Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

I Puritani I: Sopranos

Three titles by Vincenzo Bellini have been presented during the Met’s 2013-14 season. This feast for Belliniphiles is unprecedented in the company’s history. Each of the operas has featured at least one excellent individual performance, sometimes more. In the first cast of Norma, only Sandra Radvanovsky’s Druid priestess met the measure; in the second cast, Angela Meade found a worthy partner in Jamie Barton for the crucial Norma-Adalgisa duets. I reported on the very satisfying La Sonnambula in my April 6 post. I Puritani will be broadcast this coming Saturday, May 3.

When the 1976 Puritani production was new, Ming Cho Lee’s sets were meant to look like 19th-century pastel illustrations; Sandro Sequi’s direction recalled with affection the attitudes of 19th-century divas and divos. The subtle lighting and the texture of the show have degraded over time. At the premiere of the April 17 revival, the staging of the ensemble consisted of choristers moseying on and off the stage; some principals reacted to the drama with intent, others with standard gesticulation. The Elvira, Olga Peteyatko, a highly touted Russian coloratura, made her Met debut. She sang with clean fioriture (minus a fully developed trill), attention to the text and the theatrical moment. Yet for me, the full frisson was missing. Peteyatko’s agreeable tone lacked individuality; her acting was no more than acceptable. In the inevitable comparison with her most recent predecessor, Anna Netrebko is off the mark in dexterity, lacking even a rudimentary trill, but she sings much of the role beautifully and creates a riveting character. Peteyatko’s Arturo, Lawrence Brownlee, met his role’s daunting demands with courage and accuracy but without his customary ease. His beautiful tenore di grazia, so effective in Rossini, was sometimes stressed by Belllini’s more strenuous Arturo.

The Met’s first Puritani was presented during the company’s inaugural season, 1883-84, but only once. The most influential reviewers, confirmed Wagnerites, were dismissive of the bel canto repertory although fulsome in praise for the Elvira, Marcella Sembrich. I did not include an example of her singing in my post on Sonnambula. Her recording of Elvira’s “Qui la voce” and its cabaletta “Vien diletto” gives more pleasure and a better sense of her voice and her formidable technique.


The return of Puritani to the repertoire in 1918 marked a turn in the fortunes of bel canto: the critical establishment that had excoriated Bellini had begun to acknowledge his genius. The superb Met cast apparently did full justice to the score. To judge by this recording of Maria Barrientos, the Elvira, it must have been quite a night. Note: I suggest that you lower the volume for this excerpt.


Maria Callas was responsible for the resurrection of many bel canto operas in the mid-20th century. I Puritani had special significance for her. At the beginning of her career in Italy, she was known as a dramatic soprano. In January 1949, she was engaged in Venice for Brünnhilde. The conductor of the Wagner, Tullio Serafin, knew Callas’s voice and asked her to step in for an indisposed colleague just five days before the first night of Puritani. She had never sung the role of Elvira. She learned it on the spot—and the Valkyrie had found her true calling in the bel canto world. For the full impact of her dark, tragic Elvira, listen to this live excerpt from the May 29, 1952 performance in Mexico City, site of early international triumphs for Callas. She emerges clearly from the aural mess and prevails against a conductor who merely beats time and a chorus that seems to be sight-reading. This is the finale to Act I, the first of Elvira’s three mad scenes.


To Joan Sutherland goes a large measure of the credit for the renewal of interest in I Puritani at the Met. The 1976 production mounted for her has been followed by five revivals. Here she is in 1962, in Elvira’s entrance aria.

My next post will treat Puritani tenors and basses.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The First "Butterfly"

The Met’s latest Cio-Cio-San, Kristine Opolais, has had an unusual success, no surprise to those who heard her in the role in London in 2011.

The notorious world premiere of Madama Butterfly at La Scala on February 17, 1904 is one of the best known fiascos in operatic lore. A revised version was presented two months later in Brescia, and the rest is history. The opening night brouhaha comes alive in this translation from the Italian of a page from the March 15, 1904 issue of Musica e Musicisti, a magazine published by the powerful Casa Ricordi, also the publisher of Puccini’s scores. Ricordi had a high stake in the newest work of arguably the most popular living opera composer.

“Grunts, catcalls, bellows, honks, guffaws, and scattered shouts of ‘Encore’ designed to excite the audience even further: that was the reception the La Scala public gave the new work by Maestro Giacomo Puccini.

