Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment: Smiles and Tears

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On March 2, movie houses around the globe will screen Gaetano Donizetti’s opéra comiqueLa Fille du régiment (1840), live from the Metropolitan. The performance will star the soprano Pretty Yende and the tenor Javier Camarena. If until the late 1960s, general managers would want to stage the opera for a favorite soprano, since then it has been programmed subject to the availability of a tenor with a very secure upper register. Indeed, absent a tenor blessed with a high extension, La Fille du régiment will not be on the boards. 

The Met premiere of Donizetti’s work was staged in 1902 for Marcella Sembrich; it was revived in 1917-18 for Frieda Hempel. Our story begins in December 1940 when a new production was mounted for the company’s then reigning coloratura, Lily Pons. By that time, France had been at war with Germany for more than a year; the United States would enter the conflict a year later. Newspapers all over the country carried a photograph of the finale of La Fille du régiment in which, in place of the traditional French Tricolor, the flag of France occupied by the Nazis, French-born Pons waved the Cross of Lorraine of General Charles De Gaulle’s Free French. The Met orchestra played first “La Marseillaise” and then, as the Stars and Stripes were brought to the front of the stage and the Cross of Lorraine was dipped in tribute, “The Star Spangled Banner.” Some among those present were sure to remember that in 1918, three days after the Armistice, Hempel had interpolated the moving World War I anthem, “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” 

Pons was the Met’s preeminent coloratura from her 1931 debut to her departure from the company nearly three decades later. Through concerts, movies, radio, and recordings, her name had become a household word. Her rendition of “Salut à la France (Hail to France)” shows off the technique that captivated her fans. The cadenza at the aria’s conclusion, replete with a flute accompaniment reminiscent of the “Mad Scene” of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, exploits her fluency in embellishment and astonishing ease in alt, in the very highest notes of the soprano range.

Thirty years later, the Met revived La Fille du régiment. The new production brandished two superstars, the soprano Joan Sutherland and the tenor Luciano Pavarotti. On February 17, 1972, when Pavarotti nailed the nine high Cs of his first act aria “Ah, mes amis (Ah, my friends),” often omitted by less intrepid singers, the audience belonged to him, and since then audiences will not be denied the signature moment of the evening. And what is more, spectators, at least at the Met since Juan Diego Flórez’s stunning feat in 2008, consider an encore obligatory. Here is Pavarotti as he fires off his volley of high Cs in a live 1967 London performance..

The popularity of La Fille du régiment owes much to the virtuosic hurdles it poses to the principal singers. But Donizetti’s rich melodies and elegiac manner are also intrinsic to the score. At the end of Act I, Marie, the daughter of the regiment, bids a tearful farewell to her cherished troops. “Il faut partir (I must leave)” summons the soprano’s most long-breathed legato, an opportunity that Beverly Sills embraces in this 1970 live performance.

Tonio, the tenor role, also has a long moment of deep sentiment. In Act II, he pleads with Marie’s mother for permission to marry his beloved. Flórez’s elegant style is a perfect match for the elegant phrases of “Pour me rapprocher de Marie (To bring me close to Marie)” in this 2007 Vienna performance.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Adriana Lecouvreur Redux

Every decade or so, the Metropolitan Opera revives Adriana Lecouvreur, the only title in Francesco Cilea’s oeuvre that can be said to figure, however marginally, in the contemporary repertoires of international opera companies. Adriana is back at the Met this season and was seen in cinemas “Live in HD” earlier this month.  Like the far better-known Giacomo Puccini, Cilea (born in 1866, died in 1950) was an adherent of Verismo, or more accurately of the “giovane scuola (the young school.  See our post of January 3, 2018, “What is Verismo?”  And like Floria Tosca, Adrienne Lecouvreur was a diva, though not a fictional 19th-century Italian opera star but a historical 18th-century French tragedienne.
Cilea began work on Adriana Lecouvreur in 1900 after the 1899 success of L’Arlesiana, the other of his compositions that continues to have some currency. Premiered at the Teatro Lirico of Milan, Adriana, together with L’Arlesiana starred the young Enrico Caruso who contributed to the success of both works. In 1907, Adriana opened the Metropolitan season with Caruso opposite the soprano Lina Cavalieri. A run of only three performances tells the story of the sorry reception Cilea’s work received in New York that year. The most authoritative New York reviewer deemed that Cavalieri “has neither beauty of voice nor excellence of song to recommend, but who can make pictures.” Following its initial fiasco, it took almost sixty years, and the persuasive powers of the reigning prima donna, Renata Tebaldi, for the opera to return to New York. Bad luck ensued once again: in vocal crisis, Tebaldi cancelled her last appearances.
In those sixty years, Adriana was very much alive in Italian theatres. And after 1950, Magda Olivero, who had come out of a nine-year retirement at the behest of Cilea himself, made the title role her own. We are fortunate to have a transcription of a 1959 Naples performance where she replaced an indisposed Tebaldi. Here is Adriana’s entrance aria, “Io son l’umile ancella (I am the humble handmaiden),” preceded by a few spoken lines from Racine’s tragedy, Bajazet, that the actress is about to perform on the stage of the Comédie Française. Adriana rehearses two deliveries, the second in a more emphatic style that better suits the text. There follows the aria in which Adriana explains to the assembled admirers that she is a mere servant of the author’s genius. Conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni described the Olivero magic that brought the Naples audience to its feet, as it had and would so many others: “the shade and light of the vowels, the detached notes, the light legato, the true legato, the space between the words” (for more on Magda Olivero, see our posts of September 9, 2014, "Magda Olivero, 1910-2017 , and September 16 2014, “More Magda Olivero: Two Death Scenes”

Later in Act I, Maurizio arrives and declares his love for Adriana, praising her beauty in the short aria “La dolcissima effigie (The sweetest of semblances).” The passionate, devil-may-care tenor is Rolando Villazon; the aria is from a 2007 recital CD.

At the beginning of Act II we meet Adriana’s rival in love, the Principessa di Bouillon. She is unsure of Maurizio’s affections, anxious over their forthcoming tryst, and yet hopeful that the evening star will smile on their affair. In this 1955 video excerpt from Italian television, we see Fedora Barbieri, a leading exponent of the dramatic mezzo-soprano manner. Barbieri offers an object lesson in the explosive style apt for the agitated opening section, and the broad lyric effusion of the final lines.

In Act IV, Adriana meets her death by breathing the scent of flowers poisoned by the enraged Principessa. Tebaldi, in a recital disk made in the mid-1950s, gives an account of “Poveri fiori (Poor faded flowers)” that shows her in peak form, her honeyed timbre in service to the long, legato phrases and the subtlest changes of dynamics.

Post Script: If Adriana is Cilea’s gift to sopranos, the tenor lead of L’Arlesiana is his present to tenors. Federico, love-sick for the unnamed and unseen woman from Arles, envies his companion, the sleeping shepherd. He yearns for the oblivion that would allow him to forget the faithless object of his infatuation. In this 1928 recording, with great simplicity and palpable sincerity, Tito Schipa captures Federico’s despair in the unbearable heartbreak of the culminating phrase, “Mi fai tanto male. Ahimè! (You wound me so deeply. Dear God!).”