Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Friday, September 26, 2014

Mozart at the Met: Le Nozze di Figaro

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The Metropolitan opened its 2014-15 season last Monday evening, September 22, with a new production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. (If you wish to read our review of the Met's new production of Le Nozze di Figaro, please use this link:  This year’s program also shows a revival of Die Zauberflöte a little later in the fall and the revival of a recent production of Don Giovanni in February.  Cosi fan tutte, Idomeneo, La Clemenza di Tito, and Die Entführung aus dem Serail have all been presented within the last several years.

It was not always so. In fact, with the exception of Don Giovanni, on the calendar in the Met’s very first season, 1883-84, Mozart was heard only sporadically on 39th Street until the 1940s. And even this, his most popular work, was absent for long stretches. It was only in 1929 that the ultimate libertine, having resumed his amorous pursuits along Broadway after a twenty-year interruption, would stray no more. As for Le Nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflöte, they would enter the Met repertoire to stay in the 1940s.  In the early 1950s they were joined by Cosi fan tutte.  Die Entführung, returns now and then, as do Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito.

The role of conductors in the long Mozart wave, and the support lent by Edward Johnson, the Met general manager from 1935 to 1950, cannot be overstated.  Its champions were Bruno Walter and Fritz Busch, both anti-fascists, one Jewish, the other not.  Like so many of their cohort, they had fled European podiums and eventually made their way to the Metropolitan. As the first music director of Glyndebourne, Busch had spearheaded the Mozart revival that had begun abroad in the 1930s; Walter conducted sixty-four Mozart performances In New York between 1941 and 1959. The last of Mozart’s champions has been James Levine, the Met’s music director, who introduced Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito to the repertoire, and led the orchestra in this year’s gala opening.

The subject of today’s post, Le Nozze di Figaro, returned to the Met in 1940 after an absence of more than two decades. Since then, Nozze has received more Met performances than even such old favorites as Lohengrin and Faust. Reviewers of the 1940 production took issue with excessively broad stage direction, an awkward décor, and a first-night cast that seemed still at dress rehearsal level. But the importance of the occasion was uncontested and the audience had a wonderful time at what had until then been considered fare for the cognoscenti. Ezio Pinza as Figaro and Bidú Sayão as Susanna formed the nucleus of an ensemble that fixed the opera’s place in the repertoire.

In 1950, Cesare Siepi inherited Pinza's mantle as the Met's principal bass. He went on to amass an even greater total of Nozze Figaros than his illustrious precedessor. In a clip from an Austrian TV concert, we hear why Siepi's mellifluous basso cantante, sparkling diction, and panache became the gold standard for the rebellious valet. In the Act IV aria, “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi,” believing that his bride has betrayed him with the Count, his master, Figaro rants against the faithlessness of all women. 

Moments later, Susanna, pretending to pine for the Count, teases her beloved bridegroom in the aria “Deh vieni, non tardar.” Sayão’s wraps this seductive night music in her tangy soprano, her playful inflection of the text, and her impeccable legato. This is a studio recording made at the time of the 1940 Met performances.

Eleanor Steber did not take on the Countess until 1942, but for the remainder of the decade the role was essentially hers. She sang it more often than has any other Met soprano, before or since. She made a commercial recording of “Porgi, amor,” the Countess’s difficult entrance aria, in 1945, a moment in which her voice was in full bloom. Her seamless line, even articulation of fioritura, and silvery timbre identify her as an exemplary Mozart practitioner; she finds the rich, doleful tone to fill the music of the sad wife who implores Love to return her wandering husband to her.

Mildred Miller is the Met’s record-holding Cherubino. In the 1950s, she held a monopoly on the impetuous, love-sick youth. Alas, there is no commercial recording of Miller in the music. Runner-up in the Cherubino sweepstakes is Frederica von Stade whose warmth, subtle interpretation, and endearing personality are unforgettable. She took part in a wonderful 1980 Paris production that, happily for us, was captured on video. In her act II ballad, “Voi che sapete,” the randy page sings his heart out to the Countess and Susanna.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

More Magda Olivero: Two Death Scenes

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The response to our post on Magda Olivero suggested an interest in a second devoted to this remarkable performer. We focus here on two death scenes of operas that occupied places of privilege in Olivero’s repertoire. Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur and Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, both based on melodramas written for Sarah Bernhardt, were particularly suited to Olivero’s expressive powers. Each offered a protracted scene in which the character breathes her last as she sings. The soprano’s fil di voce, literally “thread of voice,” shrouded the slow demise of the heroines as they succumb to poison.

At the dénouement of Giordano’s opera, Fedora, who in a misbegotten gesture of patriotism has caused the death of Loris’s brother and mother, takes poison rather than suffer the wrath of the lover she has betrayed. He forgives her as she dies in his arms. This clip is taken from a 1967 program at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw where Olivero was a great favorite. Loris is the tenor Doro Antonioli.

