Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Rigoletto on Film: I

 We choose Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, staged by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1932-1988), as the first entry of our new format ( Rigoletto was the sixteenth of Verdi’s twenty-eight operas, and the first of the extraordinary trio (together with Il Trovatore and La Traviata) composed between 1851-1853. The opera was wildly successful at its Venice premiere and has been a fixture of the core repertoire of the world’s lyric stages ever since.

 Ponnelle was among the most inventive and successful director/designers of his generation. He worked extensively in Europe and in the United States, leaving a rich legacy of opera on television and film much of which is available for purchase as DVDs and accessible for streaming on xxYoutube. His stunning cinematic adaptations also include Madama Butterfly and Le Nozze di Figaro.

The question raised most urgently by our subject is this: How and to what effect does the experience of opera on film, or better, opera as cinema, that is freed from the constraints of the proscenium, differ from that of opera viewed and heard in the opera house or, indeed, in the movie house during a live telecast? Cinema’s camera movement and the processes of studio editing focus and refocus our gaze to a far greater degree than can lighting and direction for the stage or the movement afforded stage-bound television cameras.

Two elements of cinema privileged in its powerful vocabulary begin to answer the question: cinema’s ability to effect radical as well as subtle shifts in point of view both through camera distance and angle and through editing; its capacity to shoot both natural and built environments. These devices, mediated by the masterful hand of Ponnelle, further the suspension of disbelief. They conspire to counter the artifices of sung dialogue, of stage sets, and of the compression of a breathless narrative that unfolds in what appears to be a matter of days. Camera movement and editing prevail in many scenes, most emphatically in this nine-minute Act 2 sequence that captures the complexity of Rigoletto’s being.

 In this clip, Rigoletto swings from despair at the disappearance of his daughter, to rage at the courtiers who tricked him into abetting her abduction, to contrition as he pleads for her return, to horror on discovering that she has been raped by his master, the Duke of Mantua. The musical and dramatic gestures, thrilling hurdles for the baritone (here the excellent singer/actor Ingvar Wixell), find their reflection in Ponnelle’s visual gestures. The tragic figure of the court jester as he staggers across the curved balcony is intercut with shots of the courtiers who stare from below. Roving cameras catch the action in the foreground without losing sight of the elaborate architecture of the background, the late 16th-century Teatro all’Antica of the northern Italian town of Sabbioneta. At the very moment Rigoletto grasps that his beloved Gilda has been deposited in the Duke’s chambers, that the trap has succeeded, he is himself trapped by the camera against an unyielding wall. Shot and counter-shot of the Duke’s curtained bed and Rigoletto’s fury conspire with the music and libretto to tell the painful tale. Then, in a shot of prolonged duration, Rigoletto, proceeding on his knees from courtier to courtier, begs for their pity. The bed curtains part to reveal the Duke’s brazen leer in shocking closeup. The image of Gilda, face down on the bed, unleashes her father’s wrath, now laced with shame. That same image excites the courtiers’ obscene curiosity. In the end, the series of angle/reverse angle shots positions Rigoletto as dominant. He dispatches his tormentors who exit in a mocking dance.

In our next post, again devoted to the Verdi/Ponnelle Rigoletto, we will look closely at the film’s climax for the effect of location shooting on the experience of the operaphile at the movies.


Monday, August 10, 2020

How to Access Subtitles in Rigoletto Post

 If  you do not see subtitles when you open the link to the Rigoletto performance we included in our last post, just click on "cc" (closed caption) in the lower right-hand corner of the video.R

Saturday, August 8, 2020

A New Turn for OperaPost: Opera on Film

In this time of darkened theatres whose reopening for the 2020-2021 season is very much in question, especially in the United States, we propose to add a second format to our blog. Ours is an attempt to compensate, in some small way, for the irreplaceable live performance.

By opera on film we mean not the telecast of staged performances, such as the Met Live in HD, but performances that are genuinely cinematic, that is freed from the confines of the stage and directed and produced as movies. Two weeks in advance of publishing a new post, we will provide a link to the subtitled opera on film that we have chosen for its musical and dramatic qualities. Our intention is to give those who wish sufficient time to view the movie before receiving our post. 

