Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Monday, March 23, 2015

Remembering Licia Albanese

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On March 13, 2015, we attended a concert sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild in memory of beloved Met soprano Licia Albanese (born 1909) and star Met tenor Carlo Bergonzi (born 1924). Both artists died in 2014. We devote the next post to Bergonzi.

This post is devoted to Licia Albanese. The year was 1939. Italian opera singers had been barred by the Mussolini regime from travelling to the United States. A flurry of telegrams housed in the Metropolitan archives documents the negotiations among the Metropolitan, the State Department, the Italian Embassy in Washington, and the responsible Italian government agency. On September 28, a cable from the Federazione Fascista Lavoratori Spettacolo (Fascist Federation of Theater Workers) informed the Met that three singers scheduled to make their Metropolitan debuts that year, and six who had been reengaged, would not be honoring their contracts, among them Maria Caniglia, Mafalda Favero, and Carlo Tagliabue, who had already made successful debuts, and the much awaited Ebe Stignani. The most damaging cancellation was that of Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, whose return after six seasons had been eagerly anticipated. As the Times (Oct. 7, 1939) explained it, several of the singers forbidden to travel were committed to Italian theatres following their tour at the Met; there was concern that increasing international tensions might delay their timely reentry. Of more diplomatic consequence was the eventuality that Italian artists caught in the United States would be marooned on enemy shores should America enter the war. There was nevertheless a good deal of back and forth on the matter over the course of many months. The Italian authorities were sensitive to the propaganda value of italianità at the Metropolitan and were, therefore, reluctant to offend the management; they were also loath to forego the hard currency their nationals would deposit in Italian banks. The Met applied what pressure it could, both at home and in Italy, through numerous intermediaries. One such go-between, the retired soprano Lucrezia Bori, long a U.S. resident and great friend of the company, was asked by Edward Johnson, the Met general manager, to communicate the Metropolitan’s position to the Italian ambassador in Washington: if the nine contracted singers did not come, the management would have no recourse but to redraw the season’s repertoire, with serious consequences for the company and for Italian opera itself. On the other hand, should Johnson receive assurances that the restrictions imposed in 1939-40 would be lifted for 1940-41, he would be favorable to scheduling a greater number of operas by Italian composers than had originally been planned. In May 1940, Johnson received the guarantees he sought from the consul general. In the end, none of the nine came in 1939-40. Only Licia Albanese, who was not one of the nine, was allowed to come.
And that was how--a result of an international flap, and something of a fluke—Albanese’s twenty-seven-season-long Met career began. In February 1940, she made a smashing debut as Cio-Cio San in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. She soon became one of New York’s most popular lyric stars. She would spend the war years in the United States, marry Joseph Gimma, an Italian-American lawyer, and become an American citizen.  Her last Met appearance was as one of fifty-seven artists who sang in the farewell to the old Met in 1966. Her “Un bel di’” brought down the house.  To shouts of “Save the Met” from the many in the audience who opposed, as she did, the plan to demolish the 39th Street theatre, she kissed her hand and bent to touch the stage floor with her fingers. And in the decades that followed, on many, many opening nights at Lincoln Center her voice would ring over the sound of the audience on its feet for the “Star-Spangled banner” as she nailed the high note of “the land of the FREE.”

Albanese followed in the wake of Lucrezia Bori (mentioned above), the company’s reigning lyric soprano in the 1920s through the mid-1930s, and was contemporary with the lyric-coloratura, Bidú Sayão. All three had bright, tangy voices, not voluminous, but with sufficient focus to carry in the large auditorium, to make every word count. We offer below audio clips of each diva, Bori, Sayão, and Albanese, in, “Addio del passato” from Verdi’s La Traviata so that you can make the comparison for yourselves. The dying Violetta, after reading a letter promising the return of her lover, despairs that she will live long enough to see him.

Violetta was one of Bori’s favored roles. This acoustic recording captures the delicacy of her art, her attention to detail. Of particular effect is the phrase “l’amore d’Alfredo perfino mi manca (I have been deprived even of Alfredo’s love)” where the precise calibration of her instrument accommodates the compelling expansion of the line.

