Classical Music

Met Opera Round-Up: The Season’s Last Gasp — ‘Tristan,’ ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ and the Love of a ‘Good’ Woman (Conclusion)

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Love-Death and Transfiguration

A soldierly Tristan (Stuart Skelton) woes the bewitching Isolde (Nina Stemme) at the Met Opera (Photo: New York Times)

The Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast of Tristan und Isolde on April 8, 2017 (the original program was shown as part of its Live in HD series on October 8, 2016) paired Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as Isolde with Australian dramatic tenor Stuart Skelton as Tristan. Others in the cast included Moscow-born mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova as Isolde’s companion Brangäne, Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin as Tristan’s aide Kurwenal, and German bass-baritone René Pape as Tristan’s foster father King Marke. Tony Stevenson sang the part of the Sailor in Act I, with Neal Cooper as Melot in Act II, and Alex Richardson as the Shepherd in Act III. The work was conducted by renowned British maestro Sir Simon Rattle.

This was a new production, credited to the controversial Polish-born director Mariusz Treliński, whose previous assignment at the Met included the double bill of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta with Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. The sets were designed by Boris Kudlička, with costumes by Marek Adamski, lighting design by Marc Heinz, and choreography by Tomasz Wygoda. The Met’s chorus master, Donald Palumbo, did an outstanding job with the forces at his command.

Unlike past performances (over a quarter of a century, in fact) where former Met music director James Levine presided over an uncut reading, this version featured a nine-minute trim of the long second act duet for the title characters. Whether you’re a confirmed “completist” as I tend to be, or whether you take your Wagner in shorter doses, the result was pretty much the same. Maybe Wagner’s music is overdue for a judicious paring — who am I to argue over his long-windedness, principally if this was going to be a late-night affair?

Having studied Wagner for years — and having owned numerous complete recordings and/or DVDs of all his major works — I uncovered boat-loads of reasons why he had his protagonists expound at length. Often, the characters felt the need to justify their past or present actions in some explanatory form or other. These expansive “speeches” were also used to recap prior happenings, or, just as often, they were employed to foretell future events (most notably in the Ring).

With Tristan und Isolde, Wagner divided the couple’s story into three distinct sections: Act I is taken up with Isolde’s dilemma and subsequent impasse over the effects of the love potion; Act II brings the two lovers together via their nocturnal yearnings; while Act III is devoted to Tristan’s delirium and Isolde’s love-death.

Tristan (Stuart Skelton) in Trelinski’s steam-punk production of Tristan und Isolde (Photo: Met Opera)

Simply stated, the plot involves the noble Tristan having killed the intended spouse (i.e., Morold) of the fiery Celtic princess Isolde. Seriously wounded in the battle, Tristan lies exposed as Isolde plans to seek vengeance for the slaying of her betrothed. However, once their eyes have met Isolde is unable to carry out her task. Later, Tristan is entrusted by King Marke (Tristan’s uncle, but in this production, his foster father) to bring Isolde back as Marke’s bride. All of this takes place prior to the curtain’s rise.

Moving on to the first act, Isolde relates the background (Isolde’s Narration and Curse) of what has transpired to this point. It becomes obvious that Isolde is passionately in love with Tristan, and vice versa. Because of stubborn pride and mutual bitterness over their recent state of affairs — for example, the humiliation that Isolde senses at being held captive by her “abductor,” Tristan — they adamantly refuse to acknowledge their feelings for one another. It also pains Tristan to have fallen hard for his uncle’s bride, with pangs of guilt preventing him from acting as Isolde thinks he should. Faced with a loveless marriage to a much older man, Isolde calls for a death potion to bring an end to their suffering. Brangäne, her companion (or maid in some versions), prepares the deadly concoction, only to substitute a love potion at the last minute.

In Act II, the lovers have been meeting in secret at night, the only time of the day allotted to them. Both are convinced of the inevitability of their love. Unable to consummate their relationship to the fullest, they resolve to end it in death — thus realizing Isolde’s original intention of having Tristan pay for killing Morold (which, by now, is the farthest thing from her mind). The problem, though, is that Marke, and his hunting party, discover the affair after the lovers’ ecstatic night of bliss. The King expresses his innermost torment for Tristan’s “betrayal” in a long, emotionally draining monologue. Ashamed of his conduct but resolved to take charge of the situation, Tristan invites Isolde to flee into the night (metaphorically speaking). In this production, he stabs himself, while in others the tattle-tale Melot (an interesting variant on Morold) seriously wounds Tristan as he deliberately lets down his guard.

Tristan (Skelton) and Isolde Stemme), together at last (Photo: Met Opera)

Act III takes place in Cornwall, Tristan’s ancestral home. Here we find him wailing and gnashing his teeth in agony and misery. Kurwenal, his aide and retainer, is nursing his master’s wound. He is unable to keep the knight quiet and calm, while Tristan’s only desire is to expire in Isolde’s arms. Hearing that she is about to return and that Isolde has explained the situation to Marke (who is ready to forgive the despairing knight his sins) Tristan is beside himself with a mixture of joy and grief. In his final moments, Tristan tears away his bandages and bleeds to death, just as Isolde rushes in. Isolde then launches into her ecstatic Liebestod, which concludes the opera.

With such a tragedy unfolding before the viewer’s eyes, it’s no wonder the most compelling aspect of this opera is its music: lush, propulsive, and chromatic to an unbearable degree. The world-famous Prelude sets the tone from the get-go, what with its enigmatic, unresolved opening notes. Know, too, that Wagner did not invent harmonics or chromaticism as it was employed here, nor did he discover “modern music” by chance. As musicologist and music historian Richard Taruskin has pointed out, in the Oxford History of Western Music, Wagner’s father-in-law, the concert pianist and composer Franz Liszt, was one of the earliest Western artists to utilize the diatonic scale, specifically what came to be known as the “Tristan chord.”

Taruskin goes on to say (in Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays), that Wagner, referring to the Prelude, “leaves it for our inner ear to supply [the ultimate repose], so that the actual sounding music retains a restless harmonic tension at all times, virtually until the end of the opera, when all the accumulated pressure is at last discharged in Isolde’s Verklärung (“Transfiguration”), popularly known as the Liebestod, the death-by-love or, in plainer language, the orgasm.” Gasp!

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

It’s a well-known truism that Tristan und Isolde has been labeled a conductor’s opera. And one might be tempted to quibble over minor details here and there. Still, Sir Simon’s approach to Tristan was leaner in shape and conception than many of his predecessor’s. It made its points clearly and succinctly, without sacrificing lushness or the orchestral sheen surrounding the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Daniel Barenboim, who made his Met debut conducting Tristan in November 2008, set the standard, as far as I’m concerned, for how this work should be played in a large auditorium. Not to take away any of James Levine’s accomplishments, Barenboim made the case for a more leisurely elucidation, bringing out added resonance in the string section, as well as the ethereal essence in the final chords as Isolde expires over the dead body of her lover.

Rattle, for his part, succeeded in forging a viable (and valuable) interpretation of his own, with carefully controlled dynamics and an overwhelmingly positive energy flow (especially in Act I), in addition to a strong, emotional undercurrent in Act III, where Stuart Skelton, a supremely gifted Tristan in both physical size and specificity, scaled the heights in his powerful monologue.

Stuart Skelton in Tristan’s delirium, Act III (Photo: New York Times)

Skelton stretched his imposing instrument almost to the breaking point, in what became one of the most moving deliriums this listener has heard in many years of broadcast listening. The last time I was privy to such a marvelous take on the grueling part was Robert Dean Smith’s last minute substitution back in 2008. You can also pencil in Ben Heppner’s assumption of the part, another masterly effort.

It’s Always Darkest before the Dawn

Like most Tristans, Skelton made his mark in Act I, dueling with the skittish yet histrionically infuriated Isolde of Nina Stemme. Stemme, whose chief competitor in this repertoire today may be the memory of her Swedish compatriot, the late Birgit Nilsson (dubbed by yours truly as “Queen of the High Cs”), brought the Celtic princess to vibrant life. Certainly the Met’s Nordic contingent, which also included Kirsten Flagstad and Astrid Varnay, was well represented in Ms. Stemme.

In her recent Met assignments, Stemme conveyed hitherto untold nuances as Puccini’s Turandot; she was also an elemental force of nature in Strauss’ Elektra. As Isolde, her innate femininity and command of the many declamatory passages Wagner provided throughout gave Stemme ample opportunity for expressive singing of the highest order. This was as solidly delivered a performance of the part as any in the last decade, upstaging previous Met Opera exponents such as Deborah Voigt, Katarina Dalayman, and Jane Eaglen.

Both Gubanova and Nikitin held up their end, with Gubanova especially effective in her Act II warning. The lone standout, however, was basso René Pape’s exceptionally fine-grained Marke. I recall the myriad times this key role was entrusted to the likes of Giorgio Tozzi, John Macurdy (a workmanlike bass in his day), Karl Ridderbusch, and the cavernous Martti Talvela and Kurt Moll. All were effective in their individual methodologies. Along with an adroit vocal production, Pape contributed a high degree of involvement and dignity to the part — not an easy task when faced with such past competition.

Regarding the production itself, what can one say about a staging that both begins and ends shrouded in total darkness? “It was passionless,” went one reviewer. Another critic hated, hated, HATED the presentation. “It’s a steam-punk Tristan!” one exploded online. And still another was getting sick of this Euro trash, while some were enthralled by Stemme’s womanly allure. There was very little brightness to offset the sheer gloom. It reminded me of Herbert von Karajan’s Ring cycle at Salzburg in the late 1960s, which was later given at the Met. As we learned from that effort, you can’t have darkness without the light.

Nina Stemme as Isolde intones her Liebestod in Act III (Photo: Met Opera)

The Seven-Year Itch

Wagner’s earliest triumph, Der fliegende Holländer, more commonly known as The Flying Dutchman (named after the doomed hero Vanderdecken’s ship), has not had a frequently recurring history at the opera house of late. In fact, and true to the title character’s own predicament, the work was last staged at the Metropolitan about seven seasons ago. My, how time flies!

Nevertheless, this latest revival of August Everding’s 1989 production (the fellow who supervised the Karajan Ring mentioned above), with sets by Hans Schavernoch, costumes by Lore Haas, lighting by Gil Wechsler, and conducted by the young musical prodigy Yannick Nézet-Séguin, drew mostly mild to favorable reviews, except in the case of powerhouse American soprano Amber Wagner as Senta.

