Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Setting Pagliacci Then

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The Metropolitan’s new productions of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci will be simulcast “Live in HD” the day after tomorrow, Saturday, April 25; they had their premieres on April 14. (See our previous post, “Cavalleria rusticana all’italiana). By the time the screen audience takes its turn, the inseparable pair will have been reviewed in print and on-line. And the lion’s share of the critical response will have been given over, not surprisingly, to the staging rather than to the performances. The focus on design and direction will astonish no one. Here, after all, are two new productions. And, again after all, staging is the topic of the operatic day, the principal site of debate--and excitement--in the lyric theater, especially as it impinges on the core repertoire. As concerns the Met, it is Pagliacci, above all, that sixty-five years ago set off the now all-consuming controversy.

The season was 1950-51, the first of general manager Rudolf Bing’s long tenure. A month after opening night, Bing announced that Don Carlo and Der Fliegende Holländer had come in under budget (imagine that!) and that the surplus would support a new Cav/Pag for later that season. Bing tapped director Hans Busch for Cavalleria, Max Leavitt, the director of Greenwich Village’s intimate Lemonade Opera, for Pagliacci, and Horace Armistead, who had designed the “Broadway operas” of Gian-Carlo Menotti and Marc Blitzstein, for both. Busch set Mascagni’s one-acter in the present with the intention of stripping it of “meaningless routine.” For Pagliacci, Armistead adopted a more radical scheme. He leeched the surrealism of his oil paintings onto a Calabrian village reduced to a bare central platform and tracings of withered trees flanked by high walls of crumbling buildings.

Cavalleria rusticana, Metropolitan Opera, 1951; Martha Lipton (Lola), Richard Tucker (Turiddu), Zinka Milanov (Santuzza); photo Sedge LeBlang

Pagliacci, Metropolitan Opera, 1951; Delia Rigal (Nedda), Leonard Warren (Tonio); photo Sedge LeBlang

Looking back, Cavalleria rusticana’s mid-twentieth-century southern Italian hill town reflects only a timid departure from tradition. On the other hand, Pagliacci’s minimalist platform and flats define an authentically experimental, somewhat Brechtian playing space. But audiences were accustomed neither to experimental stagings nor to marginal productions. Belatedly, Bing himself called Cav/Pag “a bargain-basement, inadequate production.” The two together had come in at a paltry $22,400. Under his watch, no subsequent new production would present the Met’s patrons with so cheap a scenic display nor so provocative a slant on the core repertoire.

The invectives hurled at the stagings by Olin Downes in the Times and Virgil Thomson in the Herald Tribune drowned out the mixed notices of newspapers of lesser clout. But more significant than the contemporary critical response was the dispute that has been its legacy. The rereadings of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci called into question for the first time in Met history the legitimacy of altering the temporal, spatial, or cultural framework of the sacred cows of the genre. Ironically, the counter-attacks on Downes and Thomson were invited by these same reviewers. In trashing Armistead et al., the two powerful journalists had positioned themselves as conservatives, Downes in taking on the label of “poor old moss-back,” and Thomson by moving from the particular of this Cav/Pag to the general issue of reinterpretation: “Modernizing operas like these is not a rewarding effort. They are rigid; they have a style of their own; they do not lend themselves to indirection, to added poetry, and intellectual embellishment.” To his credit, Downes was open to engaging with those who disagreed with him. He devoted three columns to the question, first countering a young operagoer who complained that “Rudolf Bing’s slightest variation from any time-honored methods of dramatizing these operas has been belabored by the traditionalists as heresy” (Jan. 28), then quoting reader responses, pro and con (Feb. 4), and finally debating the distinction between “tradition” and “routine” with playwright Robert E. Sherwood (Feb. 11). Under Bing, the quarrel would simmer primarily over the 1951 Cav/Pag. He would not again be tempted to champion conspicuous deviations from the middle ground. The polemic on rereadings would pick up steam under Joseph Volpe. It has come to a boil, to the distress of many Met faithful on both sides, under Peter Gelb. 
 
We cannot end this post without including clips of two of the extraordinary artists in the roles they sang in Bing’s much-maligned Cav/Pag. It was as Santuzza that Zinka Milanov returned for the second and far longer phase of her Met career. A principal in the Italian dramatic soprano repertoire from 1937 to 1947, she was let go by general manager Edward Johnson. Bing, Johnson’s successor, brought her back to star in Hans Busch’s production of Cavalleria, and in the new investitures of Verdi operas that were the glory of his regime. Her farewell to the stage on April 16, 1966 coincided with the company’s farewell to the old house on 39th Street. Here is a 1945 studio recording of the aria “Voi lo sapete.” We catch the Yugoslav soprano at her peak; her refulgent voice pours out unstintingly and without blemish, her grandly shaped phrases and her unaffected interpretation chart the emotional trajectory of Santuzza’s shame.


