Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Fidelio: Echoes of 1941

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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


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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.