Amber, if I may call her by her first name, provided vocal amplitude and startlingly expressive thrust to the role of the “good woman” that Wagner always envisioned for Senta. She is the one person who will redeem the Dutchman from his curse after centuries of wandering the earth’s oceans. The Metropolitan Opera Guild’s magazine, Opera News, in its July 2017 review of the production, noted that “[t]here was a considerable shift in scale in Act II with the arrival of Amber Wagner.” They weren’t joking!

The Dutchman (Michael Volle) with Senta (Amber Wagner) in The Flying Dutchman (Photo: Richard Termine)

After a briskly paced run-through that maestro Yannick gave the thrice-familiar Overture, the wonderful men’s chorus burst out in mellow song with some hearty “Ho-heys!” and “Hoyohos!” Here was top-notch, full-throated singing for once. Things moved along at a swift enough speed, with Daland, Senta’s father (German bass Franz-Josef Selig), shouting orders to the obedient if sleepy-eyed Steersman (sung by tenor Ben Bliss), until the mysterious Phantom made his entrance (descending a rickety ladder?).

The Dutchman’s lengthy exposition (here we go again!), whereby, in the manner of Isolde’s Narration, he describes his situation to the audience, needed more thrust and a heftier ring to its pronouncements. Past interpreters such as the Belgian bass-baritone José van Dam, the indelible George London, Hermann Udhe (who brought a haunted quality to the part) or Hans Hotter in his heyday, not to mention Thomas Stewart, Theo Adam, and (at New York City Opera) Guillermo Sarabia, all boasted an individuality and/or personalization to the ominous discourses of this Wagnerian antihero.

Try as he might, German baritone Michael Volle’s Dutchman’s displayed more modest means than the above artists. While they made their points — thanks largely to his splendid diction — they lacked that heavy layer of tragic inevitability. The basic theme of this work, i.e., redemption, is always within reach but never attained. The Dutchman’s curse follows him wherever he goes. It darkens his footsteps, it permeates his soul. And in his monologue, “Die Frist ist um!” (“The time is up!”), he expresses all his loathing and hate, as well as his persistent hope for release. Volle’s previous assignment as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger made one sit up and take notice. In this instance, I would have preferred that he had rocked the boat some more. That could have animated his going about his duties somewhat.

The Dutchman (Volle) descends the steps from his ship to the shore (Photo: Richard Termine)

Things picked up considerably in Act II (as noted above), with Amber Wagner’s intensely concentrated performance of Senta’s Ballad. When she joined in unison with Volle for their soul-searching duet; then, in the trio with Selig, Volle and herself, Wagner outshone (and out-sang) them both. Brava! Another robust voice — that of veteran mezzo Dolora Zajick as Mary — came through loud-and-clear over the airwaves. It’s a shame the part is a short one. I imagine that, at this stage in her career, Zajick would still make a supremely malevolent Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin.

American tenor AJ Glueckert (taking over for the previously announced Jay Hunter Morris) made his Met broadcast debut as Senta’s betrothed Erik. He has a warm, mellow tone which brought youthful impetuosity to the part. Not surprisingly, Morris’ withdrawal from this assignment cleared the way for Glueckert’s success. We hope to hear more of this fine young singer in days to come.

In seasons long past, the Met used to perform The Flying Dutchman in three acts, with two intermissions. Wagner sanctioned this edition, and made some judicious compromises where smaller theaters were concerned (but not always, as we witnessed with Tannhäuser in Paris). For presenting the opera in one continuous act, I’m grateful to the Met. I am not so satisfied that the company has never given a thought to producing Wagner’s ORIGINAL version of this opera, with its reduced orchestration and the elimination of the redemption theme altogether.

THAT version exists only on DVD and CDs. The live presentation from the 1985 Bayreuth Festival, for instance, by legendary director Harry Kupfer of this early edition is a one-of-a-kind experience. It turns the story on its head by having Senta constantly on stage from beginning to end. There is no “redemption theme,” either in the Overture or at the conclusion. The opera simply ends, with the Norwegian villagers shutting their windows on Senta as she awakes from her reverie.

Senta is obsessed with the Dutchman’s portrait right from the start (an important plot point that appears only in Act II). Clutching the portrait for dear life, she takes it with her wherever she goes (clearly, she’s as determined to get her way as the Dutchman was). This version, known simply as “Senta’s Dream,” is well within the composer’s scope for director Kupfer to have focused on her as the central participant in the drama.

Scene from Harry Kupfer’s 1985 revival of The Flying Dutchman at Bayreuth

Danish soprano Lisbeth Balslev sang the neurotically enraptured Senta, along with the fabulous Dutchman of African American bass-baritone Simon Estes, who with his soulful core and rock-solid vocal output gave the performance of a lifetime. In this edition, the Dutchman is strapped to his ship’s mast in a Christ-like pose. The ship’s prow is shaped like two giant praying hands that open up to reveal its ghostly contents. Shudder….!

The production premiered at Bayreuth in 1978 and is considered one of the finest, most original stage treatments of the Dutchman’s tale, alongside the now-classic Patrice Chereau/Pierre Boulez 1976 centennial Ring cycle (also at Bayreuth). They had the requisite passion that the Met’s tired old 1989 production so sorely lacked.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes    

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Met Opera Round-Up: The Season’s Last Gasp — ‘Tristan,’ ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ and the Love of a ‘Good’ Woman (Part Three)

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Till “Love-Death” Do Us Part

Wagnerian Love Couple: Ludwig & Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld as Tristan and Isolde (1865)

Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s singular and most personal achievement in the opera world, derived from the 12th-century myth of Tristram and Iseult: he, a brash Cornish knight; she, an irate Celtic (or Irish) princess. In most sources cited, the story was undeniably linked to the love affair between Sir Lancelot, a knight of the fabled Round Table, and Queen Guinevere from the old Arthurian legends.

In a comparable vein, one of Wagner’s earliest successes, the opera Der fliegende Holländer (known widely as The Flying Dutchman), had at its root a basis in fact as well as in legend. A Dutch ship’s captain by the name of Hendrick Van der Decken (an alias for Barend Fockesz, or Bernard Fokke in some sources), challenged the devil himself by swearing to sail round the Cape of Good Hope, come hell or high water. The devil took him at his word and condemned the captain and his crew to eternity on the high seas.

In later versions, the doomed Dutchman would be allowed ashore once every seven years to seek redemption for his sins through the love of a true and faithful woman. This basic theme, which Wagner had first introduced in his 1843 adaptation of the Dutchman’s tale, would continue to reverberate throughout his personal and professional life. Even in his final stage work, the “consecrated festival play” Parsifal (1882), Wagner had the main character (the guileless “fool”) tempted to sin by Kundry in her guise as a voluptuous whore — the farthest thing from a true and faithful woman imaginable, albeit a ploy to fulfill the necessities of the plot.

In the characters of Tristan and Isolde, however, Wagner was dealing with more philosophical matters, among them the psychological components of unquenchable passion; of an ardor that knows no earthly bounds, one that transcends the mortal confines of this life and into the nebulous realm of never-ending night, a synonym for death.

We could spend hundreds of untold hours and chapters (and many authors have done exactly that) in expounding further upon these insights. For the time being, though, let me deal with a few matters at hand.

One of these, the theme of the self-sacrificing woman giving herself wholly to save a lost soul, could only have sprung from the self-absorbed intellect of Richard Wagner. Whose soul was it that needed to be saved? Whose whims were needed to be catered to? Why, Wagner’s, of course! Let’s not be fooled by all the fluff: no matter how he hard he tried to cover his tracks (and he tried hardly at all, in many instances), the only person Wagner cared for above all others was himself.

Was this necessarily a bad thing? Oh, absolutely it was! But did Wagner create meaningful works in the process? You’re damned right he did! What difference did it make if he consistently interjected himself into the plot lines of his own compositions, or borrowed from himself (as Rossini had so often done) to make a musical-dramatic point?

Richard Wagner, in May 18, 1865, a month before Tristan und Isolde premiered in Munich

Reading between the lines, the listener can picture the composer as Tannhäuser, a man torn between the love of a “good woman” (Elisabeth) versus that of the goddess Venus. In Lohengrin, he’s the knight in shining armor, come to rescue the damsel in distress (Elsa) from a false accusation of murder. In the Ring cycle, he’s the head god Wotan, lording it over (and loving) whomever he chooses. In Die Walküre, he’s Siegmund, free to love the wife (Sieglinde) of another man, even if that wife happened to be his twin sister! He’s also Siegfried, the original nature boy, blessed with unbounded optimism, knowing no fear, invincible to his enemies — except when his back was turned. And lastly, he’s Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger, a minstrel in the making, seeking entry into the Master’s Guild, a high-born agitator with his own revolutionary mode of thinking.

Are you not convinced? Need we say more? Well, if you insist: Wagner is the Dutchman personified — mysterious, gloomy, accursed, and tormented. His seven-year intervals extended throughout and beyond his composing career. Reading about his exploits, I am constantly amazed that Wagner’s very existence was fueled by extraordinary purpose, of an absolute and unbridled faith in his abilities, no matter the consequences to himself or to those around him.

Naturally, one can take these sorts of comparisons a tad too far. But there is a fascinating side note to all of this: the artists who created the roles of Tristan and Isolde — the husband and wife team of Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld — epitomized the central romance inherent in Wagner’s opus, even to the point of death.

Tall, stout, and portly, Joseph Albert Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld was an immensely talented, 29-year-old Munich-born tenor; while soprano Malvina Garrigues, a decade older, was a Danish-born, Portuguese descendant. The two singers had separate operatic careers at the beginning, but eventually met in the city of Karlsruhe, in southwest Germany.

Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld strikes a mighty pose as Tristan (1865)

While at the Karlsruhe Opera, they appeared together in several works (according to Wikipedia, in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots among others). Ludwig’s official debut in Karlsruhe occurred in 1858, while Malvina had previously sung there in 1854. The couple hit it off from the start, and in 1860 they tied the knot.

