Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

The Met in the Time of Pandemic: The Unfinished Season, June-September 2020, Aïda

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The summer of 2020 began with the disheartening announcement that the Met had cancelled the fall season. The company hoped to reopen on New Year’s Eve, a full seven months away. On September 23, the pandemic raging unabated, the administration had no choice but to cancel the spring 2021 season as well. The theater would be dark for another painful year.

 

Between June 1 and the end of September the Met continued to make news. Tragically, a second musician, assistant conductor Joel Revzen, had succumbed to the virus. His orchestra colleagues, furloughed since the end of March, had had to make major personal adjustments to compensate for the suspension of their $190K average salary. For its part, management anticipated a loss of revenue amounting to $100 million by the end of the year. And, to make matters worse, the Met was ineligible for the government loan program due to the magnitude of its payroll. 

 

The success of the daily streaming of titles from its archive and subsequent donations from thousands of grateful new contributors on lockdown led to the launching of a series of digital concerts at the nominal fee of $20 each. Unlike the earlier free recitals and the gala that were shot as amateur videos (see our post of April 16, 2012, https://www.blogger.com/blog/post/edit/7211323416075256950/3307619185363703156), this new series, originating from sites proximate to the artists’ homes, was professionally recorded. The first of the seventy-five-minute performances featured Jonas Kaufmann, the Baroque library of a Bavarian abbey serving as background. He was followed by Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko, and nine other Met stars in standard arias from the operatic repertoire.

On September 20, one day before the lost season of 2020-2021 had been scheduled to open with Giuseppe Verdi’s Aïda, a New York Times headline read, “The Met Opera Fired James Levine Citing Sexual Misconduct.” According to this report, the company, which had dismissed Levine in March 2018, settled with its former music director emeritus for $3.5 million. So ended what the Times called “one of the highest-profile, messiest feuds in the Met’s nearly 140-year history.”  

The night of September 21, 2020 would have have been the twelfth time Aïda opened a Met season. And in terms of titles most often programmed by the Met since its 1883 founding, Aïda ranks second after La Bohème. Verdi’s grandest opera was to have a new staging and a renowned cast: Anna Netrebko, Anita Rachvelishvili, Piotr Beczala, and Ludovic Tézier, conducted by Levine’s successor as music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Here are the selections we have chosen for this post, three magnificent duets, all performed in the 1960s, one of opera’s most fabulous eras.

The first is the Amonasro/Aïda duet. The claims of patriotism, patriarchy, and paternity come together in the Act III confrontation between the Ethiopian king and his daughter. Amonasro evokes their home, accuses Aïda of disloyalty to fatherland and father and, after a struggle, exacts the promise to betray her beloved Radamès, leader of the Egyptian troops. In a commercial recording conducted by Herbert von Karajan, Renata Tebaldi and Cornell MacNeil are brilliant adversaries in this epic conflict between duty and love.



The Amneris/Radamès Act IV duel, unlike the Amonasro/Aïda duet, is a combat between equals. The jealous Egyptian princess exhorts Radamès, on trial for treason, to save himself by proclaiming his innocence--at the cost of endangering the Ethiopian princess he loves. Unlike Aïda, Radamès does not give in. Mezzo Rita Gorr conveys the fury and despair of Amneris with unusual restraint. In this commercial recording conducted by Georg Solti, Jon Vickers is Radamès.


In the opera’s final scene, Radamès has been condemned to death and Aïda joins him in the tomb that closes in on their last moments. In the love duet “O terra addio (Farewell, O Earth)” they look ahead to the Heaven that awaits them and back on the vale of tears they are leaving behind. In this excerpt, drawn from a live performance, both principals float ethereal high pianissimi. Verdi specialist Carlo Bergonzi was a frequent Met Radamès; Aïda is Leyla Gencer whose long international itinerary did not include a stop at the Metropolitan, alas. Their stock gestures, troublesome on video, would not have distracted the audience seated in the vast space of Verona’s Roman arena unduly. At the very end we see and hear mezzo Fiorenza Cossotto as Amneris.



 

Sunday, May 16, 2021

In Memoriam: Rosalind Elias and Gabriel Bacquier

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In our last post (http://operapost.blogspot.com/2021/04/the-met-in-time-of-pandemic-unfinished_0866050429.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Operapost+%28OperaPost%29) we noted that in May 2020 the Met mourned the passing of two stars of a previous generation. Here, in gratitude for their many wonderful performances, we remember Rosalind Elias (March 13, 1930-May 3, 2020) and Gabriel Bacquier (May 17, 1924-May 13, 2020).

Rosalind Elias

Only the fabled Louise Homer (1871-1947) sang more often at the Met as a leading mezzo-soprano than did Rosalind Elias. Thirty-five seasons, fifty roles, and 687 performances underpin Elias’s place in the company history. She made her 1954 debut as one of the nearly anonymous warrior maidens in Act III of Die Walküre. During her first three seasons Elias took her turn as a supporting player, a comprimaria. Some of the secondary characters assigned to her afforded extended dramatic and vocal opportunities (Suzuki [Madama Butterfly], Siébel [Faust], for instance), but most parts were brief (a Peasant Girl [Le Nozze di Figaro], a Flower Maiden [Parsifal]). It was not until opening night 1957 that Elias had her big break. She was cast as Tatiana’s sister, Olga, in a new production of Eugene Onegin. And later in the same season she was tapped for the pivotal role of Erika in the world premiere of Vanessa. In fact, Samuel Barber wrote the score’s most memorable aria to suit Elias’s voice--wide-ranging, with an identifiably dusky timbre, powerful enough to convey the young woman’s nervous energy and depth of emotion. “Must the Winter Come so Soon” became a favored audition piece for mezzo-soprano. Here is Elias in the original cast recording of Vanessa.


