Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Dialogues des Carmélites: Poulenc’s Magnum Opus

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In May 11, 2019, the Met “Live in HD” will present this season’s revival of the company’s long-lived and beloved production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. The design and direction were new in 1977 when the Met introduced Poulenc’s work into its repertoire. Forty-two years and eight revivals later, it is one of the company’s oldest extant productions and Dialogues the most often performed opera composed in the second half of the 20th Century. 
Poulenc’s subject had a long, circuitous, and highly unusual genesis, originating in a tragic episode of the Reign of Terror related in a 19th-century memoir by Mère Marie de l’Incarnation, a Carmelite nun who had survived the destruction of the her convent and the execution of its religious community during the French Revolution. The memoir served as the source for a 1931 novella, “The Last on the Scaffold,” by German author Gertud von Le Fort. In its turn, the novella inspired a film scenario for which the celebrated novelist, Georges Bernanos, was commissioned in 1947 to write the dialogue. His text was subsequently adapted for the theater. The play was first staged in Germany in 1951 and then in France in 1953. Urged by his publisher to undertake a project for which he had well-known deep affinities, Poulenc completed the libretto and score of Dialogues des Carmélites in 1955. The opera was premiered in 1957 at Milan’s La Scala in Italian, in accord with the composer’s dictate that the text be sung in the vernacular of the audience.

Dialogues des Carmélites traces the spiritual journey of Blanche de la Force (an invention of von Le Fort), a young aristocrat, from the eve of the French Revolution to the darkest days of the Terror. Act I defines the morbidly fearful Blanche as she determines to leave her ancestral home in search of refuge in a Carmelite convent. The Old Prioress of the religious order, the high-born Madame de Croissy, cautions Blanche that the convent is not a refuge but a house devoted to prayer. In the complete recording of the cast of the 1957 Opéra de Paris premiere, we hear Denise Duval as Blanche and Denise Scharley as Madame de Croissy. Duval created the leading soprano roles in Poulenc’s three operas, the last two, Dialogues des Carmélites and La Voix humaine composed specifically with her voice and artistry in mind. Although mezzo-soprano Scharley never sang in North America, she pursued an active European career. Her sensational Madame de Croissy is at once commanding in her declamation of the rigorous rule of the order and tender towards the fragile, new postulant.


At the close of Act I, Blanche is witness to the agony of the dying Madame de Croissy and to the blasphemous imprecations of the woman who had been for so many a model of piety.
In Act II, the New Prioress, Madame Lidoine, evokes her own humble birth as she exhorts the nuns to humility in the face of the imminent Terror. She exhorts them also to shun the temptation of martyrdom, a diversion from the duty of prayer. Régine Crespin, she too a member of the first Paris cast, renders the forthright message of her extended monologue with her characteristic creamy timbre.

In Act III, the New Prioress comforts the congregation, imprisoned in the Conciergerie while awaiting the guillotine. She assents to the collective vow of martyrdom, reminding her flock that, in the Garden of Olives, Christ himself knew the fear of death. The sumptuous voice of Jessye Norman fills that phrase with overwhelming feeling.

The opera’s finale enacts the execution of the Carmelites. They sing in a chorus of diminishing numbers the serene prayer, “Salve Regina,” punctuated by the brutal sound of the falling blade as one by one each goes to her death. At the very end, Blanche, who had escaped arrest, and whose fear of life and death runs through the narrative, joins her sisters as the last to ascend the scaffold and the last to be heard. The unforgettable emotional charge of the scene is realized through the unflinching depiction of the horrific event and the joy of spiritual transcendence that flows from the protagonist, finally free of her own terrors. This video is excerpted from a recent South American production.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Wagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: III, Other Voices

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In the first of three linked posts ( we undertook a fleeting review of the dramatic soprano during the fourth and last Wagnerian Golden Age at the Metropolitan Opera. The second post (Wagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: II, The Heroic Tenor) was devoted to the Heldentenor, and specifically to Lauritz Melchior. In the third and last post of the series we turn our attention to other voices that drew clamoring audiences to 39th Street and Broadway during the brilliant Wagnerian decade of the 1930s--the Jugendlich dramatischer (literally the young dramatic soprano), the dramatic mezzo, and the Heldenbariton (the heroic baritone).

The Jugendlich dramatischer is endowed with a lyric instrument suited to the gentler vocal demands placed on Elsa, Elisabeth, and Eva, the heroines of Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, and Die Meistersinger. Her repertoire extends to Mozart’s Contessa and Verdi‘s Aïda. So it was for the versatile Elisabeth Rethberg who took on nearly thirty German, Italian, and French roles at the Met. We hear her in a 1932 recording as Elsa in Act I of Lohengrin. A warm yet silvery sound and limpid legato suffuse her recital of the dream in which a virtuous knight comes to her rescue.

