen: High and Low

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.

On February 11, 2017, the Metropolitan Opera will broadcast via radio its matinee of Carmen. Only Puccini’s La Bohème and Verdi’s Aïda surpass Carmen in number of Met performance, one thousand and counting. 

Bizet is, together with Ruggero Leoncavallo and Pietro Mascagni, one of only three composers of multiple operas to have just one of his many titles boast a place in the standard repertory, and so prominant a place to boot. Pagliacci ranks ninth; Cavalleria rusticana tenth. Other of the composers’ operas, Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles, for example, or Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz, or Leoncavallo’s Zazà make it to the bills of international houses only sporadically.

Carmen was performed by the Met during the company’s first season, 1883-1884, in Italian, and then in German until 1891. It did not come into its own, however, until the management saw its way to the original French and brought together a cast--Emma Calvé, Jean de Reszke, Emma Eames, and Jean Lassalle—described by the Times as “near to justifying the epithet ‘ideal.’” Calvé set what still stands as the single-season record for a singer in a single major role, thirty-one performances. Abandoning all restraint, the exigent New York critic, Henry Krehbiel, called hers “the most sensational triumph ever achieved by any opera or singer.” We hesitate to include a clip of Calvé’s Carmen here; the poor quality of early recordings does not do her voice justice. You can find a number of her arias on Youtube.

Until the 1930s the Met’s star sopranos, Calvé, Geraldine Farrar, Maria Jeritza, and Rosa Ponselle in turn, claimed Carmen for themselves. Occasionally a mezzo-soprano would have a go at the part. The role’s range accommodates both higher and lower voice types. The darker or lighter timbre is each congenial in different ways to the character’s shifting moods. In the 1940s, a mezzo-soprano, Risë Stevens, tilted the balance to the deeper voice. Photographed in ads for Camels and Chesterfields brandishing Carmen’s signature cigarette, occasionally cast in the movies and frequently heard on the radio, Stevens was one of the most widely recognized classical artists of the period. Since she first took on the role (she sang it 124 times for the Met, second only to Calvé), Carmen has belonged nearly exclusively to the mezzo.

Here are clips of two of Carmen’s arias, the “Habanera” and the “Gypsy Song.” The “Habanera” is sung first by American soprano Leontyne Price. This excerpt is drawn from a complete recording of the opera, her sole assumption of the role. For purposes of contrast, Price is followed by Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Obraztsova in a live performance at the Vienna State Opera. Price binds the notes of the music’s coiling phrases in a hypnotic, silvery legato. Obraztsova conveys the character’s humor and appeal in the warmth of her sound.

French soprano Régine Crespin’s “Gypsy Song” comes from a complete recording of the opera. Again, for purposes of contrast, American mezzo Maria Ewing is here excerpted from a live performance from Glyndebourne. Crespin foregrounds the elegance of Bizet’s music with a voice both sumptuous and finely focused. For Ewing, the aria is not a showpiece, but rather a fierce expression of Carmen’s independent nature. In this emphatic public moment, the mezzo succeeds in inviting us into her private thoughts.


For eight seasons, beginning in 1914-1915, Geraldine Farrar sang sixty-five performances of Carmen, all but four of the company’s total in this period. Her charisma, beauty, and stagecraft led to a sustained Hollywood career, beginning with Cecil B. De Mille’s silent adaptation of Carmen. In her screen debut, Farrar exhibits the flashing dark eyes, the beguiling smile, the supple body, and the singularly uninhibited presence that defined her in the opera house. Alas, her movies predate the 1926 advent of the “talkies.” Here is a clip that weds the soprano’s image to her earlier recording of the “Gypsy Song.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Salome: She Danced But One Night

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.

On December 17, 2016, the Metropolitan Opera will broadcast over radio its Saturday afternoon performance of Richard Strauss’s  Salome. Salome has held its own in the Met’s repertoire since 1934. It is, of all of the composer’s operas, second only to Der Rosenkavalier in number of performances put on by the company, and far ahead of ElektraDie Frau ohne SchattenArabella (see our posts of April 14, 2014 and December 6, 2016), and the rare Capriccio and Die Agyptische Helena. But between its premiere on January 16, 1907 and its return on January 13, 1934, it was entirely absent from the 39th Street stage. Here is the story.

The Met general manager was Heinrich Conried, born in Silesia. He had worked in the theater in Berlin as an actor and stage manager, and had emigrated to the U.S. as a young man. Conried had come to work in the bustling world of German theatre in New York. In 1903, after significant success in creating a German repertory company, he was appointed Met general manager with no experience and precious little knowledge of grand opera.