A Cry from the Heart

The story goes that the Schnorr von Carolsfelds so impressed the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria that he recommended them to Herr Wagner. The composer eventually met the couple in Wiesbaden, around 1862, a good three years before the first performance of Tristan und Isolde took place at the Court and National Theater in Munich.

The evening of June 10, 1865 would go down in musical history as a major conquest if not exactly a triumph for all concerned. Not one year earlier, Wagner was at the lowest point in his troubled life, with creditors demanding to be paid in full. Fortune smiled at last on the financially-strapped composer, for Wagner was introduced to the newly crowned Ludwig II, who set him up at a villa near the king’s lakeside residence.

On the romantic front, in April 1865 Wagner’s own illicit affair with Cosima von Bülow culminated in the birth of their daughter Isolde, named after the heroine of his opera. You can imagine the scandal this particular episode elicited from those involved. As for the June 10 premiere of Tristan, it was prefaced by months of endless rehearsals and unforeseen reversals of fortune, to include the cancellation of the original May 15 date due to Malvina’s loss of her voice (she had “caught a chill in her bath,” as noted in William Berger’s Wagner Without Fear).

Finally, the curtain went up before a gala audience that witnessed the start of a legend of its own making. Ludwig and Malvina were the perfect pair and enormously convincing as Tristan and Isolde, billing and cooing like two pachyderms in heat (this is unfair to Malvina, who was much slimmer by many kilos than her robust mate). Added to this, the conductor at the premiere was none other than Cosima’s legal partner, Hans von Bülow who, we are informed, led a masterful reading of the complicated score. Although the press and public remained befuddled by the experience of Tristan, most critics agreed they had been privy to something out of the ordinary: they felt transported to another time, and to another place, via Wagner’s music — exactly the effect Wagner wanted and expected.

Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld as Isolde (1865)

Tristan was given three more performances (one by royal decree), where it started to pick up a head of steam. Soon afterwards, tenor Ludwig moved on to Dresden to sing Erik in The Flying Dutchman. A few days prior to July 21, 1865, Herr Schnorr von Carolsfeld complained of chills. This was followed by what was termed “rheumatic complications,” which may have been the result of a sudden fever whereby the tenor suffered either a debilitating stroke or a lethal heart attack. That, and the fact that he was grossly overweight, led to Ludwig’s premature death only 19 days after his 29th birthday, a tragedy of mythic proportions commensurate with the singer’s size.

It was rumored that his dying words were “Tristan!” Some sources insist that he cried out the composer’s name in vain. Still, given that he passed away after singing the strenuous role over several back-to-back performances, the rumor has long persisted that the part had ultimately done poor Ludwig in.

What of his bereaved spouse? Sadly, Malvina Garrigues Schnorr von Carolsfeld fell into despair and depression. She went on to quit the opera entirely, never again to perform on stage. She also never remarried, having died a widow in Karlsruhe, in 1904, at age 78.

In many people’s view, Ludwig and Malvina were the real-life Tristan and Isolde. Their love transcended the boundaries of the theaters which they both performed in. As far as we can ascertain, and like their titular counterparts, the Schnorr von Carolsfelds were true to each other in all things matrimonial. They were the embodiment of the vow, “In sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, till death do you part.”

In their case, however, and in light of the roles they played on the operatic stage, we can make an exception: Till Liebestod (or “love-death”) did they part.

(End of Part Three)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Met Opera Round-Up: The Season’s Last Gasp — ‘Tristan,’ ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ and the Wagner-Rossini Connection (Part Two)

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Richard Wagner at the piano (1813-1883)

Operatic Odd Couples

They met in Paris in 1860: the renowned Italian master of opera buffa, Gioachino Rossini, and the fiery German composer Richard Wagner, creator of the “art work of the future.” How did it happen? What did they talk about?

Earlier in his career (in 1822), Rossini had held an audience with the great Ludwig van Beethoven, who counseled him to “make more ‘Barbers’ ” — referring, of course, to his ever-popular comic masterpiece The Barber of Seville. Four years later, while residing in Paris, Rossini quite literally ran into the tubercular Carl Maria von Weber (a cousin to Mozart’s wife, Constanze), nineteenth-century romanticism’s musical “guiding light.” And speaking of Herr Mozart, Rossini even shared musical memories with Wolfgang’s chief rival, Antonio Salieri — the same Antonio Salieri who served as the protagonist of Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus.

So what were Wagner and Rossini doing at the time of their historic tête-à-tête?

For one, Rossini had moved to the City of Light in 1824 in order to compose “grander, more serious works,” for which we can thank (or blame, depending upon one’s point of view) his future wife, the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran. The end result was the four-act spectacular Guillaume Tell, reviewed in a prior post on the occasion of its Metropolitan Opera premiere (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/met-opera-round-up-the-seasons-last-gasp-with-guillaume-tell-tristan-and-the-flying-dutchman-part-one/).

Another of his grandiose plans involved an Italian adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, which never came to fruition. We know, too, that after Tell, Rossini wrote no more operas, mostly because he was fed up with having to churn out work after work after work. He was now clearly in a position to live off the fat of the “lamb,” in a manner of speaking, that he himself had fattened through the years.

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), composer of The Barber of Seville and other comic works

For another, Wagner had recently put the finishing touches to a monumental opus of his own, the incredibly complex Tristan und Isolde. The paradox of how this work came about has always intrigued me. Let the buyer beware: for the average opera buff, getting into Wagner’s head is an occupation fraught with the greatest of intricacies. The fact is the man was a walking/talking contradiction in terms.

Realizing that, for the moment, his unfinished epic, The Ring of the Nibelung, might not soon see the light of day, Wagner stopped work at the close of Act II of Siegfried. He did not take up the subject again for another twelve years. Now, why on earth would he do that? An over-active imagination, pressing financial needs, and escalating emotional burdens would habitually lead the frantic composer off in pursuit of funds. He would also ease his troubled mind with quixotic dalliances with other men’s wives.

One of these infatuations involved Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of the wealthy silk merchant Otto Wesendonck who paid the tab for the bills that Wagner ran up while the three of them shared living quarters at Otto’s villa in Zurich (don’t ask). On occasion, they were joined by Wagner’s “better” half, his wife Minna. Despite the cozy arrangement, it didn’t take long for Minna to put two and two together and come up with the correct equation: that her husband had been cheating behind her back.

After completing Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, Wagner stumbled upon the philosopher Schopenhauer’s book The World as Will and Idea, from which he extracted a bumper crop of justifications for his newfound worldview. Without going into details — of which there are an endless torrent of essays, pamphlets, writings, and treatises by Wagner himself on subjects as wide-ranging as dismissing Meyerbeer as a hack in “Judaism in Music,” a self-analytical memoir entitled A Communication to My Friends, and a far-flung statement of his ideals in Opera and Drama — suffice it to say the composer glowed red-hot with inspiration for Tristan und Isolde, a story of scorching passions amid an illicit affair (what else?).

Mathilde Wesendonck, the inspiration for Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder

Fueled by his liaison with Mathilde, Wagner composed the Wesendonck Lieder (“Art Songs”) based on five of Frau Wesendonck’s poems. Meanwhile, Frau Minna kept pestering him to write a more practical lyric work for the stage, something that would bring their indigent lifestyle some stability and a steady revenue stream. With Wagner, however, nothing was purely “practical” — or “steady,” for that matter. Inventing music that, at the time, seemed vastly unplayable and (even worse) impossible to sing was part-and-parcel to his very being.

There was much more going on than we have room for. Let it be said that departing for Gay Paree was Wagner’s way of seeking his fortune elsewhere. But Paris wasn’t his only stopover point, not by a long shot. During the years 1858 to 1859, Wagner paid manifold visits to such venues as Venice, Zurich, Geneva, and Lucerne.

It’s significant to note as well that Switzerland, while recognized for its persistent neutrality, was the one place where Wagner could plead his case for monetary assistance to the likes of Herr Wesendonck. That would partially explain how the composer was able to get around town. Traveling was never easy for Wagner, even in the best of times, due to his well-founded reputation as a spendthrift and a deadbeat, and his facility for rubbing people the wrong way. He could also be incredibly persuasive, convinced, as Wagner was, of his “superior” intellect and skill at winning people over to his way of thinking.

Back in Venice, the “perfect mood and setting to work on the fatally erotic Tristan” (according to author William Berger), Wagner completed the score for the opera between March and August of 1859. By this point, he and Minna had decided to part ways: she in Dresden, he wherever the need took him. They met again in Paris and, for a brief moment, were reconciled.

Cosima Liszt von Bulow, Wagner’s future lover and eventual spouse

In the interim, another love interest laid waiting in the wings. Behind the scenes, Wagner had awakened the youthful yearnings of Cosima Liszt, the homely (!) but overly-admiring daughter of concert pianist and composer Franz Liszt (a notorious ladies’ man in his day). Cosima was recently wed to a brilliant but anxiety-ridden conductor named Hans von Bülow. Both individuals would play significant parts in Wagner’s life and career in the years to come.

Once in the City of Light, Wagner’s decision to conquer Paris eventually brought him in league (and on a collision course) with the Paris Opéra, where plans were finalized for an 1861 revival (in French, naturally) of his earlier Tannhäuser (for the history and background to this stirring piece, see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/03/31/les-pecheurs-de-perles-and-tannhauser-part-two-wagner-bizet-and-performance-practices-then-and-now/).

Clash of the Titans

The differences in approach to Rossini and Wagner, along with their individual working methodologies, were striking. After countless academic studies and tomes analyzing both composers’ oeuvres, we can state, categorically, that Rossini worked principally to fulfill his commissions and nothing more. Whether they were to individual singers or to a particular opera house’s requirements, his personal views toward any single assignment or subject were kept scrupulously out of the finished piece.

Simply put, there wasn’t enough time to devote to extra-musical ideas or theoretical speculations when the pressure was on to quickly bring an operatic piece to the stage. Rapidity of means and swiftness of delivery were the main prerequisites. These were but some of the reasons why Rossini borrowed, for convenience’s sake, from his existing work — by either rearranging and/or reassigning solos numbers and ensemble pieces to fit the needs of a specific situation.

An excellent example would be Il Viaggio a Reims (“The Journey to Rheims”), originally written to commemorate the coronation of King Charles X in France, and which was later reworked as the comic opera, Le Comte Ory.