Another remarkable Jugendlich of the time, Lotte Lehmann, yearned to sing Isolde, one of the great Hoch dramatischer roles. But she understood that while dramatic sopranos might poach in the precinct of the lyric soprano, the reverse was fraught with peril. She feared for the survival of her voice. In this 1930 recording she lent her passionate temperament to the “Liebestod” but never sang the whole of Isolde’s long and arduous part.

The Wagnerian dramatic mezzo sometimes ventures into lead soprano territory—Ortrud in Lohengrin, Kundry in Parsifal—but is most often obliged to content herself with important yet secondary parts. Here is Kerstin Thorborg whose rock-solid technique fills out Brangäne’s exceptionally long phrases as she warns the adulterous Tristan and Isolde of the danger that awaits them.

Friedrich Schorr was the undisputed dominant Heldenbariton of the interwar period. In New York and elsewhere he was called on to sing Wotan (three “Ring” operas), Amfortas (Parsifal), Kurwenal (Tristan und Isolde), the Dutchman (Der Fliegende Holländer), and Hans Sachs (Die Meistersinger). In this 1927 recording, he applies his sweet tone and silken phrasing to Wolfram’s hymn to the Evening Star from the last act of Tannhäuser.

Rethberg, Lehmann, Thorborg, Schorr, and the other artists mentioned in our two previous posts formed a constellation surrounding the two most luminous stars, Flagstad and Melchior. There is not today, nor has there been since 1950, a roster of singers sufficient to sustain a Wagnerian golden age at the Met or, indeed, anywhere.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Wagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: II, The Heroic Tenor

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In our last post (, we undertook a fleeting review of the dramatic soprano during the fourth and last Wagnerian Golden Age at the Metropolitan Opera. During the first of these, 1884-1891, all opera at the Met was sung in German and Lilli Lehmann was the company’s prima donna assoluta; the second, 1895-1901, was dominated by the leading tenor of his time, Jean de Reszke and sopranos Lehmann and Lillian Nordica. New Yorkers owed the third, 1903-1917, to conductors Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini, and sopranos Olive Fremstad and Johanna Gadski. Our focus here, as it was in our previous post and will be in our next, is on the fourth, the 1930s and 1940s. We devote the present installment to the Heldentenor. We should add that since the middle of the 20th century, there have, of course, been extraordinary Wagnerian singers (Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers to name only two), but there has not been a cohort strong enough to stand side by side with the earlier eras of Wagnerian excellence, the last of which closed circa 1950.

In 1926, just as electrical recording technology began to do justice to the power and refinement of great Wagnerian voices, Lauritz Melchior made his Met debut as Tannhäuser. At first, the young Dane created only a modest impression. The Herald Tribune wrote, “An improved variety of that disheartening species, the Wagner tenor.” In his first two seasons with the company, Melchior appeared a scant seven times, then took a year’s sabbatical. It was not until the 1932-1933 season and the advent of a fabulous partner, soprano Frida Leider, that reviewers recognized his unique instrument and surpassing gifts. Melchior became the leading Wagner tenor of the 1930s and 1940s, and in retrospect, indisputably the greatest Heldentenor of the 20th century. Kirsten Flagstad, to be sure, was the foremost Hoch Dramatischer, but Leider, Marjorie Lawrence, Helen Traubel, and Astrid Varnay attest to the deep well of ranking sopranos in this period. Melchior had the field to himself: more than 500 performances between that 1926 Tannhäuser and his final Lohengrin in 1950. By a wide margin, he holds the house record for every one of Wagner’s Heldentenor roles.

As we hear in countless commercial recordings and transcriptions of live performances, Melchior’s voice rides above the wave of the composer’s massive orchestration all the while taking the measure of passages of lyric tenderness. With a rock-solid lower octave, a legacy of the first five years of his career when he sang as a baritone, Melchior negotiates the top of the range with unparalleled stamina, brilliant timbre, and clarity of dictionHere, in a live 1941 broadcast conducted by Toscanini, are the final minutes of Act I of Die Walküre. Having at last revealed his identity to Sieglinde, his sister and soon-to-be lover, Siegmund draws the sword his father, the god Wotan, had embedded deep into an ash tree. The titanic feat finds expression in Melchior's unstinting delivery of the high-lying phrases. Traubel is the Sieglinde.

