Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

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."