Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

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.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Return of William Tell

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Audiences of our time know Rossini best for his comic operas (opere buffe) composed for Italian theatres on Italian librettos--Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola, L’Italiana in Algeri. We are generally less familiar with Rossini’s opere serie (serious operas) of which Guillaume Tell (1829) is certainly the grandest. It also marked his farewell to the lyric stage.

By the 1820s, Paris was the center of the opera world and Rossini’s base of operations. Guillaume Tell was commissioned directly for the Paris Opéra and set to a French text. Two of his earlier opere serie had been premiered in Italy in Italian and then adapted into French for the Parisian stage (Maometto II [1820] became Le Siège de Corinthe [1827], Mosè in Egitto [1818] turned into Moïse et Pharaon [1828]). But it was Guillaume Tell that had a profound influence on what was to become known as le grand opera français. The genre demanded four or five acts, a historical subject, usually a revolt against political oppression (as in the legend of the Swiss hero William Tell who led the fight against the Austrian occupiers) or religious persecution (as in Halévy’s La Juive [1835] and Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots [1836]). Also expected were spectacular scenic effects, a significant role for the orchestra and chorus, and an extended ballet sequence during Act III, all to the measure of the rich resources of the French national theatre.

The Metropolitan first staged Guillaume Tell in its second season, 1884-1885, in German, at the start of the seven-year span when the entire repertoire was sung in that language. In 1894-1895 it was revived in Italian, and then again in Italian in 1923 in a shortened version, as had long been the custom. It was performed from time to time on Broadway and 39th Street until 1932, and then, not again, until this fall when it was finally presented by the Metropolitan in a nearly five-hour version, and in the original French. Of late, the opera has enjoyed a rebirth not only in New York but in major European houses—London, Paris, Munich, Turin, Bologna, Warsaw. One explanation for its absence is no doubt the difficulty of putting on so large scale and lengthy a piece, and the challenge of casting the leading tenor role. The memory of the work has been kept alive during the Met’s eighty-four-year hiatus by the final section of its often performed overture. Here the La Scala orchestra is conducted by Riccardo Muti.

The libretto of Guillaume Tell inserts romance into the early 14th-century narrative of popular uprising. In Act II, Mathilde, a Hapsburg princess, finds refuge in the “Sombre forêt (dark forest)” where she confesses her love for the Swiss Arnold. The aria is an example of the style Rossini continued to refine for his French audience. The soprano’s line calls for both legato and flexibility although less rigorous than the virtuosic florid singing dominant in the composer’s Italian works. In this clip from a complete recording of the opera, Montserrat Caballé negotiates the sinuous phrases with the luminous tone and soft attacks that are her trademark.

The composer cast Tell’s most extensive stretch of solo singing not as an “aria,” a set piece, but as an enhanced recitative integral to the “scene.” The turbulent episode of Tell’s arrest is followed by the feat that made him the stuff of legend: shooting the arrow through the apple perched on his son’s head, as ordered by the Austrian tyrant. In “Sois immobile,” itself a moment of stasis, of reflection, Tell instructs his son to be still. As you will hear, most of the unembellished music lies in the comfortable middle of the baritone range. The singer is Gabriel Bacquier.

In “Asile héréditaire (refuge of my birthplace)” the bereaved Arnold addresses his devastated home, laments the loss of his murdered father, and commits himself to rebellion against the Austrian oppressor. The aria repeatedly rises to the tenor’s high register; the rousing call to arms of the cabaletta repeatedly ascends to the stratospheric high C. Arnold was written for Adolphe Nourrit, the leading tenor of the Opéra, master of the voix mixte (mixed voice) that allowed for lightly attacked and sustained high notes. In 1836 Gilbert Duprez astounded Paris with stentorian high Cs, the “ut de poitrine,” and changed tenor technique forever. The despondent Nourrit, having failed in his attempt to conquer the new sound, jumped to his death from a Naples hotel window in 1839. The clip we have chosen features Juan Diego Flórez, a singer of exceptional grace, who easily masters the high tessitura of the aria.

The last excerpt is from a Paris performance of 2003. This is the transcendent finale, led by baritone Thomas Hampson: the Austrian despot is no more, the sun shines on the free Swiss people.

The Metropolitan Opera will not be screening its long awaited new production of Guillaume Tell “Live in HD.” Rossini’s opera will, however, be broadcast via radio on March 18, 2017.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

World War II and the Met Roster, 3: Ebe Stignani, the Absent Amneris

In June 2014 we published two posts centered on the impact of World War II on the Met roster, the first on June 11 and the other on June 21 (see our blog archive in the right-hand column). The Met's revival this fall of its well-worn 1988 Aïda (it is scheduled for live internet streaming on November 5) prompts us to tell the story of the extraordinary Italian mezzo-soprano, Ebe Stignani, whose Met debut in 1939 fell victim to impending hostilities.

