A Bel Canto Bonanza (Conclusion) — Rossini a Day Keeps the Doctor Away: ‘La Cenerentola’ and ‘The Barber of Seville’

When One Season Ends, Another Begins

Joyce DiDonato in La Cenerentola (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Joyce DiDonato in La Cenerentola (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

That’s how it is with opera: as soon as we marvel at how well the cream of the bel canto crop has performed on the air, along comes a production that completely undoes whatever positive impressions came before.

I’m referring to an once-in-a-lifetime transition whereby the 2013-14 Metropolitan Opera radio season ended with a bang with Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, the Italian version of the Cinderella story, while the 2014-15 season began with a thud via the broadcast of the same composer’s The Barber of Seville. Two comic-opera delights which, on paper, featured ideal casts — yet only one of them came out holding the glass slipper, or gold bracelet in the case of Rossini’s work.

Let’s discuss that work, the May 10th broadcast of La Cenerentola starring the fabulously gifted American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Angelina, our fairy-tale heroine and a major interpreter of this repertoire. The other cast members included bel canto specialist Juan Diego Flórez as Don Ramiro (or Prince Charming), Luca Pisaroni as Alidoro, Alessandro Corbelli as Don Magnifico (the mean stepfather), Pietro Spagnoli in his broadcast debut as Dandini, and Rachelle Durkin and Patricia Risley as, respectively, the vain stepsisters Clorinda and Tisbe. The conductor for the afternoon was Fabio Luisi, the Met’s principal podium master.

This 1997 production is by Cesare Lievi, with charming box sets and costumes by designer Maurizio Balò. As any follower of this infectious piece knows, Rossini and his librettist, Jacopo Ferretti, grounded their adaptation of Charles Perrault’s enduring tale less in the magical arena and more in the everyday drudgery of its title character. Not that enchantment was banished altogether from this realm, but instead of the usual “hocus-pocus” and “bibbidy-bobbadi-boo” prestidigitations we have the behind-the-scenes intrigue of Ramiro’s wise tutor, Alidoro, who takes on the gutsy role of the Fairy Godfather (not Godmother), but sans magic wand.

Angelina, as she’s called here, wins the hand of her prince through a kind and loving heart as well as modest displays of sympathy and largesse for her loutish step-parent, Don Magnifico, and his two insipid daughters. This is as it should be, for the subtitle of the piece, “ossia la bontà in trionfo” (“or the triumph of goodness”), tells listeners all they need to know about this kind-hearted character’s motives. As corny as it may sound, Monsieur Perrault, the creator of the original tale, and Walt Disney himself I daresay, would have approved of these harmless alterations.

What matters most, of course, is the music, which follows the general pattern of Rossini’s earlier The Barber of Seville — i.e., fast tempos, rapid-fire ensembles, and soft-to-loud passages — and how it enhances or detracts from our enjoyment of the piece, whether or not it was successfully transmitted by the artists involved. On that front, we need have no concerns, for this performance of La Cenerentola proved to be one of the Met’s finest to date.

Don Ramiro (Juan Diego Florez) with Angelina (Joyce DiDonato)

Don Ramiro (Juan Diego Florez) with Angelina (Joyce DiDonato)

Ms. DiDonato, who debuted at the house in 2005-06, has been performing the Rossini catalogue for nearly two decades. Ergo, her spirited Angelina is one of this singer’s premium assignments, a role she has vested with personality, affinity and persuasiveness at every turn. Physically, she personifies both the scullery-maid aspects as well as the “storybook princess” elements called for in the text. Her joyful second act rondo, “Non piu mesta accanto al fuoco” (“Now farewell, dark days of weeping”), which readers may recall was borrowed from Rossini’s Barber, was a vocal triumph of the first order. All her roulades and repeats, along with runs up-and-down the scale, were carried out with refinement and skill, as worthy a depiction of her artistry as any I’ve heard to date.

DiDonato was deftly seconded by her partner, Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, one of only a handful of artists at the Met (the others being Javier Camarena and Lawrence Brownlee) who have successfully maneuvered through the vocal rigors of Prince Ramiro’s tricky tessitura. It’s not just about hitting the notes that have made this singer (and the above-mentioned team of performers) so special but his knack for conveying a regal demeanor combined with ease of flow, while also spewing forth those abundant Cs and Ds in alt.

Lately, Juan Diego has been venturing into heavier tenor repertory. We need not fear for his vocal life, however, since the heaviest he’s been involved with (so far) is Rossini’s Arnold in Guillaume Tell. And from all reliable reports, he has acquitted himself with honor. Fortunately for the listener, Flórez has kept that nimbleness and buoyancy throughout his range, absolute requisites in this preeminent company. He and Ms. DiDonato are two artists who never seem to force their naturally lyrical instruments to points beyond their limits. To find and hear such savvy professionals in this day and age is a wonder indeed; that they were accompanied by singers of near-equal stature is more than we can expect.

It’s certainly been proven that a native Italian, in those mile-a-minute Rossinian patter songs, with rare exceptions can manipulate those arias’ complicated lyrics better than most non-Italians. And audiences were blessed with not two but THREE such sturdy talents: the bassos Pisaroni, Corbelli and Spagnoli. Alidoro is the mover and shaker of the piece, and Signor Pisaroni, whom I’ve heard previously in Handel and Mozart, was fluid in his runs and exceedingly adept at both the highest and lowest ranges of this part.

The same can be said for Signor Corbelli, a full-voiced, plumy buffo in the tradition of Fernando Corena and Paolo Montarsolo, but with a lighter timbre more reminiscent of baritone Renato Capecchi — a singer well acquainted with tragic and comic parts. New to me was Signor Spagnoli, who complemented these fine gentlemen as a vocally commanding Dandini. We can thank Rossini for that: he’s provided his lower-voiced characters with an embarrassment of riches in this work — take your pick of the litter, fellows!

The two stepsisters, sung by Durkin and Risley (sounds like an ambulance-chasing law firm, doesn’t it?) played their parts to risible perfection. Maestro Luisi let the music flow, with plenty of snap, crackle and pop in the pit and in the immensely satisfying ensembles, of which there are plenty. His attention to detail and knowledge of how this work should be played and sound assisted in bringing down the curtain on a most magical season replete with luscious gardens of vocal delights.

The Forecast: Dull with Continuing Dullness

Isabel Leonard, Lawrence Brownlee & Christopher Maltman in The Barber of Seville

Isabel Leonard, Lawrence Brownlee & Christopher Maltman in The Barber of Seville

So what happened between May and December? Something must have gotten lost in translation during the long summer-to-fall hiatus. I am still trying to wrap my arms around the meager quality of the Met’s The Barber of Seville broadcast of December 6, 2014, the first of the Saturday afternoon 2014-15 radio transmissions.

