Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Met in World War I, 2



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On this 100th anniversary of the onset of the Great War, we pick up where we left off in our post of November 8, The Met in World War I, 1

From 1914 to 1917, the Met programmed its seasons much as it had in preceding years. As late as October 16, 1917, six months after the performance of The Canterbury Pilgrims disrupted by the news that Congress had declared war against Germany (see our previous post), Olive Fremstad, one of the Met’s two leading Wagner sopranos (the other was Johanna Gadski), had signed on to rejoin the company after a three-year absence. A week before opening night and only nine days before she was scheduled to sing Isolde, Fremstad was informed that all opera in German was cancelled for the season and so, therefore, was her engagement. Tristan und Isolde turned into Boris Godunov. In all, general manager Gatti-Casazza replaced more than forty scheduled German performances, nearly one-third of the season’s calendar. The action was taken, according to the official explanation, "lest Germany should make capital of their [operas in German] continued appearance to convince the German people that this nation was not heart and soul in the war." Though no one could have guessed it at the time, the last performance in German from the Met stage for the duration and beyond had taken place on April 13, 1917. 
The press was essentially unanimous in opposing the management’s edict. A Tribune headline read, “German Opera is Still Welcome at the Metropolitan” (Sept. 23, 1917). The Sun was confident that the public did not “think of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner as exclusively representing the Teutonic people.” The Mail declared, “Art knows no frontiers.” A ban on German opera would, for the Times, be tantamount to “excluding the great classics of German literature from the public libraries.” Signed contracts and the views of influential music critics notwithstanding, in a charged climate the board bowed to war hysteria, voting to exile the German language from its auditorium, and leading Wagner specialists from its roster. 
Subscribers who objected and demanded refunds were refused on the grounds that the company had “made no definite promise as to the complete and precise repertoire of its present season.” In a letter from management, they were further told that “the decision of the Board of Directors to withdraw opera sung in the German language was dictated not only by a sense of patriotic duty but also by a desire to safeguard the interests of our patrons and to prevent possible disorder.” The German-language repertoire tentatively announced (it was common practice to float many more titles than would be mounted) for 1917-18--Fidelio, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde, Meistersinger, Parsifal, Rheingold, Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung—was scratched. To compensate for the ban on German (the number of performances in German in 1916-17 was forty-six), performances in Italian rose from eighty-eight to 122, and in French from thirty-three to forty-eight.  The premieres represented Entente Powers Italy, France, Russia, and the United States: Mascagni’s Lodoletta, Henri Rabaud’s comic Mârouf, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’or, and The Robin Woman: Shanewis by Charles Wakefield Cadman, a specialist in Native-American music.

The Armistice coincided with opening night, November 11, 1918; the company celebrated offstage and on-. In the afternoon, a procession to Times Square and back of Met administrators, Gatti included, instrumentalists, and singers followed a “dummy” Siegfried, hung in effigy from a gibet and helmeted to resemble Kaiser Wilhelm. Between acts of the evening’s opera, Samson et Dalila, the national anthems of the Allies rang through the house, the “Star Spangled Banner” capped by Caruso’s high B flat. 

In 1919-20, the gradual reintegration of Wagner began with Parsifal, but only in English; in 1920-21, Lohengrin and Tristan were on the program, again in English; all did well at the box office. In 1921, when the ban was lifted, Italian maintained its plurality although performances in German increased gradually through the decade. In the mid-1930s, with the advent of Kirsten Flagstad, German again claimed its pre-war season share of approximately thirty percent.
The world’s great singers gave their thrilling voices to the war effort. In his heavily-accented English, Caruso made a fervent recording of George M. Cohan’s 1917 rousing “Over There.” It ends with “Par là-bas,” the French version of Cohan’s recruitment anthem.


Just four days after the Armistice, Connecticut-born Rosa Ponselle made her Met debut opposite Caruso in the company’s first La Forza del destino. In that 1918-19 season, shorn of operas in German, she was conscripted to head the casts of two English-language works enlisted to take up the slack: Carl Maria von Weber’s Oberon, presented in its original English text, and the world premiere of an American opera, Joseph Carl Breil’s The Legend. Here she sings Ivor Novello’s 1914 “Keep the Home Fires Burning.”