Lucky Met operagoers heard Sayão’s Violetta twenty-three times from 1937 to 1949. Sayão infuses the “legato” written into the score with subtle stresses on key syllables. Notice, for instance, the word “mai” in the first phrase, the elongation of the first word in “l’anima stanca,” the various weights with which she utters the repeated “tutto” at the end. She maintains the tonal purity of the line while giving full value to the text.

Albanese performed Violetta a record eighty-eight times with the Met. Her affinity for the role was well recognized when Arturo Toscanini chose her for the 1946 concert rendition of the opera with his orchestra, the NBC Symphony. The transcription of the broadcast was a best-seller in the early lp era. With the imprimatur of Toscanini, Albanese’s performance became the Violetta of choice for a generation of listeners. Here, in the dress rehearsal of the broadcast (you can hear Toscanini’s raspy singing in the background), is the opening of the final act, through the aria.  In an aural image of the vivid physical gestures that were her trademark, Albanese follows the feverish pace of the conductor, audibly snatching breath at the end of phrases, not out of necessity, but in order to convey the physical distress of the tubercular heroine.

The Met has seen Violettas with creamier or more prodigious voices, but probably none more moving than Bori, Sayão, or Albanese.

Monday, March 16, 2015

New York City Opera Reborn?

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On March 9, 2015, we were at a benefit concert sponsored by NYCO Renaissance. The host organization attracted a large audience to celebrate the life and work of Julius Rudel and to raise funds for the rebirth of the New York City Opera. Founded in 1943, the City Opera folded in 2013 after an extended period of managerial and fiscal troubles.

The program dovetailed with City Opera’s original mission and with the repertoire that dominated when Rudel was general manager and principal conductor, the company’s “golden age,” 1957 to 1979. The second half of the program, in particular, featured young singers and American composers.
In acknowledgement of Rudel’s birthplace, Vienna, the program began with the overture to Die Fledermaus, conducted by Imre Palló, a rendition so detailed, so elegantly phrased that the familiar chestnut seemed reborn, a harbinger, we can only hope, for the company itself. And if the players, identified as the “New York City Opera Orchestra,” will indeed constitute its pit orchestra, we will have further cause to rejoice.

Outstanding among the younger artists was countertenor John Holiday who sang one of Caesar’s arias from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, recalling the unforgettable 1966 production that helped validate the company’s claim to a place in Lincoln Center. On that brilliant occasion, Beverly Sills, who you hear as Cleopatra in the clip that follows, was finally recognized as the star she had long been. She would go on to be the prima donna assoluta of the company until her retirement in 1979.

Soprano Joélle Harvey lofted floating pianissimos in an aria from La Clemenza di Tito, a Mozart work that Rudel led at City Opera several years before James Levine brought it to the Met. Here is Carol Vaness, who made her acclaimed company debut as Vitellia in that 1979 production. The recording dates from a 1989 performance in Chicago.


Other prospects for the new New York City Opera on the benefit program were tenor Joshua Guerrero who capped a zarzuela aria with ringing top notes, and baritone Michael Chioldi, a sonorous and idiomatic Scarpia in the “Te deum” from Tosca. Soprano Kristin Sampson offered the world premiere of a concert aria by Tobias Picker who was present at the benefit.

The first of the City Opera alumni to perform was the irrepressible Plácido Domingo, in the final baritone aria from Verdi’s Macbeth. He reminded the audience that it was he who opened the company’s first Lincoln Center season as the heroic tenor lead in Alberto Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo. Frederica von Stade was moving in excerpts from Ricky Ian Gordon’s A Coffin in Egypt and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. We hear her in the world premiere recording of Heggie’s opera.

The concert ended with the hopeful ensemble that concludes Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, “Make Our Garden Grow.”

The benefit sponsor, NYCO Renaissance, is one of two bidders for the rights to the “New York City Opera” name and to its scarce remaining assets. The other bidder is Gene Kaufman, an architect and opera aficionado whose organization, Opera New York, has put $1.5 million on the table, $250K beyond NYCO Renaissance’s offer. A hearing in Federal Bankruptcy Court about the two bids is scheduled for late April. 