In the summer of 1906, Conried found himself in Dresden where he attended a performance of Strauss’s recently completed one-act opera, Salome, based on Oscar Wilde’s notorious French play. On his return to New York, Conried corresponded with the famously greedy Strauss for the rights to perform Salome at the Met, rights that Strauss granted for an exorbitant fee. Conried had the bad judgment to schedule a semi-public dress rehearsal on a Sunday in January, at about the time the audience of socialites and critics would be arriving at the theater straight from their devotions in church. His Salome, Olive Fremstad, was a fiercely engaged performer, bent on as realistic a depiction of her characters as possible. She had taken the trouble to visit the city morgue to ascertain the weight of a human head so as to carry the severed head of John the Baptist, made of paper maché, and resembling the baritone who played the role of the Prophet, with the requisite effort.

At the rehearsal, Fremstad proceeded to the lip of the stage, as the press reported, to “kiss the gelid lips” of John. She played the whole of the role of the depraved daughter of Herodias in the same spirit. Two days later, at the first performance, Fremstad repeated her act, with only somewhat less fervor. Nonetheless, as was reported, women swooned, men left their seats during “The Dance of the Seven Veils,” and the Executive Committee of the Met board, headed by J. P. Morgan, was up in arms. The board met to vote unanimously that the remaining scheduled performances be cancelled, despite the protestations of Conried and others. And so Salome danced just once on the Met stage before she was banned for twenty-seven years. What would Morgan and his cronies have thought of the 2004 performances in which Karita Mattila stood in the altogether, having shed the last of her seven veils?

This Saturday’s Salome is Patricia Racette. The list of nearly thirty Met singers who have essayed the arduous role of the Judaean princess spans a wide gamut of female voices, from mezzos Grace Bumbry and Maria Ewing to lyric Catherine Malfitano. Fremstad was a dramatic soprano. Among the other Brünnhildes and Isoldes who lent their heroic timbre to Salome have been Marjorie Lawrence, Astrid Varnay, Hildegard Behrens, Gwyneth Jones, and the dominant Wagnerian of the second half of the 20th century, Birgit Nilsson. The composer, who himself wished that Salome be sung by a youthful voice, tried to persuade Elisabeth Schumann to perform it, and even offered to alter the orchestration and transpose a number of passages. Schumann, the ideal light, high soprano for his Rosenkavalier Sophie, wisely declined. One Met star, Teresa Stratas, had the ideal sound and temperament, if not the volume. She never sang the role on stage. But she did commit her compelling portrayal to video. Here are two excerpts from the final scene, conducted by Strauss specialist, Karl Böhm.

We conclude with the art of the sensational Bulgarian soprano, Ljuba Welitsch. Her debut as Salome in 1949 set off one of loudest and longest ovations in Met history. Welitsch’s voice, at once crystalline and warm, cuts through the galvanic instrumentation to convey the youth and the sexual frenzy of Salome with unflagging power. Here are the final moments from a commercial recording made in the 1940s.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Arabella 2: More Angels in Vienna

Two-and-a-half years ago, in a post of April 14, 2014, we promised a continuation of  the discussion of Richard Strauss' Arabella, a promise we keep belatedly for operaphiles of all stripes and for Straussians in particular (please see Arabella 1: Angels in Vienna in our blog archive in the right-hand column).

No retrospective of Arabella, however selective, can fail to acknowledge Viorica Ursuleac and Lotte Lehmann, favorites of the composer. Bitter rivals, they each coveted the 1933 Dresden world premiere. Strauss wanted Clemens Krauss to conduct; Ursuleac, Frau Krauss, was part of the deal. Lehmann had to settle for introducing this Viennese opera to Vienna. Both singers had voices more hefty than the lyric and spinto sopranos who have taken on the role since the 1950s. Despite their heroic sound, Ursuleac and Lehmann connect deeply to the modern Arabella, a young woman who exercises her courage not on mythological mountaintops but in the habitats of 19th-century society. Ursuleac, with the first Mandryka, Alfred Jerger, and her husband-conductor, recorded the end of Act III at the time of the premiere. Through the awful sonics you can hear her resplendent top and her expressive diminuendo.

Also at that time, Lotte Lehmann recorded the Act I monologue, “Mein Elemer”; here she displays her uniquely passionate tone and crystalline diction.

We cannot end this post without putting in a word for the often neglected Josef Metternich. The Met was rich in great baritones in the mid-1950s: Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Ettore Bastianini, George London. Metternich was there as well, but for just three seasons—twenty-three performances between 1953 and 1956, predominantly in Verdi roles. Although he received generally excellent notices, he never approached the popularity of his superstar colleagues. Metternich sang Mandryka to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s Arabella in the album referenced in our 2014 post. In Mandryka’s semi-solo scene in Act I (Theodor Schlott sings the few lines allotted to Arabella’s father), Metternich is master of the shifting rhetoric of the piece; his splendid, bright instrument deftly navigates this difficult test of rhythm and range with propulsive energy.

New York never heard Metternich in Arabella, perhaps because the opera was sung in English, and not in the original German, when he was with the company. He shows off his Italianate legato in this 1953 German-language rendition of the "Prologo" of Pagliacci.