That year the New York Times carried an article titled “Ten Italian Artists Detained in Italy” (October 6). According to the report, "officials of the company had gone to the Italian pier ... expecting to meet a contingent of singers, but none of the expected artists was on the boat.” Imagine their surprise! The Met was later informed that the singers were unable to secure passports. Among the ten, all of whom had already obtained visas from the US authorities, was Ebe Stignani. The next day, the Times offered this explanation: that several of the artists, including Stignani, had been booked for performances in Italy “and it is feared that should the war continue the artists might not be able to get passage back to Italy in time for their scheduled appearances.” Besides, should the US declare war, the singers might find themselves unable to return to Italy for the duration. So it was that Stignani did not fulfill her contract with the Met and New York audiences were deprived of an unforgettable Amneris, Aïda's Egyptian rival.

In this excerpt from a 1946 complete recording of Aida, Stignani is the despairing Amneris who realizes that she has brought the death sentence upon her beloved Radamès

We pick up the trail of Ebe Stignani and the Met in 1950, general manager Rudolf Bing’s first season. Verdi’s Don Carlo was the opening night bill. Months before, Bing had asked his friend, conductor Alberto Erede, to suggest a cast worthy of his inaugural production. In his reply to Bing of January 18, 1950, Erede recommended Renata Tebaldi or Delia Rigal, in that order, for Elisabetta, Boris Christoff or Cesare Siepi for King Philip, Giuseppe Taddei for Rodrigo, Mario Del Monaco for Carlo. Tebaldi was busy in San Francisco; Christoff was contracted, then denied a visa for suspected Communist sympathies. Bing eventually chose Robert Merrill for Rodrigo and Jussi Björling for Carlo. For the Countess Eboli, Erede was explicit in rejecting Stignani because of her age (she was then only forty-seven and in phenomenal voice) and because he doubted that “her appearance would be acceptable for an American audience,” although, he conceded, “she is still very good.” In all likelihood "appearance" weighed heavily in the rejection. Erede’s choice, Fedora Barbieri, was awarded the role.

Ebe Stignani did sing in the United States, but not nearly to the extent that opera fans would have wished: she gave a string of recitals in 1948, including one rapturously received in Carnegie Hall, was engaged by the San Francisco Opera in 1938 and 1948, by Philadelphia and Detroit in 1951, by Chicago in 1955. In a 1971 Opera News interview, Stignani responded to the question, “why did you never sing at the Met?” with, “I simply do not know. They did not call me again. Why talk about it?”

Right at the start, from the time of her 1925 debut, it was apparent that Stignani had one of the truly great voices of the 20th century. Toscanini engaged her for La Scala just a year later; she was a major star until her retirement in 1958. Featured in complete opera recordings of the 1930s and 1940s, she was the preferred mezzo opposite Maria Callas in many post-war albums, both pirated and commercial.

The phenomenal sound of Stignani, huge yet finely controlled, rich in harmonics and texture yet even in its registers, is best appreciated in her live recordings. It was the theatre, not the studio, that inspired her most compelling singing. Here she is in a 1953 La Scala performance of Il Trovatore. The tenor is Gino Penno, who sang briefly at the Met. The gypsy Azucena narrates first her mother’s death at the stake, then, her own horrific error when in a paroxysm of vengeance she mistakenly threw her own child into the blaze. Her expressive voice and diction made Stignani a great actress. The knowledgeable Milan audience, unable to restrain itself, begins its ovation before the aria is finished.

We end with an excerpt from the 1953 film adaptation of Aïda, starring a very young Sophia Loren in the title role, her voice dubbed by Renata Tebaldi, and the American actress Lois Maxwell lip-syncing Stignani's Amneris. In this scene (somewhat abridged), the Egyptian princess tricks her Ethiopian slave into confessing her love for the Pharaoh's general.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Don Giovanni on Contested Fields

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On October 22, 2016, the Metropolitan Opera will broadcast “Live in HD” its Saturday matinee performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The production that will be seen by audiences in the New York house and at the movies globally premiered in 2011. Nothing about this staging gives off the excitement director Michael Grandage has generated in the legitimate theater. The moveable curved wballs pierced by doors and windows are all too familiar. To complaints of timidity such as “this Don Giovanni almost makes you yearn for those new stagings where the creative team is booed on opening night” (Times, Oct. 15, 2011), Peter Gelb, Met general manager, shot back with some justification, “Don’t get me started on that. . . . I feel damned if I do, damned if I don’t.” (Guardian [London], Dec. 9, 2011).