When Melchior and Flagstad starred together in the late 1930s, the Met’s box-office receipts soared. Their most popular draw was Tristan und Isolde. Little wonder that the exacting maestro Toscanini dubbed Melchior “Tristanissimo.” This 1939 recording of the end of the “love duet”lustrates how stunningly matched were Melchior and Flagstad, the quality of their huge, beautiful voices, a breath span that enables both to easily encompass the longest phrases.

We see and hear Melchior live on television in 1951 in Lohengrin's Act III narration. The "Swan Knight" explains the mystery of his name and provenance. At the age of sixty-one, the tenor sustains the long phrases with the bright metal of his voice intact.

p.s. In the mid-1940s, Melchior curtailed his Met performances and began to enjoy success in Hollywood movies as an amiable, avuncular character actor. In Two Sisters from Boston (1946), one of four films he made for M-G-M, he sings Walter’s melodious “Prize Song” from Die Meistersinger, a Wagner opera not in his New York repertoire. The sequence frames a comic reconstruction of an early 1900s acoustical recording session. The two characters who appear at the beginning are played by June Allyson and Jimmy Durante.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Wagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: I, The Dramatic Soprano

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In April and May 2019 the Met will revive Robert Lepage’s clunky and famously derided production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. Wagnerites avid for this monumental music-drama have every reason to look forward to Christine Goerke in the lynch-pin role of Brünnhilde. And yet, despite this return of the tetralogy, compared with past eras, the Wagner fare remains sparse. The opening decade of the 21st century saw an average of fewer than three works by Wagner per season; in each of the four seasons ending with 2017-2018, audiences had to be content with only one. The golden age of Wagner at the Metropolitan is long past.

A golden age of any slice of the repertoire is dependent on the profusion of gifted voices suited to the style and to the commitment of management to their frequent display: at the Met, French opera in the “Gilded Age,” bel canto since the 1961 debut of Joan Sutherland Slavic opera for nearly two decades beginning in 1990. The Met’s dedication to Wagner between 1932 and 1950 was astonishing. In this period, a minimum of seven Wagner operas were programmed most seasons. A Wagnerite could often count on at least one “Ring” cycle, an Easter Parsifal, and Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde, and Meistersinger, a bounty greater than that offered pilgrims to Bayreuth in any given summer. And essential to the profusion of performances, the Met could call upon a deep cadre of singers capable of meeting the gold standard with consistency. At the close of the 1940s, and given inevitable departures, a fabulous Wagnerian era came to an end, ceding center stage to Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini. In a series of posts devoted to specific voice types, we will evoke a remarkable epoch when Wagner ruled at the Met. We begin with the Hoch dramatischer, the dramatic soprano entrusted with Brünnhilde and Isolde.

It all began with the demise of the Chicago Civic Opera. A victim of the Great Depression, the prestigious company released its roster of stars in 1932. Chicago’s loss was New York’s gain. Frida Leider, acknowledged as the foremost Wagnerian dramatic soprano of the day, came to the Met. Here she sings the last minutes of the “Ring,” Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene, in a 1927 Berlin recording, conducted by Leo Blech. Exceptional are the warmth of Leider’s timbre, the precision of her attacks (fearless at the top of her range), and her moving reading of the text, the climax of Wagner’s fifteen-hour-long narrative.

Leider’s presence in the Met’s Wagnerian Valhalla was alas short-lived, a mere twenty-eight performances in two seasons. In 1934 the company engaged Kirsten Flagstad, a Norwegian Hoch dramatisch. Some twenty-two years into a career almost exclusively confined to Scandinavia, she was nearly unknown on the international circuit. Her sensational debut was the beginning of her reign as the most prodigious Wagner soprano of her generation, indeed of the 20th century. Her extensive discography offers an embarrassment of riches. We have chosen the “Liebestod” of her iconic Isolde in a live 1939 performance at the San Francisco opera.

Flagstad’s voice is perfectly placed over its full range, caressing a pianissimo, thrilling at fortissimo, at one with the orchestral texture, yet never submerged by Wagner’s massive sound. Unusual with a timbre so refulgent is such crystalline diction and such precise intonation.

Flagstad sang an average of thirty-five times per season between 1935 and 1941. As if this extraordinary commitment were not enough, the Australian Marjorie Lawrence, a diva in her own right, was there for additional Wagner performances. Here is Lawrence’s Brünnhilde, as she pleads for mercy from her father Wotan at the end of Die Walküre. The 1933 recording, made in Paris where Lawrence first became known to the opera world, is in French.

