Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Friday, February 26, 2016

Manon Lescaut Refashioned

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On January 18, 1907, Giacomo Puccini, by then an international celebrity, made a delayed entrance into the theater on Broadway and 39th Street. The high seas that held up the liner on which he had sailed were to blame for his late appearance. The Metropolitan premiere of his Manon Lescaut was already well underway. Spotted by the audience at the first act intermission, he was saluted with a fanfare and then an ovation insistent to the point that he was obliged to leave his box so that the show could go on. Puccini’s stock in New York had risen rapidly in the wake of the 1900–01 Met premieres of La Bohème and Tosca. Scarcely a month after the first night of Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly premiered as well, prepared under the composer’s stern eye. While Puccini was pleased with the Met’s Manon Lescaut and with the performance of the star, Lina Cavalieri, he was decidedly unhappy with its Madama Butterfly and with Geraldine Farrar’s Cio-Cio-San. Farrar would nevertheless go on to be the most frequent and beloved Butterfly in the company’s history.
Three years later, in 1910, on its first tour abroad, the Met brought to Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet its very best, including Manon Lescaut, with Enrico Caruso as Des Grieux. In deference to Jules Massenet and to his French Manon, composed in 1884, nine years before the Italian Manon Lescaut, and based on the same text, Abbé Prevost’s 1731 novel, the opera had never before been heard In France. (We recount in its detail the nationalistic uproar aroused by the Met’s foray into Paris in our book, Grand Opera: The Story of the Met.)
On March 5, 2016, the Met’s new production of Manon Lescaut, the sixth in the company’s history, will be simulcast “Live in HD” on screens across the globe. We were in the house for the second performance, on February 15. Like many in the audience, we were disappointed that the scheduled tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, had had to cancel due to illness. He was replaced by Roberto Alagna who had only a couple of weeks to prepare for his role debut in this particularly challenging part. As disappointing as Kaufmann’s absence were the sets by Rob Howell and the direction of Sir Richard Eyre. The decision to move the action from 18th century Amiens, then Paris, then Le Havre, and finally to Louisiana, as the text makes explicit, to mid-20th-century France under the German Occupation, ostensibly for the benefit of a 21st-century audience, turns out to have been misguided at best. Without attention to narrative coherence, the updating of costumes and props (here in any case strangely cartoonish) is not convincing justification for the transposition of time and environment. But we leave a more exacting appreciation of the many missteps of the production to those of our readers who have yet to witness this most recent of Peter Gelb’s imports, this time from Baden Baden.
For a sense of what New Yorkers missed, here is Kaufmann, not on the Met stage, but recently at London’s Covent Garden in Des Grieux’s opening aria, “Donna non vidi mai (Never have I seen a woman),” Puccini’s passionate expression of young love at first sight.
Des Grieux, falling instantly in love, persuades Manon to run off with him at the end of Act I. But by the beginning of Act II, the flighty, mercenary Manon, who has taken up with a rich sugar-daddy, expresses regret for having left her penniless, handsome young chevalier. She contrasts the cold luxury provided by Geronte, her protector, with the humble warmth of the love nest she shared briefly with Des Grieux. Here Eileen Farrell sings “In quelle trine morbide (In these soft laces).” Dramatic soprano Farrell, who never sang the role of Manon, tapers her enormous voice to express, with utter simplicity, the young woman’s regret.

The highlight of Act II is Manon and Des Grieux’s passionate love duet of reconciliation. In spring 1956 Licia Albanese and Jussi Björling sang two incandescent performances of Manon Lescaut at the Met under the inspired direction of Dimitri Mitropoulos. The excitement they generated is preserved in a commercial recording made at the same time. 