Following the pandemonium, during which it was impossible to hear anything at all, the audience left the theatre happy as a clam. Never before had so many smiling, self-satisfied faces been in evidence, as if to reflect the collective triumph. Joy overflowed in the lobby. The rubbing of hands here and there was accompanied by these words: “Consummatum est!  Parce sepulto.”  [It is done. Let the dead be forgiven.] The spectacle in the auditorium appeared to be as carefully choreographed as the one on the stage; it started just as the performance began. We might have been witness to a battle, such as those now underway, where a host of enemy Russians, arrayed in tight battalions, launch an assault on the stage so as to sweep away all of Puccini’s Japanese.

Madama Butterfly was wonderfully rendered by the orchestra which under the baton of Maestro Campanini played superlatively. Storchio was delightful, fabulous, and more, in fact peerless in the difficult role of the protagonist. No less remarkable were the others in the cast, Sig.ra Giaconia, and Sig.ri Zenatello, De Luca, Gaetano Pini-Corsi, and their colleagues. As always, the décor and staging were splendid, noteworthy for their scrupulous attention to the many details demanded by the characteristic setting.

This is a true account of the evening.  After which, Puccini, Giacosa, and Illica, in accord with the publisher Ricordi, withdrew Madama Butterfly, and returned the fee they had received from the directors of the theatre. All this despite the management’s heated insistence that the opera be given again.”

Here are images of the original production.

Rosina Storchio, the first Cio-Cio-San, created leading roles for other verismo composers, Leoncavallo, Giordano, and Mascagni, but was also known for lyric-coloratura parts in operas of Donizetti and Verdi.

Storchio's agility, vitality, and sweet tone are fully evident in an aria from the La Bohème of Puccini’s rival, Leoncavallo.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Arabella 1: Angels in Vienna

The Met’s 2014 revival of Arabella comes a decade after its last. This latest edition reminds us of the beauties of Strauss’s opera, once dismissed as a pale derivative of Der Rosenkavalier. Malin Byström’s substantial voice prevailed (I attended the April 7 performance) over the sometimes unfriendly orchestration and in spite of conductor Philippe Auguin’s heavy baton. In Act I, the soprano’s volume came at the expense of the float she happily found for the lyric passages of Acts II and III. Michael Volle’s attractive voice betrayed his years of service, yet not so much as to compromise his compelling enactment of Mandryka. At every turn, in posture and phrase, Volle conveyed the character’s idealism, his confusion, his sense of being out of place, his belief in the power of love.

Opera is full of love at first sight. No coup de foudre is more persuasive than the encounter of Arabella and Mandryka, The meeting of these soulmates emerges in contrast to the comedy of manners and the farcical critique of materialism inscribed in Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s scenario. Prior to Act II, Mandryka becomes obsessed by a photograph of Arabella; she is intrigued by the stranger just outside her hotel who looks at her with “large, serious, steady eyes.” The first words of Act II are Mandryka’s as Arabella descends the stairs to the ballroom: “This is an angel, come down from Heaven.” Arabella, who has been courted by the most eligible bachelors of 1860s Vienna, understands at once that this is “the right man,” “der Richtige.” He brings far more than wealth—he brings his aura.  Only minutes later, in one of the score’s most moving passages, the widower Mandryka evokes his dead wife, an angel for whom, he says, he was too young and not good enough. At the opera’s end, he rejoices in having found his new angel.

A recording of the ecstatic Act II duet of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Josef Metternich won many converts to Arabella. The soprano never sang the opera in the theatre, reportedly because she found the role uninteresting. You would never know it from this excerpt.

In the mid-1950s, Arabella was in the air. Aside from the Schwarzkopf album of highlights, there were two compilations that featured Lisa Della Casa. More than twenty years after its Dresden world premiere, the Met presented the U.S. premiere in February 1955. I saw it there a few weeks later. I expect I will never hear the Act II duet performed with more heart than I did that night. If you wish to judge for yourself, the matinee broadcast of the 1955 Arabella is available on Amazon. The betrothed couple is played by Eleanor Steber and George London, artists matched in their fervor and, so rare, in the weight of tone suited to the text. They are both at their peak, Steber having acquired great warmth in the middle register to go along with a phenomenal top by turns silvery and expansive. The massive voice of London, more bass than the lyric baritone to which we have become accustomed, reaches the top notes with adequate ease. As they fill out the most taxing, long-breathed phrases, Steber and London conjure the illusion of holding nothing back, all the while holding much more in reserve. Hilde Güden’s unrivaled Zdenka caps the Act I duet of the sisters with the high C of yet another angel. The opera is given in English translation, as it would be in three subsequent revivals. Conductor Rudolf Kempe abets intelligibility, applying his supple, light manner to Strauss’s sometimes raucous orchestral barrage.

