Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Lawrence Tibbett, 2: All-American Divo

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.

In our last post we traced the beginnings of Lawrence Tibbett’s remarkable operatic career and, in particular, his towering renditions of many of Verdi’s baritone roles. But it was not the Verdi wing of the repertoire alone that Tibbett expanded under the direction of the Met general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza (he ruled in New York from 1908 to 1935), but also the American wing that Gatti, more than any other general manager before or since, embraced and promoted. Among the more successful American works for which Tibbett helped draw an audience were Deems Taylor’s The King’s Henchman (1929) and Peter Ibbetson (1931).

Then there was the now iconic American role that Tibbett might have sung but, to the disappointment of many, did not. In the mid-1930’s, the Met’s great benefactor and president of the Metropolitan Opera Association, Otto Kahn, had hoped that George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess would have its premiere on 39th Street. Tibbett would certainly have been cast as Porgy. But Gershwin rebuffed the company’s skimpy guarantee of only two performances; he took his opera to Broadway instead. However, Tibbett did get to sing the role of Porgy in the first recording of excerpts that was produced just days after the October 10, 1935 Broadway opening. (Porgy and Bess had its belated Met premiere in 1985).

Here is “I Got Plenty of Nothin’” from that 1935 recording. Tibbett is, as you will hear, a rare artist able to meld the technique required for opera and the folk/Broadway style Gershwin contrived for Porgy’s rollicking introductory number.

Together with frequent concert and radio appearances, it was his movie career that made Tibbett a household name in America. He was recruited by Hollywood at the advent of talking pictures alongside classical and popular vocalists Grace Moore, Fanny Brice, Marilyn Miller, and others. Tibbett went to M-G-M. He was first cast as the lead in The Rogue Song, a role that won him a best-actor Oscar nomination in 1930. He quickly made three more films for the prestigious studio and returned in 1935 for two Twentieth-Century Fox productions. The first of these, the positively reviewed Metropolitan, is one of the few Hollywood movies that mounted fully staged, uncut versions of operatic excerpts.

We have chosen the sequence in which Tibbett sings Figaro’s entrance aria, “Largo al factotum,” during a make-believe rehearsal. His virtuosic rendition demonstrates the individuality of his timbre and of his phrasing, and the brio of his acting. (In his more than six hundred Met performances he never played Rossini’s crafty barber.)

The full measure of Tibbett’s presence and appeal bursts forth in another sequence from Metropolitan. He sings one of his recital favorites, Oley Speaks’s setting of Rudyard Kipling's poem "On the Road to Mandalay.”

Clip of “On the Road to Mandalay”

In the soft start of the repeat, as he elongates the phrase “Come you back to Mandalay,” the baritone’s voice and personality are as irresistible to us as they are to the old musical mentor he is seen addressing.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Lawrence Tibbett: Becoming an (American) Divo

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.
Unlike Rosa Ponselle’s beginnings in opera (see Rosa Ponselle: Becoming an (American) Diva, 10/5/17), baritone Lawrence Tibbett’s operatic career began inauspiciously. His knees shaking during the whole of his 1923 Met audition, as he recounted it, he cracked on the high note. He was dismissed by the general manager with a curt “thank you.” Three weeks went by before Giulio Gatti-Casazza agreed to a second hearing. A far less agitated Tibbett sang the “Credo” from Otello. This time, Gatti was impressed enough to hire the twenty-seven-year-old Californian who had never sung in opera, not in New York, not anywhere. Tibbett was expected to master twenty-seven roles in his debut season, mostly comprimario and secondary parts, two leads, and one role for bass. In the next year or so, he was little noticed by public or press.
Tibbett got his big break in his second season. Gatti cast him as Ford, the second baritone role in Verdi’s Falstaff. But rehearsals went poorly for the inexperienced singer, who was challenged by a weak musical memory and a difficult score. The formidable, almost all-Italian cast included Antonio Scotti as Falstaff. In fact, the revival had been staged expressly for Scotti’s twenty-fifth anniversary with the company. During rehearsal, annoyed that Tibbett’s on-the-job training was slowing things down, the Italian baritone and his veteran Italian colleagues engaged in mocking exchanges over the novice’s histrionic and vocal difficulties. Although he had never set foot in Italy and did not know Italian, Tibbett got the drift. He was furious. Then came the night of the first performance, January 2, 1925. Tibbett sang the bitter aria that concludes the first scene of the second act with an extra dose of passion. During the ovation that followed, the principals took their bows. Then Scotti came out alone. But the audience kept up the clapping, stamping, whistling, and, finally, to make its will perfectly clear, began shouting, “Tibbett, Tibbett.” Meanwhile, assuming the tribute was for Scotti, Tibbett had repaired to his dressing room two floors above. The conductor did his best to carry on with the performance, but the audience, presuming that Tibbett had somehow been denied a solo bow, would not let up. Gatti acceded to the public reluctantly; attention had shifted from the honoree of the evening to the humble newcomer: “An American audience had decided that one of its own nationality should be properly recognized for his talent” (Times). The sixteen-and-a-half-minute demonstration subsided at last and the curtain rose on the next scene. From then on, Tibbett was given increasingly important assignments and with his assumption of the title role in the Met’s first Simon Boccanegra in 1932, he was uncontested as the company’s leading baritone in the Italian and French repertoires. He sang the last of his 603 Met performances on March 24, 1950. Tibbett was the first and remains, arguably the greatest, of a line of extrordinary American baritones: John Charles Thomas, Leonard Warren, Cornell MacNeil, Sherrill Milnes, and most recently Thomas Hampson.  
Tibbett’s successful audition aria, the “Credo” from Otello, forecast the return of Verdi’s opera to the Met repertoire in 1937 after a long and puzzling hiatus of twenty-five seasons. The revival came at the peak of Tibbett’s career, his voice refulgent, his charisma compelling, his dramatic and musical acumen at their sharpest. Here is Tibbett in a 1939 recording. He captures Iago’s complex praise of evil in the elasticity of his phrasing and dynamic range.
In the course of his Met career, Tibbett sang more than thirty leading roles, eight of which were in operas by Verdi. Missing was that of  Renato in Un Ballo in maschera, a title that reentered the repertoire only in 1940, by which time the baritone had undergone a serious vocal crisis and had reduced his appearances on 39th Street. Here is his rendition of Renato’s third act aria, “Eri tu.” The character expresses both his anger towards the man he believes to be his wife’s lover and his tenderness towards the woman he has lost. Tibbett employs his high pianissimo to especially touching effect.
The test role for all Verdi baritones is, of course, Rigoletto. Tibbett performed it thirty-two times with the company. In this excerpt, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” he thunders the jester’s rage at the courtiers who have abducted his daughter; then, in heartrending supplication, he throws himself on their mercy.
Our next post will feature Tibbett in a wing of the repertoire that he made distinctly his own—American opera.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Rosa Ponselle, 2: An American Diva