The finale of Adriana Lecouvreur is drawn from an historic 1959 performance at the San Carlo of Naples in which Olivero replaced the indisposed Renata Tebaldi. In the dream cast were Franco Corelli, Giulietta Simionato, and Ettore Bastianini. This fourteen-minute excerpt allows us to register the unusual array of dynamics and colors Olivero had at her command. It begins with the lyric duet that reunites the actress and her lover, Maurizio (Corelli). A moment later, Adriana begins to feel the effects of the poisoned flowers sent by a jealous rival for Maurizio’s affections. She has a delirious outburst, then faints. Maurizio and Michonnet (Bastianini), Adriana’s friend, understand that she is dying. When she regains consciousness she believes herself to be Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, transfigured by a shaft of light. She expires as Olivero’s ineffably spun legato phrases fade away. You should perhaps lower the volume to compensate for some stridency in the live recording.

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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Magda Olivero, 1910-2014

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Just yesterday, we learned of the death at 104 in Milan of the fabled Italian soprano, Magda Olivero.

We first heard Olivero's astonishing voice in her 1940 recording of the Traviata aria “É strano . . . Ah, fors’è lui” and its cabaletta “Sempre libera.” Here it is.

And we first heard Olivero live in Florence in 1966 in Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, and then in Newark, New Jersey in 1970 as Tosca. It was not until 1975 that she made her Met debut, again as Puccini’s Roman diva. The company had scheduled twenty performances of Tosca for 1974-75. The last of the seven sopranos to undertake the title role that season was a late replacement for Birgit Nilsson. At the urging of Marilyn Horne, who had heard her in Dallas, Magda Olivero made her Met debut at sixty-five, an age at which leading sopranos, if not long retired, have lost not only their high Cs, but their appetite for the Act III leap from Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo.

Olivero had made her Italian debut in 1932; by the late 1950s, she had an international following of fervent fans thanks to recordings, mostly pirated. Beginning in 1968, U.S. audiences in Dallas, Kansas City, Hartford, Newark, and even at Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall, received her rapturously. In her three Met performances, uninitiated patrons must have wondered at the prolonged ovation that greeted her entrance. They soon understood why so many in the audience shouted so loudly and long. With rock-solid technique, Olivero's hollow middle and lower registers and vibrant upper produced a uniquely expressive and, yes, beautiful sound. Then there were her vocal feats—the ability to swell and diminish a phrase on an endless stream of breath, the clean attacks of high notes, in particular the fearlessly held high C in Act III as Tosca relates her triumphant murder of Scarpia. Voice and technique were wedded to an uncanny command of the body. Fending off the violence of Ingvar Wixell, an excellent Scarpia, Olivero found herself sprawled on an Empire bench, her head and torso bent sharply back. In this contorted position, she began “Vissi d’arte.” Slowly she rose with the arc of the music, was finally upright at the aria’s climax, then on her knees for the next phrase, her plea for mercy. Here is the Act II aria in a 1960 Italian television video where she is allowed less freedom of movement than she had in the theatre. 

On April 18, 1975, her last Met appearance (she sang Tosca on tour in 1979), Olivero amazed and alarmed the audience at her final curtain call. Answering the relentless cheers and applause, and the throng pressing forward on the orchestra floor, she edged along the narrow lip at the base of the proscenium to touch the outstretched hands of her admirers. A misstep would have plunged her into the pit. With this gesture, Olivero conveyed what made her unique: she sang and acted as if her life depended on it.

Olivero’s signature role was Adriana Lecouvreur. Here she sings Adriana’s entrance aria from a 1965 Amsterdam performance. Like Tosca, Adriana is an actress, but in this case, a legendary star of the Comédie-Française in the 18th century. Rehearsing backstage, she begins by declaiming a few lines, then finds their proper expression in song, not as the histrionic thespian but as the humble handmaiden of creative genius.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

First Night and Other Fausts

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As we look forward to the September 22 opening of the Metropolitan’s 2014-15 season, we take a moment to look back on the very first of the Met’s opening nights. The account that follows is drawn from our forthcoming book, Grand Opera: The Story of the Met (University of California Press).
October 22, 1883

The confusion outside the new opera house on opening night, and the commotion within, delayed the prelude to Charles Gounod’s Faust. As one wag put it, no one seemed to mind except "a few ultra musical people in the gallery." On the sidewalk out front, scalpers hawked parquet seats at $12 and $15 each and places in the balcony at $8. Overeager takers apparently failed to notice that as late as 7:30, $5 balcony tickets were still on sale at the box office. "It comes high but we must have it," read the caption under Puck's lampoon of the rush for pricey tickets. Ushers in evening dress escorted patrons to their seats. The three tiers of boxes and the parquet were filled, the balcony nearly sold out. Only the $3-a-pop uppermost section, the "family circle," so renamed to repel roués accustomed to appropriating it for themselves, showed empty seats. When the prelude was over and the curtain rose on the old philosopher's study, the audience finally fell silent.

