Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Monday, March 29, 2021

The Met in the Time of Pandemic: The Unfinished Season, March 2020

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On March 12, 2020, a little more than a year ago, with COVID-19 on the attack in New York, the Metropolitan Opera announced the suspension of performances through the end of the month. Just one week later, the company was obliged to cancel the remainder of the season. The Met was not alone. Forty and more New York City cultural institutions took the same turn at approximately the same time, including all museums, libraries, and theaters, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the New York Public Library, to all of Broadway, and to so many other indoor and outdoor sporting and entertainment venues. News of the season’s truncation was accompanied by the statement that past March the orchestra, chorus, and stagehands would no longer be paid, although they would retain their health benefits. AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists) was quoted as “disappointed, upset, but we understand.” (The conciliatory tone would change over time.) Peter Gelb, the general manager, would forego his salary and other administrators would be subject to cuts in pay. The reason given was the disastrous blow inflicted on company finances by the curtailed season. The nation’s largest performing arts organization anticipated losses of roughly $60 million, including $8-$12 million in ticket sales through the end of the month of March alone, and would undertake to make up the huge deficit through an emergency fundraising campaign. In November 2019, prior to the pandemic, the Met’s Standard and Poor‘s credit rating had fallen from “A” to “negative,“ signifying a “weak balance sheet metrics.“ On March 26, 2020, Moody’s downgraded the Met’s credit outlook from “stable” to “negative” due to the closure.

Less than two months later, on June 1, 2020, the Met reluctantly informed the press and the public of a further delay: the house would remain dark until December 30, 2020. And on September 23, the whole of the 2020-2021 season was pronounced lost.

OperaPost will devote this and future entries to the tumultuous events that rocked the Metropolitan during the last months of the interrupted season and the whole of the season that coronavirus obliterated. We are also intent on evoking the new productions and much awaited revivals that were scheduled and then painfully scrapped as the city and country, and globe, were beset by illness and death. 

This first post in the series “The Met in the Time of Pandemic” looks back at the tragic month of March 2020 and at two much-awaited revivals that were to be staged in those weeks, Rossini’s La Cenerentola and Massenet’s Werther

The very night the Met shut its doors, La Cenerentola was due for its first revival in six years (see our post of May 31, 2014, “Cinderella Come Lately” https://www.blogger.com/blog/post/edit/7211323416075256950/4651784895668127119).  In 2014, Javier Camarena sang the role of Prince Ramiro. Operaphiles looked forward to the tenor’s reprise of his astonishing execution of the florid “Dolce speranza (Sweet hope).” We hear him sing the aria in a January 2020 concert in Malaga.


Camarena’s Met co-star was to be Tara Erraught, an Irish mezzo-soprano whose previous roles with the company were Humperdinck’s Hänsel and Offenbach’s Nicklausse (Les Contes d’Hoffmann). Neither demand vocal acrobatics. The cancellation of Rossini’s opera deprived New York of what would surely have been a great success for Erraught, as evidenced by this performance filmed at the Irish National Opera. Here, she exhibits her charm, sensitivity to text, and command of embellishment, particularly at the top of her range, in Cenerentola’s challenging “Non più mesta (No longer sad).”

 


 Just four nights later, Joyce DiDonato, a masterful Rossini mezzo, was to appear in the revival of Werther, with Piotr Beczala in the title role. On March 15, in immediate response to the lockdown, and on their own initiative, the singers organized an internet stream of their major scenes from Massenet’s opera on Facebook and Instagram. Accompanied by piano and harp, this informal concert emanating from DiDonato’s living room (it began with an appeal for donations to AGMA’s relief fund) can be accessed on YouTube. Alas, the quality of the sound does not do justice to the singers. We therefore take our illustrations from performances in London and Vienna.

DiDonato’s exemplary coloratura technique has been on frequent display in the Baroque and Bel Canto repertoire that is her specialty. In contrast, Werther calls on her for the propulsive declamation of the late 19th century. The wrenching aria in which Charlotte rereads Werther’s love letters is drawn from a 2016 Royal Opera transmission.



The unhappy Werther expresses his thwarted passion for Charlotte in the opera’s best-known aria, “Pourquoi me reveiller (Why do you wake me).” Here, Beczala sings it in a 2010 Vienna concert.



La Cenerentola and Werther are not on the Met’s 2021-22 schedule. Javier Camarena and Piotr Beczala will be back to sing roles in other operas; Tara Erraught and Joyce DiDonato are, regrettably, absent from next season’s roster.

                                 

 

 











Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Eileen Farrell, 1920-2020: In Celebration

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We remember Eileen Farrell on the centenary of her birth as one of a triad (with Lillian Nordica [1857-1914)] and Helen Traubel [1899-1972]) of the greatest of American-born dramatic sopranos. To that distinction we add that Farrell was arguably the most versatile of singers. For decades, she defined “crossover,” moving comfortably from jazz to pop music and operetta to opera. She sang professionally for six decades. In this post we focus on the all-too-brief ten-year span she devoted to the lyric stage.