The highlight of the 1951 Pagliacci was Leonard Warren’s rendition of “Si può,” the “prologo” that defines the relationship between theatre and life, the crux of the drama. This recording, which also dates from 1945, conveys the splendor of the baritone’s richly resonant instrument, consistent throughout its range, capped by high notes that would be exceptionally brilliant and secure were they those of a tenor. Warren possessed a wide dynamic palette. He filled the auditorium with his burnished fortissimos, but was also capable of spinning a thread of pianissimos, as in the phrase “Un nido di memorie.” Here, Tonio the clown evokes the reservoir of feeling that nourishes the actor’s art.


Please watch for our discussion of the staging of the recent Pagliacci in our next post.



Friday, April 17, 2015

Cavalleria rusticana all’italiana

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On April 25, 2015, the Metropolitan will present the most indissoluble of all operatic double bills, Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, “Live in HD.” First performed in Rome in 1890, Mascagni’s one-act melodrama had its Met premiere the very next year when it was paired incongruously with Gluck’s neo-classical Orfeo. In 1893-94, the company coupled Cavalleria with Gounod’s Philémon et Baucis, later that same year with one act of Mascagni’s own L’Amico Fritz and with two acts of La Traviata. Toward the end of that season, Cavalleria was wed with its near contemporary, Pagliacci (1892), and has held fast to that eminently fitting partner ever since.

A decade later, in 1902, 39th Street and Broadway was the first stop on Mascagni’s projected three-month U.S. tour. His company was to play Cavalleria rusticana with another of his one-act operas, Zanetto, and his three-act Iris. Things got off to a rocky start in New York and went from bad to worse. One influential contemporary critic, Henry Krehbiel, called Mascagni’s visit the “most sensational fiasco ever made by an artist of great distinction in the United States.” The composer had contracted to prepare and conduct “not more than eight operas or concerts a week,” including the three performed at the Met and his full-length Guglielmo Ratcliff. This last never saw American footlights. When he moved on to Boston, he was arrested for breach of contract. Krehbiel continued, “It was foolishly reckless in the composer to think that with such material as he had raked together in his native land and recruited here he could produce four of his operas within a week of his arrival.” Mascagni countersued for damages. Krehbiel concluded, “The scandal grew until it threatened to become a subject of international diplomacy, but in the end compromises were made and the composer departed to his own country in bodily if not spiritual peace.” Needless to say, Mascagni never returned.

At close to 700 repetitions, Cavalleria rusticana stands tenth in the frequency of Met performances after La Bohème, Aïda, Carmen, La Traviata, Tosca, Rigoletto, Madama Butterfly, Faust, and Pagliacci. Since its company premiere, more than eighty singers have poured out the woes of Santuzza, spurned by the two-timing Turiddu. The earthy Sicilian protagonist has been portrayed at the Met by sopranos and mezzo-sopranos of many, many nationalities, but surprisingly, only rarely by Italian artists. We have chosen clips that feature two Italian sopranos, Giannina Arangi-Lombardi and Carla Gavazzi who, like numerous others of their compatriots, centered their careers in the vital opera scene of their homeland during the inter-war and post-war periods. The two tenors you will hear sang at the Met, Mario Ortica briefly in 1955-56, Beniamino Gigli, as the primary successor to Caruso, from 1920 to 1932, then for a few appearances in 1939.

Arangi-Lombardi, a principal dramatic soprano at La Scala in the late 1920s, when the theatre was under the directorship of Arturo Toscanini, headed the casts of early complete recordings of Cavalleria, Aïda, and La Gioconda. Unlike many interpreters of Santuzza, who ignore Hamlet’s advice and tear “a passion to tatters,” she invests her feelings with the weight and density of her tone and the unaffected line of her phrasing, the better to render the character’s dignity as well as her humiliation.


In this 1957 broadcast, the Santuzza-Turiddu duet emerges with immediacy, despite the artifice of lip-synching to pre-recorded music, the deplorable practice of Italian television in its studio productions of opera. Mario Ortica delivers an incisive, particularly nasty version of Sicilian machismo. The Santuzza is Carla Gavazzi who, to our knowledge, never appeared outside Europe. In the early 1950s, she became known in the U.S. through recordings of Pagliacci, Adriana Lecouvreur, and most memorably, La Fanciulla del West.Gavazzi’s timbre, pungent rather than plush, gives compelling vibrancy to the conversational speech patterns of verismo. We discover through this video that her acting is as richly inflected as her singing.







Here is Gigli, the preeminent Italian tenor of his time, in the “Addio alla madre.” The contrite Turiddu, filled with forebodings of his death in the upcoming duel with Alfio, the husband he wronged, begs his mother to watch over Santuzza. This 1927 Vitaphone short, a very early sound film, captures Gigli’s rudimentary stagecraft along with his ineffably sweet timbre and unerring tonal control over a wide dynamic range. When he bows to his virtual public at the end, it is easy to imagine the roar of approval.  