Our first entry will be Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1983 film of Verdi's Rigoletto. Director Ponnelle's locations are the historical sites of Parma and Mantua among Northern Italian cities. The first-rank cast principals are Luciano Pavarotti, Edita Gruberova, and Ingvar Wixell. Riccardo Chailly conducts the Vienna Philharmonic.

And here is the link.


So, happy viewing and listening. We would appreciate your comments regarding our blog's "new turn" and the Rigoletto post that will be published on or about August 22.

Friday, July 17, 2020

The Met on the Air: From 1910 to 1932

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We pick up the story of the Saturday Afternoon broadcasts where we left off in our May 3, 2020 post, “The Met: Looking Back in a Time of Pandemic."Since the middle of March, during these months of closure in response to the urgency of social distancing, the company has each day streamed, without charge to the audience, Met performances from its video archive. This initiative born of the current crisis can be counted a giant step in the long journey that began inauspiciously on January 12, 1910 when, alas, the first two transmissions from the old house on 39th Street and Broadway were doomed by an inadequate apparatus. Olive Fremstad’s Tosca, Emmy Destinn’s Santuzza, and Enrico Caruso’s Canio were barely audible to the handful of listeners who held telephone receivers to their ears. Two decades would elapse before exigent general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza would allow himself to be persuaded that microphones and amplifiers had met the fidelity demands of grand opera. Gatti’s resistance was no doubt abetted by worry that the broadcasts would compromise in-house receipts. In 1931 the Met began the project of inveigling itself into millions of homes across the country, advancing the elusive ambition of naturalizing the stubbornly European art form. The deal struck with NBC provided for the transmission of twenty-four partial performances from the 39th Street stage in 1931-32 and again 1932-33 at the then hefty fee of $120,000 per year. 

The first nation-wide broadcast, the Christmas Day Hänsel und Gretel, was carried by more than one hundred stations on both the Red and Blue (later ABC) NBC networks and by shortwave around the world. The composer and critic Deems Taylor narrated the action over the music, to the distress of many listeners. Almost from the start, announcer Milton Cross was the unmistakable voice of the Met. During his introduction and the intermissions, in orotund tones and purple prose, he told the story of the opera, described sets and costumes, and added his own enthusiastic observations to the applause. Cross’s more than four-decade unbroken streak ended with his death in 1975. 

The radio audience of the first broadcast season, 1931-32, heard only one complete opera, the inaugural Hänsel und Gretel. Each of the remaining transmissions was limited to an hour. Despite the time constraint, the offerings allowed for a sampling of the company’s core repertoire, the annual Bohèmes, Traviatas and Walküres, the belated Met premiere of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, and occasional novelties such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko and Deems Taylor’s own Peter Ibbetson. On the roster were many of the world’s preeminent singers. Only scratchy fragments remain of the 1931-32 fare. We have therefore chosen to recall the first broadcast season through commercial recordings made by the very same artists in the very same roles they sang over the airways that year.

Georges Thill, the leading French tenor of the interwar period, sang with the New York company from Spring 1931 to Spring 1932. In his 1930 recording of Faust’s address to Marguerite’s dwelling, “Salut, demeure chaste et pure,” Thill deploys his signature sweet timbre, pellucid diction, and refined style. Thanks to a technique rare among his peers, he reaches the aria’s climax in a breathtaking high C taken in head voice.

Beniamino Gigli, on the other hand, was for most operaphiles the undisputed premier Italian tenor of the interwar period. Here, at the opening of Act IV of La Bohème, he is joined by the elegant baritone Giuseppe De Luca, a Met mainstay for two decades. In the jocular first section of the duet Rodolfo and Marcello exchange jabs about their lost lovers; in the lyrical second section, “O, Mimì, tu più non torni,” they bemoan their loss.

In the 1920s and early 1930s, Lucrezia Bori owned the title role of Verdi’s La Traviata. For Met audiences, the soprano’s moving, very personal, sometimes eccentric reading of the role defined Violetta. We hear Bori in a 1928 recording of “Ah, fors’è lui” and “Sempre libera.”