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.

In our previous post, “Rosa Ponselle: Becoming an (American) Diva,” we sketch the beginnings of Ponselle’s astonishing musical journey. Here we continue our evocation of her storied operatic career.
There had, of course, been many American divas before Ponselle’s 1918 Metropolitan debut, among them Lillian Nordica, Emma Eames, and Geraldine Farrar. These and other predecessors had a key formative experience in common: all had performed on European stages, most had European training. Ponselle alone was entirely home grown; the Met was her conservatory. Her operatic appearances elsewhere included only a handful of performances in London and Florence, and these came late in her career. Despite her success abroad, her fear of foreign audiences never left her and she was quick to make her way back to New York.

In her nearly two-decade-long Met tenure, Ponselle took on more than twenty roles, including the world premiere of an American opera and seven company premieres in the Italian, French, and English repertoire. The most lasting of these firsts expanded the Verdi corpus to encompass La Forza del destino (see our previous post), Don Carlo, and Luisa Miller. She was also the Elvira in the 1921 revival of Ernani, which had been absent from the Met since 1903. One reviewer put it this way: “It is a matter of wonder at that she can sing this music lightly and rhythmically, yet in full voice with the timbre of a dramatic singer.” And wondrous is her execution of Elvira’s opening aria, “Ernani, involami,” replete with incisive recitative and passages of florid singing that explore the limits of the soprano’s range. Here, in one of the most prized Ponselle recordings, her rich, dark voice articulates a long-breathed trill that would be the envy of a light coloratura in, say, Lucia di Lammermoor.

Ponselle never sang a Puccini role. Mimì and Cio-Cio-San were unsuited to the size and color of her voice; Tosca was the property of Maria Jeritza in the 1920s and early 1930s; Manon Lescaut belonged to Lucrezia Bori and Frances Alda. In 1923, she did however record Manon’s “In quelle trine morbide.” The soprano’s seemless legato captures the protagonist’s realization that she has exchanged the precious love of the impoverished student Des Grieux for the empty luxury of her rich protector Geronte.

In her final Met years, Ponselle was driven to Carmen by her interest in the role, of course, and also by her insecurity at the top of the range. Audiences loved her, not so the critics who complained of the liberties she took with Bizet’s rhythms and who carped at her outsized gestures. Hollywood, on the other hand, alive to the diva’s popularity, was intrigued. Two decades earlier, Geraldine Farrar had become a moving picture star in a pre-talkie “Carmen” (see our post of January 4, 2017). The trite “home hither” postures of Ponselle’s gypsy, captured in this test, were a bad omen. In any case, as reported by Peter G. Davis in The American Opera Singer, the artist sabotaged her chances at M-G-M by demanding an outrageous fee.


A 1937 Met Carmen on tour in Cleveland was Ponselle’s last hurrah. You can hear it on Youtube. Her voice still sumptuous, she retired early to Villa Pace, her Maryland home. She was only forty.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Rosa Ponselle: Becoming an (American) Diva

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.

