Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Monday, March 23, 2015

Remembering Licia Albanese

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On March 13, 2015, we attended a concert sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild in memory of beloved Met soprano Licia Albanese (born 1909) and star Met tenor Carlo Bergonzi (born 1924). Both artists died in 2014. We devote the next post to Bergonzi.

This post is devoted to Licia Albanese. The year was 1939. Italian opera singers had been barred by the Mussolini regime from travelling to the United States. A flurry of telegrams housed in the Metropolitan archives documents the negotiations among the Metropolitan, the State Department, the Italian Embassy in Washington, and the responsible Italian government agency. On September 28, a cable from the Federazione Fascista Lavoratori Spettacolo (Fascist Federation of Theater Workers) informed the Met that three singers scheduled to make their Metropolitan debuts that year, and six who had been reengaged, would not be honoring their contracts, among them Maria Caniglia, Mafalda Favero, and Carlo Tagliabue, who had already made successful debuts, and the much awaited Ebe Stignani. The most damaging cancellation was that of Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, whose return after six seasons had been eagerly anticipated. As the Times (Oct. 7, 1939) explained it, several of the singers forbidden to travel were committed to Italian theatres following their tour at the Met; there was concern that increasing international tensions might delay their timely reentry. Of more diplomatic consequence was the eventuality that Italian artists caught in the United States would be marooned on enemy shores should America enter the war. There was nevertheless a good deal of back and forth on the matter over the course of many months. The Italian authorities were sensitive to the propaganda value of italianità at the Metropolitan and were, therefore, reluctant to offend the management; they were also loath to forego the hard currency their nationals would deposit in Italian banks. The Met applied what pressure it could, both at home and in Italy, through numerous intermediaries. One such go-between, the retired soprano Lucrezia Bori, long a U.S. resident and great friend of the company, was asked by Edward Johnson, the Met general manager, to communicate the Metropolitan’s position to the Italian ambassador in Washington: if the nine contracted singers did not come, the management would have no recourse but to redraw the season’s repertoire, with serious consequences for the company and for Italian opera itself. On the other hand, should Johnson receive assurances that the restrictions imposed in 1939-40 would be lifted for 1940-41, he would be favorable to scheduling a greater number of operas by Italian composers than had originally been planned. In May 1940, Johnson received the guarantees he sought from the consul general. In the end, none of the nine came in 1939-40. Only Licia Albanese, who was not one of the nine, was allowed to come.
And that was how--a result of an international flap, and something of a fluke—Albanese’s twenty-seven-season-long Met career began. In February 1940, she made a smashing debut as Cio-Cio San in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. She soon became one of New York’s most popular lyric stars. She would spend the war years in the United States, marry Joseph Gimma, an Italian-American lawyer, and become an American citizen.  Her last Met appearance was as one of fifty-seven artists who sang in the farewell to the old Met in 1966. Her “Un bel di’” brought down the house.  To shouts of “Save the Met” from the many in the audience who opposed, as she did, the plan to demolish the 39th Street theatre, she kissed her hand and bent to touch the stage floor with her fingers. And in the decades that followed, on many, many opening nights at Lincoln Center her voice would ring over the sound of the audience on its feet for the “Star-Spangled banner” as she nailed the high note of “the land of the FREE.”

Albanese followed in the wake of Lucrezia Bori (mentioned above), the company’s reigning lyric soprano in the 1920s through the mid-1930s, and was contemporary with the lyric-coloratura, Bidú Sayão. All three had bright, tangy voices, not voluminous, but with sufficient focus to carry in the large auditorium, to make every word count. We offer below audio clips of each diva, Bori, Sayão, and Albanese, in, “Addio del passato” from Verdi’s La Traviata so that you can make the comparison for yourselves. The dying Violetta, after reading a letter promising the return of her lover, despairs that she will live long enough to see him.

Violetta was one of Bori’s favored roles. This acoustic recording captures the delicacy of her art, her attention to detail. Of particular effect is the phrase “l’amore d’Alfredo perfino mi manca (I have been deprived even of Alfredo’s love)” where the precise calibration of her instrument accommodates the compelling expansion of the line.

Lucky Met operagoers heard Sayão’s Violetta twenty-three times from 1937 to 1949. Sayão infuses the “legato” written into the score with subtle stresses on key syllables. Notice, for instance, the word “mai” in the first phrase, the elongation of the first word in “l’anima stanca,” the various weights with which she utters the repeated “tutto” at the end. She maintains the tonal purity of the line while giving full value to the text.

Albanese performed Violetta a record eighty-eight times with the Met. Her affinity for the role was well recognized when Arturo Toscanini chose her for the 1946 concert rendition of the opera with his orchestra, the NBC Symphony. The transcription of the broadcast was a best-seller in the early lp era. With the imprimatur of Toscanini, Albanese’s performance became the Violetta of choice for a generation of listeners. Here, in the dress rehearsal of the broadcast (you can hear Toscanini’s raspy singing in the background), is the opening of the final act, through the aria.  In an aural image of the vivid physical gestures that were her trademark, Albanese follows the feverish pace of the conductor, audibly snatching breath at the end of phrases, not out of necessity, but in order to convey the physical distress of the tubercular heroine.

The Met has seen Violettas with creamier or more prodigious voices, but probably none more moving than Bori, Sayão, or Albanese.

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