Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Lost Season, April-May 2021: Il Pirata

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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

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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.