Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Into the Woods with Humperdinck

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On January 3, 2015, the Metropolitan Opera will bring Hänsel und Gretel to radio listeners estimated at 11 million strong. The Saturday matinees are currently broadcast on more than 300 stations in the United States, and in forty countries, from Peru to Japan, on six continents.

Not surprisingly given its instantaneous popularity, Hänsel und Gretel was the very first opera broadcast nation-wide by the Metropolitan. It aired on Christmas Day 1931, and was carried by more than 100 stations, and by short wave around the world. The announcer of the occasion, and for the next forty years, was Milton Cross. American composer Deems Taylor narrated the action over the score, to the distress of many who preferred their music without simultaneous commentary. Later, in 1947, Hänsel und Gretel, in English, was the first complete opera to be recorded from the Met stage.

Hänsel und Gretel was premiered at the Met in 1905 with its composer, Engelbert Humperdinck, in attendance. He had come to New York to oversee the first U.S. production of what would almost immediately become a beloved item of the repertoire. (Humperdinck would return in 1910 for the successful world premiere of his now rarely performed Königskinder.) First-night reviewers agreed that it “did not seem as if there could be anybody in the house to whom [Hänsel und Gretel] did not appeal as something beautiful, something delightful and enjoyable” (Times). Contemporary critics, germanophile in the main, were predisposed to Hänsel’s Wagnerian sonorities. They were undoubtedly reminded of the “Ride of the Valkyries” by the “Witch’s Ride” and of Siegfried’s Forest Bird scene by the children’s imitation of the song of the birds. They knew, of course, that Humperdinck had been Wagner’s assistant during the preparation of Parsifal and had served as music tutor to Wagner’s son, Siegfried.

Paradoxically, it was the broad attraction of Humperdinck’s opera that opened the door to its devaluation. Decades ago, the piece was relegated to holiday fare—a light, easily digestible Christmas presentation intended primarily for young audiences, and at the Met, now offered at reduced prices in English translation. It shares this niche (although at normal ticket pricing and sometimes in the original German) with Johann Strauss’s operetta, Die Fledermaus, regularly called upon to ring in the new year. Hänsel’s déclassement would have dismayed those who, at its birth in 1893, hailed this Marschenoper (Fairy-tale opera) as a masterpiece. The most advanced composers in Europe took it on. Richard Strauss, in the pit at its premiere, and Gustav Mahler, who conducted it only months later, had had a marked influence on Humperdinck’s sophisticated amalgam of traditional folk songs and avant-garde practice.

Since the 1940s, the opera’s title roles have often been filled from the second-rank Met roster. But from time to time, stars too have rendered Humperdinck’s melodies and impersonated his children: mezzos Risë Stevens, Tatiana Troyanos, Frederica von Stade in the trouser role of Hänsel, and sopranos Teresa Stratas, Judith Blegen, Dawn Upshaw as Gretel. On records, the rich score has been led by such titanic conductors as Herbert von Karajan and Georg Solti.

The opera opens with Hänsel and Gretel at play at home. They sing the children's song, "Suse, liebe Suse (Suzy, dear  Suzy)," delivered with touching simplicity by Anneliese Rothenberger and Irmgard Seefried in a 1964 recording, with André Cluytens conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. Here is the translation of the text provided in a Met libretto published during the regime of general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza, 1908-1935.

GRETEL: Susy, little Susy, pray what is the news?
The cheese are running barefoot, because
they've no shoes !
The cobbler has leather, and plenty to spare,
why can't he make the poor goose a new pair?

HANSEL: Then they'll have to go barefoot !
Eia-popeia, pray what's to be done ?
Who'll give me milk and sugar, for bread I have none ?
I'll go back to bed and I'll lie there all day; where there's nought to eat, then there's
nothing to pay !

GRETEL: Then we'll have to go hungry !

HANSEL: If mother would only come home again !
Yes, I am so hungry, I don't know what to do !
For weaks I've eaten nought but bread. It's very hard, it is indeed !

