Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Saturday, June 21, 2014

World War II and the Met Roster. Those who Did not Come: 2. Germaine Lubin

This post, the second in the series “World War II and the Met Roster,” is centered on the French dramatic soprano Germaine Lubin, whose anticipated Met debut, like that of Tiana Lemnitz, the subject of the last OperaPost, did not come about. This opportunity lost, there would not be another. 

In 1939, Lubin was engaged for the 1940-41 Met season for performances that included the company premiere of Alceste.  Her agent, Erich Simon, wrote to the management on March 8 of that year that his client was prepared to sing several Wagner heroines (Isolde, the Walküre Brünnhilde, Sieglinde, Elsa, Elisabeth, Kundry, but not Sieglinde or the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde), and a variety of French roles.  The signed contract spanned the period January to April 1941, and guaranteed fifteen performances at $400 per performance. 

Lubin cancelled just a few weeks before she was scheduled to make her debut in the Gluck opera. There is reason to question the sincerity of her apology to general manager Edward Johnson: “I am heartbroken that it is impossible for me for the moment to leave occupied France. Let me hope I will be able to sing at the Metropolitan Opera next season.” In The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation, Frederic Spotts finds implausible Lubin’s claim that the German ambassador in Paris “would not give her a passport.” Lubin may by then have been unwilling to sing in New York. In a 1963 interview, she makes plain her contempt for the United States:  “I have sung everywhere. Except in America where I refused seven invitations. I don’t regret it.”  To the interviewer’s interjection, “Still, the Metropolitan Opera is a highly regarded venue,” she responded, “Yes, for dollars. I wouldn’t exchange Bayreuth for the Metropolitan.”

Just before the war, Lubin had sung in Berlin and Bayreuth. Through her great friend, Wagner’s daughter-in-law Winifred, she established relations with highly placed figures of the Third Reich, including Hitler. He so admired her Isolde that he had her sit by his side at a post-performance dinner. The episode and her enthusiastic response to the Führer would come back to haunt her. And among Lubin’s intimates was Vichy head Maréchal Pétain.  Her post-war destiny was sealed when she sang Isolde in Paris with the troupe from the Berlin Staatsoper, the only French artist in the cast.  On that occasion the swastika hung over the grand staircase of the French national theater.

At the liberation in 1944, Lubin was arrested, and in 1949 she was condemned to “dégradation nationale” (the loss of political, civil, and professional rights) for a period of five years.

Although Lubin’s performances in Tristan und Isolde contributed to her undoing in the reckoning of her collaboration and fraternization with the enemy, at the time they were career triumphs. Hitler’s assertion that he had never heard a better Act II Isolde was no doubt merited. In a recording reported to be from a live performance from Bayreuth in 1939, we discern the qualities that put Lubin in the front rank of dramatic sopranos: a sumptuous voice that blooms at the top, a homogeneous sound throughout her range, total command of dynamics. Her legato and clear articulation of the musical line are marks of a singer equally at home in Wagner and in the exposed 18th-century style of Gluck. We hear her power as she rides effortlessly over the orchestral surge; she scales her huge voice down to a perfectly poised pianissimo at the climax. Lubin does honor to what she called “le rôle des rôles.”

In this French-language recording, Lubin’s dulcet pianissimo caps her reading of “Vissi d’arte,” or, “D’art et d’amour.” Musically accurate, without exaggerated effects, she infuses Tosca’s prayer with credible religious fervor.

There is no doubt that with Lubin, the Met’s 1941 Alceste would have found greater favor with critics and public. The title role fell to Australian soprano Marjorie Lawrence, who had shared roles with Lubin at the Opéra in the 1930s. A tempestuous Wagnerian, Lawrence in Gluck was reviewed with reservations. She was indisposed at the time of the Saturday matinee broadcast; her replacement, American Rose Bampton, acquitted herself admirably, but with signs of strain. Bampton’s commercial recording of one of Alceste’s arias finds her in peak form, equal to the rigors of the high-lying final phrases.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

World War II and the Met Roster. Those who Did Not Come: 1. Tiana Lemnitz

With the opening of the Met’s 2014-15 season in September (negotiations between management and unions permitting), I will once again take as my point of departure Metropolitan productions and then offer a retrospective glance at historical performances of the opera in question. During the summer interval OperaPost will focus on the Met roster as it was affected by World War II. I begin with Tiana Lemnitz, a singer based in Germany, whose debut at the Met was anticipated but did not happen either before or after the conflagration. The subjects of subsequent posts will be the French dramatic soprano, Germaine Lubin, and the Italian mezzo, Ebe Stignani, both of whom would certainly have come to the Met in due course had it not been for the looming international conflict.

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Tiana Lemnitz was born in Metz (then Germany) in 1897 and died in Berlin in 1994. We find a reference to the soprano in the Metropolitan Opera Archives in a letter from Edward Ziegler, assistant to the then Met general manager Edward Johnson, of June 1936. Ziegler had heard Lemnitz at Covent Garden, in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. He wrote, “[Lemnitz as Octavian] was excellent and gave a very spirited performance. The voice is warm and sure, somewhat opaque in the lower register, but full and vibrant in the upper. I am told she makes a fine Eva [in Die Meistersinger] however, it is impossible for us to have her this year, though she has promised me to ask for leave of absence [from her home theatre] for the season 1937/8.” Lemnitz did not keep her promise. But then, by 1937, very few German leading artists would or could come to the United States. She was again invited in the 1950s and again declined, although she did sing in Buenos Aires’s Teatro Colón early in the decade. What part Lemnitz’s Nazi sympathies and fervent allegiance to the Third Reich, if any, played in her eschewing of the Met, is difficult to ascertain. Lotte Lehmann recounts the episode of her “one and only fainting spell in my life.” She was at Covent Garden for Rosenkavalier in May 1938, the same opera Ziegler had seen in the same theatre two years earlier, when she was “surrounded by an absolutely new cast. They came from Berlin and were all Nazis, especially Miss Lemnitz … she of the angelic floating voice was Octavian. I remember that my voice was getting hoarse from inner tension, and instead of disregarding it, she told me: ‘If you cannot go on, I shall sing for you’—and that did it! I could not bring out one tone, and left the stage and the curtain had to fall.”

Lemnitz became well known to record collectors with the release of Sir Thomas Beecham’s late-1930s recording of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.  Her Pamina stood out in a stellar cast. Soft, shimmering high notes of ineffable purity were the soprano’s trademark. But there was much more to her voice and art, most notably the ability to expand a phrase or a note on endless breath for maximum emotional effect. Pamina’s aria, “Ach, ich fühl’s,” is a test that exposes the tiniest defects in a singer’s technique; for Lemnitz it is a vehicle that demonstrates her mastery. She lingers slightly on notes that other sopranos are only too eager to release. She relishes the difficult fioriture on the word “Herzen.”

Among her records, Agathe’s “Leise, leise” from Weber’s Der Freischütz, became the standard against which all other versions of the aria are measured.

Verdi occupied a strong position in Lemnitz’s repertoire. Here she sings the Act I duet from Otello with Torsten Ralf. Listen again to her command of expressive rubato, the subtle lengthening and diminishing of the note values. Then, there is her unforgettable timbre, sometimes light, sometimes dark. Her partner is as attentive to the text as she. Few have essayed the heroic role of Otello with the solid, sweet mezzo-piano Ralf deploys at the end of the duet. Ralf, the first major European artist to make his Met debut at war’s end, sang Lohengrin in the first opening night broadcast in the company’s history.