Perhaps it was the flu that got everybody bugged, or maybe a really bad case of repertory negligence. Whatever the reason, there was no excuse for the piteous display of vocalism that ran rampant during this Bartlett Sher production of one of the repertoire’s best-loved masterworks.

A notorious failure at its 1816 premiere, under the banner of Almaviva, ossia l’inutil precauzione (“Almaviva, or the Useless Precaution”) so as not to conflict with an earlier adaptation by composer Giovanni Paisiello, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, to cite its original Italian title, was based on a trilogy of plays by French dramatist Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, whose The Marriage of Figaro (the second work in the trilogy) became the basis for Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro.

While Paisiello’s opera was still being lauded, Rossini and his collaborator, the poet Cesare Sterbini, decided to rework Paisiello’s piece, much to the dismay of his followers, to include Signor Paisiello himself. That infamous fiasco of February 20th when The Barber premiered at the Teatro Argentina in Rome has been thoroughly discussed by scholars ad absurdum, its faults explored and re-examined as to why the work flopped at the outset.

As near as can be determined, the performers were thrown off by the audience’s negative reaction to what they heard and saw; that is to say, not so much by the music itself as to the lack of polish on the part of those same performers. That may sound like heresy to readers, but it was a common situation during those raucously unsound times. Verdi and Wagner — and Puccini, too, if truth be told — had to contend with any number of disruptive forces, among them unruly patrons, inferior casts, listless conducting, substandard playing, and subpar surroundings.

Our modern expectations of professionalism and the superior degree of musicianship that, today, has been taken for granted were in short supply back then, even in such esteemed institutions as La Scala and Bayreuth. Rossini, Donizetti, and Verdi and their ilk, along with an army of musicians slaving away in the “galleys” as they were known, faced this problem on a daily basis. About the best they could do was to deal with the lack of preparedness head-on and as the issue arose. Would that some of their spunk and ingenuity to overcome the many hurdles thrust upon them have rubbed off on their present-day counterparts!

Act I ensemble of The Barber of Seville

Act I ensemble of The Barber of Seville

With that lead-in in mind, the broadcast of The Barber of Seville featured the redoubtable Lawrence Brownlee as an extremely accomplished Count Almaviva, Christopher Maltman as the jack-of-all-trades Figaro, Maurizio Muraro as a tongue-tied Dr. Bartolo, Isabel Leonard as his ward Rosina, and Paata Burchuladze as the mealy-mouthed music master Don Basilio. Michele Mariotti was the conductor for this performance and, as we’ve noted in prior posts, the haste-makes-waste maestro whose fast-paced leadership of this and other bel canto works lent considerable verve to the proceedings, if without pause for respite.

That’s not to say that artistry was left in the dust, but on this broadcast I got the impression that some of Saturday’s participants were “winging it” on their own. I’ve mentioned before about presenting complete performances of standard and non-standard bel canto items, which has much improved over the years, especially with regard to early and middle-period Verdi.

With Rossini’s Barber, the more there is of this piece, the better-sounding it becomes (to me, at least). Small cuts here and there, such as the brief scene with Fiorello after Figaro and Almaviva’s three-quarter-time duet in Act I, scene i; the comic interplay earlier on with Dr. Bartolo and Rosina at her balcony; or the extended exchange between Bartolo, the sneezing Berta and a yawning Ambrogio, while providing grist for the slapstick-comedy mill, can be easily dispensed with and suffer no damage to the overall plot.

A Matter of Casting

But the biggest bone I have to pick is some of the slipshod quality of the major performers themselves, by which I mean the egregious casting of Paata Burchuladze as Basilio and the blustering Bartolo of Maurizio Muraro. In last year’s discussion of J.D. McClatchy’s English-language version of the opera (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/01/02/opera-review-the-barber-of-seville-in-english-shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits/), I complained furiously about his translation as not being riotous enough or nearly as intelligible to novices as it needed to have been.

This time, I found grievous fault with Burchuladze’s vocal mannerisms, which were abysmally below the expected level for an artist of his longevity and repute. His rise to prominence in the 1980s and subsequent appearances with Luciano Pavarotti and Herbert Von Karajan, in addition to participation in various Verdi performances at La Scala and thereabouts, paved the way for his 1989 Met debut as Ramfis in Aida. A solo recording of scenes from Russian and Italian opera (well received, but with reservations as to his lack of dramatic thrust), as well as DVDs of La Scala performances, fueled the notion that here was another Fyodor Chaliapin in the making. Uh, not quite!

One critic claimed his Don Basilio was better acted than sung, which may have given rise again to comparisons with Chaliapin. This is disparaging to Chaliapin, who until a ripe old age had a superbly disciplined and mellifluous voice, preserved for us on old 78s and on film. The unfulfilled promise of the once-potent Paata, however, who struggled with both ends of Basilio’s “La calunnia” — normally, a sure-fire showstopper for any bass worth his low F — spilled over into Mr. Muraro’s undisciplined, sloppy, and irritating interpretation of Bartolo’s “A un dottor della mia sorte” (“A doctor of my reputation”).

Artists of the caliber of Salvatore Baccaloni and Melchiorre Luise, Corena and Montarsolo, Sesto Bruscantini, Enzo Dara, Angelo Romero, or this country’s John Del Carlo, have all executed this vocal tirade with more panache and comic timing than Muraro could muster. To top it off, he concluded the torturous piece by gasping for air while wavering perilously off pitch. This could have been part of the show, but on the radio Muraro sounded over-parted.

In like manner, Burchuladze’s stab at an unwritten high note to “La calunnia” was calumnious in itself, in the way it completely blew the composer’s cadenza to the four winds. And to think he was following in the illustrious footsteps of such past luminaries as Chaliapin, Ezio Pinza, Tancredi Pasero, Cesare Siepi, Giulio Neri, Italo Tajo, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Samuel Ramey, and Ferruccio Furlanetto. Ah, it pains the ear…

In this company, Mr. Maltman’s sharply refined Figaro and Ms. Leonard’s neatly vocalized but mature-sounding Rosina, escaped the bad notices, but neither did they shine as they normally would have. I did like Maltman’s basic timbre, though, which was right for the playful town barber; but Leonard’s inability to convey exuberance on the radio was disheartening.