Two years after its 1955 Met premiere, when Arabella returned to the Met, George London was joined by Lisa Della Casa. Della Casa was already widely known for her interpretation of the title role. With a voice somewhat less dense than that of Steber, she infused the score with her distinctively cool/warm timbre and personality and made for a particularly alluring “Queen of the Coachman’s Ball.” Here she is with Annaliese Rothenberger, a Met Zdenka on twelve occasions, in a 1963 performance from Munich.

More on the performance history of Arabella in my next post.

Sunday, April 6, 2014


In the current Met revival of La Sonnambula, as heard on March 25, Diana Damrau sang Amina with an instrument that is richer with each passing season, with no diminution of dexterity and comfort in alt, with her customary feeling and energy The two cartwheels she turned during "Ah, non giunge" summed up the joy of the character and of the performer at ease with the physical and vocal athletics of the part. The Elvino of Javier Camarena was the surprise of the evening. His voice is warm, fluent, responsive to a wide dynamic range, comfortable at the top. If his phrasing is a tad less impeccable that that of Flórez in the role (particularly at the beginning) it still reflects accomplished belcantism. The other principal singers were disappointing--Rachelle Durkin a wiry Lisa, Michele Pertusi, a Rodolfo insecure of pitch, woolly of tone. Conductor Marco Armiliato was accommodating, not inspiring.

The Met's first Amina, Marcella Sembrich, starred in La Sonnambula a few weeks after her tremendously successful debut as Lucia in 1883 in the company's inaugural season. Her 1904 recording (on YouTube) of the cabaletta, "Ah, non giunge," documents her fluency, not the renowned beauty of her timbre. In 1910, Elvira de Hidalgo, the future teacher of Maria Callas, sang the role with the company, although only twice. Reviewers were unanimous in their assessments of prodigious technique and shrill timbre, attributes in evidence in her recording of "Ah, non giunge" (on YouTube). The plangency of the Met's next Amina (1916), Maria Barrientos, emerges clearly from her 1920 rendition of the aria. The soprano exploits her phenomenal battery of fioriture in this showcase for coloratura feats and flights, but also rescues the deering-do from mere stunt with taste, personality, charm, liquid tone, and a remarkable command of the messa di voce, the long-held crescendo-diminuendo.

The Met's next Amina ought to have been Amelita Galli-Curci, the superstar engaged to open the 1921-22 season, the first after the death of Caruso. Galli-Curci had sung the role to great acclaim at New York's Lexington Theatre with the Chicago company on the occasion of Tito Schipa's spring 1920 New York debut. The sensitive noctambulist certainly fit Galli-Curci's gentle persona and the limpid, petal-soft sound for which she was famous. During her nine-season-long Met career, she never sang the role with the company, nor did she include any of its music in her interpolations during the "Lesson Scene" from Il Barbiere di Siviglia. A recording of the Act I duet with Schipa captures what might have been heard at the Met.

The opera was broadcast from the Met stage in 1933 and 1935 with Lily Pons, the second time with Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. To my knowledge, no transcriptions of these broadcasts are extant.

Before the reawakening of La Sonnambula on 39th Street in 1963 for Joan Sutherland, aficionados had to go elsewhere to hear this trove of melody. The opera had achieved wide recognition when Callas performed it at La Scala in 1955, in a production directed by Luchino Visconti and conducted by Leonard Bernstein. There is no better example of the composer's gravitas than the Act II finale as rendered by Callas, Bernstein, and tenor Cesare Valletti.

During the Scala's 1957 trip to the Edinburgh Festival, Callas had to withdraw during a run of Sonnambulas. This then became the first big step in the international career of her replacement, twenty-three-year-old Renata Scotto. She would sing Amina at the Met seven times. My memory of her exquisite phrasing and sweet tone in 1972 is sustained by the transcription of the duet, with Alfredo Kraus, from Venice, 1961.

I close this cursory survey of exemplars of Bellinian bel canto with a late-1940s recording of "Vi ravviso," sung with utter scrupulousness to suavity of line by the very young Cesare Siepi, already master of the most beautiful bass voice of his generation.