Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Centenary of Giacomo Puccini’s "Il Trittico"

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In just a few days, a century will have separated this season’s revival of Il Trittico from the evening of December 14, 1918 when the Metropolitan Opera thrilled to stage the world premiere of Puccini’s triptych, Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi. The lionized Puccini, the most celebrated opera composer of the time, was not in the theatre in 1918 as he had been in 1907 for the Met premieres of Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly and in 1910 for the world premiere of La Fanciulla del West. His new three one-act operas were scheduled to be staged a little more than a month after the Great War Armistice of November 11. Trans-Atlantic travel remained risky; Puccini thought it prudent to stay home.
The enthusiasm that preceded the gala event was short-lived when faced with the public and critical reception of two of the short works.  Il Tabarro, Puccini’s slice of proletarian life, his sole foray into the heart of verismo (see our post “What Is Verismo?”), was attacked for its squalid realism, for the paucity of lyric passages, and for the perceived monotony of the river motif that meanders through the score. Il Tabarro was heard for two seasons and then not again at the Met until the mid-1940’s. Suor Angelica was scorned as “over an hour of almost unrelieved female chatter”--despite  Geraldine Farrar’s moving portrayal of the heartbroken nun, torn from her illegitimate child and ultimately driven to suicide. She and her Sisters were banished from the Met stage for fifty-seven years. Gianni Schicchi, a hilarious demonstration of the composer’s farcical vein, cornered all the praise and was immediately welcomed into the company’s repertoire. It was paired with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei tre re, and more startlingly with Strauss’s Elektra and Salome and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

Puccini’s conception of Il Trittico as a unity, shattered at the Met after only two seasons, prevailed at last in 1975, and the three panels have not been parted since.* The composer himself was after opposition and sought the heightened charge resulting from the narrative and musical contrasts that define the trio. Critics have proposed structural and thematic keys to the “wholeness” of the triptych. Our own reading is a gloss on Puccini’s notion of contrast. In Il Trittico we have what amounts to a clash of genres: Il Tabarro, a melodrama, comes up against the tragedy of Suor Angelica which, in turn, is reversed by the comedy of Gianni Schicchi.

Geraldine Farrar as Suor Angelica

Florence Easton as Lauretta

Claudia Muzio and Giulio Crimi as Giorgetta and Luigi

The depiction of the misery and hopelessness of indigent barge workers on the Seine in Il Tabarro is punctuated by brief outbursts of rage and passion from the lovers, Luigi and Giorgetta. But the only true aria falls to the master of the barge, sung just before the opera’s melodramatic climax. Michele’s “Nulla, silenzio (Nothing, silence)” elevates the character to grandeur, so graphically portrayed by baritone Tito Gobbi. The aria traces the devastation felt by Michele through three stages—conjecture as to who is, in fact, the lover of his wife, Giorgetta, the imaginary capture and murder of his rival, and finally, the descent of the two men into the depths of the river, to the death that brings peace.

The most extended (thirteen minutes) confrontation in Il Trittico occurs at the center of Suor Angelica. Banished to the convent for bearing an illegitimate child, the unhappy nun has not heard from her family for seven years. Her aunt, the Zia Principessa, comes to secure her signature on a legal document. Angelica, desperate for news of her little boy, turns on her merciless tormentor. In this clip, Patricia Racette is Angelica, Ewa Podles the Zia Principessa. Contralto Podles unleashes the immense power of her`voice in this rendering of the implacable woman.


Upon learning of the death of her son, Angelica pours out her grief in “Senza mamma, o bimbo (Without your mother, o child).” Here is the wrenching Ermolena Jaho.

Gianni Schicchi, an ensemble piece, boasts the most familiar aria of Il Trittico. Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro (O, my beloved daddy)” has been, from the first night, beloved by audiences. We are here privy to the silvery timbre and early unaffected manner of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in a recording conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

The very original tenor aria, ”Firenze è come un albero fiorito (Florence is a flowering tree)” evokes Florence through its monuments, its florescence of arts and letters, and the vigor of the city’s newcomers, “la gente nova,” disdained by the old families. Rinuccio persuades his snobbish relatives to ask for the help of the clever Gianni Schicchi, the father of his beloved Lauretta. Vittorio Grigolo conveys the energy of the youth, and easily scales the heights of the tessitura.

