Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Lost Season, April-May 2021: Il Pirata

Note to those who receive new posts v



ia e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.

In the final two months of the lost season, April and May 2021, audiences were deprived of the company premiere of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking starring Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Etienne Dupuis, and Latonia Moore, and three important revivals: Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten with Nina Stemme, Elza van den Heever, Michael Volle, and Klaus Florian Vogt; Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd with Matthew Polenzani and Joshua Hopkins; and Vincenzo Bellini’s Il Pirata, with Diana Damrau, Javier Camarena, and Christopher Maltman. For the present post we have chosen to focus on Bellini’s opera, not heard at the Met since 2002-2003.

Il Pirata had its highly successful world premiere at Milan’s La Scala in 1827, launching Bellini’s career as a major composer for the lyric stage. Neglected in the early 20th century, Il Pirata found a champion in Maria Callas who first sang Imogene at La Scala in 1958, then in a New York concert performance in 1959, now available on CD. Imogene became a congenial role for sopranos, notable among these Montserrat Caballé and Renée Fleming, with the range and the bel canto technique to meet its virtuosic demands. The Met’s first Pirata was mounted for Fleming in 2002; Marcello Giordani was Gualtiero, the pirate, and Dwayne Croft, the husband. Had Covid not intervened, the 2021 revival would have featured Diana Damrau, Javier Camarena, and Christopher Maltman.

We learn from the back story that, years before, Gualtiero and Imogene had been in love. Against her will, Imogene had been forced to marry Ernesto, Duke of Caldora. Thereupon, Gualtiero, the Duke’s rival, took to piracy. The opera reunites the three protagonists, the distraught wife, the jealous husband, the disconsolate lover.

We have chosen two excerpts that feature Maria Callas. The first is drawn from the Act II duet, “Tu mi apristi in cor ferita (You opened my wounded heart).” The furious Ernesto exacts from his wife the confession that she had, indeed, loved Gualtiero who, at this point, was falsely reported drowned. At the same time, Imogene rejects the accusation that she had been unfaithful to her husband. Constantino Ego is the baritone in this live 1959 Carnegie Hall performance.



Imogene’s mad scene is the opera’s conclusion. Delirious, she has a vision of her husband, now dead, together with their son. She is shocked by a fanfare announcing Gualtiero’s death sentence. Her frenzy grows as she imagines the scaffold being readied for his hanging. This excerpt is drawn from a 1959 concert in Hamburg. We are privileged to hear Callas’s masterful fusion of Imogene’s state of mind with Bellini’s elegant phrases while we see her face and hands convey the depth of the character’s anguish.



Post script: During the florid cabaletta of the final scene Imogene repeats the phrase “Il palco funesto (the fatal scaffold).” The word “palco” has a very different meaning in the context of the theater where it signifies a box. At the 1958 La Scala revival of Il Pirata, Callas, who was feuding with Antonio Ghiringhelli, the company’s intendant, pointed at Ghiringhelli’s box as she hurled the words “palco funesto” in his direction.

 

 


 

 

 

Monday, August 2, 2021

The Lost Season, March 2021: Nabucco

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.

Unrelated to the pandemic, in fact more than a year before the rush to closure, the Met announced that its stage would be dark during all of February 2021. The winter month had proven to be particularly slow. In compensation, the season would be extended into June 2021. Covid rendered the matter moot for the moment. Plans for 2021-2022 adhere to the revised calendar. 

Despite the shutdown, the Met was again in the news in March 2021. The death of James Levine in Palm Springs on March 9 at the age of 77 was widely reported eight days later. The cause was pronounced to have been cardiopulmonary arrest with Parkinson’s Disease as a contributing factor. The many obituaries and articles surrounding Levine’s life and the long-brewing scandal that ended his illustrious forty-six-year career as the Met’s conductor, music and artistic director tell the story of the rise and fall of one of the most powerful and influential actors in the history of the company.

The orchestra Levine developed into one of the world’s most admired instrumental ensembles over his decades on 39th Street and at Lincoln Center was, it too, in the news in March. Met musicians had been furloughed without pay since the previous April. A day after word of Levine’s death reached the readers of the New York Times, the musicians’ union agreed to come to the bargaining table in exchange for partial pay for its members for eight weeks while negotiations were in progress. That management would be demanding permanent cuts in orchestra salaries to help off-set the $150 million loss in earned revenue incurred since the start of the lock-down was made explicit at the outset. The offer had been on the table since December. The Met chorus had accepted a similar deal in February. In fact, the Met orchestra was the last of U.S. major ensembles to consent, however reluctantly, to partial pay. The cost to the orchestra had been high. Ten of its ninety-seven members had opted to retire during the pandemic, in stunning contrast to the two or three who would make their exit in a typical year. Many had felt obliged to leave New York City for less expensive communities near and far. A few had sold their instruments in order to pay their bills while on unemployment.  