Lawrence Brownlee as Count Almaviva

Lawrence Brownlee as Count Almaviva

The best performance of the day, dear readers, I have saved for last: Lawrence Brownlee outshone his colleagues with a masterfully phrased, delectably sung and ingratiating traversal of the wily Almaviva whose name, as translated, means “lively soul.” That he was! Although short of stature, Brownlee gave a master class in Italian diction and coloratura leaps and runs. He was also an estimable ensemble player who put to shame some of the so-called veterans on display in that vast Met Opera auditorium. I can’t say enough good things about this enthralling young artist, one of the finest interpreters of bel canto anywhere.

Brownlee, an African American tenor from Youngstown, Ohio, has made a specialty of this repertoire. He stands out from the not-so-crowded field of contenders by talent and ability alone, as one of the opera world’s most sought-after voices.

Thus, Brownlee both ended and began another Met Opera broadcast season in fine fettle; likewise, we should consider ourselves privileged to have heard the likes of Javier Camarena and Juan Diego Flórez, mentioned in the same breath as Brownlee. And may we continue to hear more of these supremely confident young artistes.

In an historic meeting of the minds, Beethoven once urged Rossini to “Remember to give us more Barbers.” I say to the Met, “Remember to provide the singers capable of singing them!”

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Three): ‘Glory’ Days

Pvt. Trip (Denzel Washington) in Glory (1989)

Pvt. Silas Trip (Denzel Washington) in ‘Glory’ (1989)

There was a time in Denzel Washington’s young life when he had entertained notions of becoming a preacher. After all, his father, the Reverend Denzel Hayes Washington Sr. (Denzel was named after his dad), was an ordained minister in the Pentecostal Church. And wouldn’t it have been nice if the son had followed in the father’s footsteps?

But by age 14, Denzel’s parents had split up and the more junior Washington was sent off to a private preparatory school, Oakland Military Academy in New Windsor, New York. Although by the time Denzel began to study there the military curriculum had long since been discontinued, it was still a forlorn environment for the impressionable inner-city youth from Mount Vernon. As a matter of fact, he was the only black kid in an all-white class.

Years later, the actor would recall that the decision to send him to Oakland Military Academy had profound ramifications for his personal life. “I wouldn’t have survived in the direction that I was going,” Denzel stated. “The guys I was hanging out with at the time, my running buddies, have now done 40 years combined in the penitentiary. They were nice guys, but the streets got them.”

And Tinsel Town got nice guy Denzel, a fair trade at best. A little over 20 years passed when Washington, now a major force on the Hollywood scene after glowing reviews in several big-screen features, was signed to appear in the Civil War epic Glory (1989). He played the part of the taciturn Private Silas Trip, a former slave fighting for the North who also fought for the freedom of his people.

“I wanted to do something different,” Denzel indicated at the time, “and to feel removed from the present time. It’s difficult to do a period piece and to give yourself as an actor a different feeling, as though you’re in a different time.”

“He really defined that character,” commented film critic Julian Roman, “to the point of someone who became a part of the war … but beyond that became a comrade to his friends, became a loyal soldier to his regiment commander — and that’s a transcendent performance.”

“I didn’t even know that blacks fought in the Civil War,” the actor told the Associated Press. Records from that period show there were over 150,000 African Americans involved in the five-year conflict. “The American history classes that I took didn’t seem to dwell on that at all. It was inspiring for me; it gave me a lot of energy to continue research and get further and further into it. Although the character I play isn’t based on a real person, I kind of put ideas together that I found from reading slave narratives and things like that.”

Battle Cry of Freedom

Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Library of Congress)

Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Library of Congress)

Directed by former Harvard-graduate Edward Zwick, the letters of another Harvard alumnus, those of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick, who also provides the voiceover), a young, white Union commander in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, written to his northern abolitionist mother (Jane Alexander, unbilled), formed the basis for this inspiring portrait of gallantry and racism during the American Civil War.

Other relevant sources included the novel One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment by Peter Burchard and Lincoln Kirstein’s photographic compilation, Lay This Laurel.

Unlike the real-life 54th, which was made up mostly of free black men from the North, the screen regiment is comprised almost entirely of ex-slaves. Except for the presence of Col. Shaw, his parents, and the imposing figure of author, abolitionist, editor and speaker Frederick Douglass (Raymond St. Jacques, also unbilled) — two of whose sons actually signed up with and fought for the 54th — the principal participants depicted in the drama are purely fictitious.

One of these fictitious creations, Pvt. Trip, is flogged for having deserted his troops in the midst of their training. As it turns out, Trip was only looking for a decent pair of shoes, which the troops had been denied due to the racist tendencies of the quartermaster in charge of their supplies. Denzel’s tearful acquiescence in full view of his fellow troopers, and before his commanding officer, is one of the most powerful sequences in the movie.

Trip would rather take the punishment than show weakness by backing down from a beating. In his own words, Denzel put the case before us: “Basically what I did was, [I] got on my knees and sort of communicated with the spirits of those who had been enslaved, who had been whipped. And when I came out I was in charge. I said ‘Trip was in charge. If this is what you men, which is what you call yourselves, want to do to Trip, then come with it.’ ”

He and the other volunteers eventually get to display their fighting spirit and worth as Union soldiers in a futile and vividly realistic suicidal attack on an impregnable beach fortress off the coast of South Carolina.

Trip is flogged in the movie ‘Glory’

“These men were looking for an opportunity to prove themselves,” Denzel continued. “The battle was no more dangerous than their day-to-day lives with the constant threat of slavery and slave masters with their [slave] mentality over their heads. They were looking for the opportunity to have a fair fight and to have a rifle as well, regardless of the odds.”

Subsequently channeling Rev. Denzel Washington Sr., Denzel Jr. sounds suspiciously like a man preaching to the choir. And in a rousing scene that takes place the night before the final battle, Denzel (in his guise as Pvt. Trip) gets to clap and sing along with his fellow soldiers in a spontaneous revival meeting. Do I hear an “Amen” out there?

The hardships these men experience along the way frame the main part of the story behind the unsuccessful charge at Fort Wagner where, historically, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry lost half their men. Pride, courage, bravery, dignity and sacrifice are all touched upon in this potent war drama, a fitting tribute to the soldiers who fought and died in that vicious battle, which occurred almost simultaneously with a similar confrontation on the wide-open fields of Gettysburg, PA.

After several nominations wherein he came up empty-handed, in 1990 Denzel Washington finally won a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his personification of an angry black man railing against social injustice.

For me, the most poignant portion of the entire film comes when the lifeless body of Col. Shaw is unceremoniously dumped into a huge ditch alongside the corpse of Pvt. Trip and others of their regiment, with gulls and sea birds squealing and squawking noisily overhead. Their bodies come together in an involuntary “embrace,” which symbolizes the union of each man’s spirit in brotherly love and understanding — if not in life, then in the after-life.

