“Damozel” in Distress
That most formidable of early twentieth-century classical musicians, Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, would once again influence the course and direction of Brazilian opera by his fortuitous intervention in the burgeoning American career of soprano Bidu Sayão.
There exist several versions of their fabled encounter, but suffice it to say that the notoriously demanding maestro may have been moved by the Brazilian singer’s sensitive portrayal of the consumptive Violetta Valery in Verdi’s La Traviata, given in the mid-1930s at Milan’s historic Teatro alla Scala, where Toscanini had once served as musical director.
At a formal reception given for the diva in early 1936, at Town Hall in New York City, Toscanini introduced himself to Bidu, and, while reminiscing about her La Scala appearances, he immediately piqued her musical interest in a work she had not previously performed in: French composer Claude Debussy’s poetic cantata La Demoiselle Élue (“The Blessed Damozel”), originally written for mezzo-soprano, a voice category the normally stratospheric coloratura was unaccustomed to singing in.
Undaunted by the challenges inherent in this offbeat proposal, Toscanini offered to coach la piccola brasiliana in the difficult piece, and even recommended an alternative higher key for her comfort, for which he likewise supplied a revised vocal score:
“I am sending you the high notes that I think ought to be suitable. They aren’t difficult because they more or less follow the orchestra’s melodic line. You are a good enough musician to adapt immediately to these few changes. With my most cordial greetings, Arturo Toscanini, 14 April 1936”
Needless to say, Bidu was hooked by this rare chance to work with the notorious Italian taskmaster, and willingly swallowed the bait. With the experienced hand of Arturo Toscanini leading her and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra and New York Schola Cantorum Singers, Bidu Sayão made an auspicious Carnegie Hall debut in the Debussy work on April 16, 1936, to rave reviews in the press:
“Sayão captures the plaintive, mysterious atmosphere of LA DAMOISELLE ÉLUE. Conveying the purity of the vocal line, the innocence of the character, and the tenderness of Debussy’s setting of Rossetti’s poem, Sayão is an ideal interpreter of this music. Toscanini referred to her singing as ‘just like a dream, an angel, from the sky’.”
Broadcast Debut in Manon
Taking advantage of the increased exposure these Manhattan concerts had provided her, Bidu spent the next several seasons commuting to and from her native Brazil and her soon-to-be-adopted North American homeland. She gave innumerable performances on both continents, but paid particular attention to Brazilian shores, by some accounts appearing in as many as 200 different locations spanning the entire length and breadth of the country.
Upon her return to the States, the board of the Metropolitan Opera (at Toscanini’s insistence) tapped the busy soprano to appear in a part not generally associated with South American artists: that of Jules Massenet’s wholly and beguilingly Gallic young heroine, the beautiful and coquettish Manon Lescaut.
Although he himself no longer had any direct involvement in running the company, Toscanini nonetheless proved relentless in persuading the Met’s stodgy management to take on the Brazilian nightingale for this plum assignment — this despite the fact that Manon was not a role that required the kind of vocal fireworks Bidu was then capable of producing, nor was it yet a regular staple of her core repertoire.
Fortunately for the Met, the singer had been slowly expanding her roster of parts to encompass the more lyrical aspects of such roles as Violetta in La Traviata, Juliette in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, and Mimì in Puccini’s La Bohème, even before she had met her second husband, Giuseppe Danise.
It was to Danise’s credit, however, that he was able to confidently guide his young protégée further along this productive path and stretch her usual list of soubrette parts by including more “dramatic” vocal opportunities. This admittedly opened up fresher avenues for Bidu to explore, now that she had been performing ad infinitum the same well-worn roles of Lucia, Rosina, and Susanna over the entire course of her career — even though audiences still flocked to see her in them.
With her authentic French diction and remarkable ability to breathe dramatic life into increasingly complex characters, Bidu was ideally poised to conquer the environs of North America, just as she had done in Europe and Latin America some ten years earlier.
Finally, on February 13, 1937, on a cold and wintry Saturday afternoon (a national radio broadcast), the captivating 34-year-old Brazilian stepped out from behind the golden curtain and into the warm glow of the stage at the old Metropolitan Opera House, on Broadway and Thirty-Ninth Street, to bask in a well-deserved ovation for her premier performance in Massenet’s opera Manon.
She delivered what many of her staunchest supporters would come to regard as her most elaborately prepared, most fully realized, and most passionately heartfelt portrait to date. In addition to the chilly weather, there was a last-minute cast change in one of the leads, that of the Chevalier des Grieux:
“It was supposed to have been [Belgian tenor] René Maison,” Bidu recalled some years later for the New York Times, but it turned out not to be case. “He was sick, but they didn’t tell me, because they didn’t want to make me nervous. So I stood looking and looking, and I was getting nervous because I didn’t see him. Then a strange man greeted me! I almost fell down! When there was a moment, he said, ‘Hello, I’m Sidney Rayner.’ I said, ‘I’m Bidu Sayão,’ even though I think he already knew that, and we went on from there.”
Despite the impromptu nature of the proceedings, the broadcast came off as scheduled. Manon would go on to become her third most requested role (22 appearances in all) during her extensive Met Opera tenure, lagging behind only Susanna and Mimì (46 performances each), and Violetta (with 23), in number of times sung.
It is noteworthy to point out that Bidu Sayão had established a firm foothold on the legitimate Broadway stage two years and four months before Carmen Miranda was to do so – and a full three years prior to Carmen’s own footprints were to be permanently enshrined on Hollywood’s immortal Walk of Fame. ☼
(End of Part Three)
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes