Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Saturday, June 21, 2014

World War II and the Met Roster. Those who Did not Come: 2. Germaine Lubin

This post, the second in the series “World War II and the Met Roster,” is centered on the French dramatic soprano Germaine Lubin, whose anticipated Met debut, like that of Tiana Lemnitz, the subject of the last OperaPost, did not come about. This opportunity lost, there would not be another. 

In 1939, Lubin was engaged for the 1940-41 Met season for performances that included the company premiere of Alceste.  Her agent, Erich Simon, wrote to the management on March 8 of that year that his client was prepared to sing several Wagner heroines (Isolde, the Walküre Brünnhilde, Sieglinde, Elsa, Elisabeth, Kundry, but not Sieglinde or the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde), and a variety of French roles.  The signed contract spanned the period January to April 1941, and guaranteed fifteen performances at $400 per performance. 

Lubin cancelled just a few weeks before she was scheduled to make her debut in the Gluck opera. There is reason to question the sincerity of her apology to general manager Edward Johnson: “I am heartbroken that it is impossible for me for the moment to leave occupied France. Let me hope I will be able to sing at the Metropolitan Opera next season.” In The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation, Frederic Spotts finds implausible Lubin’s claim that the German ambassador in Paris “would not give her a passport.” Lubin may by then have been unwilling to sing in New York. In a 1963 interview, she makes plain her contempt for the United States:  “I have sung everywhere. Except in America where I refused seven invitations. I don’t regret it.”  To the interviewer’s interjection, “Still, the Metropolitan Opera is a highly regarded venue,” she responded, “Yes, for dollars. I wouldn’t exchange Bayreuth for the Metropolitan.”

Just before the war, Lubin had sung in Berlin and Bayreuth. Through her great friend, Wagner’s daughter-in-law Winifred, she established relations with highly placed figures of the Third Reich, including Hitler. He so admired her Isolde that he had her sit by his side at a post-performance dinner. The episode and her enthusiastic response to the Führer would come back to haunt her. And among Lubin’s intimates was Vichy head Maréchal Pétain.  Her post-war destiny was sealed when she sang Isolde in Paris with the troupe from the Berlin Staatsoper, the only French artist in the cast.  On that occasion the swastika hung over the grand staircase of the French national theater.

At the liberation in 1944, Lubin was arrested, and in 1949 she was condemned to “dégradation nationale” (the loss of political, civil, and professional rights) for a period of five years.

Although Lubin’s performances in Tristan und Isolde contributed to her undoing in the reckoning of her collaboration and fraternization with the enemy, at the time they were career triumphs. Hitler’s assertion that he had never heard a better Act II Isolde was no doubt merited. In a recording reported to be from a live performance from Bayreuth in 1939, we discern the qualities that put Lubin in the front rank of dramatic sopranos: a sumptuous voice that blooms at the top, a homogeneous sound throughout her range, total command of dynamics. Her legato and clear articulation of the musical line are marks of a singer equally at home in Wagner and in the exposed 18th-century style of Gluck. We hear her power as she rides effortlessly over the orchestral surge; she scales her huge voice down to a perfectly poised pianissimo at the climax. Lubin does honor to what she called “le rôle des rôles.”

In this French-language recording, Lubin’s dulcet pianissimo caps her reading of “Vissi d’arte,” or, “D’art et d’amour.” Musically accurate, without exaggerated effects, she infuses Tosca’s prayer with credible religious fervor.

There is no doubt that with Lubin, the Met’s 1941 Alceste would have found greater favor with critics and public. The title role fell to Australian soprano Marjorie Lawrence, who had shared roles with Lubin at the Opéra in the 1930s. A tempestuous Wagnerian, Lawrence in Gluck was reviewed with reservations. She was indisposed at the time of the Saturday matinee broadcast; her replacement, American Rose Bampton, acquitted herself admirably, but with signs of strain. Bampton’s commercial recording of one of Alceste’s arias finds her in peak form, equal to the rigors of the high-lying final phrases.

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