This was definitely not the case with Wagner whose individual wants took precedent over everyone else’s, including those of his closest acquaintances and benefactors. His frequent crises and scandalous personal life became fodder for any number of operatic plot twists and story lines. You could say that Wagner was his own best dramaturg. Accordingly, it was far easier for researchers to link the worst of his traits to those of his male characters — for example, Wotan, Siegmund, Tristan, and the Dutchman — than it would have been to associate Figaro, Arnold, Mustafà or Tell with any of Rossini’s qualities.

Period caricatures of Wagner and Rossini by Andre Gill

To be honest, neither man was a saint — THAT’S putting it mildly. Signor Rossini was known to have suffered from the ill effects of gonorrhea (he would soon develop cancer of the colon). But there is no disagreement about Herr Wagner: he was as horrid an individual as they come. Still, once he got to Paris, Wagner made it a point to call on the retired bel canto composer, who had been living in France for over three decades. The visit was arranged by an intermediary, the Belgian music critic and journalist Edmond Michotte, who transcribed their lengthy dialogue for later publication.

Since no other methods of preservation existed at the time of the composers’ gathering, we must take what Monsieur Michotte has left us as a valuable document of their conversation, but with a healthy grain of salt. Purportedly, one of the pretexts for Wagner’s visit was to set the record straight as to whether or not Rossini had badmouthed him to the press — this from a man who, no matter where he went, had left a long list of insults and offenses in his wake.

“As for despising your music,” Rossini was alleged to have responded, “I ought in the first instance to know it, and to know it I ought to hear it at the theatre, for it is only in the theatre, and not simply by reading the score, that it is possible to render a just judgment of music intended for the stage.” Rossini went on to praise the Tannhäuser March, “which he had found very effective and beautiful. After thus clearing the ground,” Michotte remarked, “intercourse became easy and pleasant, and many interesting topics were broached and discussed during this short visit.”

The subject of Weber and his music had also come up. Beethoven was mentioned, too. “On [Rossini’s] expressing his regret that he had not enjoyed a more thorough training on German lines, Wagner showed his appreciation of what Rossini had accomplished by citing the ‘Scene of the darkness’ in ‘Moses in Egypt,’ that of the conspiracy in ‘Guillaume Tell,’ and, in another order, the ‘Quando Corpus,’ as examples which he could hardly have bettered, and these the veteran [composer] admitted were among the ‘happy moments’ of his career.”

This ad hoc mutual admiration society continued along this vein for some time, until “Wagner spoke of the trouble which the translation of ‘Tannhäuser’ was giving, whereupon Rossini suggested that he should compose an opera on a French libretto, a suggestion which, it is needless to add, did not meet with his acceptance. Then Wagner spoke of his ideals and his expressed desire to get rid of the formalism of opera [a noble thought, one that many composers have articulated throughout the centuries]…”

Wagner & Rossini, a meeting of unlike minds

Interestingly, the Italian master’s reaction was a tad surprising. “Though Rossini was the living embodiment of these conventions, he admitted the absurdity of the ensembles of grand opera, and said that when all the characters formed into line to take part in one, they always reminded him of a band of minstrels, singing to secure a few coppers.”

“It was the custom,” Rossini added, “a concession which we had to make to the public, who otherwise would have shied things at our heads!” You can imagine Wagner’s indignant shock at that admission, but he managed to maintain his composure. “To this Wagner made the obvious answer that, though convention is inevitable, it must be understood in such a fashion as to avoid the excess which leads to absurdities — all that one demands is that a convention, once admitted, should be artistic and consistent in itself.”

Where they disagreed (and most vehemently, or so we are told) was on the subject of the composer as both musician and librettist: “[Wagner] proceeded, sketching his ideas of music-drama, to lay down the axiom that the music and poem [i.e., the libretto] should be so closely knit as to be like the different aspects of a single idea, and this provoked from Rossini the comment that it made it a necessity for the composer to be his own librettist, a condition which he deemed practically insurmountable, but of course Wagner would have none of this, and with great animation urged that the composer should study literature as well as counterpoint.”

They moved on to talk about Guillaume Tell and related matters, until “this memorable interview ended by Rossini expressing his interest in his visitor’s aims, which he had so clearly expressed. For his own part he was too old — ‘being at the age when one is not so much inclined to compose as liable to decompose.’ — to turn his eyes to new horizons, but he was very willing to acknowledge that Wagner’s ideas were of a nature worthy of the serious consideration of young composers. ‘Of all the arts,’ [Rossini] concluded, ‘music is that which is, by reason of its ideal character, most subject to transformations, and to these there can be no bounds. Who, after Mozart, could have foreseen Beethoven? Or, after Gluck, Weber? And, after these, why should there be no end to progress?’”

As the meeting itself had come to an end, Wagner confessed his innermost thoughts to Michotte: “ ‘What would [Rossini] not have produced had he received a thorough musical training; above all, if, less Italian and less sceptic [sic.], he had felt in him the sacred nature of his art? … I must say this: of all the musicians I have met in Paris [which included Daniel Auber, Fromenthal Halévy, Ambroise Thomas, Charles Gounod, et al.] he is the only one who is truly great.’ ”

(End of Part Two)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes      

Met Opera Round-Up: The Season’s Last Gasp with ‘Guillaume Tell,’ ‘Tristan,’ and ‘The Flying Dutchman’ (Part One)

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Rossini’s Guillaume Tell at the Metropolitan Opera (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

Past Glories, Future Successes

There’s no doubt about it: the Metropolitan Opera House is in trouble. Financially and artistically, in every conceivable way an opera company can expect to have difficulties. Hard times are indeed ahead for the performing arts in general. Yet, there is always something to rave about.

While the past 2016-2017 Met broadcast season wasn’t the most audacious or artistically absorbing I’ve heard or read about, it did have some outstanding features. In my book, the main attraction — one we opera fans have long been waiting for — was the new Pierre Audi production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (“William Tell”), one of those celebrated creations one reads about only in history books but rarely gets the opportunity to actually experience.

About all that modern audiences know of the piece is that it was Rossini’s last completed opera. The Met Opera management is to be commended, then, for bringing the Dutch National Opera’s 2013 production to New York, the first such performance of the work at the company in nearly eighty-five years.

Based on the legend of the Swiss folk hero who united the Swiss against a ruthless Austrian ruler, Guillaume Tell had a rousing reception at its premiere at the Paris Opéra on August 3, 1829. Rossini biographer and radio broadcaster Richard Osborne, writing in Opera on Record 3, commented that the opera indisputably pointed “the way forward to the later nineteenth-century Italian and French traditions. Though a composer like [Giacomo] Meyerbeer was content merely to seize the ground plan…, it is arguable that Tell equally well paved the way for the great political dramas of the Verdi years – Nabucco, Don Carlos, and Simon Boccanegra – as well as Verdi’s own great drama of paternity, Rigoletto.”

Osborne goes on to state: “What Rossini’s shrewder heirs inherited from Guillaume Tell was a new musical plasticity and power; a reorientation and humanization of the near-defunct baroque and neo-classical styles. Inspired by [Friedrich von] Schiller’s magnificent play [as, indeed, Verdi himself was inspired by the same author’s The Maid of Orleans, The Robbers, Love and Intrigue, and Don Carlos], Rossini takes heroic opera out of the fabled world of high romance and brings it into the mainstream of contemporary thought and feeling.”

After decades of slaving away in the galleys, as many Italian composers of the period were expected to do, an exhausted but exceedingly well-off thirty-seven-year-old Gioachino Rossini laid down his pen and vowed never to write another stage work. Rossini kept to that promise, although he continued to compose a variety of parlor pieces and sacred music, among them the lovely Stabat Mater and the song cycle “Sins of My Old Age.”

The Macro and Micro View

Act III of Guillaume Tell, with Gerald Finley as Tell & John Relyea as Gessler (both center) and the Met Opera Chorus

So what is Guillaume Tell really like? Why has this infrequently performed work had such an elevated status among knowledgeable music buffs and critics? To begin with, it’s an unwieldy opus. Four acts, a four-and-a-half-hour running time (according to the Met Opera’s broadcast statistics), an unimaginably torturous lead role for tenor, an expanded chorus, elaborate ballet sequences, and other extra-scenic requirements (including Tell’s last-minute rescue attempt across Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne) have made it a tough slog for an evening’s entertainment.

Aw, heck, you say. That doesn’t sound like much! Why, the mighty Ring cycle itself has been testing the technical capabilities of opera houses for decades. And as far as elaborate tenor roles go, some may share the belief (as I most certainly do) that Wagner’s Tristan and Siegfried are still two of the most grueling operatic assignments of this or any other time. There’s got to be more to it than that!

And indeed there is. Despite its monumentality, Rossini’s French-language extravaganza is a truly melodious piece, one of the composer’s finest and most thoughtfully-conceived stage products. Done with craft and artful intelligence, Guillaume Tell is unlike anything the native from Pesaro had turned out before. In the revealing article, “Rossini’s Last Stand,” by New York Times critic Peter G. Davis for the October 2016 edition of Opera News, the work is heralded for its “romantic, even heroic grandeur,” with the “master’s inimitable touch” present “on nearly every page.” Davis praised the “new expressive freedom and individuality” that “courses through the entire opera.”

The world-famous overture, with its thrice-familiar Lone Ranger theme and other recognizable tunes (used liberally in a wide variety of TV programs, movies, cartoons, and advertisements), “sets the tone … in essence, a boldly conceived, four-part symphonic poem [reflecting, if you will, the four-part partition of the opera itself] conjuring up the Alpine panoramas in which this stirring patriotic drama takes place.”

The opera’s qualities are apparent from the start. As indicated in the above passage, the instrumental writing in the overture alone is absolutely breathtaking. Rossini’s descriptive use of the cellos, followed swiftly by the thunderous storm music, which gives way to the simplicity and beauty of the dawn motif with cor anglais and accompanying flute obbligato, as well as the triumphant stretto section in the brass — all are symptomatic of a first-class musician working at the peak of red-hot inspiration.

Tell (Gerald Finley) shoots the apple from his son Jemmy’s head (Janai Brugger)

Still, the question remains: How does one approach an opera of this magnitude if not from the standpoint of admiration and respect? On the one hand, this was a French grand opera, in spite of its having been written by one of Italy’s finest proponents of bel canto. On the other, it is also an endurance test of phenomenal proportions. In short, this is one of those astonishingly conceived oeuvres for which the term “legendary” has more than sufficient merit.

