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.



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