In the first of our recent posts on Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, we included the magisterial aria, “Casta diva,” sung by Rosa Ponselle. Her Met debut is one of the astonishing Cinderella stories in the performance history of opera. And from that dazzling start she went on to become one of the unforgettable vocal artists of the last century.
Opposite the world-famous tenor Enrico Caruso in the Met’s very first performance of Verdi’s La Forza del destino (November 15, 1928) was a twenty-one-year-old soprano who had never had a voice lesson--let alone sung on an operatic stage. She had been born Rosa Ponzillo in Meriden, Connecticut in 1897 to parents who had immigrated from Caserta, very near Naples, Caruso’s home town. The first musician in a non-musical family was her beloved sister Carmela, ten years Rosa’s senior, who, discovered by the church organist, had studied music and eventually moved to New York to make her living as a café singer.
In the meanwhile, Rosa sought work as a pianist in local nickelodeons and occasionally as a singer in movie theatres. At age nineteen, she joined Carmela in New York. Together they formed an act promoted as “Those Tailored Italian Girls,” mixing popular songs, Broadway show tunes, and operatic arias. The sisters, both endowed with dark, smooth, flexible voices, were immediate hits and were soon propelled to the pinnacle  of the vaudeville circuit, the Palace, where they commanded top dollar.  Here they are in “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye,” recorded in December 1919.  In this rendition, the familiar song becomes a vehicle for voices of operatic power exercised in authentic bel canto style. Note, in particular, the interpolated virtuoso cadenza redolent of Bellini.
But Ponslle aspired to a grander stage some blocks down Broadway from the Palace. In May 1919 her agent arranged for an audition with Caruso. She sang “Pace, pace” from La Forza del destino, in anticipation of the upcoming premiere of Verdi’s opera that fall. The great tenor, duly impressed, introduced her to the Met’s general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza. That she fainted during “Casta diva” did not discourage Gatti from contracting her for six operas (in only six months) for the 1918-1919 season, at $150 a week, considerably less than her fee touring in Keith’s vaudeville shows. She sang more than twenty times in five works, all of which she had to learn, including two Met firsts and a world premiere.
Here is Ponselle in “Pace, pace,” the glorious aria from her debut role. Still in love with Alvaro, the perpetrator of her cruel destiny, the solitary, penitent Leonora begs for peace. In this 1928 recording, at the peak of her career, Ponselle, ever alive to her character’s despair and agitation, varies dynamics and sustains phrases with rock-solid assurance and her accustomed tonal splendor. The crescendo and decrescendo of the opening note have rarely been matched.
Also in 1928, Ponselle recorded the last moments of La Forza del desino with her frequent superlative collaborators tenor Giovanni Martinelli and bass Ezio Pinza.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Norma, 2: Two Duets and a Transcendent Final Ensemble

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.

In the first of the two posts we devote to Vincenzo Bellini’s 1831 work (see Norma 1: Raising the Bar), we illustrate the opening act through three excerpts. The first is a rendition of “Casta Diva” in which the legendary American soprano of the 1920’s and 1930’s, Rosa Ponselle, in the role of the Druid priestess vowed to chastity, offers a prayer to the moon goddess. In the second clip, the Franco-Italian Gina Cigna, active in the 1930’s,  as Norma, in duet with Ebe Stignani as Adalgisa, a novice priestess, sings “Ah, rimembranza,” a recollection of the passionate onset of her love for the Roman proconsul Pollione. In the last excerpt, the trio that concludes the act, Maria Callas as Norma, Giulietta Simionato as Adalgisa, and Mario Del Monaco as Pollione confront the tragic consequences of their intertwined transgressions.

In this post, we continue to review the parade of great Normas of the past, Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé, leading to the contemporary Sondra Radvanovsky, who tonight will open the 2017-2018 Met season in the exacting title role.

In 1952, when Maria Callas sang her first London Norma, the brief part of her confidante, Clotilde, was taken by a company member of the Royal Opera, the spinto Joan Sutherland, who was currently singing Verdi’s Aïda and Amelia (in Un Ballo in Maschera). Seven years later Sutherland became an overnight sensation and a global superstar as one of Callas’s bel canto heroines, Lucia di Lammermoor. Sutherland took immediate possession of the dramatic-coloratura roles that Callas had reclaimed from neglect, and added many of her own. In 1963 in Vancouver, it was Sutherland’s turn to become Norma, the supreme test for her voice type. The Adalgisa of the occasion, a role Bellini had written for a high soprano, soon appropriated by mezzo-sopranos, was the mezzo Marilyn Horne. Horne lightens the texture of her voice to suggest the youth and innocence of her character. Equal to Sutherland in the florid repertoire, she matches her partner in precision of articulation, of embellishment, and, of tone.

The duet, “Mira, O Norma,” from a 1970 television program made just after Horne’s Metropolitan debut as Adalgisa, provides evidence of the affinity of the two divas. Just prior to the duet, Norma has resolved to kill herself and deliver her children into the care of their father, Pollione, and especially of Adalgisa. Adalgisa calls forth the children as she beseeches Norma to live for their sake. The two women pledge eternal friendship in the joyous caballeta.

Another key figure in the bel canto revival of the late 20th century was Montserrat Caballé. In her repertory of extraordinary variety, the operas of Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini hold a privileged place. We hear her as Norma in a 1974 festival performance at the Roman theatre of Orange. This excerpt captures Caballé in customary command of the scene’s florid requirements, and particularly alert to the character’s explosive temperament. Her Pollione is Jon Vickers in what, for him, was a rare bel canto excursion.

Incited by Norma, the Druids have risen up against the enemy Roman occupiers and have captured Pollione. In this duet, Norma first vows to spare Pollione’s life if he promises to give up Adalgisa. He refuses. Norma then threatens that her rival will perish along with all the Romans. Pollione offers his own life in exchange for that of Adalgisa.

The Norma of the Met’s opening night 2017, Sondra Radvanovsky, has the full barrage of technique, memorable timbre, range, and expressivity that we associate with her predecessors. In the opera’s finale, moved by Pollione’s gesture of self-sacrifice, Norma summons the Druids and confesses that she has betrayed her vows. She pleads with her father, the Archdruid Oroveso, to spare her children. He succumbs to her entreaties. Pollione, now filled with love and admiration for Norma, follows her onto the funeral pyre. Radvanovsky deploys to heart-rending effect the ethereal pianissimo called for by Bellini’s characteristically long phrases, yet she is able, with her enormous instrument, to cap the climactic moments with brilliant fortissimos. The selection is from a 2015 performance in Barcelona.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Norma, 1: Setting the Bar

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.