The cancellations in March 2021 included a new production of Don Giovanni (Peter Mattei, Gerard Finley, Ailyn Pérez, Isabel Leonard), and revivals of Giulio Cesare (Iestyn Davies, Kristina Mkhitaryan), Lulu (Brenda Rae), Rusalka (Sonya Yoncheva, Piotr Beczala), and Nabucco (George Gagnidze, Anna Netrebko). We have chosen to highlight Nabucco, not heard at the Met since 2017.

Verdi himself dated his extraordinary trajectory as a composer not from his first opera but from his third, Nabucco, premiered in 1842 at La Scala. The title entered the Met repertoire relatively late, opening night 1960. General Manager Rudolf Bing’s predilection for Verdi had already accounted for the important revivals of the long-neglected Don Carlo in 1950 and Ernani in 1956, and the company premiere of Macbeth in 1959. This string of successes was interrupted by the tepid reception that befell Nabucco. The work failed to survive its first season. Four decades later, in 2001, with a spectacular scenic investiture and a competent array of principal singers, reviewers and public finally embraced Verdi’s early work; the projected 2021 revival would have been its sixth.

Under the stewardship of James Levine, whose Met career began towards the end of the Bing era, the company remained strongly committed to Verdi. Levine was on the podium for seventeen of the composer’s operas including the house premieres of three rarities, I Lombardi, Stiffelio, and I Vespri Siciliani. And it was Levine who led Nabucco’s popular new production in 2001. Here he conducts the orchestra and chorus in the beloved anthem “Va', pensiero, sull'ali dorate (Go, thoughts, on golden wings).” The Israelites, slaves in Babylon, mourn their lost homeland.



On learning that she was born a slave and not, as she had thought, the daughter of Nabucco, the king of Babylon, Abigaille vents her rage in the recitative of her Act II extended aria. In the lyrical section, “Anch'io dischiuso un giorno (I too once opened my heart),” she confesses her love for Ismaele, a Jewish nobleman enamored of Nabucco’s true daughter, Fenena. Finally, in the vehement cabaletta, "Salgo già del trono aurato (I already ascend the golden throne)," Abigaille’s anger once again erupts as she claims the crown of Babylon. In this concert performance, Julia Varady fearlessly navigates the extreme upper and lower ends of the soprano range and spins out the intervening legato phrases.



The ensemble that closes Act II of Nabucco, “S'appressan gl'istanti d’un ira fatale (The moment of direst wrath is fast approaching),” is among the most thrilling of the opera’s many concerted pieces. Presumed dead, Nabucco returns to reclaim his crown from Abigaille and to order the death of the Israelites. In this clip, drawn from a 1981 Verona performance, the principals are headed by Renato Bruson and Ghena Dimitrova. The Roman Arena is a fitting frame for this Biblical spectacle.



 


 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The Lost Season, December 2020-January 2021: Die Zauberflöte

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.

New Year’s Eve 2020 promised a gala audience the first night of a new production of Die Zauberflöte and a celebrated conductor in just his second engagement at the Met. The very popular Mozart opera was not to be the abridged English-language version typically offered during the holiday season but the full-length version in German. The director, making his Met debut, was to be Simon McBurney whose staging had premiered in Amsterdam. And the conductor, perhaps today’s most renowned maestro, Gustavo Dudamel, the music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and lately announced also as the next music director of the Paris Opéra. The New Year’s patrons would have enjoyed a particularly good view of “The Dude,” as McBurney’s design called for a raised pit.

Although Die Zauberflöte stands high in the list of operas most often performed in the Met’s history—20th in rank, just after Tristan und Isolde—the company presented this title only sporadically between 1900 and 1942 when, foregrounding the appeal to a young audience and long sections of spoken dialogue, the text was given in English as The Magic Flute. Conductor Bruno Walter lent his prestige and his affinity for Mozart to the project. The fairy tale opera has maintained its place in the Met’s core repertoire since then. Walter led the next new production in 1956. The original German text, not heard since 1926, returned with the highly acclaimed Marc Chagall décor first seen in the opening season at Lincoln Center, 1966-67, conducted by Josef Krips. General manager Joseph Volpe cancelled the production announced for 1991, pleading insufficient time for preparation and borrowed instead David Hockney’s sets commissioned by San Francisco. Audiences and critics adored Julie Taymor’s puppets and masks and George Tsypin’s kinetic, fantastic world in 2004.