Matthew Broderick as Col. Robert Gould Shaw

Matthew Broderick as Col. Robert Gould Shaw in ‘Glory

However, the real-life tragedy of what actually took place after the battle had been lost was mercifully omitted. In the book, Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, published by the Society of American Historians, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson, in the chapter on the movie Glory, described the outcome in distressing terms:

“The Confederate defenders of Fort Wagner stripped Shaw’s corpse and dumped it into an unmarked mass grave with the bodies of his black soldiers. When the Union commander sent a flag of truce across the lines a day later to request the return of Shaw’s body (a customary practice for high-ranking officers killed in the Civil War), a Confederate officer [General Johnson Hagood] replied contemptuously, ‘We have buried him with his niggers.’”

Interestingly, Col. Shaw’s father had quite a different reaction to his son’s “dishonorable” burial: “We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers … We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company — what a body-guard he has!”

With a screenplay by Kevin Jarre and striking photography by the veteran British cinematographer Freddie Francis (The Elephant Man, Dune), Glory also featured excellent performances from Morgan Freeman as Sgt. Major Rawlins, Cary Elwes as Major Cabot Forbes, Andre Braugher as Thomas Searles, and Jihmi Kennedy as Jupiter Sharts, along with Alan North, Bob Gunton, John Finn, Jay O. Sanders and Cliff De Young in other roles.

The exceptionally fine and moving musical score by James Horner (Cocoon, Field of Dreams), with the welcome participation of the Boys Choir of Harlem, is one of this composer’s best remembered pieces. It’s a favorite of record collectors and sound buffs (Shawn Murphy is the sound engineer), with more than a hint of Carl Orff’s secular cantata Carmina burana in its sweeping choral passages and ethereal, otherworldly tonalities.

(End of Part Three – To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

A Bel Canto Bonanza — Bellini’s ‘La Sonnambula’ and ‘I Puritani,’ Rossini’s ‘La Cenerentola,’ and Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ (Continuation)

It’s All in the Presentation

Natalie Dessay in the "Made Scene" from Lucia (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Natalie Dessay in the “Made Scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

A word or two are in order about the conductor of I Puritani, Michelle Mariotti, the native from Pesaro (Rossini’s hometown) who impressed the heck out of me with his scorching delivery of Verdi’s Rigoletto back in February 2013. Having whipped the Met Opera Orchestra into tip-top shape for that performance, I fear the maestro lost track of the big picture with I Puritani, neglecting the wider subtleties of this more refined work.

Hey, it’s not called “The Puritans of Scotland” (in the English translation) for nothing! Although the characters all sing in suitable Italian, they’re PURITANS, for Sir Walter Scott’s sake! Bellini, that supreme master of the long legato line, composed such genuinely heartfelt tunes, such glowingly melodic inventions for his personalities, that one could reach out and touch their finery with the index finger of one’s hand. Well, if not literally, then certainly figuratively.

To accomplish this phenomenon, a conductor must guide the singers along in an easygoing yet firmly-structured path: too “loosey goosey,” and the entire framework collapses of its own weight; too rigid and unbending, and the fragrance of these scores loses their delicate bouquet. This way or that way, it’s the conductor’s call, a refinement of form that few present-day orchestra leaders have mastered or have time for in today’s globe-trotting environment.

To bring the argument down to earth, what worked so splendidly in Verdi may not function as well with Bellini. In this situation, I felt the performance of Puritani to be rushed beyond all measure. Surely, Mariotti can slow down just enough to allow his singers the autonomy necessary to concentrate on the action and text, and the orchestra a good deal more flexibility. Beyond this observation, which reflects my personal preferences in this music, the maestro came through as expected.

Now for the productions themselves, several of which displayed questionable choices. Mary Zimmerman, the director of La Sonnambula as well as the televised Lucia di Lammermoor (from a few years prior), appears to be enamored of modern dress; well, if it must be said, so does every other director at the Met of late. In this respect, Zimmerman is in good company. Why, just about every new production I’ve seen or read about in Opera News or Opera World, the New York Times or any number of publications that cover the arts, exhibit photographs of standard and non-standard works in tiresome modern dress, or as near to modern dress as the director’s conception allows.

While this has been going on for far too many years, it’s becoming old hat. Even worse, it is wearing out its welcome (note the failure of the Met’s hideous new Faust from 2011). What was once novel and inventive is at present turning stale. When the bel canto revival began in the 1950s, as I noted in the first part of my piece, the goal was to recreate the ambience and “feel” of these neglected works — if not in actual practice, then at least in how these operas looked.

This meant that if La Sonnambula was originally set in a picturesque, Swiss mountain village in the early nineteenth-century, then the scenery, sets and costumes would reflect that specific time period and locale. And if I Puritani or Lucia di Lammermoor were supposed to take place in craggy seventeenth-century Scotland, then by golly that’s where they took place!

The Met Opera’s revival of the thirty-year-old Sandro Sequi production of Puritani certainly kept to those themes. With sets by Ming Cho Lee, and flowery and lacy costume designs by Peter J. Hall, the old-fashioned formalities favored by Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti, who starred in this production when it was new, is a quaint holdover of the “stand up and sing” approach the house once took with respect to this repertoire.

My, how times have changed! By contrast, the revised La Sonnambula outline featured six characters (not including the notary) in search of an author — or rather, in search of a plot thread to tie into Zimmerman’s play-within-a-play theory. Some directors try to fit an opera’s story and text to their own peculiar vision for what the work “should” be; others understand the inherent limitations of combining a viable concept with the composer’s original intentions.

Lights, Camera, Action!

And then there are those who impose their will on a piece, whether or not the piece is too fragile to withstand such treatment, i.e., of being turned literally on its head. Such is the problem with a work where (according to the Met’s description) the participants are gathered in “a rehearsal room where singers are preparing a production of La Sonnambula set in a Swiss village. The story, actions and characters,” the description goes on to say, “are all coincident with those of the rehearsal room.” Uh, right.

Joseph Calleja as Edgardo, and Natalie Dessay as Lucia, in Act I

Joseph Calleja (Edgardo) and Natalie Dessay (Lucia) in Act I

Zimmerman’s view of Lucia di Lammermoor, however, comes off better in this regard, with some ghostly touches and a gigantic full moon hovering in the background — these are in sync with the supernatural flavor of the work itself. Moving the action up by two centuries, there are lovely cream-colored garments and frilly ball gowns for the ladies, and nicely cropped outfits and trim waste coats for the men, all courtesy of costume designer Mara Blumenfeld.