The 2017-2018 Metropolitan Opera season opens on September 25 with Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma (1831), in a new production directed by Sir David McVicar and designed by Robert Jones. Awaited with high anticipation is the return to the title role at the Met of Sondra Radvanovsky whose 2013 performances were justly cheered. And this time, she will be joined by Joyce DiDonato, another superb belcantista, in the part of Adalgisa. The opera will be telecast Live in HD on October 7.

Set in ancient Gaul, Bellini’s opera tells of the sacrilegious liaison between Norma, a Druid priestess, and the enemy proconsul, Pollione. The Roman, tired of Norma, the mother of his two children, has become infatuated with a younger priestess, Adalgisa. Infuriated at his betrayal, Norma comes to forgive her repentant lover, and the two accept death in a sacrificial fire. 

Bellini’s opera was first performed at the Met in German in 1890 and then in the original Italian beginning in 1891. It was revived after three decades, in 1927, for Rosa Ponselle. The principal role calls for creamy legato, emphatic recitative, and lyric and dramatic coloratura, all executed within the refined parameters of bel canto. Ponselle’s rendition of the score’s most famous aria, “Casta diva (Chaste goddess),” a prayer to the moon, was recorded the following year in the studio of the Victor Talking Machine Company. The forceful resolve of the recitative, the rapture of the prayer, and the agitation of the cabaletta are plied by the American soprano without apparent effort. Through a broad dynamic range, the characteristically dark Ponselle voice remains ideally equalized. Setting the bar for all future Normas, Ponselle brought a work of bel canto genius into the Met repertoire at last and for good.

Not surprisingly, Ponselle’s bar has often eluded the reach of her successors. One episode drawn from the history of the Met features the great Kirsten Flagstad. The Wagnerian soprano had heard Ponselle in act 3 of Norma during a 1935 gala. In fact, much of act 3—the legato of the recitative “Teneri figli (Dearest children),” the andante section of the duet “Mira, O Norma (Behold, O Norma)”—was well suited to Flagstad. But there was reason for caution: she had never undertaken a bel canto role or a role that demanded dramatic coloratura. Nonetheless, Flagstad was game to give it a try. In fall 1935, after an encouraging run-through, a coach was enlisted to infuse her delivery with the apposite style. But Flagstad soon determined that Norma was not for her and asked to be released from her commitment, saving herself and her fans from what she feared would be a disappointment.

It was the Franco-Italian dramatic soprano, Gina Cigna, one of the reigning queens of La Scala in the 1930s, who took on the next Met Norma in her debut season, 1936-1937. She was embraced by public and critics for her ample, sensuous voice, her acting, and her dignified presence. As you will hear in this excerpt from a complete recording of the opera made in Italy in 1937, Cigna’s dark timbre is similar to Ponselle’s. The selection is from the first of the two sublime duets sung by Norma and Adalgisa, here the opulent Ebe Stignani, “Ah, rimembranza (Oh, what memories).” As the tormented Adalgisa, vowed to chastity, confesses her transgressive desire, Norma recalls her own rapturous awakening to love.

At the very end of the duet, Norma realizes that Adalagisa’s beloved is none other than Pollione. The faithless seducer interrupts their colloquy. There ensues a trio that concludes the act, among the most riveting pages in music drama. Norma vents her wrath, Adalgisa, expresses her horror at the perfidy of her would-be suitor, and in his defense, Pollione invokes the irresistible power of love. The excerpt from this live recording of the opening of the 1955 La Scala season begins with the thunderous applause that followed the “Ah, rimembranza” of Maria Callas and Giulietta Simionato. We first hear the electrifying Callas, the most celebrated Norma since Ponselle. At the peak of her powers in her signature role, she emits an outburst of energy that in no way inhibits the accuracy of her articulation and the fullness of her tone, and she caps the scene with a phenomenal high D. Her partners, Simionato as Adalgisa and Mario Del Monaco as Pollione, represent the stellar level of singing that prevailed in Milan in the mid-1950s.

N.B. This is the first of two posts we will dedicate to Bellini’s Norma.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Met Galas 2: Star Power, 1966/2017

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.

In our latest post, we sketched the Met careers of so many remarkable artists who participated in the 1966 gala--or might have, and evoked the names of their illustrious predecessors seated on the stage throughout the celebration. In the present post, we scroll back to the gala concert of this past May and contrast it with the gala produced half a century earlier. We are interested in presentation, repertoire, and roster above all. This comparison is telling in gauging the relative strength of the company’s brand then and now.

First, presentation. On the set of Tannhäuser’s Hall of Song, the 1966 gala arrayed thirty-one retired stars who answered a roll call, each taking a place on the stage to the cheers of the crowd. The history of the Metropolitan back to Giovanni Martinelli’s 1913 debut paraded before an audience attuned to the emotional pitch of the occasion. And as the honored guests made their entrances, a section of the chorus also seated on the stage rose in tribute: the sopranos for Elisabeth Rethberg and Marjorie Lawrence, the altos for Marian Anderson and Risë Stevens, the tenors for Martinelli and Richard Crooks, the basses for Alexander Kipnis, and so on in homage to these and many, many more beloved principals of the past. When Lotte Lehmann walked in, everyone stood.

