Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Cinderella Come Lately

La Cenerentola crowned the Met’s 2013-14 season. Joyce DiDonato offered the last Angelinas of her career, first, with the relatively unknown, sensational tenor Javier Camarena, then with the also sensational Juan Diego Flórez. DiDonato joined the roster of virtuosic Cinderellas the Met has presented since the opera’s company premiere in 1997, Bartoli, Borodina, and Garanča, squired by a host of charming tenor princes, Vargas, Banks, and Brownlee. The score breathed with health and spirit under Fabio Luisi’s baton. The semi-surrealist concept, with its Magritte-men, remains persuasive.

Rossini’s opera buffa came to the U.S.A. in 1825 with the first troupe of singers to perform opera in Italian in New York. Promoted by Mozart librettist and Columbia professor Lorenzo Da Ponte, Manuel Garcia, who had himself been Almaviva in the Rome world premiere of Il Barbiere di Siviglia, assembled a company that featured his teen-aged daughter, Maria, soon to become famous in her own right as Maria Malibran. In 1934, London heard La Cenerentola with Conchita Supervia, another in the still advancing line of Spanish and Latin-American singers at home in its roulades. When it became a hit at City Opera in 1953, it was reputed to be the score’s first New York exposure since the days of Garcia. Veteran conductor Tullio Serafin returned to the city after two decades to lead a cast headed by the company’s ranking mezzo, Frances Bible. Alas, I have not been able to find phonographic evidence of Bible’s dexterity in this music. At the same time, a movie, based on the work, filmed in a delectable rococo palace, featuring the voice of redoubtable Verdian Fedora Barbieri, made the rounds of art cinemas.

The better-late-than-never Met premiere was meant to showcase the talents of Cecilia Bartoli. Five subsequent revivals and a total of thirty-eight performances add up to the most consistent success of any opera introduced at Lincoln Center since 1997. If the Met had gotten around to it a bit earlier, audiences might have enjoyed the heart-warming Angelinas of Victoria de los Angeles and Frederica von Stade. The excursions of de los Angeles into Rossini territory are documented in two complete recordings of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. In New York, her affinity for bel canto was demonstrated in a mere four performances of Rosina. More’s the pity. The roundness of her timbre, the evenness of her fioriture (listen to those descending runs), the clarity of her diction, and the glow of her personality are captured in this recording of “Nacqui all’affanno.”

Here is the wonderful von Stade in an excerpt from a film of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s La Scala production.

To top off this post, I’d like you to listen to a singer known to too few. Zara Dolukhanova was a prodigious Rossinian, active primarily in the 1950s and 1960s, who occasionally sang outside the Soviet Union. Her credentials as a belcantist are manifest in this 1950 Russian-language recording of Angelina’s final aria. You will probably be startled, and no doubt amused to hear “No, no, no, no,” come out as “Nyet, nyet, nyet, nyet,” and you will certainly be astonished by the polished vocalism. Note: there is an altered ending that turns the aria into a duet with the tenor.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Puritani Quartet

Vincenzo Bellini died near Paris at the age of thirty-three at the height of his fame. Just nine months before, his I Puritani was clamorously received at its world premiere at the Théâtre Italien in the French capital--at the time also the music capital of Europe. Bellini wrote the opera for four preeminent singers, soprano Giuditta Grisi, tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini, baritone Antonio Tamburini, and bass Luigi Lablache.
Grisi and Mario


At Bellini's funeral, the Puritani Quartet, as it came to be known, sang the words of the "Lachrymosa" to the melody of the sublime ensemble that concludes the opera, music whose extended phrases, so characteristic of the composer, are to the measure of deep sorrow. Here, in a 1972 performance at the Teatro Bellini during Bellini's centenary in his home-town Catania, "Credeasi misera" is expansively conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni, and movingly sung by Alfredo Kraus, the Arturo, and Adriana Maliponte, the Elvira. Maliponte did not achieve great renown during her nine-season Met career in the 1970s and 1980s, but she is fondly remembered for her haunting timbre, fine musicianship, and committed portrayals by those of us who were lucky enough to have heard her. More about Maliponte in a future post.

Elvira is first among equals in the Puritani Quartet. It is to her that I devoted my previous post. But Bellini also furnished remarkable opportunities to the male singers. The lovelorn baritone sings the first aria, "Ah! per sempre ti perdei." As recorded at that same centenary performance, Piero Cappuccilli has the reserve of breath needed to sustain the long legato line. Some of his decorative turns are slightly smudged, though not egregiously. The music shows off the exceptional equalization of Cappuccilli's voice; however splendid, the climactic note is the only note that seems "tacked on." Cappuccilli sang but a single performance at the Met, brought in by the emergency of Leonard Warren's sudden death in 1960. His recordings and the performances of Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra I attended in Florence, Verona, and Vienna fully sustain, for me, his reputation as the dominant Italian baritone of his generation.

To the tenor falls one of the greatest challenges in the score. His entrance, "A te, o cara" (he is first heard in an offstage prayer), carries him high in the register. Pavarotti's Arturo was one of the glories of the Met's 1976 production with Sutherland, no surprise to those of us who heard him sing the role with Sills in Philadelphia in 1972. 

Ezio Flagello, a house singer rather than a star at the Met for nearly three decades beginning in the late 1950s, was most often cast in comic roles. He "looked" like a buffo and sang fifty-two Leporellos with the company. He was, nonetheless, an extraordinarily mellifluous basso cantante. The house was flooded with bass overtones when Flagello sang the servant to Siepi's Don Giovanni. Here he is in a different repertoire. Giorgio's aria is one of the best examples of Bellini's deceptive simplicity. In Flagello's rendition of "Cinta di fiori," you will hear how the insistent interval of the sixth allows the singer space for subtle expressive inflection.