A darling little hat sits atop Lucia’s head, an adorable accessory that complements her riding garb in Act I, scene ii. In addition, both Edgardo’s swirling black overcoat and Enrico’s slate-gray variety are exceptionally smart and well tailored. In point of fact, all the costumes served not only to delineate character but to flatter the wearer as well, whether they were worn by Anna Netrebko in an earlier incarnation, or Natalie Dessay in the Live in HD broadcast I caught in mid-August.

As much as I have admired Netrebko’s assumption of the role, which I also recorded, for me Dessay’s Lucia had the edge in capturing the character’s unbalanced state of mind and bipolar temperament. On the other hand, the general state of her vocal equipment was worrisome. For the past twenty years, Dessay has conquered the world’s major opera houses with incredible feats of vocal legerdemain. Lately, the strength of that ability to put over a role vocally has dwindled noticeably, just as her artistry has expanded to its current extraordinary status.

As an actress playing a role, she is without par. If Netrebko has lately assumed the mantle of a true Verdian soprano with sufficient volume and heft to her tone, then Dessay is the ultimate throwback to a time when the likes of Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt dominated the news. Despite diminished vocal resources, Ms. Dessay is more than capable of overcoming any barrier to success. In this, she plainly delivers. I believe the high definition technology now in use in a number of movie houses favors her minimalist approach BETTER than any exposure in the theater might bring. What this will mean for her future in opera is anybody’s guess. Yet, down the road I predict a fabulous new career for Ms. Dessay as a director: she is, if I may be allowed, THAT GOOD!

Her colleagues in the Live in HD Lucia — Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as a hefty but lyrically adept Edgardo, the French-born Ludovic Tézier as Lucia’s brother Enrico, and bass Kwangchul Youn as the chaplain Raimundo — all made notable contributions to the overall quality of this broadcast. Conducted by Patrick Summers, who brought an experienced hand and unique understanding of this opera’s musical and vocal requirements, the update in time period did no visible damage to what turned out to be an enjoyable transmission.

Some people have complained about that intrusive wedding photographer during the famous Act II sextet, especially when he snaps the picture of the wedding party at the ensemble’s climax. My thought was to its actual relevance to the action, which was the forced marriage of Lucia to Arturo Bucklaw. Why wouldn’t there be a photographer present? It added to the reality of the moment, that Lucia’s betrayal of her betrothed, Edgardo, would be preserved in a photo for all to see, thus making her dilemma that much more intolerable.

However, I was really thrown off by baritone Tézier’s uncanny resemblance to Alan Rickman as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter film series. Indeed, he may have needed Snape’s combative spirit and magical abilities in relaying the fiery side of Enrico’s personality: his performance was decidedly underpowered and lacked the florid embellishments that Calleja, and especially Dessay, carried off in their individual episodes. For example, Dessay’s Mad Scene was a tour de force example of uniting action, voice and words to the character’s deranged mind; and Calleja’s own “mad scene,” or more accurately his death watch, served as a lesson in concentrated intensity.

Edgardo's death scene, with Dessay and Calleja

Edgardo’s death scene, with Dessay and Calleja

About that last scene: some viewers were confused about the ghost that materializes with Edgardo as he lies dying from a self-imposed wound. That ghost, who is mentioned in Lucia’s Act I narrative “Regnava nel silenzio,” is made manifest in this production. Mary Zimmerman was quoted as saying that in previous treatments, this ghost is a “figment of Lucia’s imagination and a precursor to her eventual madness.” In her production, Zimmerman “visualized Lucia as completely sane until the tragic events forced her into madness. Therefore, the ghost was real,” or as real as any of the other characters. So in the end, Lucia becomes the ghost that she initially envisioned.

The remaining cast members, though satisfying overall, were unquestionably not on this artistic level. And while the opera was performed complete (not “note complete,” as I would have preferred, but that’s a general complaint of mine), some of the cadenzas and extensions that Donizetti had so carefully conveyed in the score were either cut short or overlooked entirely.

Let’s face it, folks: I make no bones about the fact that Lucia is my favorite bel canto work. I have a soft spot for it, since it was the first complete opera I got to see at the now-defunct New York City Opera way back in the summer of July 1975, in the famed Tito Capobianco production unveiled for the legendary Beverly Sills. The cast that I heard included Ruth Welting, Gene Bullard, Pablo Elvira, and Maurizio Mazzieri, with Giuseppe Morelli on the podium. I was so thrilled at finally having witnessed a real-live opera event, with full orchestra and costumes and atmospheric sets, that I was permanently hooked!

Since that long-ago experience, rare is the performance of Lucia di Lammermoor that has lifted me to those youthful, marvelous heights as that initial encounter had. Ah, well, better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Opera Goes to Hollywood, the Sequel — Short Takes, Outtakes, and Out-and-Out Mistakes

Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy in ‘New Moon’ (1936)

A year or two back, I published a series of articles devoted to the incongruities of opera stars appearing or being featured in Hollywood movies (yes, you heard that right — even the silent variety), and of Hollywood movies employing said opera stars.

I later realized, to my dismay, that a cluster of mini-pieces I had prepared on the subject of opera and moviedom never quite made it to the “final cut,” so to speak. Whether for reasons of space, or most likely the failure of these pieces to fit into any specific group or category that I had been thinking about, I never got around to a definitive solution for their use. In all probability, they wound up on the proverbial cutting-room floor.

Nevertheless, I would like to make amends and take this opportunity to rectify my oversight by offering these “short takes, outtakes, and out-and-out mistakes” as a consolation to movie buffs and opera lovers starved for the offbeat and out-of-the-way in musical film fare.

So, as they say in showbiz: “Here goes nothing!”

Yes, But Were They Opera Singers?

A subsection of the class of performers who sang and acted their way to stardom in a multiplicity of motion pictures involves all those Deanna Durbin, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy vehicles so beloved of fans of the Depression years. Coming as they did before and during the conflagration known as World War II, we should look back on these ventures with more than a clear-eyed appreciation for their relative merits and deficiencies.

Let’s get the show on the road, then, with the young and gifted Deanna Durbin. Born Edna Mae Durbin on December 4, 1921, to British émigré parents in Winnipeg, Manitoba (bet you didn’t know she was Canadian, ay?), Deanna’s family relocated to Southern California, i.e., the Los Angeles area, when she was two years old due to her father’s health.

Originally scheduled to appear in a planned 1935 production opposite the famed Austrian contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink — it was going to be another of those Hollywood “biopics,” this one of the grande dame herself, in which Durbin was supposed to play Schumann-Heink as a child — the project was scrapped due to the singer’s untimely passing. That alone would turn most aspirants off. Instead, the rechristened Deanna co-starred a year later in an MGM short, Every Sunday, alongside another potential discovery, the plucky thirteen-year-old Judy Garland.