By way of contrast, at the 2017 gala former stars whose performances had deeply touched the audience seated in the house were absent from the proceedings. Replacing the collective memory of treasured evenings embodied by the artists in full view, video clips of more than two dozen productions were seen in projections. The visuals served as backdrops for the live performers. And the music was interrupted by clips from interviews with luminaries such as Leontyne Price, James Levine, and Marc Chagall. This filmed material was an inescapable referent to Peter Gelb’s promotion of production, direction and design, and of his focus on the Met as a media platform. But it did little to foreground voice and interpretation, the stuff that draws fervent operagoing. The affective impact of the 1966 roll call was largely lost.

An intriguing parenthesis: On October 23, 1983, on the occasion of its 100th birthday, the company threw itself a two-part gala, matinee and evening. In the very final segment, a phalanx of former Met stars constituted an onstage audience once again. What in the world could Zinka Milanov have been thinking as she sat just feet away from Price and Luciano Pavarotti, at their absolute best in the act 2 duet of Un Ballo in maschera? And what could Eleanor Steber have been feeling during Kiri Te Kanawa’s “Dove sono”? When the final curtain rose, the dozens and dozens of artists crammed on the stage struck a deeply moving tableau of the Met past and present.

In 1966, retired stars were visible on the stage from the beginning to the end of the concert; in 1983, their presence was invited only for the final segment of the evening show; and in 2017, they had no role at all, save for the fleeting images of a chosen few on the big screen.

With regard to programming, in large measure the 1966 and 2017 galas are similarly conceived. Undisputed chestnuts dominate both bills. The crucial expansions of the repertoire into the baroque, the Slavic, and the contemporary wings, championed by James Levine (see our book, Grand Opera: The Story of the Met), are only marginally present, testimony perhaps to the unflagging desire of a well-heeled public for the familiar hits of the operatic core.

And finally, if the metrics of star power in a given epoch are difficult to determine, the depth of any opera company’s principal asset, its roster, is not. Take, for example, the sopranos who participated in the 1966 gala. Eight had already or would one day be cast as Mimì in La Bohème, the title most frequently performed at the Met: Kirsten, Albanese, Tebaldi, Mary Curtis-Verna, Teresa Stratas, Steber, Caballé, Gabriella Tucci. Among the artists who sang in the 2017 concert only Kristine Opolais, Sonya Yoncheva, and Anna Netrebko had taken on this iconic role. And to date, only Netrebko has shown the box-office appeal of Licia Albanese, Renata Tebaldi, or Montserrat Caballé. There were eight Carmens onstage in 1966; in 2017, Elina Garanca was the sole artist to have sung Bizet’s eternal gypsy.

Many factors combine to explain the downward trend in attendance that has haunted Gelb’s Met. In 2015-2016, ticket sales fell to 66% of capacity. In the late 1990s, capacity was at 90%. During the final seasons at the Old Met, the “Sold Out” sign was a frequent disappointment to eager ticket seekers. Our close look at two galas separated by fifty years tells us that the decline in the number of bankable divas and divos bears a large share of responsibility for the company’s perilous fiscal straits.

But while the breadth and depth of the 1966 roster is a far cry from that available to the current Met management, the 2017 gala featured several stars who would have shone on any stage at any time. Here in concert and in commercial recordings are Joseph Calleja, Sonya Yoncheva, Elina Garanča, and Joyce DiDonato in the same arias they sang this past May.

Calleja, who has been with the company more than ten years, will be in the lustrous cast of Norma that opens the 2017-2018 season. The immediately recognizable quality of his vibrant timbre and the security of his range are displayed in Rodolfo’s “Che gelida manina.”

Sonya Yoncheva made her company debut as Gilda in 2013. Since then she has excelled in the lyric and spinto roles of Violetta, Desdemona, and Mimì.  In this “Mi chiamano Mimì” we hear her fresh and persuasive phrasing. La Bohème is one of three operas starring Yoncheva to be telecast “Live in HD” in 2017-2018. The others are Verdi’s Luisa Miller and Puccini’s Tosca.

Elina Garanča is familiar to the Met’s worldwide audiences from her performances in the “HD Live” telecasts of Carmen and Cenerentola. Her refined rendition of “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” is a riposte to the excess of many Dalilas.

Featured in next season’s new productions of Norma and Massenet’s Cendrillon is Joyce DiDonato. Here she delivers a stunning “Bel raggio lusinghier” from Rossini’s Semiramide. As always, the mezzo bends her bravura technique to her portrayal of the character.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Met Galas 1: Star Power, 1966/2017

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.
The 2016-2017 Met season ended on May 13 with a performance of Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac. A week earlier the company had put on an anniversary gala in celebration of its fifty years at Lincoln Center.
In this post, we describe, following first-hand reports and recordings of the event (much of which can be heard on Youtube), a comparably glittering evening, the farewell of 1966. In comparing that gala to the recent 50th anniversary commemoration we take a close look at the staging, the repertoire, and most particularly, on the roster of stars. This comparison, that we will pursue further in our next post, may be useful in shedding light on the straits in which the company finds itself today.

At eight o’clock on April 16, 1966, the curtain came up on the farewell concert at the Old Met on 39th Street and Broadway; it came down at 1:25 the next morning. The program featured no fewer than fifty-seven artists, among them scores of now legendary Met names. Some, such as Dorothy Kirsten, Robert Merrill, and Regina Resnik, who had begun their careers under the regime of the former general manager during the 1940s, would go on to sing at the new Met. Especially moving were the turns of those for whom this would be the last hurrah. A long ovation greeted Licia Albanese’s “Un bel dì”; to shouts of “Save the Met,” she kissed her fingers and bent to touch the floor. Another was for Eleanor Steber as Vanessa. This line from Samuel Barber’s quintet was no doubt achingly poignant: “Let me look around once more. Who knows when I shall see this house again!” The most thunderous applause was reserved for Zinka Milanov. Near the end of the concert, with Richard Tucker, she sang the final duet from Andrea Chénier. Bravos mixed with cries of “We love you, Zinka” lasted a full five minutes.

