Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

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

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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

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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.