As ill luck would have it, Garland was in and Durbin was out. It sounds suspiciously like one of those producer clichés (of the “The kid stays in the picture” variety). But the scuttlebutt around Tinsel Town indicated that Louis B. Mayer, the titular lord of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s realm, took one look at Every Sunday and that very day made his fateful decision: “Get rid of the fat one,” he declared. His subordinates misunderstood Mayer’s pronouncement and promptly canned Ms. Durbin, when in fact he had meant to fire the pudgy Ms. Judy. Details, details!

Deanna Durbin

Deanna Durbin

That being the case, the production team at Universal, headed by Joe Pasternak (who later migrated to MGM) and Henry Koster, snapped up the budding starlet and signed young Durbin to make her feature debut in Three Smart Girls (1936), a smart move on their part. Deanna’s role was that of a smart cookie, sharing screen time with Nan Grey and Barbra Read, the other brains of the outfit.

This was soon followed by the hugely successful One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), wherein the guileless Deanna played second fiddle, in a manner of speaking, to the real star of the show: the world renowned, long-haired music-maker, maestro Leopold Stokowski. This was several years before “Stokie” had bowed to (in animated-silhouette form, I might add) and shook the celluloid hand of the cartoonish Mickey Mouse in Walt Disney’s cult classic, Fantasia (1940).

The basic plot of One Hundred Men and a Girl involved an aspiring vocalist (Deanna) trying to convince the skeptical conductor to hire her unemployed father and his ragtag group of equally jobless musicians (all of them victims of a depressed economy) to play in an ad hoc symphony orchestra — presided over by Leopold himself. It’s a charming period piece, a harmless bit of Depression-era diversion, with the thoroughly enchanting Durbin at her uncomplicated best.

Her singing voice, while sounding slight and reedy on top (in this author’s opinion, not very distinctive even at this early stage in her career), manages to hit all the right notes in a pleasant if passable reading of the “Alleluia” section from Mozart’s concert aria, Exsultate Jubilate, along with other characteristic pieces from the period. Durbin is ably seconded by a typical 1930s cast of characters, including the dapper Adolphe Menjou as her ne’er-do-well dad, bullfrog-throated radio-station owner Eugene Pallette, Alice Brady as his wife, blustering Billy Gilbert as a garage owner, Frank Jenks as a cab driver (a role he repeated in many a picture), and the resourceful Mischa Auer as a flute player.

Durbin with Leopold Stokowski in One Hundred Men and a Girl

Durbin with Leopold Stokowski in ‘One Hundred Men and a Girl’

Mad About Music (1938) was the next entry in the Durbin canon, followed by such items as That Certain Age, Nice Girl?, It Started with Eve, and numerous others. Durbin’s films were notable primarily for their unabashed innocence and easy-to-take charm, their A-list casting of such top-drawer talents as Charles Laughton, Robert Cummings, Franchot Tone, and Robert Stack, and near-top of the line production values — although to be perfectly honest they were a few steps below the best that rival studio MGM had to offer.

Still, it was that very ordinariness, a quality that Durbin so attractively exuded in many of her screen portrayals, that tugged at filmgoers’ hearts. Later in 1938, she shared a special Academy Award with fellow child actor Mickey Rooney for (and I quote) “bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth … and by setting a high standard of ability and achievement.”

Notwithstanding her appeal as a non-threatening, girl-next-door type, in 1948 Ms. Durbin decided to retire from the screen at the advanced age of 27. By then, Deanna had flowered into a fully matured and, it must be noted, boldly voluptuous figure. Two films from 1944, the first, Christmas Holiday, in which she portrayed a New Orleans hooker of all things, and the other, Can’t Help Singing, a Technicolor musical Western that showed her in a bathtub surrounded by frothy bubbles, left little to the imagination and pretty much burst her bubble of wholesomeness for all time.

Relocating to Paris, Deanna married (for the third time, if you’re keeping track) a Frenchman by the name of Charles Henri David. She was rarely seen or heard from until her death, at 91, in April 2013. Durbin left behind a series of lightweight pictures that, while totally ingenuous in their makeup and design, held classical music in high regard.

Although popular with the middlebrow crowd, Deanna accepted the fact that she attracted mostly older audiences, her reasoning being that she “represented the ideal daughter millions of fathers and mothers wished they had.”

You may take a bow for that statement, dearie.

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life!

Eddy & MacDonald in Naughty Marietta

Eddy & MacDonald in ‘Naughty Marietta’

British-born movie critic and irascible raconteur, David Thomson, had a lot to say about our next pair of candidates for screen stardom: “It is possible that, without so accomplished a soprano voice, Jeanette MacDonald would now be more highly regarded as a comedienne. Without a song, she would not have had to keep company with the egregious Nelson Eddy.” Ouch, that hurt!

What Mr. Thomson may not have considered was that Ms. MacDonald’s career-defining affiliation with the robust-toned Mr. Eddy was exactly what the war-weary American public wanted and kept clamoring for during their unbroken string of hits between the years 1935 and 1942.

After all, what was Laurel without Hardy, Abbott without Costello? And, rightly put, what was Jeanette MacDonald without her Nelson Eddy? Ah, but there’s the rub! For you see, both stars had forged, whether separately or as a melodious unit, onscreen personalities so tailored to their own personas that, without regard to their individual talents, would forever be associated in people’s mind with the most winning (and, nowadays, the campiest) movie musicals in film history.

Born in Philadelphia, PA, in 1903 (or 1901, depending on your source), Jeanette Anna MacDonald was the youngest of three girls, one of whom was the actress Marie Blake, a.k.a. Blossom Rock, best known to TV addicts as Grandmama on The Addams Family series. Blessed with a lyrically-trained voice and above-average acting and dancing skills, young Jeanette came to New York in 1919, later making headway on the Great White Way in a variety of shows, revues and light operas from 1920 onward.

Discovered, after a fashion, by silent screen veteran Richard Dix and European film director Ernst Lubitsch, MacDonald burst onto the scene in a series of lushly filmed, suave and sophisticated musical comedies for Paramount Pictures, co-starring the dashingly urbane French sensation, Maurice Chevalier. They made four movies together, the first of which, The Love Parade in 1929, is an excellent example of what came to be known as the “Lubitsch touch.” Indeed, MacDonald and Maurice made beautiful music together (while he made goo-goo eyes at his partner), but their subsequent output failed to ignite the spark that the fast-moving Love Parade had started.