Don Giovanni has been favored at the Met for many decades. Since 1929, Mozart's drama giocoso has been on the boards two of every three seasons on average. But that was not always the case. Between 1908 and 1929, the opera was absent from the company’s repertoire. Its revival was inauspicious. Disappointed in most of the singers and no doubt remembering the noble baritone of Antonio Scotti, the unrepentant libertine of the turn of the century, critics judged bass Ezio Pinza lacking in "the elegance, the grace, the adroitness, the magnetic charm that the successful Don possesses, and his voice is not sufficiently flexible for the music." And through the 1930s, music journalists carped about Pinza. It was not until 1941, when conducted by Bruno Walter, that he earned their unrestrained praise. Virgil Thomson found him, and four of the other principals, "irreproachable." Pinza, who took on the doublet and hose of Don Giovanni in more than sixty Met performances, is credited with establishing the opera's place in the core repertoire. Handsome, charismatic, possessing a beautiful and theatre-filling voice, he was the undisputed king of the bass repertoire for his more than twenty-year-long operatic career in New York.

The several commercial disks of Giovanni's short solos and his duet with Zerlina fail to show off Pinza at his best. The impact of his voice, the clarity of his diction, the evenness of his legato, and the finesse of his phrasing are displayed not in the mini-arias Mozart granted the legendary rake but in a recording of bravura pages consigned to the servant. "Madamina, il catalogo è questo," is Leporello's accounting of Giovanni's amorous conquests.

A particularly dramatic back-stage Met story linked Don Giovanni and Ezio Pinza in 1942. The celebrated bass was diligently fulfilling his Met contract when FBI agents showed up at his suburban New York door and placed him under arrest on the accusation of a fellow bass, Norman Cordon. Pinza had been a permanent resident in the U.S. since 1939 and lately married to an American. Among the charges leveled against him were that he was a personal friend of Il Duce (they had never met), that his nickname was Mussolini, that by changing tempos during Met broadcasts he had sent coded messages abroad, that he had a tortoise-shell ring in the shape of a swastika (it was an antique ring that bore an archaic symbol). While columnist Walter Winchell went on the attack with his signature malice, many others came to Pinza’s defense, including Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. So did anti-fascist Bruno Walter. At Pinza’s successful second hearing, colleagues testified that Cordon had bragged about informing on his famous competitor. After three month’s detention, Pinza was released. His return to the Met in 1942–1943 came on tour in Philadelphia where, as Don Giovanni, he had the pleasure of murdering Cordon’s Commendatore in a performance conducted by Walter.

Another Met backstory with national implications links Don Giovanni with the celebrated African-American soprano Leontyne Price. In the southern cities of its spring tour, the Met was caught up in the fight for civil rights that defined the decade. During the 1961 Atlanta run, two African-American holders of orchestra tickets were asked to sit elsewhere. They refused. Protests ensued. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined in a telegram to general manager Rudolf Bing denouncing the company’s acceptance of a discriminatory policy. The cable was cosigned by Martin Luther King, Jr. The following year, officially at least, the Atlanta audience was integrated. Atlanta was again a thorn in Bing’s side in 1964. The organizers had balked at the prospect of Price in the cast of Don Giovanni. Bing dashed off this memorandum to the president of the Metropolitan Opera Association: “Leontyne Price at the present time is one of the most valuable properties [an unfortunate choice of words] of the Metropolitan Opera and there is no doubt that taking her on tour next season, but skipping the whole Atlanta week would terribly upset her, would without question make her refuse the whole tour and might, indeed, jeopardize her whole relationship with the Metropolitan.” Price sang Donna Anna in Atlanta that spring.

Here, recorded (alas, with faulty sonics) at a live performance just a few years earlier, Price sings Anna’s exacting “Or sai chi l’onore,” swearing vengeance on Don Giovanni, who forced himself upon her and then killed her father. Few sopranos are successful in maintaining Anna’s rhythm and rage through the music’s craggy course. Price does so with scrupulous attention to note values, all the while pouring forth a glorious flood of tone.

Pinza proved that the basso cantante, the lyric bass, was a perfect fit for Don Giovanni. His successor at the Met, basso cantante Cesare Siepi, holds the company record for the role. In recent seasons, the brighter sound of the baritone has had its turn. Here is baritone Simon Keenlyside, the Met’s October 22 Don Giovanni, in a seductively lyric rendition of the Act II serenade.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Tristan und Isolde Opens Met 2016-2017 Season

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As the Metropolitan Opera prepares to open its 2016-2017 season on September 26 with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and we return to OperaPost, the music press is focused on the financial straits which continue to plague the company in its 131st year. The arts pages tell a persisting story of rising costs and declining box office and, occasionally, call on a spectrum of stakeholders to suggest what can be done about it.

