Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

World War II and the Met Roster, 3: Ebe Stignani, the Absent Amneris

In June 2014 we published two posts centered on the impact of World War II on the Met roster, the first on June 11 and the other on June 21 (see our blog archive in the right-hand column). The Met's revival this fall of its well-worn 1988 Aïda (it is scheduled for live internet streaming on November 5) prompts us to tell the story of the extraordinary Italian mezzo-soprano, Ebe Stignani, whose Met debut in 1939 fell victim to impending hostilities.

That year the New York Times carried an article titled “Ten Italian Artists Detained in Italy” (October 6). According to the report, "officials of the company had gone to the Italian pier ... expecting to meet a contingent of singers, but none of the expected artists was on the boat.” Imagine their surprise! The Met was later informed that the singers were unable to secure passports. Among the ten, all of whom had already obtained visas from the US authorities, was Ebe Stignani. The next day, the Times offered this explanation: that several of the artists, including Stignani, had been booked for performances in Italy “and it is feared that should the war continue the artists might not be able to get passage back to Italy in time for their scheduled appearances.” Besides, should the US declare war, the singers might find themselves unable to return to Italy for the duration. So it was that Stignani did not fulfill her contract with the Met and New York audiences were deprived of an unforgettable Amneris, Aïda's Egyptian rival.

In this excerpt from a 1946 complete recording of Aida, Stignani is the despairing Amneris who realizes that she has brought the death sentence upon her beloved Radamès

We pick up the trail of Ebe Stignani and the Met in 1950, general manager Rudolf Bing’s first season. Verdi’s Don Carlo was the opening night bill. Months before, Bing had asked his friend, conductor Alberto Erede, to suggest a cast worthy of his inaugural production. In his reply to Bing of January 18, 1950, Erede recommended Renata Tebaldi or Delia Rigal, in that order, for Elisabetta, Boris Christoff or Cesare Siepi for King Philip, Giuseppe Taddei for Rodrigo, Mario Del Monaco for Carlo. Tebaldi was busy in San Francisco; Christoff was contracted, then denied a visa for suspected Communist sympathies. Bing eventually chose Robert Merrill for Rodrigo and Jussi Björling for Carlo. For the Countess Eboli, Erede was explicit in rejecting Stignani because of her age (she was then only forty-seven and in phenomenal voice) and because he doubted that “her appearance would be acceptable for an American audience,” although, he conceded, “she is still very good.” In all likelihood "appearance" weighed heavily in the rejection. Erede’s choice, Fedora Barbieri, was awarded the role.

Ebe Stignani did sing in the United States, but not nearly to the extent that opera fans would have wished: she gave a string of recitals in 1948, including one rapturously received in Carnegie Hall, was engaged by the San Francisco Opera in 1938 and 1948, by Philadelphia and Detroit in 1951, by Chicago in 1955. In a 1971 Opera News interview, Stignani responded to the question, “why did you never sing at the Met?” with, “I simply do not know. They did not call me again. Why talk about it?”

Right at the start, from the time of her 1925 debut, it was apparent that Stignani had one of the truly great voices of the 20th century. Toscanini engaged her for La Scala just a year later; she was a major star until her retirement in 1958. Featured in complete opera recordings of the 1930s and 1940s, she was the preferred mezzo opposite Maria Callas in many post-war albums, both pirated and commercial.

The phenomenal sound of Stignani, huge yet finely controlled, rich in harmonics and texture yet even in its registers, is best appreciated in her live recordings. It was the theatre, not the studio, that inspired her most compelling singing. Here she is in a 1953 La Scala performance of Il Trovatore. The tenor is Gino Penno, who sang briefly at the Met. The gypsy Azucena narrates first her mother’s death at the stake, then, her own horrific error when in a paroxysm of vengeance she mistakenly threw her own child into the blaze. Her expressive voice and diction made Stignani a great actress. The knowledgeable Milan audience, unable to restrain itself, begins its ovation before the aria is finished.

We end with an excerpt from the 1953 film adaptation of Aïda, starring a very young Sophia Loren in the title role, her voice dubbed by Renata Tebaldi, and the American actress Lois Maxwell lip-syncing Stignani's Amneris. In this scene (somewhat abridged), the Egyptian princess tricks her Ethiopian slave into confessing her love for the Pharaoh's general.

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