Jeanette MacDonald with Maurice Chevalier in ‘The Love Parade’ (Photo: cinema.ucla.edu)

Having had better luck with The Vagabond King (1930), which highlighted the rich baritone rumblings of the strikingly handsome British subject, Dennis King (Fra Diavolo or The Devil’s Brother), MacDonald jumped ship for other studios — among them United Artists and Fox Film Corporation — for a round of musical parfaits that exploited the artist’s growing popularity on the big screen. Several classics resulted, including another coupling with Monsieur Chevalier in One Hour with You and Love Me Tonight (both in 1932), along with a few others.

All this activity caught the attention of our old friend, Louis B. Mayer, who had been trying to sign up the busy singer-actress for a goodly number of years. Mayer’s fortunes were about to change, however, when after two unsuccessful efforts at MGM, including a sound remake of The Merry Widow (1934), directed by Lubitsch and featuring the debonair Chevalier again, the studio hit pay-dirt when Jeanette MacDonald was eventually paired with newcomer Nelson Eddy in the film version of Victor Herbert’s operetta, Naughty Marietta (1935).

A classically trained singer with an easy top and sturdy build, Eddy hailed from Providence, Rhode Island. Two years older than MacDonald, he was no less talented than his future working partner. After the early divorce of his parents, Eddy went to live in Philadelphia, Jeanette’s old hometown, where he began his vocal studies. Employed at a variety of jobs (among them a clerk and a newspaper reporter), young Nelson entered and won several voice competitions, all of which landed him recurring opportunities at the Philadelphia Civic Opera.

By the time he and MacDonald had joined together in song, Eddy had made numerous concert and opera appearances with the likes of maestro Stokowski, sopranos Helen Jepson and Elizabeth Rethberg, conductor Fritz Reiner, tenor Giovanni Martinelli, bass Ezio Pinza, and composer Ottorino Respighi. There was even mention of his name joining the illustrious ranks of other American baritones of the time, i.e., Lawrence Tibbett (himself a movie star), John Charles Thomas, and Richard Bonelli. Hey, Figaro!

With that background, was it any wonder that MGM had nothing but the greatest of difficulties in placing the tall, blond-haired and boyish-looking Eddy in non-singing parts? In total, Eddy and MacDonald appeared in eight feature films, many of them directed by either W.S . Van Dyke or Robert Z. Leonard or both, beginning with Naughty Marietta and followed by Rose Marie (1936), Maytime (1937), The Girl of the Golden West (1938) based on David Belasco’s play, Sweethearts (1938), New Moon (1940), Bitter Sweet (1940), and culminating with I Married an Angel in 1942.

MacDonald with the "King," Clark Gable, in San Francisco

MacDonald with the “King,” Clark Gable, in ‘San Francisco’

Both artists left MGM shortly thereafter. On their own, they had mixed results, as well as mixed reviews from audiences and critics alike; basically, it was hit or miss. By herself, MacDonald went on to star in several pictures, the most prominent being San Francisco (1936) with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy (where Jeanette warbled the Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust), The Firefly with Allan Jones (1937), Broadway Serenade (1939) with Lew Ayres, Smilin’ Through (1941) with Brian Aherne and her husband Gene Raymond, Cairo (1942) with Robert Young and Ethel Waters, and Three Darling Daughters (1948) with Jane Powell and José Iturbi. Her final film, The Sun Comes Up (1949), presented audiences with her strangest partner yet: the dog Lassie!

With other leading ladies, Nelson Eddy received top billing in Rosalie (1937) with Eleanor Powell, Let Freedom Ring (1939) with Virginia Bruce, Balalaika (1939) with Ilona Massey, The Chocolate Soldier (1941) with Risë Stevens, and Northwest Outpost (1947), again with Massey. He also starred in Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera (1943) with Susanna Foster and Claude Rains, Knickerbocker Holiday (1944) with Charles Coburn, and as an opera-singing cartoon whale in Disney’s Make Mine Music (1946).

There were rumors of a tempestuous affair between Mr. Eddy and Ms. MacDonald, both on and off the screen. It was even bandied about that Nelson had asked Jeanette to marry him on more than one occasion, but each time she turned him down flat. Were they longtime lovers, or just close friends? Who knows?

What we do know is that both MacDonald and Eddy were born in the same month of June, almost two years apart. She died in 1965, while he passed on in 1967 — a little over two years later. Must have been another of those sweet mysteries of life they so often sang about.

The Golden Girls

It’s been said that all of Louis B. Mayer’s taste was in his mouth. Whether this observation was indeed true or not (perhaps critic and author Neal Gabler could enlighten us), Mayer could still boast of having had under contract three of MGM’s most conspicuous sirens: sopranos Ann Blyth, Kathryn Grayson and Jane Powell. All three were known as the Metro Girls, for better or worse — the jewels in the studio’s musical crown in its postwar heyday.

The main reason for their popularity, besides good looks and more than decent acting chops, was their voices — both speaking AND singing voices, to be exact. You can read all about these fabulous artists in Brian Kellow’s fact-filled essay, “The Lost Metro Girls,” in the August 2002 issue of Opera News. For our purposes, let’s say that all three ladies had been bitten by the theater bug at an early age, with opera rarely or tangentially entering into the picture.

Ann Marie Blyth, who grew up in New York City, took part in the children’s chorus at the budding San Carlo Opera Company. One might even have gotten wind of her performances, back in the day, in such perennial favorites as Puccini’s La Bohème and Bizet’s Carmen, if only as part of the onstage crowd. Blyth also flexed her stage muscles in the Broadway production of Watch on the Rhine with Paul Lukas.

Ann Blyth

Ann Blyth

On tour with the play in L.A., Blyth was noticed by a talent scout and promptly hired by Universal Pictures. But it was with MGM that she came into her own in straight acting parts, the most memorable of which, as Joan Crawford’s spoiled brat of a daughter in Mildred Pierce (1945), earned her an Academy Award nomination. Within a few years, she graduated from playing an offspring to being the cinematic wife of Enrico Caruso, as well as the mother of his child.

Notwithstanding her brief take on the number, “The Loveliest Night of the Year,” from the Mario Lanza vehicle The Great Caruso (1951), viewers got to hear Blyth’s beautiful singing voice in a series of elaborately produced operettas, beginning with remakes of Rose Marie and The Student Prince (all from 1954), and the ersatz Vincente Minnelli-directed Kismet, a poorly received box-office dud.

Unfortunately, Blyth’s singing voice was dubbed by pop star Gogi Grant in her next musical outing, the soap-opera filming of The Helen Morgan Story from 1957, about the alcoholic torch singer’s troubled life and career. Blyth wisely retired from the screen later that same year. As you can see, opera hardly fit into the picture at all with someone whose “early career” began on the stage.