There’s the opening pastoral and the fisherman Ruodi’s gentle love song — with its unforeseen yet excitingly rendered high C (from a minor character, at that) — indeed, every turn of phrase is of major significance to the drama’s development, a novelty in grand opera at the time. We sense this aspect not only in the title part (actually, second only to that of the tenor Arnold), but in the soprano Mathilde’s reflective Act II air, the cavatina “Sombre forêt” (“Selva opaca,” or “Somber forest”) with its gentle drum roll interspersed throughout.

As you can tell (no pun intended), casting is paramount in a work such as this, and the Met spared no expense in that department. The broadcast of March 18, 2017 (from the October 18, 2016 premiere) starred Canadian baritone Gerald Finley as Tell, New Orleans-born tenor Bryan Hymel as Arnold, and Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka as Mathilde, with debuting tenor Michele Angelini as Ruodi, soprano Janai Brugger as Jemmy, mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak as Hedwige, bass Kwangchul Youn as Melcthal, bass Marco Spotti as Walter Furst, and bass-baritone John Relyea as Gessler.

Italian maestro Fabio Luisi conducted the Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus — vibrantly, I am happy to report. The sets were designed by George Tsypin, the costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, with lighting by Jean Kalman, and choreography by Kim Brandstrup. Donald Palumbo, as always, was the chorus master.

Step Up to the Plate

Bryan Hymel as Arnaud and Marina Rebeka as Mathilde (Met Opera)

For all the worthwhile efforts he brought to bear on this marvelous score, Rossini left it to posterity as to how the part of Arnold (or “Arnaud” in the original French) should be handled. THAT, dear readers, is the real issue at hand.

Who in the past was capable of encompassing the extreme range of Arnold’s music? I won’t resurrect the age-old argument as to whether the many Gs, As, Bs, Cs, and Ds should be taken at full-voice (“high C from the chest,” i.e. do di petto, in Italian) or done in voix mixte (“mixed voice”) mode. Whatever it takes to get those “money notes” out, when done right, will bring the public to its feet come curtain time.

Past recorded exponents were wont to negotiate the role’s difficulties in various and sundry forms. Singers from the dawn of recording, the so-called gramophone era, managed to work their way around the hurdles, while others were not as successful. Readers can come to their own conclusions as to which method was best, usually from a personal perspective.

Fortunately, there are lots of examples to choose from, mainly from the Golden Age by such splendid artists as Francesco Tamagno, Giovanni Martinelli, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Francesco Merli, Mario Filippeschi, Georges Thill, René Verdière, César Vezzani, Hermann Jadlowker, Léon Escalais, and others. Among modern singers, one may thrill to the voices of Luciano Pavarotti, Nicolai Gedda, Alfredo Kraus, Chris Merritt, Michael Spyres, John Osborn, and Juan Diego Flórez.

What about the title role of Tell? Good question. On the Italian front, baritones as far afield as Giuseppe de Luca, Giuseppe Danise, Gino Bechi, Benvenuto Franci, Tito Gobbi, and Giuseppe Taddei have left some wonderful recorded mementos of the soulful aria “Sois immobile” (“Keep still”), or “Resta immobile” in Italian translation. From the Gallic side, we have the impeccably tasteful Jean Borthayre (a baryton martin that I much admire, whose superb diction was above reproach), Maurice Renaud, Arthur Endrèze, Ernest Blanc, and Gabriel Bacquier.

Some more Golden Age extracts include the first act duet between Tell and Arnold (“Ah, Mathilde, je t’aime”) with the tenor’s powerful high notes, sung to near perfection by the likes of Taddei and Filippeschi on the Cetra label; with Bechi and Filippeschi again in a private recording; Franci and Toscanini’s favorite tenor, Aureliano Pertile; Leo Slezak and Leopold Demuth; and the remarkable Martinelli (talk about robust!) with Marcel Journet. There’s also the great third act trio for Tell, Arnold and Walter Furst, delivered in waves of passionate intensity by Martinelli, with De Luca and Spanish basso José Mardones setting the standard for how this piece should be sung.

John Relyea as Governor Gessler in Guillaume Tell

While not a dramatic tenor by nature or birth, Bryan Hymel’s gloriously translucent tone overcame most of Arnold’s vocal hurdles. Despite some treacherous footing in the staging itself, this was a most fortuitous assumption for the artist. Although he struggled valiantly in reaching for those stratospheric Cs during his long Act IV scena, Hymel delivered the prayerful “Asile héréditaire” (“O muto asil del pianto”) with pointed tone and meltingly luxuriant voice; this was followed by the furious cabaletta with chorus, “Amis, amis!” (“Corriam, voliam!”), a rafter-raising precursor to Manrico’s “Di quella pira” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore.

Having conquered Carthage in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Hymel prepared to rescue Tell in this riveting sequence. Recalling the late, great Luciano Pavarotti’s ringing 1971 London/Decca rendition of the aria and cabaletta (severely truncated, according to my recollection), I can only state that Hymel has placed himself in good company. Few artists can muster the rock-solid singing technique and punch to the solar plexus this episode demands. Subtlety and finesse are also called for, as well as stamina and endurance. Lung power alone won’t get you through this obstacle course, as many opera buffs can confirm. Heard in its entirety, the scene can be an exhilarating theatrical experience. It takes guts to make this role a success, or so one would think.

That’s not how Rossini heard it. In his day, Arnold’s music was in the respectable hands of Adolphe Nourrit, the epitome of taste and bel canto refinement. Just a few years hence, a robust rival named Gilbert-Louis Duprez (who created the role of Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor) tried a more novel, muscular approach with his high C from the chest. When he heard Duprez’s version, Rossini famously compared it to a chicken getting its throat cut. Gulp! Incidentally, Duprez was indirectly responsible for Nourrit ending his career in suicide.

As for the rest of the cast, the highly underrated Gerald Finley was a model William Tell. His fine-grained, burnished baritone voice, perfectly even from top to bottom and filled with a lush, buzzy timbre, was an absolute joy to listen to. No wonder he made such a hit with Wagner’s Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger: this is masterful singing by an artist of the first rank. A definitive interpretation and one for the record books.

Gerald Finley as Guillaume Tell in Rossini’s masterpiece

Riga-born soprano Marina Rebeka as Mathilde, while gamely tackling the many beauties this part has to offer, did not combine especially well vocally with Hymel, her romantic tenor lead. Nevertheless, she lent needed pathos as well as softness to her singing. Not intimidated in the least by the assignment, Rebeka had some solid recorded competition in Frances Alda, Claudia Muzio, Lina Pagliughi, Renata Tebaldi, Maria Callas, Rosana Carteri, Montserrat Caballé, Mirella Freni, and Cheryl Studer.

The other singers acquitted themselves well, especially the appealing Jemmy of Janai Brugger. However, a special shout-out is called for to Toronto-born artist John Relyea as the villainous Governor Gessler, a stupendously realized conception. His snarling, sturdy bass-baritone and malevolent characterization of this evil antagonist were convincingly conveyed over the air with firmness and relish. Relyea came off as a real scoundrel, your proverbial baddie.

Back in the late-1980s, I remember seeing the young Relyea as Méphistophélès in the Frank Corsaro production of Gounod’s Faust at New York City Opera. The Faust on that occasion was the equally talented Richard Leech, another rising star on the operatic firmament. Much later, I bought a Telarc digital LP of the Prologue to Boito’s Mefistofele, with Relyea singing the “Ave Signor!” in that wonderfully potent voice of his. He also made a magnificently commanding devil in Berlioz’s fantastical The Damnation of Faust in Robert Lepage’s stylized high-tech production at the Met from 2008.

It was great to have Relyea back in such superbly diabolical form. The next time they present Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann can the Met Opera management please engage him as the Four Villains? PRETTY PLEASE? It was an even more satisfying experience to have finally heard Guillaume Tell at the Met, and in the expert conducting arms of Maestro Luisi, his last assignment at the house. May they all return with renewed vigor.

(End of Part One… To be continued)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes       

Met Opera Round-Up: ‘Casting’ an Ever-Wider Net While Singing the Broadcast Blues (Part Three)

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The Met Opera’s staging of The Death of Klinghoffer, with Paulo Szot (left) as the Captain, and Sean Pannikar (right) as the Terrorist (Photo: Met Opera)

The Time of the Season, Such as It Was

No matter what the classical music press may say or the company’s management might do to convince us otherwise, this was not the most impressive Metropolitan Opera radio lineup in many a season. But it did have its moments. And it has certainly been a most assorted if not exactly varied one.

There’s always loose talk among those purportedly in the know of how staid and stale the repertoire has gotten. Perusing the contents of the Met’s Live in HD and Radio Program Guide for the 2016-2017 Season, one can spot such obscure novelties as Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin (“Love from Afar”), a newly commissioned work; a modern-esque production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (in the original French!); and Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, an unearthed verismo gem from the 1930s.

Old favorites — for example, the perennial Zeffirelli production of La Bohème, and Sonja Frisell’s lavishly embroidered Aida — continue to hog the limelight, giving way to a plethora of more current re-workings of Don Giovanni, Manon Lescaut, Hansel and Gretel, The Barber of Seville, Rigoletto, Carmen, Werther, La Traviata, Fidelio, Eugene Onegin, The Flying Dutchman, and Der Rosenkavalier. Hey, is it intermission time yet?

But seriously, unless these standard-issue items are laced with top-of-the-line models, there would be no motivation on Earth to attempt to resurrect them — except, of course, to attract paying audiences to fill the company’s seats. Our nation’s opera companies have undergone such financial upheavals in the past few decades that anything smacking of the “adventurous” is immediately looked upon with misgiving.

Taking a slice out of operatic life, a few years back, in November 2014, the Metropolitan tried its hand at presenting a controversial staging of John Adams and Alice Goodman’s The Death of Klinghoffer. Although it is more in the tradition of an oratorio, the story concerns the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists and the murder of a retired Jewish-American passenger, the wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer. Not to make light of a serious situation, this is what used to be known in the industry as “CNN Operas” or, in the good old days of Hollywood, a subject “ripped from today’s headlines.”