The first Zauberflöte excerpt in this post is drawn from a 1966 Berlin concert performance. The Tamino, Fritz Wunderlich, died in a tragic accident just weeks before his scheduled Met debut that very year. His technical and stylistic perfection, along with an exceptionally beautiful timbre, positioned Wunderlich as the foremost Mozart tenor of the post-war generation. In the aria, “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön (This Image Is Enchantingly Lovely),” Tamino falls in love with Pamina while gazing at her portrait.


In Act II, the evil Queen of the Night beseeches her daughter, Pamina, to murder the virtuous high priest, Sarastro, who presides over a peaceful brotherhood of worshippers. Her daunting aria, “Der Hölle Rache (Hell’s Vengeance),” demands the agility and extended high range of the coloratura soprano (four F’s above high C) and the power of a dramatic soprano. Cristina Deutekom, in a 1971 TV movie, exhibits that rare combination.


Sarastro voices his benevolence in a serene hymn to his temple, “In diesen heil’gen Hallen (Within these Sacred Halls).” The customary province of the deep bass, the basso profundo, René Pape’s more lyric basso cantante executes the long phrases in an unbroken stream of sound. This 2006 recording is conducted by Claudio Abbado.


The despairing Pamina, believing that Tamino no longer loves her, contemplates suicide in the doleful “Ach, ich fühl's (Ah, I can feel it).” Here, in a performance from the 1956 Salzburg festival, Elisabeth Grümmer, a Mozart-Strauss specialist who sang all too rarely in the United States, spins out the aria in a seamless legato that plumbs the character’s infinite sadness.


 

Thursday, July 1, 2021

The Lost Season, October-November 2020, Role Debuts: J’Nai Bridges, Russell Thomas, Christine Goerke, Lise Davidsen

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.

The cancellation of the 2020-2021 season deprived audiences of the conducting debut of Speranza Scappucci. Had the opportunity to conduct La Traviata not fallen to the wayside on account of the virus, she would have added her name to the handful of women who have led the Met orchestra in its nearly 140-year history. The public was also denied the long overdue company premiere of The Fiery Angel. Prokofiev’s opera had been slated to enter the repertoire at long last, in a production directed by Barrie Kosky. (It had been performed under the title The Flaming Angel by the New York City Opera in 1965.)

Four singers were to have made house role debuts in 2020-2021: J’Nai Bridges, Christine Goerke, Russell Thomas, and Lise Davidsen. We hear them in this post in parts they had been scheduled to sung in productions of Carmen, Tristan und Isolde, Il Trovatore, and Fidelio.

Mezzo J’Nai Bridges was the anticipated Carmen. She had made a successful 2019 Met debut as Nefertiti in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, a role she had sung in Los Angeles in 2016. Days before the Kennedy Center went dark, Washington Opera heard her first Dalila. Here, in a clip from her 2019 San Francisco performance in Bizet’s Carmen, Bridges sings the alluring “Habanera.”



Two years after her 1995 debut in a minor role, and following several extended absences from the Met, dramatic soprano Christine Goerke came back in 2013 a star, acclaimed for her Elektra, Brünnhilde, and Turandot. She will be heard as Puccini’s heroine in New York in Fall 2021. Her first Lincoln Center Tristan und Isolde was scheduled for the lost season. This excerpt from Act II, drawn from a 2019 Washington concert with the National Symphony, documents what Met audiences missed. Gianandrea Noseda conducts; the Brangäne is Ekaterina Gubanova.



Dramatic tenor Russell Thomas, who made his 2005 Met debut as the Herald in Don Carlo, has been assigned few major roles in his sporadic engagements with the company, most recently Rodolfo in La Bohème. It was not until 2020 that the Met planned to showcase Thomas as Manrico in Il Trovatore. Here he is in the troubadour’s stirring aria “Di quella pira (From that pyre)” in a 2019 performance from the Lyric Opera of Chicago.