Farrell’s idiosyncratic career began in the early 1940s when, after a few months as a member of the CBS Chorus, she was handed a half-hour weekly program of her own, Eileen Farrell Sings. It had a five-season runRadio listeners were accustomed to hearing classically trained singers such as Farrell in an eclectic repertoire that embraced Berlin ballads, Kern show music, Schubert lieder, and Verdi arias. The quality and size of Farrell’s voice soon won her invitations to perform with major symphony orchestras. Dimitri Mitropoulos chose her for the role of Marie in his 1951 New York Philharmonic concert performance and recording of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck; the following year Arturo Toscanini tapped her for Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with his NBC Symphony Orchestra.

It was not until 1956 in Tampa, Florida, as Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, that Farrell finally ventured onto the opera stage. Four years later she was at the Metropolitan in a new production of Gluck’s Alceste. Her career on 39th Street spanned no more than five seasons and her subsequent roles adhered exclusively to the predictable standard Italian dramatic soprano repertoire, Santuzza, Leonora in La Forza del Destino, Maddalena in Andrea Chénier, and the title heroine of La Gioconda. Her affinity for Gioconda, the lovelorn Italian street singer, is evident in her sumptuous “Suicidio,” with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein (1960).


 

Multiple recordings and concert appearances signaled again and again that Eileen Farrell was uniquely suited to Wagner’s most arduous roles. Through YouTube we have access to many of her broadcasts and live performances. Extended excerpts of Tristan und Isolde, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung are testimony to the ease with which her powerful voice swelled above Wagner’s most massive orchestrations.

But, alas, she never sang a staged performance of a Wagner opera. Rumor had it that it was she who refused the opportunity, that she was reluctant to memorize the long roles. There is, however, evidence in the Met archives that, at one point, she declared her willingness to sing Isolde on 39th Street. Her strained relationship with general manager Rudolf Bing may well have quashed that prospect. For an inkling of what Met audiences missed, here is her 1951 “Liebestod” with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Victor De Sabata.


 

We end this tribute with a track from a 1958 operatic recital, Thomas Schippers conducting London’s Philharmonia. Farrell’s “Ernani, Involami” is a brilliant demonstration of her astonishing technique. She executes the embellishments of Verdi’s aria, the rapid runs, the trill, with the grace of a light lyric coloratura in total command of these inherently bel canto gestures.


 



 

Friday, January 1, 2021

Rigoletto on Film: II

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During this time of Covid, and with theatres dark all over the world, opera on film remains a particularly welcome alternative to live performance.

In the first installment of our discussion of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s version of Rigoletto (https://operapost.blogspot.com/2020/08/rigoletto-on-film-i.html) we looked at the effect of camera movement and editing on his staging  of Verdi’s opera for the screen. Here we turn to the impact of natural and historic architectural environments on the experience of opera on film. Ponnelle’s Rigoletto was sold to the public, at least in part, on the strength of its location shooting. He asked his camera to draw the viewer’s gaze to the magnificent Renaissance structures of Mantua, Parma, and Sabbioneta that house the action. He further surprised the operatic audience with the natural environment chosen for the lyric drama’s final sequence. Rigoletto (Ingvar Wixell) and his dying daughter Gilda (Edita Gruberova) are afloat in a small boat on what we take to be Mantua’s river, the Mincio. Thanks to the artifice of cinematic editing, images of a shimmering river are spliced to an imagined 16th-century Italian cityscape in the background.

 

For those of our readers who have seen and heard Ponnelle’s Rigoletto (available on Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pcoq8NOwHX8&t=1028s), his staging will have breathed new life into one of Verdi’s most popular works and, perhaps, more emphatically, into two frequently excerpted arias, “Caro nome” and “La Donna è mobile.” Here are exceptional renditions of these perhaps too often heard chestnuts.

 “Caro nome,” Gilda’s musing on the name of the mysterious youth with whom she has fallen in love, is sung by Mattiwilda Dobbs who made her 1956 Met debut as Gilda following her success at La Scala, Covent Garden, and San Francisco. The first black singer to be cast as a romantic lead on the 39th Street stage, she sang primarily in Europe. In this commercial recording, Dobbs captures her character’s innocence and ardor with warmth and the assured execution of the filigreed ornaments.

 

Richard Tucker sings the Duke’s “La Donna è mobile (xxWoman is Fickle),” one of the catchiest tunes in all of music. Tucker, whose total of leading tenor Met performances is surpassed only by Giovanni Martinelli and Enrico Caruso, kept the role of the callous young Duke in his repertoire for the whole of his tenure in the company. He captures the libertine's swagger with the energy, spinning tone, and pellucid diction that marked his more than 30-year-long career.