Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Salome: She Danced But One Night

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.

On December 17, 2016, the Metropolitan Opera will broadcast over radio its Saturday afternoon performance of Richard Strauss’s  Salome. Salome has held its own in the Met’s repertoire since 1934. It is, of all of the composer’s operas, second only to Der Rosenkavalier in number of performances put on by the company, and far ahead of ElektraDie Frau ohne SchattenArabella (see our posts of April 14, 2014 and December 6, 2016), and the rare Capriccio and Die Agyptische Helena. But between its premiere on January 16, 1907 and its return on January 13, 1934, it was entirely absent from the 39th Street stage. Here is the story.

The Met general manager was Heinrich Conried, born in Silesia. He had worked in the theater in Berlin as an actor and stage manager, and had emigrated to the U.S. as a young man. Conried had come to work in the bustling world of German theatre in New York. In 1903, after significant success in creating a German repertory company, he was appointed Met general manager with no experience and precious little knowledge of grand opera.

In the summer of 1906, Conried found himself in Dresden where he attended a performance of Strauss’s recently completed one-act opera, Salome, based on Oscar Wilde’s notorious French play. On his return to New York, Conried corresponded with the famously greedy Strauss for the rights to perform Salome at the Met, rights that Strauss granted for an exorbitant fee. Conried had the bad judgment to schedule a semi-public dress rehearsal on a Sunday in January, at about the time the audience of socialites and critics would be arriving at the theater straight from their devotions in church. His Salome, Olive Fremstad, was a fiercely engaged performer, bent on as realistic a depiction of her characters as possible. She had taken the trouble to visit the city morgue to ascertain the weight of a human head so as to carry the severed head of John the Baptist, made of paper maché, and resembling the baritone who played the role of the Prophet, with the requisite effort.

At the rehearsal, Fremstad proceeded to the lip of the stage, as the press reported, to “kiss the gelid lips” of John. She played the whole of the role of the depraved daughter of Herodias in the same spirit. Two days later, at the first performance, Fremstad repeated her act, with only somewhat less fervor. Nonetheless, as was reported, women swooned, men left their seats during “The Dance of the Seven Veils,” and the Executive Committee of the Met board, headed by J. P. Morgan, was up in arms. The board met to vote unanimously that the remaining scheduled performances be cancelled, despite the protestations of Conried and others. And so Salome danced just once on the Met stage before she was banned for twenty-seven years. What would Morgan and his cronies have thought of the 2004 performances in which Karita Mattila stood in the altogether, having shed the last of her seven veils?

This Saturday’s Salome is Patricia Racette. The list of nearly thirty Met singers who have essayed the arduous role of the Judaean princess spans a wide gamut of female voices, from mezzos Grace Bumbry and Maria Ewing to lyric Catherine Malfitano. Fremstad was a dramatic soprano. Among the other Brünnhildes and Isoldes who lent their heroic timbre to Salome have been Marjorie Lawrence, Astrid Varnay, Hildegard Behrens, Gwyneth Jones, and the dominant Wagnerian of the second half of the 20th century, Birgit Nilsson. The composer, who himself wished that Salome be sung by a youthful voice, tried to persuade Elisabeth Schumann to perform it, and even offered to alter the orchestration and transpose a number of passages. Schumann, the ideal light, high soprano for his Rosenkavalier Sophie, wisely declined. One Met star, Teresa Stratas, had the ideal sound and temperament, if not the volume. She never sang the role on stage. But she did commit her compelling portrayal to video. Here are two excerpts from the final scene, conducted by Strauss specialist, Karl Böhm.

We conclude with the art of the sensational Bulgarian soprano, Ljuba Welitsch. Her debut as Salome in 1949 set off one of loudest and longest ovations in Met history. Welitsch’s voice, at once crystalline and warm, cuts through the galvanic instrumentation to convey the youth and the sexual frenzy of Salome with unflagging power. Here are the final moments from a commercial recording made in the 1940s.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Arabella 2: More Angels in Vienna

Two-and-a-half years ago, in a post of April 14, 2014, we promised a continuation of  the discussion of Richard Strauss' Arabella, a promise we keep belatedly for operaphiles of all stripes and for Straussians in particular (please see Arabella 1: Angels in Vienna in our blog archive in the right-hand column).

No retrospective of Arabella, however selective, can fail to acknowledge Viorica Ursuleac and Lotte Lehmann, favorites of the composer. Bitter rivals, they each coveted the 1933 Dresden world premiere. Strauss wanted Clemens Krauss to conduct; Ursuleac, Frau Krauss, was part of the deal. Lehmann had to settle for introducing this Viennese opera to Vienna. Both singers had voices more hefty than the lyric and spinto sopranos who have taken on the role since the 1950s. Despite their heroic sound, Ursuleac and Lehmann connect deeply to the modern Arabella, a young woman who exercises her courage not on mythological mountaintops but in the habitats of 19th-century society. Ursuleac, with the first Mandryka, Alfred Jerger, and her husband-conductor, recorded the end of Act III at the time of the premiere. Through the awful sonics you can hear her resplendent top and her expressive diminuendo.

Also at that time, Lotte Lehmann recorded the Act I monologue, “Mein Elemer”; here she displays her uniquely passionate tone and crystalline diction.

We cannot end this post without putting in a word for the often neglected Josef Metternich. The Met was rich in great baritones in the mid-1950s: Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Ettore Bastianini, George London. Metternich was there as well, but for just three seasons—twenty-three performances between 1953 and 1956, predominantly in Verdi roles. Although he received generally excellent notices, he never approached the popularity of his superstar colleagues. Metternich sang Mandryka to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s Arabella in the album referenced in our 2014 post. In Mandryka’s semi-solo scene in Act I (Theodor Schlott sings the few lines allotted to Arabella’s father), Metternich is master of the shifting rhetoric of the piece; his splendid, bright instrument deftly navigates this difficult test of rhythm and range with propulsive energy.

New York never heard Metternich in Arabella, perhaps because the opera was sung in English, and not in the original German, when he was with the company. He shows off his Italianate legato in this 1953 German-language rendition of the "Prologo" of Pagliacci.