·       * The one exception: Il Tabarro occupied the bill with Pagliacci for an opening night gala in 1994. Domingo was the Luigi, Pavarotti the Canio, and Teresa Stratas did double duty as Giorgetta and Nedda.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Così fan tutte: Bridging the "Buffo" and the "Serio"

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On March 15, 2018, the Metropolitan Opera launched its new production of Così fan tutte, the fifth setting in the company’s 135-year history of Mozart’s 1790 opera. Prior to the current season, the work had been performed by the Met nearly 200 times. By way of comparison, and as a measure of the place of Così fan tutte in the Met’s Mozart repertoire, the two other works based on Lorenzo Da Ponte’s librettos, Don Giovanni (see our post of Oct. 16, 2016) and Le Nozze di Figaro (see our post of Sept. 26, 2014), have been performed more frequently by a factor of almost three and more than two respectively.

 How to explain this discrepancy? One answer harkens back to the opera’s origins. Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century a cascade of blame fell on the libretto: cognoscenti charged it with triviality (the comedy hinges on the well-worn conceit of disguised identity) and, worse, with immorality (the plot tests the fidelity of women tempted by sexual desire).

The Met’s first production of Così (1921-1922) recorded box-office receipts well below average despite its critical success. The opera returned only in 1951, three decades after its premiere, to finally secure a place in the core repertoire. Until then, Mozart’s presence was generally limited to Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro, and Die Zauberflöte. Così, La Clemenza di Tito, and Idomeneo were rarities seen primarily, if at all, in festival programs.

 The opera has only six characters: two pairs of lovers, Ferrando and Dorabella, her sister, Fiordiligi and Guglielmo; the cynical libertine, Don Alfonso; and the sly Despina, maid to the two women. In a mocking retort to his young friends, dead certain of the constancy of their betrothed, Don Alfonso proposes an experiment. Ferrando and Guglielmo will feign departure for military service only to return disguised as Albanians, ready to court each other’s beloved.

 At first, Fiordiligi resists the advances of the false Ferrando. She declaims her resolve in the aria “Come scoglio (like a rock),” a bravura piece marked by leaps of ten and twelve notes that in the farcical context parodies the conventions of opera seria. In this 1983 recording, soprano Lucia Popp overcomes the challenges of “Come scoglio” with prodigious dexterity, range, and temperament.

Enchanted by Fiordiligi’s emphatic assertion of steadfast devotion to her betrothed, Ferrando sings meltingly of the power of love, “Un'aura amorosa (a breath of love).” Here is Léopold Simoneau, one of the foremost Mozart tenors of his generation. His refined art and sweet timbre are heard in a complete recording of the early 1950s that introduced a wider public to Così fan tutte.

The flighty Dorabella succumbs to a new love well before her sister. But by the middle of the second of the two acts, Fiordiligi, ridden by guilt at the prospect of betraying Guglielmo and filled with ardor for the disguised Ferrando, sings “Per pietà (I beseech you.)” We have chosen the affecting rendition of Sena Jurinac who was a key member of the great post-War Mozart ensembles in Vienna and Glyndebourne.

A comic opera, Così fan tutte ends happily--if ambiguously. Love triumphs. But love for whom? The joyous finale gives no clue whether order has been restored along with the original pairing of Fiordiligi and Guglielmo, Dorabella and Ferrando, or whether, switching partners, two new couples have been formed.