Because of the inflammatory nature of the plot, protesters and pro-Zionist organizations (to include New York City’s former mayor Rudolph Giuliani) decided to come together and demonstrate vehemently in front of Lincoln Center Plaza, decrying the Met and its general manager, Peter Gelb (himself of Jewish origin), for putting on such a despicable program. To avoid further controversy, Gelb cancelled both the Live in HD transmission and the planned radio broadcast of the work. That’s telling them, Pete — NOT!

Demonstrators outside the Met Opera, protesting The Death of Klinghoffer

As it developed, the majority of protesters had never seen the production when it initially premiered much less heard any of the music. To quote from music critic Alex Ross’ excellent New Yorker review, all they knew about Klinghoffer was that it “glorified terrorism” (which it did not), that it was “anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist, anti-American, anti-British, anti-gay and anti-western world.” Phew, did they leave anything out of their diatribe?

Such excessively politicized over-reactions to an operatic treatment of a highly publicized atrocity from the recent past may not have been entirely unexpected. While they were within this nation’s capacity to express opposing viewpoints (to be defended at all costs, by the way), there was no reason to attribute the above sentiments to a work that tried to look at all aspects of the event, no matter how horrible the ultimate outcome.

Artistic license allows for some leeway in depicting thorny and hard-to-swallow subject matter. Verdi was one of those individuals who knew how to juxtapose the past with present concerns, and still make them stick in the listener’s mind. In fact, the Met’s staging of his early triumph Nabucco (read my review of their production: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/04/09/met-opera-round-up-singing-the-broadcast-blues-part-two-nabucco-la-boheme-and-romeo-et-juliette/) followed this basic blueprint.

We must not neglect the fact that what Verdi was dealing with was a musical and lyrical representation of so-called “history.” In the case of Nabucco, it was the Hebrew enslavement by King Nebuchadnezzar — known as the Babylonian Captivity — and the slaves’ yearning for freedom from bondage, a familiar Biblical theme.

During the time of Nabucco’s premiere, parts of Italy were ruled by the Austrian Empire. And during Verdi’s youth, the town of Le Roncole, in the northern province of Parma, was governed by French forces (trivia note: the name on his birth certificate was Joseph, not Giuseppe). Therefore, it was easy for Italian audiences to relate themselves to Verdi’s viewpoint, hence their identification with the oppressed and the opera’s immediate popularity.

One could say as much for Camille Saint-Saëns Samson et Dalila, a similar depiction of the Old Testament strongman from the Book of Judges where Samson battles the evil-minded Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Its familiar seduction scene — you know, the bit about Samson getting a haircut from the temptress Delilah, which deprived him of his strength — is one of those eye-rolling episodes that tend to give opera a bad name.

Still, the mighty Samson was never as contentious as, say, Verdi’s Rigoletto in which the censors objected to the licentious nature of Francis I, which compelled the composer to transform the royal personage into the lowly Duke of Mantua as well as change the setting from France to medieval Italy; or his later Un Ballo in Maschera, wherein the Maestro attempted to portray the onstage assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, which earned the antagonism of overly nervous censors, thus forcing Verdi to move the location of his opera to Colonial Boston(!) of all places.

This brings up the obvious question: Should the Met have approached Adams and Goodman with a similar suggestion? Let’s say, change the locale of Klinghoffer from an ocean liner to a starship? Why not make the opera an outer space, science-fiction adventure tale of repression? How about calling it Revenge of the PLO Sith?

Anything is possible for the sake of preservation of the art form. You think I’m joking? To take just one example, there have been plenty of “modernized” realizations of Wagner’s Ring cycle where the participants are costumed in space-age garb. And where would the Forest Murmurs episode in Siegfried occur? On Endor, of course!

Now, I know I’ve been waxing and waning toward the ridiculous, but as long as there is someone, somewhere willing to squeeze every last ounce of topicality out of contemporary productions (in a good way, to be certain), one can be assured of opera’s continued relevance and existence in the twenty-first century.

And Now, for Something Completely Different

Meanwhile, the list of works to be reviewed grows long. Suffice it say that those Met Opera broadcasts meriting inclusion into this blog have whittled themselves down to a precious few: a revival of Vincenzo Bellini’s final masterpiece I Puritani, Massenet’s romantic Werther, Rossini’s stirring Guillaume Tell, Wagner’s ghostly Der Fliegende Holländer (or “The Flying Dutchman,” with corresponding allusions to filmmaker Gore Verbinksi’s Pirates of the Caribbean series), and finally Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, a work unfamiliar even to me.

Let’s begin with the Bellini opus, the full title of which is I Puritani di Scozia (“The Puritans of Scotland”). When this Sandro Sequi-Ming Cho Lee production first premiered back in 1976, the big-name cast boasted the likes of Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes and James Morris in the principal roles. The conductor was musicologist and bel canto expert Richard Bonynge, Ms. Sutherland’s husband.

Bellini’s I Puritani, with Alexey Markov, Javier Camarena, Diana Damrau and Luca Pisaroni (Photo: Julieta Cervantes, New York Times)

Though the version heard was far from complete, it at least gave listeners a reasonable facsimile of how these voices would sound in what was generally accepted as a field day for singers. There was a palpable excitement in the air and a feeling of anticipation, especially when Luciano joined Dame Joan in their hair-raising last act duet, “Vieni, fra queste braccia.” We were also treated to the justifiably famous Act II scene for baritone and bass, “Suoni la tromba,” splendidly executed by Milnes and Morris. The shouts and bravos that greeted all these artists went on and on, such was the reception they garnered at the time.

Critics had to reach all the way back into the previous century for comparisons. To be fair, though, the Metropolitan did not have as glorious a performance history with Puritani as it had with Bellini’s Norma or La Sonnambula, since these works did not necessarily depend on first-rate casting in every part. But Puritani needs the best that an opera company can hire. Caruso never sang Arturo, but Giacomo Lauri-Volpi had an early success with the role, with high Cs and Ds intact. Elsewhere, tenors Alfredo Kraus and Nicolai Gedda lent class and distinction to their live performances, along with melting lyricism.

However, if memory serves me, I seem to recall that the New York City Opera under its conductor-director Julius Rudel had revived I Puritani a few years before the Met. There was a time when the NYCO was tops in its class for heralding new and unfamiliar works. My family and I were privy to a matinee performance of Puritani featuring the effervescent Beverly Sills, with Enrico DiGiuseppe, Pablo Elvira and Robert Hale. Unlike the Met’s fuller version, the City Opera’s Tito Capobianco production was riddled with cuts, especially in Act III; it also struck me as being needlessly rushed, as if Rudel were in a hurry to get it over with and go on to something else.

Beverly Sills as Elvira in I Puritani, in a performance from San Francisco

While La Sills had not yet made her Met Opera debut, she was no doubt Manhattan’s reigning bel canto queen. On that occasion, though, she seemed lacking in spark and vigor, quite unlike her bouncy old self (her nickname happened to be “Bubbles”). The other singers somewhat made up for the lack of fireworks, with Elvira and Hale delivering a rousing close to Act II. Tenor DiGiuseppe put on a brave front in the punishing part of Arturo. He navigated the wide-ranging tessitura well enough, but discomfort was evident as he moved higher and higher up the scale.

Now, when Diana Damrau teamed up with Javier Camarena at the Met, the SRO (standing-room-only) crowd knew these more than capable artists were going to give it their best shot as Elvira Walton and Lord Arturo Talbot, especially at the February 18, 2017 radio broadcast.

Damrau’s entry in Act I was accompanied by a mellow, though far from mellifluous Luca Pisaroni as her uncle Giorgio Walton. Earlier, Russian baritone Alexey Markov struggled with the coloratura aspects of Riccardo Forth’s opening aria, “Ah! Per sempre io ti perdei.” Sounding much like the Italian baritone Ugo Savarese (a second-rate singer at best, who may be familiar to record owners as Count di Luna on the old London/Decca LP of Il Trovatore with Tebaldi and Del Monaco), Markov’s timbre and rather modest means was swamped by the chorus and orchestra.

In contrast, the ovation that greeted Javier Camarena’s entrance song, “Ah, te o cara,” nearly stopped the show from moving forward. What beauty of tone, what lovely soft singing! If this wasn’t a throwback to the Golden Age, I don’t know what is. The Mexican tenor soothed and lulled the audience to frenzies of enchantment. When he joined soprano Damrau for the number’s closing stretches, there was no holding back. Taking nothing away from my admiration for tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s abilities (see my earlier review of Puritani: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/11/28/a-bel-canto-bonanza-the-met-presents-bellinis-la-sonnambula-and-i-puritani-rossinis-la-cenerentola-and-donizetti/), Camarena either matched or exceeded that noteworthy performance — not the easiest thing to do, I’ll have you know! Both artists merit praise in their own individual way, of course.

Damrau showed her determination as well, in the long Act II Mad Scene, “Qui la voce,” a standard with bel canto works of this nature. In this one, Elvira goes in and out of madness and despondency over Lord Arturo’s alleged betrayal and impending condemnation for allowing Queen Henrietta to escape (never mind the plot, just enjoy the singing). Here, the soprano’s superior acting skills outshone all previous attempts, with the possible exception of Maria Callas. Now there’s a standard to live up to!

Diana Damrau as Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani.
(Photo: Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera)

But the obvious star of the afternoon was Camarena. There has never been a better sung nor more gorgeously inflected reading of this part in my fifty years of listening. High notes held no terrors for the tenor. Although he skipped the high F in “Credeasi misera” (for which a fan, at the first performance, expressed his indignation), Camarena kept his focus on a classical line throughout. He never shied away from caressing the notes and resisted the temptation to belt out his high Cs and Ds. Everything flowed in an orderly, smooth fashion. He even lavished care for the text, a critical part of the whole in these fragile pieces.

Less is More, More or Less  

Before I delve into the specifics of the other radio performances, a word about the premier broadcast of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, which kicked off the season on December 3, 2016. It happened to be Russian diva Anna Netrebko’s role debut. Acquitting herself well in the part, the estimable Netrebko broke no new ground as far as insight and virtues were concerned. She was partnered by the able Argentine tenor Marcelo Álvarez as Des Grieux and by British baritone Christopher Maltman as Lescaut. The conductor was Marco Armiliato.