In the opera’s final act, Manon, dying of thirst and exhaustion, sings the despairing “Sola, perduta, abbandonata (Alone, lost, abandoned).” In summer 1970, we were present in Verona’s vast arena where Magda Olivero so thrilled the audience that, at the opera’s end, the public rushed onto the stage to surround the legendary diva. She had sung the aria lying head-down on a steeply raked incline!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Maria Stuarda, Donizetti's Scottish Queen

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On February 20, 2016, the Metropolitan will broadcast the matinee of Maria Stuarda across the country and beyond via radio. The Met premiere of this 1835 work by Gaetano Donizetti took place in 2012, almost one hundred and eighty years after it was composed. The star of that occasion was Joyce DiDonato who scored a stunning success for herself and for the company. The previous season, 2011-2012, it was Anna Netrebko who played Donizetti’s queen in Anna Bolena (1830), and who collected equally enthusiastic reviews.
This current season has seen the revivals of both Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena, and will see the Met premiere of Donizetti’s third “Tudor” opera, Roberto Devereux (1837), to be simulcast “Live in HD” on April 16, 2016. For the first time since Beverly Sills took on the challenge of all three Donizetti queens (Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII; Mary, Queen of Scots, the daughter of James V of Scotland; and Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry and Boleyn) at the at the New York City Opera in the 1970s, all three will be played by the same artist, Sondra Radvanovsky.
Only Maria Stuarda has been sung by both sopranos and mezzo-sopranos, in the case of the Met by mezzo DiDonato and this year by soprano Radvanovsky. A comparison of Beverly Sills in the nostalgic Act I aria and its agitated cabaletta, “O nube!...nella pace del mesto riposo,” with Janet Baker singing the same aria, gives a sense of the distance between this piece sung by a high soprano and by a mezzo. Baker takes the aria and cabaletta a half-step lower, and more obviously, Sills’ top notes are significantly higher and her embellishments far more intricate. That the Sills version is in the original Italian and the Baker in English only adds to the contrast. Were it Radvanovsky, a dark-voiced spinto soprano, in the place of Sills, the opposition would be less acute.

We were in the house on February 1 for this season’s second performance of Maria Stuarda. As Maria, Radvanovsky met the formidable role with lustrous timbre, a dynamic range from silvery, floated pianissimo to rich, thunderous fortissimo, a thorough understanding of the bel canto style, and compelling acting. Sir David McVicar’s traditional staging was marred by his decision to endow Elizabeth with a pronounced limp and a masculine manner that flirted with caricature. The sumptuous costumes of John Macfarlane compensated somewhat for the drab sets.

We signal two other productions of this work. We saw the first, a transmission of a 2008 La Scala performance in high definition, on a New York movie screen. The Maria Stuarda, Mariella Devia, an acknowledged exemplar of bel canto singing, and the Elisabetta, Maria Caterina Antonacci, a riveting singing actress, are equal to the high tension Donizetti supplied in this ahistorical meeting of the two queens. Here, in the final moments of Act I, Maria, no longer able to bear the humiliation meted out by Elisabetta, hurls the unforgivable insult that her cousin is the illegitimate daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. 

The other performance we recall here is one we attended at Berlin’s Staatsoper in October 2006. If we complain above about the current Metropolitan design and direction, about its bland and entirely forgettable sets and sometimes misguided staging, we hasten to note that what made the German production memorable is better forgotten. The overture was played not by the orchestra clearly visible in the pit but by an antiquated, scratchy disc that turned on a decrepit record player. Our fear was that the whole of the score would be heard thus. But, happily, no. The orchestra finally took over and the singers sang live. The production was based on the premise that the titanic late-16th-century battle royal between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots could be best understood by a contemporary audience as a version of the sibling rivalry between the aged sisters of the 1962 movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The Bette Davis-like costume of the English queen, her smeared lipstick, her long braids, her sadism, and Mary’s Joan Crawford-like wig and outsized eyelashes, the wheelchair she leaves only for her bed or to crawl about on the floor are unmistakable signs of the production’s debt to Hollywood iconography. As you will see in this clip from the Berlin production, the Protestant Elizabeth has the last absurd gesture: she slits the Catholic Mary’s throat with a crucifix. The excellent soprano is Elena Mosuc.