Dorothy Kirsten’s selection was “Depuis le jour.” Here she sings the aria from Louise in a commerical recording. Kirsten’s value to the company was alrewady evident in the 1947-1948 revival of Charpentier’s opera. In this clip, the soprano exhibits the impeccable technique that would serve her through more than thirty years at the Met, the purity of her silvery timbre, and the ease with which she floats the notes in the upper register.

It came as no surprise that Licia Albanese chose “Un bel dì” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, the opera in which she made her Met debut in 1940. Cio-Cio-Sanxx became her signature role; she sang it last  in 1965-1966, the season that marked her farewell together with that of the Old Met. This rendition of the aria, from a 1958 recording of the complete opera, gives a sense of the urgency and passion that were Albanese’s trademark.

The gala served also as a showcase for the first sixteen years of general manager Rudolf Bing’s regime and more specifically for the artists he had contracted during his tenure: Cesare Siepi, Nicolai Gedda, Jon Vickers, Régine Crespin, James McCracken, Teresa Stratas. Siepi made his company debut as King Philip in Verdi’s Don Carlo on the triumphant opening night of Bing’s first season, 1950-1951. He immediately established himself as the Met’s leading bass and held that position for more than twenty years. Philip’s majesterial xx aria, “Elle giammai m’amò,” was his to sing at the gala. As we hear in this 1970 televised concert in Cologne, his velvet timbre and seemless legato remained intact.

When Jon Vickers sang in Die Walküre, audiences could forget that, beginning in the second half of the 20th century, Wagner singing began the decline that continues to this day. This 1963 concert performance of Siegmund’s ecastatic “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond,” his contribution to the 1966 gala, captures the tenor at his intense, compelling best, his timbre brilliant, his immersion in the music complete.

Five of the superstars Bing had brought to the Met were also on the program: Renata Tebaldi, Franco Corelli, Birgit Nilsson, Montserrat Caballé, Leontyne Price. The Bing era coincided with Price’s ascension to the very peak of international stardom. Here, in a 1963 excerpt from the televised “Voice of Firestone,” she reprises Leonora’s “D’amor sulle ali rosee” from Il Trovatore, the opera of her company debut in 1961, as she did again in the 1966 concert. Shimmering tone, ease of emission, grandeur, and Verdian style are at her bid with an authority available to very few.

A number of dazzling newcomers in 1965-1966 who would figure prominently on future rosters. Grace Bumbry, Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov, James King, Alfredo Kraus, Sherrill Milnes, and Renata Scotto, were not present at the April 1966 adieu. There were other, even more notable absences, Lauritz Melchior and Helen Traubel, both of whom had had bitter clashes with Bing. Then there were the stars Bing drew to the Met who had shone brightly and then had disappeared for various reasons in the years before the gala. Joan Sutherland had left in 1964 of her own volition and would return in 1966–1967. Antonietta Stella was dismissed after just four seasons, likely because she challenged the general manager’s interdiction of the solo bow. Cesare Valletti had been let go for reasons still obscure. Victoria de los Angeles was offended when Bing chose Eileen Farrell for Manuel de Falla’s Atlantida. Farrell herself (not a Bing favorite) sang only forty-seven Met performances, a total that would have been far greater had she taken on the Wagnerian heroines to which she was so splendidly suited. The most glaring absence at the farewell was the voice of the most famous diva of all, that of Maria Callas.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

New York City Opera Reborn, 2: Ottorino Respighi’s La Campana Sommersa

In a post published in March 2015, we wrote of a gala concert at the Rose Theatre, a venue within the Time-Warner complex on Columbus Circle. Here was an occasion to support the rebirth of the New York City Opera founded in 1943 and dissolved in 2013. At the time of the concert, sponsored by the NYCO-Renaissance, it was not clear whether that ultimately successful group, led by Michael Capasso, or another, would inherit the name and the meager remaining resources of the once proud City Opera which had been for decades the second lyric stage of the nation’s cultural capital. 

The relaunch of the company began inauspiciously in January 2016 with a poorly received production of Puccini’s Tosca. Subsequent offerings have, for the most part, shied away from the core repertoire, leaving the canon to the powerful grasp of the Metropolitan. And in so doing, the New York City Opera redux has subscribed to the mission that served its predecessor well for so long.

This season opened with the coupling of the standard rep Pagliacci with Rachmaninoff’s rare one-act Aleko. There followed Tobin Stokes’s contemporary chamber opera, Fallujah, and a very successful revival of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. The run of Respighi’s La Campana Sommersa (The Sunken Bell) has just concluded. The season will end with the New York premiere of Peter Eötvös’s Angels in America.

La Campana Sommersa, one of Respighi’s twelve operas, has not been heard in New York in nearly ninety years. It was one of four contemporary premieres that the then Metropolitan general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, presented in the 1928-1929 season, a record the company has not duplicated and that the reborn City Opera can look to for inspiration.