Álvarez is one of those artists who believe in the “less is more” school of singing. Continuously preserving his sound and husbanding his resources, Marcelo took on the Chevalier des Grieux, a most challenging assignment for any singer, with gusto and full-throated abandon. He surprised listeners (including yours truly) with a convincingly committed portrayal of the lovesick young student. The highlight was his Third Act oration, “Guardate, pazzo son,” sung with refinement as well as bronze-toned refulgence. His nonetheless valid interpretation, while smoother and less obviously strained than that of French tenor Roberto Alagna’s emotionally explosive version (see my review of his performance: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/manon-lescaut-madama-butterfly-and-the-mets-latest-love-couple-part-one/), was a major triumph.

Marcelo Alvarez as Des Grieux (center) in Act III of Manon Lescaut (Photo: Met Opera)

The most frustrating aspect of that performance, to my dismay, was the lackluster conducting of the usually competent Marco Armiliato. Perhaps I’m unfairly comparing his duties to the achievements of his predecessor in this regard, Fabio Luisi. Maestro Luisi was passed over for promotion by an unappreciative Met Opera management for his assignments in the French and German wing — in particular, to Berlioz’s classically structured Les Troyens and Wagner’s Ring, for which he added unexpected pleasures. Moreover, the knowledge and understanding he has brought to the Italian repertoire —i.e., the double bill of Cavalleria and Pagliacci, and the marvelously telling string section of Manon Lescaut — made those hoary works soar as they never had before.

The tricky key changes and give-and-takes in the third act trio between Manon, Des Grieux and her brother Lescaut; that stop-and-go aspect indicative of the couple’s desperation in their attempt to flee Geronte’s wrath before the police arrive, completely fell apart without Luisi’s firm hand at the helm. Accuracy and timing are essential, as is an almost metronomic precision. Don’t misunderstand me: I have the greatest respect and admiration for Maestro Armiliato. So the only possible explanation I can fathom for his failure to ignite this scene was insufficient rehearsal time.

The New and the Old

I’m all for new works, especially when they offer variety and another point of view. But the December 10 broadcast of Kaija Saariho’s L’Amour de Loin suffered from a sameness of sound throughout its presentation. With only three roles to contend with, the opera felt stagnant and unrelievedly boring.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens, normally an attention-grabbing, solidly opulent singer, was dull and stiff on stage. He’s supposed to be a troubadour-prince. Now, if there’s something that Owens is NOT is a romantic figure, especially a troubadour-prince. Consequently, there was little chemistry between him and his lady fair, soprano Susanna Phillips. One could blame it on miscasting, but this was a tedious affair from start to finish. True, the opera might be better off with different artists (as some critics have saliently suggested), but I’m not sure that would help its survival in the long run. It failed to stir these old bones.

Susanna Phillips & Eric Owens in L’Amour de Loin at the Met

Moving on to the December 31, 2016 broadcast of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, I felt the opera deserved more bounce and flair, and several shades more of flamboyance and panache than it got. It also required a major bass-baritone with the requisite bel canto proficiency. Such was not to be found in the otherwise adequate hands of Ildar Abdrazakov as the pompous Mustafà.

To a similar degree, the squishy diction and shaky tones of Russian basso Mikhail Petrenko nearly sunk The Barber of Seville broadcast of January 28, 2017. Fortunately, that opera can survive just about anything that is thrown at it. And what was thrown included a fine, young Rosina in Pretty Yende (now THERE’S an attention-grabbing moniker!), the practiced Figaro of Peter Mattei, and the superlative vocal skills of Javier Camarena’s Count Almaviva. But a close shave is a close shave!

I did not hear either the February 4th Rigoletto or the February 11th Carmen broadcasts. But I am told that tenor Stephen Costello as the Sinatra-inspired Duke of Mantua managed to cut a trim figure on stage. He did over-extend his pleasingly lyric voice to the breaking point, however, in trying to outdo his predecessors. Not a wise move, Stephen! Besides, Polish tenor Piotr Beczała and the American Matthew Polenzani are hard acts to follow. Do yourself a favor and follow Frankie’s example: do it your way.

On the other hand, Massenet’s Werther from March 4 was graced with Vittorio Grigolo’s passionately dedicated, romantically justified interpretation of the title character, with fine support from David Bizic as Albert and Maurizio Muraro as the Bailiff. The opera was conducted by Edward Gardner.

The only letdown, if one could be honest, was in mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard’s blandly conceived Charlotte. With such an outgoing protagonist as Signor Grigolo by your side, many reviewers noticed that Leonard was inhibited in her actions. I can’t judge her performance from that angle, but what I can say is that vocally she was about as effective as her predecessor Sophie Koch had been. Of course, Ms. Koch had to contend with the darkly handsome, and compellingly delivered Werther of a certain Jonas Kaufmann — an unfair matchup even in the best of times.

(End of Part Three)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Skipping the Groove: The Long-Lost Art of the Complete Opera Album (Part Two) — Living the Life Operatic

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Sophia Loren (Aida) & Afro Poli (Amonasro) in the film version of Verdi’s Aida (1953)

Lights! Camera! Opera!

From Puccini to his illustrious predecessor, Verdi, came my first full-fledged exposure to the Bear of Busseto’s grandest of grand operas, Aida.

Originally conceived to inaugurate the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt, Aida made its debut a few years later (in 1871) at the Cairo Opera House. Besides being one of Master Verdi’s most sonorous stage spectacles, there are moments of unanticipated intimacy and orchestral lightness — for example, the famous double scene of Act IV where Aida and her lover, Radames, are locked in each other’s arms while sealed alive in the tomb.

As many of this blog’s readers know, my first experience with a live radio transmission of a Metropolitan Opera production was the four-act Aida. The cast, as far as I can remember, was headed by the legendary Leontyne Price in her signature role of the Princess Aida, with James McCracken as Egyptian general Radames, and Robert Merrill as Aida’s father, Amonasro. The year must have been around 1967 or ’68 (maybe even earlier).

It also marked the moment I first started recording reel-to-reel tapes of Saturday matinee performances. This practice went on for decades thereafter (with portable cassettes supplanting tapes), but at the start I only recorded arias and highlights, or the most memorable portions of acts and scenes (memorable to ME, that is) instead of the whole darn thing. This was the case with Aida: I got as far as Act II, the noisiest and most lavish of the four, before I ran out of tape.

As was the norm for me back then, Aida quickly became my most listened-to showpiece. It remains a favorite of mine, though slightly down from that imaginary “best of” list. Right now, I would rank it in the top ten. It’s an opera I know well, one I have grown to admire for its well-developed story line (Verdi himself had a major hand in shaping the drama and dialogue) and musical ambition (Act IV, Scene One, also known as the Judgment Scene, stands as one the composer’s finest and most forcefully structured sequences for mezzos).

With all young people, curiosity manages to bring out the best in them. Not only was I not satisfied with just learning the words and melodies to the most popular airs, but I began to realize there were actual stories behind these great works. This led me to the next series of events in my burgeoning operatic life: a subscription to the Met’s weekly magazine, Opera News, published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild.

At that time, a dollar would buy you a month’s worth of material about the radio broadcast, the cast of performers, the goings-on in the opera world and other opera-related matters — a dream come true for initiates. This jump-started me into a nonstop chain of reading and writing about opera from a multiplicity of reference books and library resources, in addition to listening to every opera broadcast I could adjust my radio dial to, along with independent study that, to this day, continues to thrill and delight me as it always has.

I mention independent study as a key component of getting to know what opera was all about — and how my juvenile (at times, practically obsessive) interest in Aida paid off handsomely both on television and in the movie theater.

One summer, my father informed me that a downtown cinema was advertising an old Sophia Loren picture: Verdi’s Aida — billed, as a double-feature, with a matinee showing of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Off we went to see my first opera movie. Heck, I didn’t know Sophia Loren could sing opera! Neither did she — how naïve was that?

Unbeknownst to moi, Sophia’s singing voice was dubbed by Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi, whose own full figure was, (ahem) shall we say, more “ample” than La Loren’s. As I watched the screen, it quickly dawned on me that none of the other artists appearing in this color production had done their own singing as well.

Lois Maxwell (Amneris), who played Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond series, with Sophia Loren (Aida)

What startled me the most was the overpowering stereophonic sound reproduction and the ampleness of the voices with full orchestral accompaniment. Wow! What a thrill it was to hear opera at full blast! At that point, my only exposure to music of this nature was consigned to a crude portable record player (with constricted monophonic output, at that) and to a 13-inch black-and-white TV set, where shows such as the Bell Telephone Hour broadcast kinescope images of old-time opera stars in their sunset years.

If I wanted to live the life operatic, I had to dispose of those elementary pieces of equipment and graduate to more sophisticated listening methods.

Along those lines, I vowed to expand my classical horizons by kicking things off with the purchase of a complete opera album of Aida. No longer would I be limited by arias and highlights. I wanted — and needed — to hear and learn about the entire work, from beginning to end, top to bottom, no more lame excuses.

Impressed as I was by the voices onscreen, I was a little thrown by the baritone who performed the part of Amonasro. To me, the voice had to belong to the great Tito Gobbi. Surely, that snarling tone and snappy delivery could have come from no other singer. In fact, I had recently heard Gobbi in the opera’s Nile Scene with Maria Callas on music critic George Jellinek’s program, The Vocal Scene, on radio station WQXR-FM.

By way of research, I learned that the actor who embodied Amonasro on film was Afro Poli, a decent enough singer in his own right, but even he had been dubbed by another artist, the late Gino Bechi. Bechi, I came to realize later, turned out to be one of the singers that had inspired the young Gobbi when he was starting out in the opera field.

Gobbi wrote about Bechi in his autobiography, My Life, and in his book Tito Gobbi and His World of Italian Opera. Here is what Gobbi had to say about his great colleague and rival: “Gino Bechi and I had a sort of competition between us as to who could sing [Baldassare’s aria from Cilèa’s L’Arlesiana] better, and even to this day I have the stupendous voice of Bechi in my ears.” Gobbi was a most generous soul.

Tito Gobbi and His World of Italian Opera

I knew, too, from prior investigation, that Bechi had sung Amonasro on an old 78-rpm recording, with Gigli as Radames and Maria Caniglia in the title role. Heck, I had about as much chance of finding that album as I would have in purchasing an old-fashioned gramophone to play it. Maybe I could settle for Gobbi’s masterful interpretation with Callas and Richard Tucker, an EMI/Angel release of more recent vintage and (it was my hope) availability. It wasn’t in stereo, mind you, but was the next best thing.