GRETEL: Hush, Hansel, don't forget what father said, when mother, too, wished she were dead:
" When past bearing is our grief, Then 'tis Heaven will send relief ! "

HANSEL: Yes, yes, that sounds all very fine, but you know off maxims we cannot dine!
O Gret, it would be such a treat if we had something nice to eat!
Eggs and butter and suet paste, I've almost forgotten how they taste.
(Nearly crying.)
O Gretel, I wish

GRETEL: Hush, don't give way to grumps ; have patience awhile, no doleful dumps!
This woful face, whew ! what a sight ! Looks like a horrid old crosspatch fright !
Crosspatch, away ! Leave me, I pray ! Just let me reach you, quickly I'll teach you how to make trouble,
soon mount to double! Crosspatch, crosspatch, what is the use, growling and grumbling, full of abuse?
Off with you, out with you, shame on you, goose!

HANSEL: Crosspatch, away! Hard lines, I say.

HANSEL: When I am hungry, surely I can say so, cannot allay so, can't chase away so!

GRETEL: If I am hungry, I'll never say so, will not give way so, chase it away so !

GRETEL: That's right. Now, if you leave off complaining, I'll tell you a most delightful secret!

The most ravishing moment of the score comes at the end of Act II. The Sandman puts the children to sleep, but not before they pray that fourteen angels watch over them through the night. In this 1954 recording, Karajan lingers affectionately over the music, giving the Sandman, Anny Felbermayer, the Gretel, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and the Hänsel, Elisabeth Grümmer, the time to do full justice to their ecstatic lines.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

El gato con botas (Puss in Boots) at the Gotham Chamber Opera

On December 12, 2014, we were at a performance at New York’s Museo del Barrio of Xavier Montsalvatge’s El gato con botas produced by the Gotham Chamber Opera. Gotham was founded in 2001 by its artistic director and conductor, Neal Goren. The company fills an important and neglected niche in the repertoire: the small-scale rarity from the Baroque to the present that can only be gratefully framed by an intimate venue. In fact, Gotham has no home of its own. It moves from site to site, choosing a context that suits the subject of the work. In the past thirteen years, Gotham has offered Haydn’s Il Mondo della luna at the Hayden Planetarium, Daniel Catán’s La hija de Rappaccini in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This fall, Gotham mounted a double bill of operas by Bohuslav Martinů, Alexandre bis and Comedy on the Bridge, and this spring, the company will return to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from March 27-29 for The Tempest Songbook, a compilation of music of Henry Purcell and Kaija Saariaho.

Xavier Monsalvatge was a Catalan composer born in 1912; he died in 2002. New York concert-goers will be most familiar with his haunting lullaby, “Canción de cuna ,” so often programmed by recitalists, and so memorably by Victoria de los Angeles and Montserrat Caballé. Here is Teresa Berganza’s utterly beguiling 1964 version. At the time of this composition, close to the date of the 1948 Barcelona premiere of El gato, Montsalvatge’s work was strongly reflective of West Indian/Cuban influences.

The 2014 El gato con botas is a revival of Gotham’s very successful 2010 production at the New Victory Theater. Moisés Kaufman (director of The Laramie Project and I Am My Own Wife) and his Tectonic Theater Project, collaborated with the Blind Summit Theatre to achieve a seamless joining of puppets and live performers. The most memorable scene featured an ogre capable of rearranging the parts of his body. In a clear echo of Das Rheingold, where Wotan and Loge trick Alberich into transforming himself into a toad, Puss captures the giant monster he has goaded into becoming a rat. The puppets, some manipulated by a team of puppeteers as in Japanese Bunraku theater (a technique adopted by the Metropolitan’s 2006 Madama Butterfly), some strapped to the singers’ bodies, were the ideal solution for the fairy tale source, “Puss in Boots.” This short excerpt was film in Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu during the 2011-12 season. Here there are no puppets. The singers and dancers are dressed in animal costumes.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Die Meistersinger: The Song’s the Thing