In 1940-1941, the Met had three first-rank Hoch drammatisher sopranos under contract, Flagstad, Lawrence, and a new American, Helen Traubel. In 1941-1942, two of the three were no longer on the roster, Flagstad having returned to Norway, now occupied by the Nazis, Lawrence having succumbed to polio. Traubel and the very young Swedish-American Astrid Varnay shouldered the Wagner repertoire for the remainder of the decade.

We hear Traubel’s creamy timbre and effortless emission in a 1946 recording of Elsa’s “traum (dream),” “Einsam in trüben Tagen (Lonely, in troubled days).” She is accompanied in this excerpt from Lohengrin by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Artur Rodzinski.

Astrid Varnay’s Met debut at twenty-three, with no previous operatic stage experience, came as a last-minute replacement in a December 1941 broadcast of Die Walküre. Varnay’s rapturously received Sieglinde shone in a cast that featured a constellation of Wagnerian luminaries: Traubel in her role debut as Brünnhilde, Lauritz Melchior, Friedrich Schorr, Kerstin Thorborg, and Alexander Kipnis. In the first fifteen years of Varnay’s Met career (she returned in 1974 for dramatic mezzo roles) Varnay sang fourteen of Wagner’s leads, a total far in excess of Flagstad’s or Traubel’s. We hear Varnay in a live transmission from Bayreuth dated 1951, the year of the first post-war Wagner festival. Conducted by Herbert von Karajan, her Brünnhilde in the final scene of Siegfried captures the unique density of her voice as she negotiates both lyric and heroic passages. And then there is her secure and blazing high C, stunning in a voice as dark as Varnay’s.

We should add that the performances of Traubel and Varnay were led by a cluster of legendary conductors: George Szell, Sir Thomas Beecham, Fritz Busch, and Fritz Reiner.

Please look for our next post, “Wagner’s Last Golden Age at the Met: 2. The Heroic Tenor.” 

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment: Smiles and Tears

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On March 2, movie houses around the globe will screen Gaetano Donizetti’s opéra comiqueLa Fille du régiment (1840), live from the Metropolitan. The performance will star the soprano Pretty Yende and the tenor Javier Camarena. If until the late 1960s, general managers would want to stage the opera for a favorite soprano, since then it has been programmed subject to the availability of a tenor with a very secure upper register. Indeed, absent a tenor blessed with a high extension, La Fille du régiment will not be on the boards. 

The Met premiere of Donizetti’s work was staged in 1902 for Marcella Sembrich; it was revived in 1917-18 for Frieda Hempel. Our story begins in December 1940 when a new production was mounted for the company’s then reigning coloratura, Lily Pons. By that time, France had been at war with Germany for more than a year; the United States would enter the conflict a year later. Newspapers all over the country carried a photograph of the finale of La Fille du régiment in which, in place of the traditional French Tricolor, the flag of France occupied by the Nazis, French-born Pons waved the Cross of Lorraine of General Charles De Gaulle’s Free French. The Met orchestra played first “La Marseillaise” and then, as the Stars and Stripes were brought to the front of the stage and the Cross of Lorraine was dipped in tribute, “The Star Spangled Banner.” Some among those present were sure to remember that in 1918, three days after the Armistice, Hempel had interpolated the moving World War I anthem, “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” 

Pons was the Met’s preeminent coloratura from her 1931 debut to her departure from the company nearly three decades later. Through concerts, movies, radio, and recordings, her name had become a household word. Her rendition of “Salut à la France (Hail to France)” shows off the technique that captivated her fans. The cadenza at the aria’s conclusion, replete with a flute accompaniment reminiscent of the “Mad Scene” of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, exploits her fluency in embellishment and astonishing ease in alt, in the very highest notes of the soprano range.

Thirty years later, the Met revived La Fille du régiment. The new production brandished two superstars, the soprano Joan Sutherland and the tenor Luciano Pavarotti. On February 17, 1972, when Pavarotti nailed the nine high Cs of his first act aria “Ah, mes amis (Ah, my friends),” often omitted by less intrepid singers, the audience belonged to him, and since then audiences will not be denied the signature moment of the evening. And what is more, spectators, at least at the Met since Juan Diego Flórez’s stunning feat in 2008, consider an encore obligatory. Here is Pavarotti as he fires off his volley of high Cs in a live 1967 London performance..

The popularity of La Fille du régiment owes much to the virtuosic hurdles it poses to the principal singers. But Donizetti’s rich melodies and elegiac manner are also intrinsic to the score. At the end of Act I, Marie, the daughter of the regiment, bids a tearful farewell to her cherished troops. “Il faut partir (I must leave)” summons the soprano’s most long-breathed legato, an opportunity that Beverly Sills embraces in this 1970 live performance.