Ironically, and alarmingly, just a week before the Rudel celebration, the Times reported  that the Metropolitan was obliged to pledge two of its bronze Maillol sculptures to renew a $30 million credit line for which it had already encumbered its Chagall murals. According to the report, the Met had suffered a loss of $21.9 million in the fiscal year ending July 2014 (see the featured article in the March 23, 2015 issue of the New Yorker for a detailed account of the Met’s current financial challenges). The juxtaposition of these two events, the NYCO fundraiser and the Met’s further borrowing difficulties, begs the question: Can New York, like London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Budapest, sustain more than one resident opera company, and if so, under what conditions? Necessary, if not sufficient, is a venue for the reborn City Opera much smaller and more acoustically friendly than the company’s former home at Lincoln Center, perhaps the Jazz at Lincoln Center Rose Theater proposed by NYCO Renaissance, the site of the recent gala concert. And equally necessary is a return to one of New York City Opera’s original missions, affordable ticket prices for the “People’s Opera” it was intended to be.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Gioacchino Rossini’s La Donna del Lago

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Earlier this year, the Metropolitan expanded its Rossini repertoire with the company premiere of La Donna del lago. The production will be broadcast on the radio and simulcast “Live in HD” on March 14, 2015. (Please see our post of February 27 for the fortunes of Rossini at the Met from its 1883 Il Barbiere di Siviglia, programmed in the very first season, to William Tell, forthcoming in 2016-17.)

La Donna del lago belongs to Rossini’s early and very productive Neapolitan period, 1814-1823, when the composer was engaged by the then premier Italian opera company, Naples’ Teatro San Carlo, as its music director. The work was completed in four months between June and October 1819. Rossini was then twenty-seven years old and already Italy’s most celebrated operatic composer. 
Just a few months earlier, the San Carlo had presented Rossini’s Ermione, based on Racine’s Phèdre, and three years before that, his Otello, based on Shakespeare, of course. In 1819, it was the turn of Walter Scott and of his long narrative poem published in 1810, The Lady of the Lake. Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto was the first to be adapted from Scotland’s wildly popular and very influential poet and novelist. It would not be the last. Most famously, Donizetti, Rossini’s bel canto contemporary, would be indebted to him for Lucia di Lammermoor.
The score designates La Donna del lago “melodramma,” thus aligning it with the theatrical genre that had come to define European Romanticism. The work’s musical values signal the composer’s determination to reset the conventions of the art form. At the start of Donna del lago, you will note this departure: the expected brilliant Rossini overture is replaced by a brief prelude, just sixteen measures long. (In fact, five of the composer’s Neapolitan operas have no overture.) Rossini chooses to thrust the listener into the very particular atmosphere of the opera whose initial choral scene evokes the sylvan lake setting of the Scottish highlands.

If the arias and duets show off the bravura of the performers, they also display a high degree of narrative purpose. Bravura and narrative purpose intersect emphatically in the Act II trio. Elena is adored by political enemies, both tenors. King James V of Scotland, going under the assumed name of Uberto, and his rival, the Highlander Rodrigo, face off with bellicose high C’s. This recording, made during a 1986 Paris concert, features three American singers who figured prominently in the Rossini revival of the late 20th century, soprano Lella Cuberli, and tenors Rockwell Blake and Chris Merritt.

Elena’s third suitor, the man whose love she reciprocates, is Malcolm, a “trouser role” sung by a contralto or mezzo-soprano. The aria, “Mura felici . . . o quante lagrime,” which demands exceptional agility and extraordinary range, was a favorite of Marilyn Horne, who interpolated it into the “Lesson Scene” of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Here, the Malcolm is the astonishing Lucia Valentini-Terrani; regrettably, she sang at the Met only four times.

The happy conclusion of La Donna del lago is Elena’s aria, “Tanti affetti.” Here is a preview of Joyce DiDonato’s rendition in the upcoming “Live in HD” simulcast; she deploys her full arsenal of embellishment to spectacular effect.