The return of Bellini’s Norma to the Met repertoire in 1927 was hailed as a landmark in the performance history of the opera. [See our previous post Thunderous applause was showered on Rosa Ponselle. And to this day, she is considered by many (including Maria Callas, the Norma of her generation) the Druid priestess for the ages. Ponselle’s 1929 recording of “Casta diva” and its cabaletta, “Ah! bello a me ritorno,” is a lesson in both phrasing and agility.

In 1940, nine years after the first NBC transmission, Texaco took on the prestigious sponsorship of Met broadcasts. Texaco’s sixty-three-year run remains the longest span of corporate support in radio history. And for nearly ninety years, Met broadcasts have generated a pool of opera consumers readily and repeatedly tapped for often sorely needed revenue. Such was the case during the Depression through the “Save the Met” campaign (once again see our post of early May). And such we hope will be the case upon the Met’s reopening, announced recently for New Year’s Eve 2020, when a faithful and grateful public will no doubt recall the months and months of daily video streaming that helped it survive its personal and cultural isolation.

Friday, May 29, 2020

In Memoriam: Jessye Norman, 1945-2019

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Jessye Norman died on September 30, 2019. We should not expect to see her like again. Vocally, dramatically, and physically, she dominated world stages throughout a career that spanned four and a half decades and an astonishing diversity of styles: those of the Baroque, 20th-century modernism, spirituals, jazz, the American songbook. Happily for us, the wide compass of her operatic repertoire of forty roles was captured on CD and DVD.

Norman was, of course, a dramatic soprano. Had she followed convention, she would have found a prominent place in the core offerings of premier opera companies. Her power and sumptuous timbre marked her as a worthy successor to, say, Zinka Milanov in the Italian canon or Kirsten Flagstad in the German. But she deviated from the prescribed path early in her career by eschewing Verdi (except for two rare operas she performed only in the recording studio) and avoiding the Wagnerian diva’s obligatory Isoldes and Brünnhildes. And she never engaged with the most popular opera composer of the 20th century, Puccini. In the peak years of Norman’s international fame she embraced Purcell, Berlioz, Richard Strauss, Janáček, Bartók, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Poulenc, and in doing so, was instrumental in reshaping the taste of the public and the standard offerings of the major lyric theatres.

In 1969, at only twenty-four, Norman made her opera debut with the prestigious Deutsche Oper in Berlin as Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The Thuringian princess became one of her favored roles. In her ecstatic entrance aria, “Dich teure Halle (O cherished hall),” Elisabeth invests the space with memories of her beloved minnesinger Tannhäuser and her joy at his return. In a 1985 London concert the audience gives an extended ovation to the singer’s stunning exhibition.

Another of Norman’s early Berlin roles was the Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. In the exquisite “Porgi, Amor (Love, grant me respite)” she entreats Amor to rekindle the affection of her philandering husband. Norman’s impeccable legato and clarity of attack limn the introspection of the Countess, her heroic voice hushed to the finely spun piano dynamics. We hear the soprano in the 1971 recording of the complete opera, conducted by Colin Davis.


Ariadne in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos was, by far, the role Norman sang most frequently in her nearly one hundred appearances in over more than thirteen seasons at the Met. Both the comic Prima Donna of the Prologue and the tragic Ariadne of the opera seria suit the soprano’s temperament and her prodigious vocal resources. Norman negotiates the more than two-octave span of the aria, “Es gibt ein Reich (There is a kingdom),” from G sharp, well below the comfort zone of most sopranos, to high B flat, much of it forte, with remarkable evenness of timbre. Her crystalline diction conveys the despair of the Cretan princess, abandoned by her lover Theseus on the deserted isle of Naxos, as she begs for the deliverance of death. We hear Norman in a 1988 Leipzig recording led by Kurt Masur. A DVD of her Met Ariadne, made the same year, is available on Youtube.