Tonio, the tenor role, also has a long moment of deep sentiment. In Act II, he pleads with Marie’s mother for permission to marry his beloved. Flórez’s elegant style is a perfect match for the elegant phrases of “Pour me rapprocher de Marie (To bring me close to Marie)” in this 2007 Vienna performance.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Adriana Lecouvreur Redux

Every decade or so, the Metropolitan Opera revives Adriana Lecouvreur, the only title in Francesco Cilea’s oeuvre that can be said to figure, however marginally, in the contemporary repertoires of international opera companies. Adriana is back at the Met this season and was seen in cinemas “Live in HD” earlier this month.  Like the far better-known Giacomo Puccini, Cilea (born in 1866, died in 1950) was an adherent of Verismo, or more accurately of the “giovane scuola (the young school.  See our post of January 3, 2018, “What is Verismo?”  And like Floria Tosca, Adrienne Lecouvreur was a diva, though not a fictional 19th-century Italian opera star but a historical 18th-century French tragedienne.
Cilea began work on Adriana Lecouvreur in 1900 after the 1899 success of L’Arlesiana, the other of his compositions that continues to have some currency. Premiered at the Teatro Lirico of Milan, Adriana, together with L’Arlesiana starred the young Enrico Caruso who contributed to the success of both works. In 1907, Adriana opened the Metropolitan season with Caruso opposite the soprano Lina Cavalieri. A run of only three performances tells the story of the sorry reception Cilea’s work received in New York that year. The most authoritative New York reviewer deemed that Cavalieri “has neither beauty of voice nor excellence of song to recommend, but who can make pictures.” Following its initial fiasco, it took almost sixty years, and the persuasive powers of the reigning prima donna, Renata Tebaldi, for the opera to return to New York. Bad luck ensued once again: in vocal crisis, Tebaldi cancelled her last appearances.
In those sixty years, Adriana was very much alive in Italian theatres. And after 1950, Magda Olivero, who had come out of a nine-year retirement at the behest of Cilea himself, made the title role her own. We are fortunate to have a transcription of a 1959 Naples performance where she replaced an indisposed Tebaldi. Here is Adriana’s entrance aria, “Io son l’umile ancella (I am the humble handmaiden),” preceded by a few spoken lines from Racine’s tragedy, Bajazet, that the actress is about to perform on the stage of the Comédie Française. Adriana rehearses two deliveries, the second in a more emphatic style that better suits the text. There follows the aria in which Adriana explains to the assembled admirers that she is a mere servant of the author’s genius. Conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni described the Olivero magic that brought the Naples audience to its feet, as it had and would so many others: “the shade and light of the vowels, the detached notes, the light legato, the true legato, the space between the words” (for more on Magda Olivero, see our posts of September 9, 2014, "Magda Olivero, 1910-2017 , and September 16 2014, “More Magda Olivero: Two Death Scenes”

Later in Act I, Maurizio arrives and declares his love for Adriana, praising her beauty in the short aria “La dolcissima effigie (The sweetest of semblances).” The passionate, devil-may-care tenor is Rolando Villazon; the aria is from a 2007 recital CD.

At the beginning of Act II we meet Adriana’s rival in love, the Principessa di Bouillon. She is unsure of Maurizio’s affections, anxious over their forthcoming tryst, and yet hopeful that the evening star will smile on their affair. In this 1955 video excerpt from Italian television, we see Fedora Barbieri, a leading exponent of the dramatic mezzo-soprano manner. Barbieri offers an object lesson in the explosive style apt for the agitated opening section, and the broad lyric effusion of the final lines.

In Act IV, Adriana meets her death by breathing the scent of flowers poisoned by the enraged Principessa. Tebaldi, in a recital disk made in the mid-1950s, gives an account of “Poveri fiori (Poor faded flowers)” that shows her in peak form, her honeyed timbre in service to the long, legato phrases and the subtlest changes of dynamics.

Post Script: If Adriana is Cilea’s gift to sopranos, the tenor lead of L’Arlesiana is his present to tenors. Federico, love-sick for the unnamed and unseen woman from Arles, envies his companion, the sleeping shepherd. He yearns for the oblivion that would allow him to forget the faithless object of his infatuation. In this 1928 recording, with great simplicity and palpable sincerity, Tito Schipa captures Federico’s despair in the unbearable heartbreak of the culminating phrase, “Mi fai tanto male. Ahimè! (You wound me so deeply. Dear God!).”