Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

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 ( 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,, 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.