Such was not the case with Metro’s other golden girl, Zelma Kathryn Grayson. A native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Grayson’s family moved to St. Louis, where she began serious vocal studies, even learning the part of Lucia di Lammermoor. Another of the many Hollywood transplants, the young songbird continued studying, right up until the moment Louis Mayer spotted her at a concert and, in true “I’ll show ‘em who’s boss” fashion, signed her to a film contract.

Claiming never to have fought with the legendary old haggler, Grayson was deprived of a Metropolitan Opera debut as Lucia by the ever-watchful Mr. Mayer. In Kellow’s article, L.B. is quoted as saying, “If [Grayson] is known as an opera star, she’ll have a short career. If she is a motion picture star, she’ll be a star forever.” This was the polar opposite of Met Opera General Manager Rudolf Bing’s attitude toward his own stable of stars (for example, baritone Robert Merrill) and their moonlighting antics as Hollywood actors.

Kathryn Grayson in Kiss Me, Kate

Kathryn Grayson in ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ (1953)

For years, Grayson was left waiting in the wings. She eventually came out for her bow in the late 1940s in the first two Mario Lanza pictures, That Midnight Kiss from 1949 and The Toast of New Orleans in 1950. Their legendary tussles filled the gossip columns with scathing accounts of off-screen battles and prima donna-like behavior (on Mario’s part, not Grayson’s). After The Great Caruso, Mr. Lanza’s Metro star began to wane; Ms. Grayson’s, however, was slowly but surely on the rise. She starred opposite Howard Keel in the Technicolor remake of Show Boat which, through no fault of her own, many critics (myself included) felt was inferior to the 1936 version with Irene Dunne and Allan Jones.

Still, Grayson and Keel made a darn good team, and gave fans their money’s worth in two return engagements, first with Lovely to Look At (1952), followed by the best of their three-picture deal together, the movie version of Cole Porter’s musical Kiss Me, Kate (1953). Grayson’s man-hating harpy Katherine, coupled with her temperamental comportment as Lilli, was one of the real-life Kathryn’s finest screen portrayals, a pouty, tantrum-prone shrew that people wrongly associated with the actress herself.

Not so, for once her movie career was over Grayson continued to pursue her first love — i.e., singing on the stage — appearing in touring companies of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot, Verdi’s La Traviata, Donizetti’s Lucia, and Puccini’s La Bohème and Madama Butterfly, as well as going the nightclub route all over the continental United States.

Despite her fame in filmdom, and contrary to Louis B. Mayer’s prediction, Kathryn Grayson became both an opera star AND a movie star, forever. Her voice was finally silenced on February 17, 2010, at age 88.

Keep on Smiling

Jane Powell

Jane Powell

The last of the highly-touted Metro Girls, bubbly Jane Powell, was the least inclined of the threesome toward a career on the operatic stage. The possessor of a sparkling personality and a winning 100-watt smile, the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Jane distinguished herself through many onscreen appearances, all the while weathering numerous vocal crises for almost the entire length of her stint in La-La-Land.

As far as we could tell, Ms. Powell, a Portland, Oregon native, never sang or starred in opera. Yet, her sharply focused soprano would be heard in such varied assignments as A Date with Judy (1948) and Nancy Goes to Rio (1950), both with Carmen Miranda, Royal Wedding (1952) with singer-dancer Fred Astaire, Three Sailors and a Girl (1953) with Gordon MacRae, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) with the omnipresent Howard Keel, and Hit the Deck (1955) with crooner Tony Martin.

She also made it a point to appear in musical theater. A partial listing of her activities includes such classic shows as Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, Carousel, My Fair Lady, and Brigadoon. But Powell, who was born Suzanne Lorraine Burce, earned the first of her positive notices on the air, prophetically on the radio program Stars of Tomorrow. She entered the cinema at the tender age of fifteen, playing a variation on her own vivacious personality as a perky, sincere, and overly enthusiastic ingénue with the cherubic face and a never-say-die outlook on life.

Married five times, the last (and still current) of which is to former child actor Dickie Moore, Powell was put under contract to MGM. Ironically, though, her movie debut occurred over at Universal, Deanna Durbin’s home studio, in the 1944 feature Song of the Open Road. How’s that for a prescient title? From then on, it was work, work, and more work for the industrious Ms. Jane, who was anything but plain in her “forever young” screen traversals.

Louis B. Mayer had finally found a replacement for Deanna Durbin, who he always felt had slipped through his studio’s fingers. However, by the mid-1950s movie musicals were on their downward slide. As far as future film endeavors went, Powell saw the handwriting on the wall clearly enough. She left the pomp and vanity of Tinsel Town for the stage, making a second go at a theater career: she was ideally cast, in 1973, as Debbie Reynold’s replacement in the Broadway hit Irene.

Still experiencing trouble with her vocals, Ms. Powell soon called it a night. She is fondly remembered by her legions of fans as that never-aging, eternally jovial youth who lit up many a movie musical with her lyrical output and sun-drenched optimism.

Recommended Reading:

  • Citron, Marcia. Opera on Screen, Yale University Press, New York, 2000.
  • Dizikes, John. Opera in America: A Cultural History, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1993.
  • Fawkes, Richard. Opera on Film, Duckworth Publishers, Great Britain, 2002.
  • Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia, HarperPerennial, A HarperCollins Book, New York, 1994.
  • Kellow, Brian. “The Lost Metro Girls,” The Crossover Variations — Opera, Broadway and the Movies, Opera News Magazine, Volume 67, Number 2, August 2002.
  • Mackay, Harper. “The History of Hollywood’s Secret Voices,” Opera News Magazine, October 1994.
  • Midgette, Anne. “Verdi On-Screen: A Century’s Operatic Riches,” The New York Times, January 25, 2002.
  • Myers, Eric. “Universal Appeal, The Crossover Variations — Opera, Broadway and the Movies,” Opera News Magazine, Volume 67, Number 2, August 2002.
  • Scherer, Barrymore Laurence. “The Flickering Light: Der Rosenkavalier and Other Silent Opera Films,” Opera News Magazine, December 11, 1993.
  • Schroeder, David. Cinema’s Illusions, Opera’s Allure, Continuum Books, New York, 2002.
  • Wlaschin, Ken. “Glory of Opera Films That Hit the Right Notes,” The Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2000.
  • Wlaschin, Ken. Opera on Screen: A Guide to 100 Years of Films and Videos, Beachwood Publishers, 1997.

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes