Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Jon Vickers (In Memoriam: 1926-2015)

Jon Vickers, a leading Metropolitan tenor for more than twenty-five seasons, died last summer, on July 10. Vickers is remembered for such diverse roles as the comic, stuttering Vasek in The Bartered Bride, the towering Aeneas in Les Troyens, a Samson who toppled the temple as much with the force of his voice as with the restored strength of his arms, Laca in Jenufa, quick to anger, transcendent in forgiveness. Audiences and critics may have carped about Vickers’s tendency to hug the underside of the pitch and to croon at pianissimo. They nonetheless agreed about the power, clarity, and individuality of his timbre, the sensitivity of his phrasing, the force of his personality, and most importantly, the depth of his understanding of the musical and dramatic dimensions of his roles. His Siegmund expressed the fullest measure of passion, his Otello and Canio vented unfathomable rage.

And then there are the two characters that he made singularly his own, his incomparable Florestan and Peter Grimes, roles for which he holds the house records. With Leonie Rysanek, then with Hildegard Behrens, Vickers gave Fidelio a currency in the repertoire that it had never before enjoyed in New York. At the start of Act II, Florestan, imprisoned in a dark dungeon for his opposition to despotic rule, laments his loss of freedom. Suddenly, a vision of his beloved wife fills him with hope. The tenor easily surmounts the difficulties of the aria and makes palpable the character’s despair, then his ecstasy.

In the final scene of Peter Grimes the eponymous hero, cast out by his community, suspected of having been responsible for the death of his two apprentices, tormented by his own demons, delirious, recalls the events that have brought him to the verge of suicide. Accompanied only sporadically by a foghorn and an offstage chorus, it is Vickers, now keening in legato phrases, now issuing brief interjections, who finds a universal message in the confusion and anger of the poor fisherman. 

It is Tristan that should have been a third role in the Vickers pantheon. Alas, he sang it only twice with the company. In 1973-74, he was announced for an eight-performance run of Wagner’s opera. When the scheduled soprano bowed out, Vickers first refused to sing with her replacement, changed his mind for the broadcast, and finally appeared opposite the greatest Isolde of her generation, Birgit Nilsson. That single smashing evening told Met audiences how otherwise impoverished were the contemporary Wagnerian ranks. Regrettably, by reason of indisposition  and of the peripatetic life of the opera singer in the 1970s, the voices of Vickers and Nilsson twined only once in the “Liebesnacht” in New York. Here they are in performance from Vienna.

A small number of dramatic tenors have assumed some of the Vickers roles with great distinction and success, notably Plácido Domingo and Jonas Kaufmann. But Florestan and Peter Grimes still belong to him.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Tannhaüser, the Wandering Minstrel

The very first work performed in German at the Metropolitan was Richard Wagner’s Tannhaüser, the opera the “Live in HD” global audience will hear and see this coming Saturday, October 31. Tannhaüser premiered during the Met’s second season, 1884-1885, and has been a staple of the repertoire ever since. 

That is not to say that Wagner was absent during the Met’s inaugural season. Lohengrin was on the calendar, albeit in Italian, in 1883-1884. That was the year the Met’s founding impresario, Henry Abbey, brought his Grand Italian Opera to 39th Street and Broadway, the Met’s home until the move to Lincoln Center. In that first season, all opera, whatever the intended language, was sung in Italian. That tradition would have held had Abbey not driven his company deep into the red, causing the Metropolitan board to seek another general manager and a more fiscally viable performance practice.

As the board was deliberating, along came Leopold Damrosch, a well-established symphony conductor, who proposed a season entirely in German, its repertoire principally consigned to works composed on German texts, with casts recruited in Germany at fees far lower than Abbey’s stars had commanded. The orchestra would be drawn from the German players of his New York Symphony Society, by all accounts superior to the Italian instrumentalists Abbey had hired. Damrosch would do all the conducting. In making his case, he contended that the German speakers of New York, the population he was confident of luring to the half-empty upper tiers, was interested neither in Italian opera nor in German opera sung in Italian. Ultimately, and despite resistance from influential boxholders who preferred the embellishments of bel canto to the declamations of music drama, the bottom line won out. Like the Met’s many devoted connoisseurs, the critics were delighted. One Gemanophile reviewer pointed to the German-language Lohengrin as proof of his axiom: that the “sincere and realistic” interpretation of German artists was in all ways superior to the Italian manner of privileging “a few tuneful numbers.”

Skipping ahead to Lauritz Melchior’s 1926 Met debut, as Tannhaüser, we note with surprise that the Danish tenor was not particularly well received. But after five or so seasons of sporadic appearances, he became recognized as the world’s dominant heldentenor. In this recording, he makes easy work of the role of Tannhaüser, one of the most strenuous in the Wagner canon. In Act I, having betrayed the order of courtly love, the minstrel languishes in the arms of Venus herself. His hymn in praise of the goddess demands great stamina, but also a touch of grace not often accessible to heroic singers.