Erika put Elias on the path to major assignments--opening nights, new productions, world premieres. And core mezzo parts such as Cherubino (Le Nozze di Figaro), Dorabella (Così fan tutte), and Laura (La Gioconda) continued to come her way. But she was at her best in Vanessa and Werther. In this recording of scenes from Massenet’s opera, the lovelorn Charlotte gives way to the tears she has long suppressed. The warmth and doleful sound of Elias’s lyric mezzo serves the stifled ardor of the Goethe/Massenet heroine as it did the neo-Romantic idealism of Barber’s Erika.


Gabriel Bacquier

One of very few post-War French singers to achieve stardom with international opera companies, Gabriel Bacquier came to New York in 1964 following engagements in Vienna, Milan, London, and major European festivals. In eighteen Met seasons he made 123 appearances. It was no surprise that a leading French baritone would debut as the High Priest in a new production of Samson et Dalila. But despite his French roots and early experience on French stages, Bacquier would specialize in the Italian repertoire, and most often as Tosca’s nemesis. His Scarpia is a subtle hybrid of delicacy and brutality. His fatal face-off with the Roman diva is laced with practiced elegance and unbridled lust. We hear Bacquier at his peak, in a live performance from the Opéra.


Later in his career, Bacquier found a home in the buffo manner. He was memorable as Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and he made a star turn out of the irascible Fra Melitone in La Forza del destino. The aria that follows is excerpted from a role that, alas, he never sang in New York. The riotous conclusion of Act I, Scene 1 of Verdi’s Falstaff bristles with the baritone’s physical and tonal energy as the “fat knight” trumpets his cynical definition of “Onore (Honor).”




 

 

Friday, April 30, 2021

The Met in the Time of Pandemic: The unfinished Season, May 2020, Maria Stuarda, Kát’a Kabanová

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COVID-19 continued to rampage through New York in May 2020. On May 1, the closure of public schools was extended to the end of the academic year; two weeks later, the Governor ordered the continuation of the state of emergency, the lock-down of all but essential services, and strict limitations on gatherings until the middle of June. By the end of the month, the virus had claimed 100,000 lives in the U.S. alone.

 

The Met orchestra and chorus, along with its stagehands, had gone without pay since the end of March. On May 5, the General Manager announced the furlough of forty-one members of the administrative staff, a measure the company had earlier thought it could avoid. And some full-time employees were reduced to part-time status. There were shards of good news in the midst of so much uncertainty and foreboding. On May 7, the Met announced that 15,000 new subscribers had signed on to its on-demand video service; emergency fund-raising was going well, thanks in part to 10,000 new donors. Nonetheless, the losses were staggering.

 

In May, too, the Met mourned the passing of two stars of a previous generation, Rosalind Elias and Gabriel Bacquier. We will have profiles of these artists and clips of their performances in most favored roles in our next post.

And May saw also the last gasp of the unfinished 2019-2020 season with the cancellation of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, scheduled to run through May 9, and Leoš Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová, scheduled to open on May 6. The two works shared this thwarted aspiration: to secure a predictable spot in the company’s repertoire.

Maria Stuarda

In its 2012 Met premiere and its 2016 revival, Maria Stuarda had shown itself to be a congenial vehicle first for Joyce DiDonato and then for Sandra Radvanovsky who took on Donizetti’s two other Tudor queens, Elisabeth in Roberto Devereux and Anne in Anna Bolena the same season. (See our post of Feb. 4, 2016, https://www.blogger.com/blog/post/edit/7211323416075256950/77602516158896126) Diana Damrau was to be Maria Stuarda in 2020.

 

In this ensemble scene from a 1982 English-language performance at London’s English National Opera, Mary is sung by Janet Baker, Elizabeth by Rosalind Plowright, The Queen of Scots, prisoner of the Queen of England, is outraged at her cousin’s imperious contempt. In the presence of a chorus )of horrified principals and anguished courtiers, Mary hurls insults at Elizabeth—and seals her fate. (Our post of Feb. 4, 2016 includes a clip of Janet Baker in another excerpt from Maria Stuarda.)

 


In Act III, Donizetti’s tragic queen faces execution on the block. The Maria here is Mariella Devia in a 2008 La Scala performance. Her intermittent Met career spanned fifteen seasons. In the clip that follows, at the age of sixty, her technique astonishing, her voice warm and still fresh, Devia demonstrates her peerless command of bel canto style. (Our post of Feb. 4, 2016 includes a clip of Mariella Devia in another excerpt from Maria Stuarda.)



Kát’a Kabanová

Susanna Phillips, slated for the 2020 revival, would have been the Met’s fourth Kát’a Kabanová. With its first Met staging in 1991, the opera introduced Czech to the company’s roster of languages. The beleaguered heroine, tormented by her provincial existence and by guilt over her adulterous desire, was Gabriela Beňačková, whose success in Janáček’s works eased their way into the world’s theatres. The composer’s late masterpiece is difficult to excerpt. See below the link to a 1979 New York concert performance that, despite inferior sonics, captures Beňačková’s soaring soprano and deeply-felt attachment to the title role. 

Kát’a Kabanová concert performance 1979


We will have to await future reprises of Maria Stuarda and Kát’a Kabanová to know whether either title has succeeded in drawing a wider public to its cause.