The lease of the house to theatrical manager Henry E. Abbey came with the board's charge that he assemble a company for the Met's first season. The “Italian” of his "Grand Italian Opera" meant that French and German works would be sung in Italian. That was no surprise. Years later, in evoking an 1870s Faust at the Academy of Music with Christine Nilsson, the Marguerite of the 1883 Met opening, Edith Wharton took a jab at this practice: "An unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences."
Alas, the performance that launched the theatre on 39th Street and Broadway disappointed critics and public. The high point of the evening was the interruption of the garden scene to mark Nilsson's proprietary relationship to the role. Presented with a sash of golden leaves in a velvet case, "first holding the box down so that the audience obtained a view of its contents, she placed it upon the chair in front of the casket, and kneeling repeated the [aria]." But for the Times reviewer, who took note of the soprano's wonted acting and musical expressivity, the "Jewel Song" "was scarcely rendered with the requisite buoyancy and brilliancy." The Faust, Italo Campanini, arguably the world's leading tenor, had been Italy's first Lohengrin, London's first Don José, and New York's first Radamès. That night, his "old-time sweetness" was intermittent and his "old-time manly ring" suffered "the evidences of labor" (Tribune). The reception of the principals might have been more sympathetic had the architects gotten their way in situating the orchestra. Borrowing from Bayreuth, they had sunk the pit below the level of the parquet. But the conductor objected to the near invisibility to which he had been relegated. The pit was raised, putting maestro and orchestra in full view, obstructing the stage picture for many and, of greater import still, undoing the balance of voices and instruments. The orchestra descended to the intended plane two weeks later, and there, with sporadic minor adjustments, it stayed.

(Readers of this post can access the entire first chapter of Grand Opera, devoted to the inaugural season, by going to

Since that fabled and flawed night in fall 1883, there have been many fabulous performances of the opera that lent the Met the sobriquet “Faustspielhaus.” Faust stands eighth in the tally of titles presented by the company. The opera’s enduring popularity is as much a tribute to Gounod’s elegant and tuneful score as it is to the opportunities it has offered singers, beginning with Nilsson and Campanini. The hedonist Faust, the betrayed Marguerite, the nefarious Méphistophélès, and the stalwart Valentin have been favored vehicles for the likes of legendary tenors Jean de Reszke and Jussi Björling,  sopranos Emma Calvé and Nellie Melba, basses Fyodor Chaliapin and Ezio Pinza, baritones Antonio Scotti and Robert Merrill. 

We have chosen as our earliest example a 1910 extract from the Garden scene. Faust is on the verge of seducing the innocent Marguerite. Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar, one of the most potent box-office pairings in Met history, capture both the characters’ expression of eternal love and their barely contained passion.

Valentin was the second role undertaken by Lawrence Tibbett in his debut season, 1923-24; success and renown came to him in 1925, full-fledged stardom in the 1930s. He kept Faust in his repertoire until 1934, the year he recorded “Avant de quitter ces lieux.” In this aria, Valentin, about to go off to war, commends his sister to divine protection. With exemplary style and restraint, Tibbett fills out the broad arc of the melody that conveys the character’s simple faith.

A lyric soprano with coloratura fluency, a great French stylist, Victoria de los Angeles bowed at the Met in 1951 as Marguerite; she sang this role with the company more often than any other and is featured in two commercial recordings of the complete opera. Her warm voice projects all the ebullience of the young woman, dazzled by the chest of bracelets and necklaces she finds in her garden, a gift from the young man who is about to win her heart.

Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov made his sensational Met debut as Méphistophélès in 1965. He sang it only eight times, and more’s the pity. Here he is in a 1979 Lyric Opera of Chicago video of the Devil’s serenade, an ironic take on the love scene Faust and Marguerite have just enacted. Ghiaurov envelops the sardonic mockery in his plush timbre.

In 2011, Jonas Kaufmann assumed the title role in the Met’s latest investiture of Faust. He managed to respect the late-Romanticism of the piece in the face of a production keyed to a horrific, post-Hiroshima atomic nightmare. In Zurich, in 2004, he lovingly addressed Marguerite’s humble dwelling in gracefully shaped. long legato phrases, reaching the climactic high C at mezzo forte which he then diminished to piano. A remarkable feat.

Future posts will focus on the Met program in the upcoming season, beginning with Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, the opening night fare.