Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Return of William Tell

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Audiences of our time know Rossini best for his comic operas (opere buffe) composed for Italian theatres on Italian librettos--Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola, L’Italiana in Algeri. We are generally less familiar with Rossini’s opere serie (serious operas) of which Guillaume Tell (1829) is certainly the grandest. It also marked his farewell to the lyric stage.

By the 1820s, Paris was the center of the opera world and Rossini’s base of operations. Guillaume Tell was commissioned directly for the Paris Opéra and set to a French text. Two of his earlier opere serie had been premiered in Italy in Italian and then adapted into French for the Parisian stage (Maometto II [1820] became Le Siège de Corinthe [1827], Mosè in Egitto [1818] turned into Moïse et Pharaon [1828]). But it was Guillaume Tell that had a profound influence on what was to become known as le grand opera français. The genre demanded four or five acts, a historical subject, usually a revolt against political oppression (as in the legend of the Swiss hero William Tell who led the fight against the Austrian occupiers) or religious persecution (as in Halévy’s La Juive [1835] and Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots [1836]). Also expected were spectacular scenic effects, a significant role for the orchestra and chorus, and an extended ballet sequence during Act III, all to the measure of the rich resources of the French national theatre.

The Metropolitan first staged Guillaume Tell in its second season, 1884-1885, in German, at the start of the seven-year span when the entire repertoire was sung in that language. In 1894-1895 it was revived in Italian, and then again in Italian in 1923 in a shortened version, as had long been the custom. It was performed from time to time on Broadway and 39th Street until 1932, and then, not again, until this fall when it was finally presented by the Metropolitan in a nearly five-hour version, and in the original French. Of late, the opera has enjoyed a rebirth not only in New York but in major European houses—London, Paris, Munich, Turin, Bologna, Warsaw. One explanation for its absence is no doubt the difficulty of putting on so large scale and lengthy a piece, and the challenge of casting the leading tenor role. The memory of the work has been kept alive during the Met’s eighty-four-year hiatus by the final section of its often performed overture. Here the La Scala orchestra is conducted by Riccardo Muti.

The libretto of Guillaume Tell inserts romance into the early 14th-century narrative of popular uprising. In Act II, Mathilde, a Hapsburg princess, finds refuge in the “Sombre forêt (dark forest)” where she confesses her love for the Swiss Arnold. The aria is an example of the style Rossini continued to refine for his French audience. The soprano’s line calls for both legato and flexibility although less rigorous than the virtuosic florid singing dominant in the composer’s Italian works. In this clip from a complete recording of the opera, Montserrat Caballé negotiates the sinuous phrases with the luminous tone and soft attacks that are her trademark.

The composer cast Tell’s most extensive stretch of solo singing not as an “aria,” a set piece, but as an enhanced recitative integral to the “scene.” The turbulent episode of Tell’s arrest is followed by the feat that made him the stuff of legend: shooting the arrow through the apple perched on his son’s head, as ordered by the Austrian tyrant. In “Sois immobile,” itself a moment of stasis, of reflection, Tell instructs his son to be still. As you will hear, most of the unembellished music lies in the comfortable middle of the baritone range. The singer is Gabriel Bacquier.

In “Asile héréditaire (refuge of my birthplace)” the bereaved Arnold addresses his devastated home, laments the loss of his murdered father, and commits himself to rebellion against the Austrian oppressor. The aria repeatedly rises to the tenor’s high register; the rousing call to arms of the cabaletta repeatedly ascends to the stratospheric high C. Arnold was written for Adolphe Nourrit, the leading tenor of the Opéra, master of the voix mixte (mixed voice) that allowed for lightly attacked and sustained high notes. In 1836 Gilbert Duprez astounded Paris with stentorian high Cs, the “ut de poitrine,” and changed tenor technique forever. The despondent Nourrit, having failed in his attempt to conquer the new sound, jumped to his death from a Naples hotel window in 1839. The clip we have chosen features Juan Diego Flórez, a singer of exceptional grace, who easily masters the high tessitura of the aria.

The last excerpt is from a Paris performance of 2003. This is the transcendent finale, led by baritone Thomas Hampson: the Austrian despot is no more, the sun shines on the free Swiss people.