John McCormack, who was never on the Met roster, sang on its stage with the Chicago-Philadelphia Opera Company. He lends his sweet timbre, refined style, and exemplary diction to Jack Judge’s “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” composed in 1912 and taken up by British soldiers when the war broke out.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Rosina, High and Low

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Gioacchino Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, presented in New York in 1825, was the first opera in Italian to be heard in the city, just nine years after its Rome world premiere. That November night at the Park Theatre on Park Row the audience included Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist of Le Nozze di Figaro, among other Mozart operas. Le Nozze was seen this season in the Met’s “Live in HD” series and was the subject of a recent OperaPost. Il Barbiere di Siviglia will be simulcast on November 22. Both operas are based on comedies by the 18th-century French playwright Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Il Barbiere has rarely been absent from the Met since its very first season, 1883-84, Le Nozze since 1939-40.

We focus here on Rosina, the lead female character of Il Barbiere, and a rare example of a role in the core repertoire that has been attributed to either the high or low voice. Rossini wrote Rosina for Geltrude Righetti, the contralto who also created Angelina in his La Cenerentola. But despite the composer’s intentions, throughout the 19th century and much of the 20th the part has been held hostage by sopranos who have had few qualms about raising the key of some passages, singing the higher octave of others, and interpolating high notes where none were indicated. In 2006-07, for example, coloratura soprano Diana Damrau was the season’s first Rosina; mezzo Joyce DiDonato took over later and can be seen in the video of the simulcast. Here they are in the familiar “Una voce poco fà,” Damrau in Madrid, DiDonato in concert in New York. They are both terrific.




Whether performed by high soprano or mezzo soprano, Rosina is a showcase for prodigious dexterity. The opera’s scenario incudes a singing lesson for which Rossini provided an aria, “Contro un cor.” It became common practice, however, for sopranos to depart from the score and substitute pieces that better showed off their virtuosity. In 1883, the “Letter Scene” simply stole the show. One reviewer of the Met’s first performance gave his notice over to Marcella Sembrich’s mini-concert during which the Rosina selected the difficult Proch variations and two German songs, all of which post-date the character’s playlist. In the course of her sixty-four subsequent Met Rosinas, a record still unbroken, Sembrich sometimes sang Bellini, sometimes Chopin or Johann Strauss. In the 1920s, Amelita Galli-Curci picked a bel canto aria, not necessarily by Rossini, and followed it religiously with “Home Sweet Home,” the latter chosen to privilege the singer’s legendary legato and creamy timbre. This is Galli-Curci’s 1927 recording of the old standard.

The Met’s first experiment with a mezzo Rosina, a single performance by Jennie Tourel in 1945, left reviewers cold. In the new production of February 1954, the audience at last heard Rossini’s own aria in the “Lesson Scene,” but it was sung by coloratura Roberta Peters. Two months later Rosina was restored to her earthier, mezzo self. The rapturously received Victoria de los Angeles made an irrefutable case for the lower voice. And mezzos Teresa Berganza and Marilyn Horne ultimately ended the hegemony of the high coloratura. Since then, mezzos have taken the advantage, two to one. This Saturday’s Rosina will be mezzo Isabel Leonard. 
In point of fact, male roles dominate Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Nonetheless, the jocular baritone, the dulcet-toned tenorino, the scene-stealing basso buffo and basso profondo have often played second banana, served up with great gobs of shaving soap, to Rosina, high or low.  The production that will be heard and seen this Saturday was new in 2006-07. Wittily staged by Bartlett Sher, its cast formed a remarkable ensemble for which bel canto embellishment was a sign of joy rather than an excuse for vocal calisthenics. The other role that requires extensive embellishment is that of Count Almaviva. His “Cessa di più resistere,” restored at the Met only in recent decades, is a long aria that tests the display of fioritura and the legato of cantilena and crowns the comic climax. Here is how this coming Saturday’s Almaviva, Lawrence Brownlee, sang it in concert in 2005.





 





Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Met in World War I, 1



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In this post and in one we are planning for later in the month, we add our voices to the chorus of historians of 20th-century Europe and America, including cultural historians, who have marked the centenary of World War I this year, and this week mark the Armistice of November 11, 1918 that ended the hostilities. 

From 1914 to 1917, the year the United States entered the war, the impact on the Met of the fighting in Europe was limited principally to the difficulties of transporting European artists to New York and back. Passports and safe-conducts were precious commodities. In May 1915, the dangers of ocean travel came home to 39th Street with the catastrophe of the Lusitania, sunk by a German U-boat.  Only fate and his premature exit from the Met in a huff kept Arturo Toscanini, his wife, and daughters from the passenger list of the doomed transatlantic liner on which the family had originally had reservations.  Two years later, the Met mourned the tragic death of Spanish composer Enrique Granados. On his return from New York following the Metropolitan world premiere of his opera Goyescas, the ship on which Granados and his wife were crossing the English Channel was torpedoed by a German submarine.