Over the decades, efforts to sanitize the tale of the risqué wager and its buffo-serio onsequences ranged from relatively minor emendations of the text to liberal tamperings with the plot to jettisoning Da Ponte’s libretto altogether and replacing it with another, all the while retaining Mozart’s magnificent score. In some instances, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, alert to the damnable charade, take their turn in tricking the tricksters. And in one extreme example, a libretto based on Calderón de la Barca was substituted for the original. That the faithless characters were women and not womanizers, such as Count Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro, stoked the claims of immorality and denied Fiordiligi and Dorabella the forgiveness of public opinion.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Parsifal: Succès de Scandale

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The year was 1903, the inaugural season of the Met’s new general manager. And the flamboyant Heinrich Conried was dead set on making a splash. What better way than to issue an extraordinary prospectus announcing the company premiere of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal (1882)?  And what would set off a bigger firestorm than a Christmas eve opening?  Cries of foul and shame emanated from musical, legal,and religious quarters on both sides of the Atlantic, originating at Wahnfried, the home of Cosima, Wagner’s widow, and finally descending on New York. Cosima’s imprecations, befitting her vocation as keeper of the flame, were fueled by the contention that the Metropolitan’s proposed staging was an outrageous violation of copyright law. Her attorneys went to work, arguing that the Met should be enjoined from producing the opera. The moral argument went like this: that playing Wagner’s Bühnenfestspiel (stage-consecrating festival drama) on an ordinary operatic platform was an act of heresy.

The New York Protestant establishment took the attack further, charging that the work itself was sacrilegious. From influential pulpits clergy held that the flower maidens were nothing other than a “red light legion,” the representation of the “Lord’s Supper” an “amusement for the sake of gain.”

The Parsifal case was ultimately dismissed on this simple legal finding: that the copyright did not extend to the United States. By the time the judge rendered his decision, preparations for Parsifal were well along. Most astounding had been the advance ticket sales, reputedly the greatest ever seen in New York. Weeks before the opening, the American Journal reported melodramatically, “Women Faint amid Crush for Seats to Parsifal. Many of Them Took Places in Line before Daylight and Were Too Weak to Reach the Window When It Was Opened.” Mail orders flooded in so thick and fast that their processing required a room of its own. Against odds of all sorts, Conried had brought off an operatic coup as memorable as any in the Metropolitan annals.

The premiere began at the unlikely hour of five o’clock. The doors were shut at the start of the prelude and, exceptionally, no one arrived late. A hush was reported to envelop the auditorium at the end of the almost two-hour-long act 1, in imitation of Bayreuth’s reverent response to the consecration of the Holy Grail, a practice that persisted at the Met well into the twentieth century.

Many returned in evening clothes for the second act, the flower maidens, Kundry’s attempted seduction of Parsifal, the spear arrested in midair, and the collapse of the castle of Klingsor, the reprobate knight. The audience erupted into a seven-minute ovation at the dramatic climax of Act 2. Similar receptions have greeted productions of Parsifal since. Here, for example, in a clip from a 1993 Berlin performance, is the overwhelming Kundry of Waltraud Meier, with Poul Elming.

Act 3 reverts to the ceremonial timelessness of the opening act. Here are the final minutes of the sublime “Good Friday” scene in which Parsifal, returning from his years of wandering, no longer “the guileless fool,” is baptized by Gurnemanz. The passage is drawn from a 2015 Berlin performance conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Gurnemanz is sung by bass René Pape, the present lead interpreter of the roleParsifal is Wolfgang Koch, Kundry is Anja Kampe.

The opera ends as Parsifal, the redeemer, armed with the spear that pierced Jesus on Calvary, releases Amfortas from his suffering, takes up the Holy Grail. and blesses the brotherhood of knights. In this clip from the 1981 Bayreuth Festival, conducted by Horst Stein, Siegfried Jerusalem is equal to the transcendent lyric and heroic utterances of Parsifal, the new King of the Grail.


Note: We provide a full account of the Met’s 1903 Parsifal in our book, Grand Opera: The Story of the Met. On February 17, 2018, this season’s Met Parsifal can be heard both streaming and on the radio.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Tosca: Set and Gesture

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In the years surrounding the advent of the twentieth century, when staging/direction became a hot topic in operatic debates, Tosca became the hottest item, at least at the Met, in the raucous tug-of-war between the traditionalists, at one extreme, and the devotees of European Regietheater, at the other. And when Peter Gelb kept his early promise to drive Franco Zeffirelli’s beloved dinosaur into extinction, the tug-of-war devolved into a pitched battle. Zeffirelli’s Tosca, newborn in 1985 and still kicking in 2006, was supplanted in 2009 by Swiss Luc Bondy’s severe riposte to his predecessor’s opulent decors and astounding scenic gestures. Bondy’s parry was drowned in boos that reverberated in furious notices. The noisy reception of those seated in the orchestra and the galleries, and even on Lincoln Center Plaza staring at the giant screen, could not be ignored. The audience was quick to exercise the prerogative of booing that is the signature privilege of operagoing (see our article, “Boo Who?” in the New York Times, September 26, 2009). 