In the midst of so much justified hand wringing, it may be useful to take a moment to glance backwards. The last seven or eight years hardly constitute the only extended period in which the company faced worrisome deficits. In fact, its very first season, 1883-1884, ended in fiscal collapse. The manager, Henry Abbey, withdrew after just one ruinous season. Some decades later, the Great Depression threatened the Met’s very existence. In both instances, that of the 1880s and that of the 1930s, it was Wagner who saved the day. But not Wagner alone. The survival of the fledgling Met depended on its roster of fabled Wagnerian singers, Lilli Lehmann and Albert Niemann among others. And the survival of the Metropolitan during the Depression depended in large measure on the Tristan and Isolde of Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad, the two mighty pillars of a brilliant Wagnerian epoch.

Melchior came to the Met first, in 1926. It was not until several seasons later that he reached his full potential. Dubbed “Tristanissimo” by Toscanini as a result of his work at Bayreuth with the exacting maestro in 1930, he became the leading Wagner tenor of his time, and in retrospect, indisputably the greatest heldentenor of the 20th century. But Tristanissimo needed an Isoldissima. She was not long in coming. Her name was not Kirsten Flagstad; it was Frida Leider. Here are Melchior and Leider in a 1929 recording of the Act II duet from Tristan und Isolde. Exceptional is the degree of dynamic inflection, the soft yet precise attacks. Leider and Melchior caress the text through subtle crescendos and diminuendos. The “Liebesnacht” is a showcase for their prowess in bending heroic voices to the register of intimacy, then lifting them to the peak of emotional outburst.

Leider’s presence on the Met’s Wagnerian Olympus was alas short-lived, a mere twenty-eight performances in two seasons. Unwilling to accept the reduced fees the management imposed in light of the depressed economy, and in the face of increasing difficulty in obtaining leaves from her home theatre, Berlin, under the Hitler regime, Leider declined to sign her contract for 1934-1935. To replace her, Met general manager Gatti-Casazza engaged Anni Konetzni, a confirmed star in Europe, who could only commit to the first half of the season. Needing to engage a second soprano to cover the second half, he took a chance on a Norwegian who had had much less experience on the international circuit than Konetzni. Some twenty-two years into a career almost exclusively confined to Scandinavia, Kirsten Flagstad had sung everything from operetta to the lyric heroines of Carmen and Faust to the more dramatic Aïda and Tosca, all in Norwegian or Swedish. Only when conductor Artur Bodanzky heard her in rehearsal in the vast New York auditorium did he realize how uniquely prodigious was this new Met artist. Of the seven Wagnerian roles she took on in her debut season it was Isolde that elicited the greatest acclaim.

Here, in a late 1940s recording Isolde’s Act I “Narrative and Curse,” Flagstad’s titanic voice encompasses the character’s love for Tristan and her rage at his betrayal. Brangäne’s few lines are sung by Elisabeth Höngen. Issay Dobrowen conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Through the rest of the decade, Flagstad and Melchior were not only the most famous Wagnerian singers at the Met; they were at the heart of a constellation of Wagnerian exemplars. Little wonder audiences wTere mad for Wagner. Here is the Met’s box office story from 1935 to 1941. Receipts for his operas came in consistently and significantly above the average. The company rested on the shoulders of Flagstad and Melchior. Their Tristan und Isolde was the most popular draw of all five seasons. In fifty-six performances, Flagstad was the sole Isolde, Melchior her Tristan in all but three. In the course of its seven Met seasons, the team of Flagstad-Melchior racked up 202 performances, a company record. The miraculous coincidence of the Norwegian soprano and the Danish tenor was as serendipitous for the Met’s balance sheet as it was for the history of Wagner singing.

Of course, for so many well-rehearsed reasons, those glorious seasons of the late 1930s cannot be replicated. Nor can those fabulous Verdi seasons of the 1950s, as another example. Still, there is at least one lesson to be drawn from the past: when superstars head the cast, the Met fills its seats to the relief of its bottom line. Of late, that distinction has fallen to too few—Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann. The company can only hope that Nina Stemme’s Isolde will do the same as Tristan opens the season for the first time since that privilege fell to Flagstad and Melchior nearly eighty years ago.

As a preview, here is Stemme in a concert reading of Isolde’s “Liebestod,” conducted by Daniel Harding.