The Metropolitan Opera will not be screening its long awaited new production of Guillaume Tell “Live in HD.” Rossini’s opera will, however, be broadcast via radio on March 18, 2017.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

World War II and the Met Roster, 3: Ebe Stignani, the Absent Amneris

In June 2014 we published two posts centered on the impact of World War II on the Met roster, the first on June 11 and the other on June 21 (see our blog archive in the right-hand column). The Met's revival this fall of its well-worn 1988 Aïda (it is scheduled for live internet streaming on November 5) prompts us to tell the story of the extraordinary Italian mezzo-soprano, Ebe Stignani, whose Met debut in 1939 fell victim to impending hostilities.

That year the New York Times carried an article titled “Ten Italian Artists Detained in Italy” (October 6). According to the report, "officials of the company had gone to the Italian pier ... expecting to meet a contingent of singers, but none of the expected artists was on the boat.” Imagine their surprise! The Met was later informed that the singers were unable to secure passports. Among the ten, all of whom had already obtained visas from the US authorities, was Ebe Stignani. The next day, the Times offered this explanation: that several of the artists, including Stignani, had been booked for performances in Italy “and it is feared that should the war continue the artists might not be able to get passage back to Italy in time for their scheduled appearances.” Besides, should the US declare war, the singers might find themselves unable to return to Italy for the duration. So it was that Stignani did not fulfill her contract with the Met and New York audiences were deprived of an unforgettable Amneris, Aïda's Egyptian rival.

In this excerpt from a 1946 complete recording of Aida, Stignani is the despairing Amneris who realizes that she has brought the death sentence upon her beloved Radamès

We pick up the trail of Ebe Stignani and the Met in 1950, general manager Rudolf Bing’s first season. Verdi’s Don Carlo was the opening night bill. Months before, Bing had asked his friend, conductor Alberto Erede, to suggest a cast worthy of his inaugural production. In his reply to Bing of January 18, 1950, Erede recommended Renata Tebaldi or Delia Rigal, in that order, for Elisabetta, Boris Christoff or Cesare Siepi for King Philip, Giuseppe Taddei for Rodrigo, Mario Del Monaco for Carlo. Tebaldi was busy in San Francisco; Christoff was contracted, then denied a visa for suspected Communist sympathies. Bing eventually chose Robert Merrill for Rodrigo and Jussi Björling for Carlo. For the Countess Eboli, Erede was explicit in rejecting Stignani because of her age (she was then only forty-seven and in phenomenal voice) and because he doubted that “her appearance would be acceptable for an American audience,” although, he conceded, “she is still very good.” In all likelihood "appearance" weighed heavily in the rejection. Erede’s choice, Fedora Barbieri, was awarded the role.

Ebe Stignani did sing in the United States, but not nearly to the extent that opera fans would have wished: she gave a string of recitals in 1948, including one rapturously received in Carnegie Hall, was engaged by the San Francisco Opera in 1938 and 1948, by Philadelphia and Detroit in 1951, by Chicago in 1955. In a 1971 Opera News interview, Stignani responded to the question, “why did you never sing at the Met?” with, “I simply do not know. They did not call me again. Why talk about it?”

Right at the start, from the time of her 1925 debut, it was apparent that Stignani had one of the truly great voices of the 20th century. Toscanini engaged her for La Scala just a year later; she was a major star until her retirement in 1958. Featured in complete opera recordings of the 1930s and 1940s, she was the preferred mezzo opposite Maria Callas in many post-war albums, both pirated and commercial.

The phenomenal sound of Stignani, huge yet finely controlled, rich in harmonics and texture yet even in its registers, is best appreciated in her live recordings. It was the theatre, not the studio, that inspired her most compelling singing. Here she is in a 1953 La Scala performance of Il Trovatore. The tenor is Gino Penno, who sang briefly at the Met. The gypsy Azucena narrates first her mother’s death at the stake, then, her own horrific error when in a paroxysm of vengeance she mistakenly threw her own child into the blaze. Her expressive voice and diction made Stignani a great actress. The knowledgeable Milan audience, unable to restrain itself, begins its ovation before the aria is finished.

We end with an excerpt from the 1953 film adaptation of Aïda, starring a very young Sophia Loren in the title role, her voice dubbed by Renata Tebaldi, and the American actress Lois Maxwell lip-syncing Stignani's Amneris. In this scene (somewhat abridged), the Egyptian princess tricks her Ethiopian slave into confessing her love for the Pharaoh's general.