A Wagnerian Golden Age at the Met centered on Kirsten Flagstad’s pre-war New York engagement, from 1935 to 1941. The Norwegian soprano, along with Melchior and their remarkable cohort, assured a level of performance perhaps unsurpassed in the company’s history. During this period, Flagstad shared Tannhauser’s Elisabeth with Lotte Lehmann. These superlative artists, and sometimes professional rivals, had distinct approaches, timbres, and techniques. At the opening of Act II, Lehmann’s impetuous greeting to the Hall of Song overflows with rapturous anticipation. Her beloved Tannhaüser has renounced the pleasures of Venus and is about to return to her.

In Act III, near death, Elisabeth prays for Tannhaüser who has gone to Rome to seek redemption for his sins. Flagstad’s timbre--massive, pure, unerringly in tune--conveys her character’s saintliness with utter directness.

Just moments later, Wolfram, the minstrel who champions chaste love, sings the opera’s most familiar melody, the “Hymn to the Evening Star.” Hermann Prey, who appeared only infrequently at the Met over a thirty-year span, made his 1960 debut there as Wolfram. He invests the aria’s long phrases with the silken legato and lyric timbre that made him an unforgettable lieder recitalist.

A word about this Saturday’s simulcast. Tannhaüser is the oldest active production in the company’s repertoire. Designed by Günther Schneider-Siemssen and directed by Otto Schenk, its style delighted critics and audiences in 1977 and continues to be a successful example of literalist staging

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Otello's Met Fortunes

We are pleased to return to OperaPost with this entry on Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, the September 21, 2015 opening bill at the Met and, on this coming Saturday, October 17, the second of the “Met Live in HD” telecasts for 2015-16.

A word about the surprising fortunes of Verdi’s penultimate opera at the Metropolitan. (His last, also based on a Shakespeare text, was the comic Falstaff.) Early on, Verdi’s Otello struggled to endear itself to New York audiences. In its first performance, in 1891, the company’s leading tenor, Jean de Reszke, took on the title role.  Although critics hailed de Reszke and the opera, the other principals and the production were considered unworthy of the work and its single performance drew the season’s lowest box office. Revived three years later with Francesco Tamagno and Victor Maurel, the Otello and Iago of the La Scala world premiere in 1887, and the very popular Emma Eames as Desdemona, Otello ticket sales fell well below the season’s average, despite dithyrambic reviews. Here is Tamagno trumpeting Otello’s mighty entrance in a 1903 recording.

In 1895, a leading critic despaired at indifference to “one of the most important works of the last ten years” and went on to complain that since New York was “not really a profoundly musical city,” there was an insufficient audience to support so somber a piece. 
Oddly enough, Otello thrived in the 1901-1902 season, and then, inexplicably, between 1909 and 1914, it drew poorly for most of the 29 times the company’s star conductor, Arturo Toscanini, led the opera. Toscanini was particularly close to Otello; he had played in the cello section at the La Scala premiere supervised by Verdi himself. One act of Otello made it to the Met stage during a 1934 gala. This was Lauritz Melchior’s only chance to sing at the Met a role in which he triumphed in other houses. Here, in the Act II “Ora e per sempre addio,” is a taste of what New Yorkers were denied.

Otello would wait nearly a quarter of a century before Giovanni Martinelli, in his 25th Met season (out of a total of 32), was finally cast in the role that is recognized as the most demanding tenor part in the Italian repertoire. In this five-season run, despite excellent notices and a stellar cast, Otello failed once again to attain the seasonal box office average. The public continued to find the exacting score a hurdle it was unwilling to overcome. Lawrence Tibbett, who played “honest Iago” opposite Martinelli’s “Moor of Venice,” sings the opera’s famous “Credo” in this recording.

In 1948, Otello enjoyed the distinction of being the first opera to be telecast from the Met stage. But even this signal event fell short in increasing the work’s popularity. It was only with its revival in 1955 that the opera could be counted on to sell out the house, as it has so frequently ever since. The stentorian Mario del Monaco and the phenomenally gifted Leonard Warren were already familiar as Otello and Iago. It was the Desdemona, Renata Tebaldi in her Met debut, who made the difference. The audience immediately took Tebaldi to its heart, where she remained for nearly twenty seasons. We have chosen the Act IV “Ave Maria” from a 1954 La Scala performance to demonstrate the unique warmth of her timbre, her phenomenal breath control, her haunting pianissimo. Among the many transcriptions of live Otellos and several commercial recordings, this one captures one of Tebaldi’s most moving renditions of Desdemona’s tragic foreboding. 

