Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

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.