While on the stage it was largely business as usual, Met artists were not impervious to the patriotic passions of the time. At the center of nationalist nastiness was the German soprano Johanna Gadski. A fixture at the Met from 1900 to 1917, she had become openly contemptuous of the United States. In spring 1915, coincidentally a day after the attack on the Lusitania, a gala for the benefit of the German Red Cross, a performance of Die Fledermaus not sponsored by the company, was scheduled for the house. The German colors were to be displayed, “Deutschland über Alles” was to be sung, there were to be speeches. The performance took place, but Gadski thought better of singing the anthem, the speeches were curtailed, and the colors were not shown. In the same year, Gadski’s husband, Captain Hans Tauscher, was charged with conspiring to blow up the canal that joins Lake Erie and Lake Ontario; he was acquitted. Gadski herself was alleged to have pronounced publicly that, given a chance, she would have happily blown up New Jersey’s munitions plants. The New York Globe called for Gadski’s ouster from the Met for hosting a 1915 New Year’s Eve party at which fellow German Otto Goritz, a Metropolitan baritone, was reputed to have sung a parody in celebration of the Lusitania disaster. 

Gadski’s reputation as a stalwart Wagnerian is substantiated by her recordings. Her warm timbre is far more phonogenic than that of most dramatic sopranos of the era. Her voice is remarkably well-schooled, solid throughout the range, even capable of agility. She is responsive to the text and has the means to utter Wagner’s expansive phrases with no hint of strain. One of the most breathtaking moments in Die Walküre comes in Act III: Brünnhilde bestows on the pregnant Sieglinde the broken sword that Siegfried, the future hero, will reforge; Sieglinde rapturously responds with gratitude and pledges to save her unborn child. Gadski, like many Wagner sopranos sang both roles, in separate performances of course. Here she takes on the successive phrases first of the Valkyrie, then of the expectant mother. The recording was made in May 1917, just one month after Gadski’s final performance at the Met. 


A versatile member of the company, Gadski was by no means limited to the German repertoire. A quarter of her nearly 500 performances were in Italian roles. In the long list of sopranos who have sung Aïda with the Met, she stands fourth, with two more to her credit than Leontyne Price. This recording reveals the full body of Gadski’s voice, her affinity for Verdi, and the assured manner that easily surmounts the difficulties of the Act III aria, “O patria mia.”


On April 2, 1917, during a performance of the American composer Reginald De Koven’s The Canterbury Pilgrims, the audience was electrified by the news that Woodrow Wilson had appeared before Congress to call for a declaration of war against Germany. Late editions of New York papers circulated from hand to hand in the boxes. In the audience was the recently recalled ambassador to Berlin James Gerard. He stood to exhort the crowd to cheer the President; from another box came a shout for cheers for the Allies and the United States Army and Navy. The orchestra struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As Act IV began, mezzo-soprano Margarete Ober, “one of a dozen German stars [more accurately, two stars and a handful of comprimarios] on the stage at the time, had the leading part with Mr. [Johannes] Sembach in the final scene. She was singing a phrase of the Wife of Bath when she stopped and fell full length upon her back, striking heavily on the floor. Sembach and [tenor] Max Bloch lifted her, but she sank again, and the two men carried her out through the stage crowd, considerably to the detriment of the Wife of Bath’s bridal gown” (Times). The cast sang on without her to the opera’s end. In the years of America’s neutrality, 1914-1917, Ober and her German compatriots had had no problem singing with French and British colleagues, nationals of countries with which Germany was at war. Nor was there any serious threat of anti-German feeling affecting the repertoire. 
That would quickly change.

Post-script: Reginald De Koven

The Canterbury Pilgrims was the only opera by Reginald De Koven performed at the Met. His other opera, Rip Van Winkle, had its premiere in Chicago. Neither had long shelf lives. An influential critic, De Koven was also a prolific composer of operettas, many of them successful in the late 19th century and beyond. His music is remembered, if dimly, because an aria, “O promise me,” from his Robin Hood (1890), became a standard sung at countless weddings for many generations. Louise Homer, principal Met contralto from 1900 to 1918, delivers the melody with rich yet finely focused tone.