Her international reputation well established through major roles on European stages, dramatic soprano Lise Davidsen made her Met debut in 2019 as Lise in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades.  Not surprisingly, she was received enthusiastically by critics and public. She was to have sung Fidelio’s Leonore at the Met in 2020. This excerpt from a 2019 performance at the Royal Opera House increases our anticipation of hearing her in Fidelio in some future season. Davidsen takes on the taxing “Komm Hoffnung (Come Hope)” with command of legato, impeccable passage work, and thrilling high notes. The conductor is Antonio Pappano. She has been contracted for Ariadne auf Naxos, Elektra (as Chrysothemis), and Die Meistersinger for the 2021-2022 seasonat the Met.



Tuesday, June 1, 2021

The Met in the Time of Pandemic: The Lost Season, June-September 2020, Aïda

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.

The summer of 2020 began with the disheartening announcement that the Met had cancelled the fall season. The company hoped to reopen on New Year’s Eve, a full seven months away. On September 23, the pandemic raging unabated, the administration had no choice but to cancel the spring 2021 season as well. The theater would be dark for another painful year.

 

Between June 1 and the end of September the Met continued to make news. Tragically, a second musician, assistant conductor Joel Revzen, had succumbed to the virus. His orchestra colleagues, furloughed since the end of March, had had to make major personal adjustments to compensate for the suspension of their $190K average salary. For its part, management anticipated a loss of revenue amounting to $100 million by the end of the year. And, to make matters worse, the Met was ineligible for the government loan program due to the magnitude of its payroll. 

 

The success of the daily streaming of titles from its archive and subsequent donations from thousands of grateful new contributors on lockdown led to the launching of a series of digital concerts at the nominal fee of $20 each. Unlike the earlier free recitals and the gala that were shot as amateur videos (see our post of April 16, 2012, https://www.blogger.com/blog/post/edit/7211323416075256950/3307619185363703156), this new series, originating from sites proximate to the artists’ homes, was professionally recorded. The first of the seventy-five-minute performances featured Jonas Kaufmann, the Baroque library of a Bavarian abbey serving as background. He was followed by Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko, and nine other Met stars in standard arias from the operatic repertoire.

On September 20, one day before the lost season of 2020-2021 had been scheduled to open with Giuseppe Verdi’s Aïda, a New York Times headline read, “The Met Opera Fired James Levine Citing Sexual Misconduct.” According to this report, the company, which had dismissed Levine in March 2018, settled with its former music director emeritus for $3.5 million. So ended what the Times called “one of the highest-profile, messiest feuds in the Met’s nearly 140-year history.”  

The night of September 21, 2020 would have have been the twelfth time Aïda opened a Met season. And in terms of titles most often programmed by the Met since its 1883 founding, Aïda ranks second after La Bohème. Verdi’s grandest opera was to have a new staging and a renowned cast: Anna Netrebko, Anita Rachvelishvili, Piotr Beczala, and Ludovic Tézier, conducted by Levine’s successor as music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Here are the selections we have chosen for this post, three magnificent duets, all performed in the 1960s, one of opera’s most fabulous eras.

The first is the Amonasro/Aïda duet. The claims of patriotism, patriarchy, and paternity come together in the Act III confrontation between the Ethiopian king and his daughter. Amonasro evokes their home, accuses Aïda of disloyalty to fatherland and father and, after a struggle, exacts the promise to betray her beloved Radamès, leader of the Egyptian troops. In a commercial recording conducted by Herbert von Karajan, Renata Tebaldi and Cornell MacNeil are brilliant adversaries in this epic conflict between duty and love.



The Amneris/Radamès Act IV duel, unlike the Amonasro/Aïda duet, is a combat between equals. The jealous Egyptian princess exhorts Radamès, on trial for treason, to save himself by proclaiming his innocence--at the cost of endangering the Ethiopian princess he loves. Unlike Aïda, Radamès does not give in. Mezzo Rita Gorr conveys the fury and despair of Amneris with unusual restraint. In this commercial recording conducted by Georg Solti, Jon Vickers is Radamès.


In the opera’s final scene, Radamès has been condemned to death and Aïda joins him in the tomb that closes in on their last moments. In the love duet “O terra addio (Farewell, O Earth)” they look ahead to the Heaven that awaits them and back on the vale of tears they are leaving behind. In this excerpt, drawn from a live performance, both principals float ethereal high pianissimi. Verdi specialist Carlo Bergonzi was a frequent Met Radamès; Aïda is Leyla Gencer whose long international itinerary did not include a stop at the Metropolitan, alas. Their stock gestures, troublesome on video, would not have distracted the audience seated in the vast space of Verona’s Roman arena unduly. At the very end we see and hear mezzo Fiorenza Cossotto as Amneris.