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Remembering Carlo Bergonzi

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In our last post, we remembered Licia Albanese, Met soprano for twenty-six years, from 1940 to 1966, a Puccini specialist. Albanese died in the summer of 2014. With this post we remember Carlo Bergonzi, Met tenor for almost as long, 1956 to 1988, and Verdi specialist. He too, died last summer.

Bergonzi was born in 1924 in the town of Vidalenzo. In nearby Parma he began vocal study with a teacher who counted among his remarkable students the soprano Renata Tebaldi. During WWII, Bergonzi was interned in a German camp for three years. At war’s end, he resumed his education in music and eventually made his debut as a baritone in 1948, as Figaro in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. For several years, Bergonzi appeared in a variety of baritone parts in Italy’s provincial opera houses. But he would soon realize that he was in fact a tenor. He made his tenor debut as Andrea Chénier in Umberto Giordano’s opera in 1951. Two years later, Bergonzi made his La Scala debut, and in 1955, his US debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. His first Met performance took place on November 13, 1956, the seventh season of general manager Rudolf Bing’s tenure in New York.

As we wrote in our recent history of the Metropolitan, Grand Opera: The Story of the Met (University of California Press, 2014), Bing had ushered in what would be an extraordinary Verdi era with Don Carlo on the opening night of his inaugural season, 1950-51. Verdi ruled again on opening nights 1951 and 1952 with Aïda and then La Forza del destino. All this was to be expected. Asked to name his favorite operas, the general manager-designate had ticked off three Verdi titles, and then just one work by each of seven other composers. Between 1950 and 1966, Verdi accounted for 25% of Metropolitan performances, significantly more than the 14% and the 19% of his two immediate predecessors. Under Bing, Verdi pulled far ahead of Wagner, the previous front-runner. Verdi also led the pack in the percentage of new productions, fourteen of fifty-nine. Bing’s predilection would have mattered little had the company not boasted, year after year, a cohort of outstanding singers capable of honoring the master’s melos. Casts that included Zinka Milanov, Leontyne Price, Mario Del Monaco, Richard Tucker, Franco Corelli, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Cesare Siepi, and, of course, Carlo Bergonzi, were arguably the best in the world.

Bergonzi’s first Met engagement was limited to two well-received performances opposite Antonietta Stella, another newcomer, in Aïda and, three days later, in Il Trovatore. He returned the following November to a season-long commitment, a full complement of eight roles that he shared with the company’s array of leading tenors, including well-established stars Tucker and Del Monaco, the recently arrived Daniele Barioni and Giuseppe Campora, and Flaviano Labò and Eugenio Fernandi, making their debuts. He immediately proved himself a model of musical refinement in the repertoire of the Italian dramatic tenor, the tenore di forza. His sweet timbre and shapely phrasing were balm in roles often consigned to singers whose triumphs were measured predominantly in brilliant tone, in the ringing squillo of stentorian high notes.

Although he also excelled in the works of Puccini and others, as amply documented in his extensive discography, Bergonzi defined himself as a Verdi tenor. Late in his career, he committed arias from all of Verdi’s operas to a single album. At the Met, he sang Riccardo in Un Ballo in maschera more often than anyone in the company’s history. In two complete recordings, with Birgit Nilsson, then Leontyne Price, Bergonzi’s mercurial King of Sweden juggles playfulness, passion, and benevolent authority with characteristic finesse. Here, in a 1967 performance from Japan, Riccardo, masquerading as a sailor, asks the fortune-teller to read his future. Master of the aria’s tricky rhythms, Bergonzi shows off both the legato and the brio that made him the tenor of choice in this wonderfully varied role.


Second only to journeyman Kurt Baum, Bergonzi sang the role of Radamès more often than any other Met tenor since the 1940s. In this 1959 recording, cushioned by Herbert Von Karajan’s languorous tempo and the silken texture of the Vienna Philharmonic, he finds a welcome and rarely heard dreamy tone for the warrior’s evocation of his “celeste Aïda.”


The wide-ranging line of “O tu che in seno agli angeli,” from La Forza del destino, is a test of legato and dynamic control. With appropriately dolorous tone, Bergonzi conveys Alvaro’s despair, first in the recitative that recalls the sorrows of his past and the presumed demise of his beloved Leonora, then in the aria, where he wishes for his own death. This clip is from a live performance, thunderously received by the 1965 opening night La Scala audience. Below is a third example of the “covered voice” we heard Bergonzi press insistently, even obsessively, on the young Verdians he coached a decade or so ago in Barcelona during the Concurso Internacional de Canto Francisco Viñas.