The Tosca pendulum has swung once again. This year’s new production, directed by David McVicar (it can be seen “Live in HD” on January 27, 2018), returns to a conventional evocation of Roman sites and to the conventional gestures of the well-worn melodrama. Principal among the familiar trappings is, arguably, the knife with which Floria Tosca stabs Baron Scarpia to death, a moment fans await with anticipation at every performance. When and how will the soprano eye and wield her weapon?

No Tosca is better remembered at this riveting juncture than Maria Callas who, on November 25, 1956, performed the murderous act before an extraordinary public. Millions of spectators were witness to her gesture when she appeared live on U.S. network television. The Callas Tosca was so newsworthy that Ed Sullivan, host of the most popular variety show, allotted a full sixteen minutes to the Greek-American singer and Canadian baritone George London for the Act II duel-to-the-death of the antagonists. The video clip below preserves the crackling encounter of these two singing-actors, as compelling today as it was more than a half-century ago. Tosca has agreed to the police chief’s proposal to free her lover in exchange for sexual favors. To steady her nerves, she drinks a glass of wine; her hand grazes a knife; she understands what she must do; she hesitates, then plants the weapon in his heart. Callas is in her most incisive voice as Tosca hurls her fury at the dying Scarpia.

Eight years after the Ed Sullivan segment, in 1964, near the end of her operatic career, Callas sang Tosca in a Zeffirelli production mounted for her at London’s Royal Opera. Her baritone was longtime colleague Tito Gobbi. Here, again, are the final moments of the Tosca-Scarpia clash. The lascivious Scarpia, writing the deceptive safe-conduct pass for Tosca and her lover, eroticizes his quill pen. Callas has further refined her resolve to attack her nemesis. She sees the knife, stares fixedly at the blade, and at the last moment, she turns to deliver the fatal blow.

The power of these familiar bits of stagecraft, executed with so much conviction and originality by Callas, George London, and Gobbi, put to shame Luc Bondy’s directorial eccentricities: Scarpia kissing a statue of the Virgin on the mouth in Act I; three prostitutes ministering to Scarpia’s pleasures in Act II; Tosca remaining onstage at the end of Act II rather than making her stunning exit, in tandem with Puccini’s musical cues.

Due in large measure to the widely publicized feud between world-class divas Callas and Renata Tebaldi, opera in general and Tosca in particular enjoyed a high media profile in the late 1950s. The title role figured prominently in the repertoires of both stars. Tebaldi, costumed as Tosca, made the cover of Time (November 3, 1958) in celebration of her Met opening night in the Puccini work; Callas had her own Time cover (October 29, 1956) just prior to her New York debut.

TIME Magazine Cover: Maria Callas - Oct. 29, 1956 - Opera - Singers -...

We have chosen Tebaldi’s rendition of Tosca’s famous aria. “Vissi d’arte (I lived for art)” offers a contemplative interlude amidst of the unremitting tension of Act II. Why, the distraught heroine asks, has God so unjustly rewarded her devotion and good works? Among the legendary interpreters of Tosca was Maria Jeritza. She owed her 1922 meteoric ascension to New York stardom to a stunning invention: she sang “Vissi d’arte” face down on the stage floor. In 1975 it was Magda Olivero’s turn. She tracked the arc of the music: first bent backwards over a divan, she stood and reached her full height as the climactic phrase attained its peak, then fell to her knees as she begged for Scarpia’s mercy (see our posts of September 9 and September 16, 2014). Still, most sopranos rely on minimal gesture and let Puccini do his work. This is Tebaldi’s way. She intones the broad swaths of the composer’s melody with the famously warm timbre that serves the fervor of Tosca’s prayer. The clip that follows is drawn from a 1959 U.S. television program.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

What Is Verismo?