The source of La Campana sommersa was the 1896 play Die versunkene Glocke by the German dramatist, Gerhart Hauptmann. One of the most prestigious voices in early 20th-century literature, Hauptmann won the Nobel Prize in 1912. At the time of the Met premiere of La Campana sommersa New York was familiar with the theatre of Hauptmann and with the music of Respighi. The composer enjoyed world-wide acclaim in the concert hall. Conductors determined to flaunt a great orchestra in a virtuoso show piece had only to program Respighi. No less a champion than Arturo Toscanini included the symphonic poem The Pines of Rome in his first concert with the New York Philharmonic in 1926, as did Andris Nelsons in his inaugural concert as music director of the Boston Symphony in 2014.

A philosophical fairy tale that foregrounds an interspecies love affair, the plot of La Campana sommersa is reminiscent of Dvořák’s Rusalka. Enrico, a master-forger, injured when his new bell is toppled into a lake by a mischievous faun, regains his health through the mediation of Rautendenlein, a water sprite. He is enchanted by the elfin creature, abandons his wife and children, and forges a new bell and a mountain-top temple for the worship of the Sun and the eternal youth of Humanity. He is gripped by remorse when his children bring him an urn filled with the tears of his wife, who has drowned herself in the lake. As the opera ends, Enrico desperately searches for Rautendelein who bestows a kiss on him as he dies. The subject is rich in vivid contrasts. Human beings share the world with sprites, elves, and fauns; Enrico works with iron and stone, Rautendelein is a creature of the water; responsibility to family and community cede to the desires of the artist; Christianity is at war with Paganism. While the uneven score and murky libretto go a long way towards explaining the opera’s neglect, we were struck by the opulent orchestration and the dramatic force and expressive vocal line of two episodes in Act III. The excerpts that follow are drawn from a 1956 RAI transmission conducted by Franco Capuana.

First we hear the confrontation between Enrico and a Christian curate. The master-forger, his voice echoing his bells, joyously sings of his vision of the new temple. The horrified cleric accuses him of heresy and reminds him of wife and family. The tenor is Umberto Borsò, the bass Plinio Clabassi.

There follows an ecstatic love duet between Enrico and Rautendelein. The soprano is Margherita Carosio, one of Italy’s most popular lyric-coloraturas of the inter-war and immediate post-war periods.

Two complete performances of La Campana sommersa are available on Youtube.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Fidelio: Echoes of 1941

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.

In our Grand Opera: The Story of the Met (University of California Press, 2014), we lean on contemporary reports for this evocation of what is arguably the single most memorable performance of Fidelio in Met history. The star on that occasion, the evening of February 14, 1941, was by all accounts, the conductor, Bruno Walter.

“Walter made his way to a podium that sat high on the raised floor of the pit. Conductor and players were visible throughout the performance. The Leonore Overture No. 3 provoked an outburst that lasted more than a minute; at the opera’s conclusion, the ovation for the cast was punctuated by shouts of ‘Walter.’ European audiences knew him as a conductor of opera as well as symphony; America had known him only in concert, never in the opera house. He first appeared in the United States in 1923 with the New York Symphony Orchestra. He returned frequently as guest from coast to coast. No conductor, with the exception of Arturo Toscanini, had more cachet.

Walter’s Fidelio belongs to that rarified theatrical category in which history, work, composer, and performer come together to inscribe a single narrative. Here was a moment in which the grave issues confronting the nation converged with those engaged by the masterwork. These same issues intersected with the biographies of the lionized artists. Uncompromising, defiant, Beethoven and Walter were conflated in a common profile whose prominent feature was the massive cranium of genius. The deteriorating situation overseas—an all-too-present story of oppression and persecution--reverberated in the ardent libretto and score. As the conductor put it some years later, ‘In the first act of Fidelio . . . we witness the hand of the tyrant. In the second, we observe the victim, bent but unbroken. In the finale, we see the Minister of State, representative of goodness, and share in the glorious apotheosis of brotherhood.’

The media blitz surrounding Walter’s debut imbricated the Fidelio scenario and the exemplary life told and retold in the national press, in newsreels, and on the radio: an illustrious musician of German-Jewish origin, having escaped religious and political persecution by fleeing first Germany, and then Austria, and finally France, takes refuge in the United States, and for the first time in his long career conducts an American performance of a magisterial work by one of nineteenth-century Europe’s titanic composers, a fierce champion of freedom. Fidelio’s place in the Walter mythology was further privileged by the fact that the first work he conducted at the Met was also the last he chose to perform in Munich and then in Berlin. Had Walter not left, like so many who shared his liberal views and/or Jewish heritage, he might have suffered a fate much like that of Florestan, the idealistic hero of Fidelio, imprisoned by order of a tyrant. There the parallel ends. Leonore, Florestan’s loving wife, disguised as the eponymous youth, rescues her husband from the political prison of the villainous Don Pizarro.”
Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad was the Leonore of Bruno Walter’s debut. She first appeared with the company in 1935. Her success was such that the management sought to showcase her Wagnerian voice in as many roles as possible. Fidelio was a logical vehicle for her second season, an uncomfortable choice for general manager Edward Johnson. Less than a year prior to Flagstad’s initial New York appearance, Lotte Lehmann had made her own thrilling Met debut. Lehmann was celebrated for her Leonore. The Austrian soprano was understandably miffed when she was passed over in favor of the newcomer.
We, however, are fortunate to hear them both. And they offer their markedly different temperaments and strengths to Leonore’s great aria “Komm Hoffnung (Come hope)” in which the character, disguised as a male turnkey, manifests her determination to save her husband, a political prisoner, from death. Flagstad’s version, from a 1950 Salzburg Festival performance conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, includes the powerful introductory recitative “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? (Monster! Where do you go?) addressed to Don Pizarro. If the soprano, late in her career, is ill at ease with rapidly articulated passages, and if her highest notes are too hard-rimmed, the beauty and size of her voice and her commitment to the heroine’s courage compensate for these shortcomings.
The Lehmann rendition, from a 1927 recording, unfortunately lacks the recitative. The aria demonstrates the soprano’s irresistible intensity, her exemplary diction, her unforgettable timbre, and her skill at turning her short-breathed vocal technique to expressive advantage.
The Florestan of the 1941 Walter performance was Belgian tenor René Maison, frequently heard at the Met in French opera and as the lighter Wagnerian heroes. His plaintive sound is suited to the anguish of the shackled Florestan, despairing in the outcry of his opening recitative “Gott, welch ein Dunkel hier! (God, what darkness here!),” ecstatic at the vision of his beloved Leonore at the aria’s end (“Ein Engel, Leonoren, Leonoren der Gattin so gleich (An angel, Leonore, my wife so like [a fragrant rose]).”
On April 1, 2017, the Met’s most recent edition of Beethoven’s only opera will be broadcast via radio. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