A striking feature of this year’s new production is the absence of blackface for the depiction of Otello, played by Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko. We join other critics in applauding this decision and cite here director Barlett Sher’s pertinent comment: "It really did seem very obvious given our cultural history and political history in the United States, that for me and my production team the idea of putting [Othello] in blackface was completely unthinkable. We can't give in to that cultural trope."

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Faust: 70 Boxes

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The Metropolitan’s 2014-15 season is behind us; it closed on May 9 with Un Ballo in maschera. We look forward to opening night 2015-16, September 21, and a new production of Verdi’s Otello. During the long hiatus, we will cast a look at past Met seasons, beginning with the very first, 1883-84, and in this post, at the inaugural opening night, October 22, 1883.  The opera was Charles Gounod’s Faust.
The confusion outside the new opera house, and the commotion within, delayed the prelude for many minutes. BAs 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 failed to notice that as late as 7:30, $5 balcony tickets were still on sale at the box office. 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 claiming it as their reserve, showed empty seats. When the prelude was over and the curtain rose on the old philosopher’s study, the audience finally fell silent. 

Before the show was over, the most affluent, the least, and all those in between had cause to grumble.  The carriage trade had had to cope with long lines at the three entrances, north on 40th Street, east on Broadway, south on 39th. Many of their seats, despite prime locations, had poor sight lines and equally dismal acoustics. Nonetheless, seventy boxes offered what a set of prominent New Yorkers had bought for themselves: a house that would accommodate the spectacle of their power and riches. The press paid particular attention to the movements of William Henry Vanderbilt whose two boxes held his family and numerous distinguished guests. In the course of the evening, Vanderbilt sat by turn in each of his boxes and was seen stopping in at those of friends and relations. His valet was posted at the door to pass on the calling cards of visitors--unfailingly male, women rarely left their seats--who sought an audience with the Commodore’s son. The cumulative wealth of the several Vanderbilts and of the others of their crowd was estimated at upwards of $500 million.  
 The new house was leased to theatrical manager Henry E. Abbey who had been charged by the board to assemble a company for the inaugural season.  The “Italian” of his “Grand Italian Opera” meant that French and German works on the bill would be sung in Italian. That was how it was. Years later, in evoking an 1870s Faust with Christine Nilsson at the Academy of Music, 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.” 
When Abbey chose Faust for the Met’s opening night, he had the taste of his conservative patrons in mind. At its first performance in New York in 1863, Gounod’s opera leapt to the top of the operatic charts, and there it stayed for many decades. By 1890 it had been on the boards so often that one critic famously dubbed the Metropolitan the “Faustspielhaus.” As late as 1935, it had been given at the Met more than any other work; in 1950 it had fallen only slightly behind Aïda in popularity; today it ranks eighth in frequency of performance by the company. And no wonder. Its graceful melodies serve a skillfully wrought libretto and show to great advantage the wares of star singers.

The brief role of Valentin encompasses one of the opera’s familiar tunes, the aria “Avant de quitter ces lieux,” in which Marguerite’s brother, on his way to battle, entrusts the innocent girl to divine protection. The singer must engage a broad-ranging legato as well as martial heft. Verdi baritone Leonard Warren, who sang Valentin early in his career, delivers a nuanced, cleanly articulated line, along with his always resplendent upper register, in this 1945 studio recording.

But God is deaf to Valentin’s prayer. Marguerite surrenders to the handsome young Faust. The soprano’s role demands a modicum of coloratura facility, sweet tone, refined phrasing, and late in the opera, the strength for extended outbursts of emotion. Victoria de los Angeles, the most prominent Marguerite of the 1950s, made her Met debut in the role. Her two commercial recordings of Faust set a standard that subsequent divas have been hard pressed to meet, let alone surpass. She makes palpable the naïve young woman’s thrill at finding a casket of jewels in her garden, joyously likening herself to a king’s daughter.

Marguerite is the prize that seals the pact between the Devil and the world-weary Faust. The part of Méphistophélès appeals to the histrionic bent of leading basses, many of whom overplay the diabolical to the detriment of the composer’s elegant line. Cesare Siepi, who sang the role often throughout his Met career, treats the mock serenade to Marguerite with ravishing tone, scrupulous musicianship, all the while relishing the piece’s sardonic charge. The few tenor lines are sung by Eugene Conley

In the 1950s and beyond, the Met’s resident Faust was the excellent Nicolai Gedda. We have chosen another tenor for Faust’s ecstatic “Salut, demeure chaste et pure.” Alain Vanzo never appeared with the company, but did perform the role on the Lincoln Center stage during the 1977 visit of the Paris Opéra. Vanzo was the quintessential French tenor of the post-war period. We hear his honeyed timbre, pristine diction, and long-breathed legato capped by the astoundingly clean attack on the high C at the end, held, then tapered to ethereal softness.