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Verismo (trans. Realism) was and remains the brand affixed to a style adopted by a generation of Italian composers of opera from 1890 to the first decades of the twentieth century. The movement was an outgrowth of late nineteenth-century French literary Realism and Naturalism and their expression in the fiction of the Sicilian Giovanni Verga, infused as it was with local color, the regional vernacular, and the quotidian of impoverished folk.

This long-standing brand, however handy, is widely acknowledged as problematic. True, its several attributes adhere easily to Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (1890, see our posts of April 17, April 23, and May 2, 2015), the first and emblematic opera of the manner. Based on a Verga short story, the rural southern Italian characters and locale, the rapidity of action and violent denouement, carry the signs of the new style. But Cavalleria’s successors, with the exception of Pagliacci (1892), Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s short opera often paired with Mascagni’s one-acter, rarely subscribe to the plots and sites of Realism/Naturalism. In fact, veristic operas fit uncomfortably under a single narrative umbrella. Verismo applies fittingly to the plebeian mezzogiorno of Cavalleria and Pagliacci, but not at all well to the ancien régime of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (1893), to the classist orientalism of his Madama Butterfly (1904), or to the contemporary European nobility of Umberto Giordano’s Fedora (1898).

Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur (1902) provides us another salient example. This title, too, strays far from the geographic, temporal, and socio-economic boundaries of Verismo’s foundational meaning. The opera’s libretto first situates the drama of the historical 18th-century tragedienne, Adrienne Lecouvreur, backstage at the Comédie Française. A sumptuous ballroom is the arena for the Act Three face-off between Adriana and the Principessa di Bouillon, her rival in love. As you will see and hear in this excerpt from a 2000 La Scala performance, the composer melds a neo-Classical ballet pastiche and his leading lady's spoken monologue from Racine's 
Phèdre with a contrasting orchestral comment and violent vocal interjections typical of Verismo. Adriana is Daniela Dessì; the Principessa is Olga Borodina.

A far less ambiguous label than Verismo is la giovane scuola (the young school), a contemporary term that defined the group of these post-Verdi Italian composers: Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Cilea,
Umberto Giordano, and most significantly, Puccini. They favored the short aria, the arioso. To the relief of singers and record companies, Verismo embraced excerptable pieces designed to invite applause and timed to the capacity of early records. The two-part structure of the bel canto aria, the slow cavatina capped by the fast cabaletta embellished with intricate fioritura and stratospheric high notes, and the grand statements of Verdi’s late period gave way to a shorter-breathed and shorter-ranged solo. Loris’s declaration of love in Act Two of Giordano’s Fedora, “Amor ti vieta” (Love forbids), lasts less than two minutes. The piece calls for a range under an octave and no agility at all. Mario Lanza’s way with this memorable melody turns the arioso into a showstopper.

The greater informality in musical structure advanced by la giovane scuola was joined to passages of colloquial, quasi-conversational exchange between and among characters. In the final minutes of Act Two of La Fanciulla del West, Puccini provides an unforgettable instance of just such rhetoric. In Gold-Rush California, Minnie plays poker for the life of her beloved Dick Johnson. Her opponent is the lustful sheriff Jack Rance. Puccini invests everyday vocabulary and brief utterances with the high drama of desperate love.

Here is a sample of the rapid-fire dialogue:

Rance: I’m ready. You cut.
Minnie: Two hands out of three.
R: How many cards?
M: Two.
R: But what about him makes you love him so much?
M: What do you see in me? What have you got?
R: A king.
M: A king.
R: Jack.
M: Queen.
R: You won. Play the next hand.
     Two aces and a pair.
M: Nothing

At the end of the act, Minnie, who has cheated at cards in a last-ditch effort to save Johnson, revels in her triumph.

Here is the poker scene from a November 1982 performance at Covent Garden. Carol Neblett, the recently deceased American soprano, is Minnie; Rance is the Italian baritone Silvano Carroli.