La Traviata Revisited

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.

The production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata the global audience will view on March 11, 2017 has been acknowledged as one of general manager Peter Gelb’s successful importations. Director Willy Decker’s interpretation travelled to the Met in late 2010 bearing the prestige of the full-blown Regietheater (director’s opera) concept that was the darling of critics and public at its 2005 Salzburg premiere. While some New York reviewers saw this Traviata as a Eurotrash challenge to the performance practice of the fourth-most-frequently-programmed title in the repertoire, many applauded the Met’s determination to train a contemporary lens on to a canonical nineteenth-century narrative.

Decker emptied the stage of whatever might distract from his reading: that the protagonist is stalked by two implacable foes, her illness and the patriarchal society that engulfs her. Banished were the picturesque mock-ups of nineteenth-century France indulged in previous editions, notably in Franco Zeffirelli’s two extravagant Met antecedents; the luxurious ballroom, the charming country hideaway, the splendid gambling house, and the dying woman’s bedroom were jettisoned in favor of a bare, curved wall, a bench, a few boxy modern sofas, and a giant clock. Violetta exchanged her long gowns for a short red dress and white slip.
Franco Zeffirelli production: 1998

Willy Decker Production: 2010

The dumb show enacted at the start prefigures the end. As the conductor gives the downbeat, Violetta enters, staggers slowly across the stage, doubled over in pain, and then collapses into the arms of her aged doctor, an incarnation of death whose recurring presence haunts the action. When the final notes of the mournful prelude fade away, the chorus of menacing merrymakers, male and female dressed alike as men in dark business suits, is propelled by the feverish rhythm toward the lone, frightened woman in red. A moment later, she morphs into the dissolute party girl. Decker’s La Traviata has become a high-profile addition to the company’s slim stock of illuminating rereadings.

The composer based his story on La Dame aux camélias (The Lady of the Camellias), Alexandre Dumas, fils’ clamorous stage success. La Traviata alone, among Verdi’s nearly thirty operas, depicts a woman of his own time. By in large his heroines are drawn from the hyperbole of Romantic melodrama and of grand historic events—Lady Macbeth, Joan of Arc, Abigaille in the court of Babylon, Leonora in medieval Spain, Aïda in Ancient Egypt to name only a few. The country house where Violetta renounces her dream of love and the Parisian bedroom where she dies are locations familiar to Verdi’s contemporary audience.
As the composer charts the transformation of his protagonist from the carefree, pleasure-seeking courtesan of Act I, to a woman seeking true love, finding it, losing it, then regaining it moments before her death in Act III  he demands various and distinct registers of expression. Like the famed stage and screen actresses, Bernhardt, Duse, Nazimova, Garbo, who coveted the role of Dumas’ Marguerite Gautier, sopranos of all stripes have embraced the theatrical and musical challenges of Verdi’s Violetta, high coloraturas, lyrics, spintos, and even heroic dramatics. Few have succeeded in meeting all of its claims.
This comment on La Traviata features a single artist, the Catalan Montserrat Caballé, at three turning points in the libretto. The first demands the mastery of florid singing, the second of declamation, and the third of legato. Caballé is that rare soprano proficient in the range of expressivity demanded by Verdi’s evolving protagonist.
If Caballé’s portrait of the consumptive demi-mondaine was abetted neither by her looks nor by her acting skills, her voice and passion made Violetta come alive. Here is her “Sempre libera” with tenor Carlo Bergonzi, excerpted from a commercial recording. Profligate in the emission of resplendent high notes, fluent in the embellishments, Caballé captures the frenzy of the young woman in a spectacular coloratura display.

Violetta’s Act II idyll is brutally interrupted when she comes face to face with the reality that, given her past, society will not allow her happiness. She bids an anguished farewell to the bewildered Alfredo, pouring out a flood of tone in her plea that he love her as much as she loves him. This is one of the moments in the score where Caballé, a full spinto, deploys vocal resources unavailable to the light coloraturas who often sing the part. Here is her "Amami, Alfredo" drawn from the same recording.

In Act III, the dying heroine draws comfort from a letter sent by Alfredo’s father, all the while knowing that the end is upon her. Here, Caballé’s extraordinary breath control and her legendary piano singing sustain the long legato phrases of “Addio del passato,” ending in an ethereal final note. This 1974 aria is drawn from a live performance.