The Metropolitan will present Die Meistersinger in its “Live in HD” series this coming Saturday, December 13. The company’s only previous telecast of Wagner’s comedy dates from 2001. Available on DVD, it was conducted by James Levine, as it will be on Saturday; it will be seen in the same pictorial, traditionalist production, the work of Otto Schenk and Günther Schneider-Siemssen. The excellent 2001 cast featured James Morris, Ben Heppner, Karita Mattila, and Thomas Allen.
Meistersinger received its U.S. premiere at the Met in 1886 and has been a repertoire staple ever since. Apart from the very early and nearly never performed Das Liebesverbot, it is the composer’s only comedy. And except for Das Liebesverbot, it is his only work devoid of the supernatural. In 16th-century, middle-class Nuremberg there are no gods and Valkyries, mermaids, dragons, love potions, or knights of the Holy Grail. In fact, the central character, Hans Sachs, is an historical figure, a cobbler and a poet. Both his shoemaking and his knowledge of verse are deeply embedded in the libretto.

Structured around a singing contest for which Sachs, a mastersinger, is a judge, Meistersinger focuses on the place of art in society through the character of one of the contestants, Walther von Stolzing. Walther progresses from undisciplined inspiration in Act I to the Act III completion of the Preislied, a prize love-song that both expresses his ardor and wins the approbation of the mastersingers and the populace. The opera reaches its climax in a crescendo of public acclaim for Hans Sachs, for his generosity, good sense, and, problematically for generations of listeners, for his defense of German art. Sachs’s warning against foreign influences (generally understood as French or Jewish) is a direct appeal to German nationalism. On the occasion of the opera’s first production at Glyndebourne in 2011, The Guardian noted, “Music from Meistersinger was chosen to accompany the inaugural celebrations of the Third Reich in 1933, it was used by Leni Riefenstahl in her propaganda films, it was conducted on film by Wilhelm Furtwängler to symbolize the greatness of Germany's war effort, and it was the only piece performed at Wagner's theatre in Bayreuth during the war years.”

The four clips that follow provide a sampler of Wagner at his most lyrical. When asked with whom he has studied poetry, Walther answers sweetly, the medieval minstrel Walther von der Vogelweide, whose verses inspired him. And what school instructed him? The birds of the forest. His answers come forth in the three stanzas of his song. Leo Slezak, a remarkable tenor who appeared at the Met between 1909 and 1913 in roles as diverse in their demands as Mozart’s Tamino and Wagner’s Tannhaüser, sings “Am stillen Herd (At the quiet hearth)” with an ease of address and a purity of timbre preserved in this 1905 recording.

Hans Sachs, too, is a poet of nature, but with a philosophical bent, as he repeatedly proves through the course of the opera. His Act III, scene 1 monologue, “Wahn! Wahn! (Madness, madness)” first reflects on the follies of human nature in its thirst for anger and strife. Sachs, who finds peace in contemplating his beloved Nuremberg, then evokes the fragrance of his elder-tree on Midsummer’s Eve. Friedrich Schorr, a phenomenal heroic baritone and perhaps the most renowned Sachs of the 20th century, encompasses the piece’s power and tenderness.

The first scene of Act III ends with an ecstatic quintet whose harmonies are proof that the benevolent cobbler has intervened put things right: he has given youth its due, renouncing his claim to Eva, and has helped Walther complete the song that will win Eva’s hand; Sachs has also promoted his affable apprentice David to the rank of journeyman, thereby assuring his marriage to Eva’s nurse, Magdalene. All sing as if in a dream. Led by, and then capped by the floating lines of the soprano, the five voices intertwine in common joy. The recording here is from a 1935 Vienna performance conducted by Felix Weingartner. Lotte Lehmann is the Eva. When she sang the role soon after her 1934 Met debut, Lawrence Gilman threw aside critical restraint and wrote, "with her [first] words, [she] made one exclaim involuntarily to oneself, 'But this is the real thing.'"


The payoff at the opera’s conclusion is Walther’s prize song. In the previous scene, Wagner whets our appetite for the finished piece; Sachs makes helpful comments as the budding poet composes. The final version of the stanzas of the Preislied signals the triumph of love, of community, of art. Lauritz Melchior, unquestionably the greatest Wagner tenor of the 20th century, an irreplaceable Tristan and Siegfried, never sang the less demanding Walther in his long Met career. But even at the age of sixty, soon after he left the company, the freshness of his voice and his infectious joy are manifest in this 1950 television rendition of the aria.