Post Script: Jessye Norman was the object of deep affection and high regard in France. She was the recipient of several official honors, including the Légion d’honneur. A measure of the esteem she enjoyed was the choice of Norman, an American artist, to sing “La Marseillaise” in the spectacular celebration of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution on July 14, 1989. Draped in the Tricolor that recalled “Marianne,” the national personification of the French Republic, she stood at the foot of the obelisk at the center of the Place de la Concorde and unfurled her huge voice in this extravagant rendition of what is arguably the most stirring of national anthems.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Met: Looking Back in a Time of Pandemic

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It has been some months since Operapost published its last entry. We take up our blog again, glad to be joining the individuals and organizations that are bringing more and more music into our isolation. Their number and reach tell us how very crucial music is at this moment and how critical the diffusion of music of all genres has become.
Over the years, our posts have centered largely on the history of New York’s dominant opera company, the Metropolitan. The Covid-19 pandemic that has attacked New York so cruelly, draws us once again to the Met’s past, particularly as we contemplate its future. In this installment, we look to three critical periods of the company’s history: that of the 1918 Spanish flu, of the Great Depression, and of the 1969 stand-off between management and labor that shut the theater for months. How the company fared during and after these crises may help us to anticipate how the Met will survive the current humanitarian and economic catastrophe.

Although New York was hit less hard than nearby Boston and Philadelphia during the three waves of the Spanish flu it endured between September 1918 and February 1919, the city suffered a terrible blow.  Thirty thousand New Yorkers of a total population of 5,600,000 died. Theaters and other entertainments, including the Metropolitan Opera, remained open for the entire 1918-1919 season--albeit under stricter regulation and inspection by the Department of Health. And despite its full  performance schedule, in the ten years that separate 1911 from 1921, the 1918-1919 season saw the deepest dip in gross box-office receipts.

More telling than the comparison between the Spanish flu and Covid-19 on the operations of the company is the comparison of the effects of the strike of 1969 with the current closure. (See our three posts on labor-management conflict at the Met, Ars et Labor: 1. The Met, 1906-1966, Ars et Labor: 2. The Met, 1969, Ars et Labor: 3. The Met, 1980). Under General Manager Rudolf Bing, the Met shut its doors for three months, from September to December. When the company finally opened the delayed season, the average percentage of filled seats fell from 96% to 89%. A significant number of patrons failed to renew their subscriptions. Eleven years later, in 1980, when yet another contract dispute threatened the season, subscriptions still lagged behind the 1969 tally by 16%. We should note that as recently as the 2016-17 season the capacity at the Met was 67% and the strength of its financial profile is not nearly what it was in the late 1960s.

The current predictions of depression-level unemployment in the coming months suggest that even a fleeting  glance at the effects of the Great Depression on the Met may be instructive. The company stayed afloat, unlike the Chicago Civic Opera forced to go under by its balance sheet. The fragile equilibrium that obtained through 1929–30 was undone by the more than 10% decline in subscriptions in 1930–31 and another 10% the next year.  Principal singers, with very few exceptions, agreed to reductions in contracts and fees. Ticket prices were lowered; the lost revenue was offset by a major reorganization. As 1932–33 began to take shape, and more than one-tenth of the city’s population was on public or private assistance, the season was shortened from twenty-four to sixteen weeks, and subscription costs were halved and individual ticket prices reduced in order to generate more robust sales. But the drastically reduced prices did little to spur subscriptions. The company took to the radio in a “Save the Met” campaign. Within two months the $300,000 goal was achieved. An astonishing one-third of the total was contributed by radio listeners. (We will devote our next post to the story of the Saturday afternoon broadcasts.)

The Met was, in no small part, “saved” also by the box-office draw of a late-1930s contingent of superlative Wagnerians. (See our  three posts, Wagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: I, The Dramatic SopranoWagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: II, The Heroic TenorWagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: III, Other Voices) on this remarkable moment of Met performance history.) The stars of this cohort were the Norwegian dramatic soprano Kirsten Flagstad and the Danish heldentenor Lauritz Melchior. The Flagstad-Melchior team guaranteed a full house in the seven seasons they sang together in New York—a stunning average of nearly thirty performances per season. We hear them at their peak in this 1939 studio recording of the duet that marks the triumphant finale of the prologue to Götterdämmerung. As the lovers declare their transcendent passion, Brünnhilde urges Siegfried on to new heights of heroism. Like the audiences of the Great Depression, we too are lifted out of our gloom by the boundless exuberance of these voices.