Armed with money my mom gave me, I went down to E.J. Korvette’s, a popular department-store chain at the time, in search of Signor Gobbi. No such luck! However, I did find a complete RCA Victrola recording with Zinka Milanov as Aida, Jussi Bjoerling as Radames, Leonard Warren as Amonasro, Fedora Barbieri as Amneris, and Boris Christoff as the High Priest Ramfis. This was a re-release of the original RCA Victor outing which, if memory serves me, didn’t always carry a libretto — something I desperately needed if I was going to accompany along.

Faced with either this purchase or nothing, I decided to go for it. Returning home, I eagerly played the album from start to finish (with libretto intact) and was not dismayed at the result. This was a splendid production, with excellent acoustics (albeit sonically restricted in one instance towards the end of the Nile Scene) and immaculately refined singing from all the participants. Whoever said that Aida was nothing more than a pretentious excuse for camels and circus elephants was dead wrong!

The recording venue was the Rome Opera House. Consequently, one could feel the surrounding ambience’s sway, which had a positive effect on the individual performances and interpretations. But don’t take my word for it. Read this section from Volume One of Opera on Record, edited by Alan Blyth, published by Hutchinson & Co., and written by contributor John Steane:

“Milanov’s voice has something in common with [Montserrat] Caballé’s, excelling in the soft, high notes which were at best pure velvet. In other, more turbulent passages, she could be less pleasing, losing focus and displaying a beat. Some most lovely singing by her and Jussi Bjoerling in duet, however, should be preserved if ever a really adequate archive comes into existence. ‘La tra foreste vergine’ (Bjoerling also observing that rare dolce marking) and ‘O terra addio’ haunt the memory long afterwards with their loveliness.

Jussi Bjoerling (top left) & Leonard Warren (middle) listening to a playback of Aida

“This set, too, is probably the most striking of all in the way it opens (once the curtain is up): Bjoerling is in his best voice, fullest voice, but the first voice of all that we hear is Boris Christoff’s, so impressive that it bids fair to refocus the whole opera on the High Priest.”

What was that about Gobbi and Amonasro? Live and learn.

A Resounding Ring

My other life-altering discovery came with Sir Georg Solti’s compelling rendition of the first note-complete, stereophonic realization of Wagner’s epic Ring of the Nibelung. This massive cycle is comprised of four evening-length works, starting with the shortest, Das Rheingold (“The Rhine Gold”), and continuing on (in ever-increasing lengths) with Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie”), Siegfried, and the longest of the lot, Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”).

Supplied with lavish librettos and copious program notes and background information, I threw myself into Wagner’s mythological setting — the operatic equivalent of a pre-Lord of the Rings saga — with the daring of a Spanish explorer visiting the New World for the first time.

With the additional aid of the Rheingold booklet, which set forth and illustrated the complicated leitmotif (“leading motives”) system that Wagner employed throughout the telling of his story (along with a three-disc album of appropriate musical excerpts annotated by British music critic Deryck Cooke), I was aurally and visually able to follow the complicated plot’s many meanderings with the ease of a specialist. I finally began to understand what motivated the characters to do what they did — and uncovered for myself the raison d’être for Wotan’s deplorable (nay, inexcusable) behavior with respect to his minions. And he’s supposed to be the head god, the one those lesser gods and mortals looked up to? Why, he’s no better than his counterpart, Alberich.

One of the mysteries that was cleared up was why Alberich, the loathsome Nibelung of the saga’s title, is called Schwarz (“Dark”) Alberich, while at other times Wotan is mentioned as Licht or “Light” Alberich. They are, in fact, mirror images of each other, with both good and bad traits abounding. Wotan wanders the world, looking for love away from home and hearth. He fathers various siblings along the way, all of them out of wedlock, while still married to Fricka, his lawful wife. In addition, he condones the incestuous pairing of his children, Siegmund and Sieglinde — an uncomfortable set of circumstances that brings about their downfall.

Similarly, Alberich is searching for an amorous tryst with the voluptuous Rhine Maidens, who spurn him for his ugliness. Thus Alberich renounces love, places a curse on the titular Ring, and pays another woman, Grimhilde (huh, “Grim” is right!), to bear his only son, Hagen, the personification of hatred and evil incarnate. Can you blame him?

With understanding comes an appreciation for what the singers have to do in order to convey these various implications in their respective characters. Does the singer portraying Wotan express power and will when called for, but can he also be wimpy and weak when confronted with Fricka’s arguments? Can the artist assuming Siegfried represent youthful exuberance in forging the sword Nothung, and can he later do justice to the telling of his life story to the Vassals, which comes after a long, eventful night of full-throated warbling?

John Culshaw’s Ring Resounding (published 1967) about the making of the first stereo Ring cycle recording

These are some of the myriad aspects to look for when listening to a performance of the Ring. It’s one thing to find them in a live performance, but on records? The odds are doubled at every turn you won’t encounter them. But you would never know it if you didn’t read up on the story ahead of time. Plunging head-long into the River Rhine is not everyone’s preferred method of discovery. But in my case, it became a revelatory experience — that, and my reading of Robert Donington’s fascinating tome, Wagner’s Ring and Its Symbols, a rather Jungian interpretation of the events in the drama. I can also recommend (if you’re interested) Father M. Owen Lee’s Turning the Sky Around, a much shorter but equally incisive analysis of the work by way of Father Lee’s intensive study of classical literature.

Interpretation. That’s a much abused word in the world of opera, especially when the conversation turns to Regietheater, or “director driven theater.” Should the director be the driving force behind most of the world’s productions? Or should he or she be constrained by past performance practice? It’s fair to view a work with fresh eyes, but too often directors want to push the outside of the envelope for no other reason than to push it as far as it goes. Is this a valid, reasoned approach or plain old, self-indulgent willfulness?

On records, one need not worry about such contrivances. In this specific environment, “interpretation” is relayed by words and sounds alone. There is no visual component to throw viewers into a quandary. Only the sonic elements suffice, which can either lead to a more positive experience with the recording at hand or a negative one.

Returning to Solti’s Ring, I’d like to answer an age-old question that’s been posed by countless critics and record buffs for well on 60 years, at least since this archetypal edition first appeared on the shelves: was this the best-ever “interpretation” of Wagner’s magnum opus? Hmm, that’s a tough one. Considered a landmark in the history of recorded opera, the first stereophonic Das Rheingold was released back in 1958, followed a few years later by Siegfried in 1962, Götterdämmerung in 1964, and finally Die Walküre in 1965.

Lauded for its sonic splendor and superb sound reproduction and effects, producer John Culshaw earned kudos for his team’s efforts in capturing for all time such iconic performers as Kirsten Flagstad, Hans Hotter, Set Svanholm, Gottlob Frick, Paul Kuen, and Gustav Neidlinger, along with a younger generation of Wagnerians headed by Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen, Regine Crespin, Christa Ludwig, James King, George London and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

The enterprise was unique in that entire episodes were recorded in extremely long takes, some sessions by as much as 45 minutes or longer. This was not a common practice at the time. In truth, most opera albums were recorded piecemeal and, in the manner of the majority of motion pictures, totally out of sequence.

So what made this venture so unique? My own view of this issue lay in the casting. In his book on the recording, entitled The Ring Resounding, Culshaw described the difficulties the company had with the artist scheduled to undertake the part of Siegfried, a key role. You will notice that there is a four-year gap between the release of Rheingold and Siegfried (why they did not record the next opera in the series, Die Walküre, remains a mystery).

Georg Solti (left) & producer John Culshaw recording Wagner’s Ring

One of the reasons for the long delay was caused by Ernst Kozub, the unmentioned tenor assigned to sing Siegfried and who had captured everyone’s attention with his stirring voice. Culshaw insisted that Kozub had the raw equipment that would turn him into a star of the first magnitude, if only he had more in-depth study and dug into the text with added insight. But no matter how they tried to coach him, Kozub resisted; worse, he became incapable of delivering the goods needed to bring the character to life. Not known at the time were issues concerning Kozub’s health, which were never revealed until much later.

Reluctantly and with so much time and money invested in the project, Culshaw was forced to look elsewhere for his Siegfried. He was fortunate to secure the services of the leading Wagner tenor of his day, the French-born German singer Wolfgang Windgassen. Without mincing words, it was clear to everyone involved that this was a world-class interpreter. The only problem was securing his services, for which contract negotiations were long and drawn out.

Business was finally settled, mostly due to Windgassen’s personal efforts on the project’s behalf. Culshaw confessed that much dial-twiddling and sound recalibration was called for in overcoming the size differential between Windgassen’s more modest tone and Kozub’s more refulgent one. What Decca/London gave up in impact and immediacy they gained in a decidedly enhanced, artistically viable interpretation (there’s that term again) where the artist in question outshone all previous attempts. Windgassen gave it his all so that both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung could be completed.

To underscore the point Culshaw made above, there are several moments in these two works where Siegfried reveals an innermost depth and nuance not native to his abrasive character. One of them is the delightful Forest Murmurs Scene from Act II, at the spot where the young brute longs for his dead mother, whom he never knew in life. Windgassen is so effective and affecting here, with a real tenderness and awareness for the words and text, that all thought of another singer doing justice to the part is swept aside. His forceful yet exuberant Forging Scene is spot-on terrific, too, aided and abetted by Gerhard Stolze’s cacophonous Mime and those marvelous poundings of the anvil.

In Act III, things turn deadly serious with Siegfried’s dramatic encounter with the Wanderer (Wotan in disguise). Having disposed of this meddlesome pest, Siegfried approaches the fiery rock where Brünnhilde lies asleep, surrounded by Magic Fire (the Sleeping Beauty story taken to the extreme). As Siegfried muses on the figure before him, he cautiously removes her breastplate. Then, in a violent outburst pregnant with comedic potential, he cries out: “This is no man!” But it’s the WAY that Windgassen handles this moment, how he shapes this phrase that betrays not humor but terror at the thought of befriending such an extraordinary creature as this.

Wolfgang Windgassen (Siegfried) embraces Birgit Nilsson (Brunnhilde) in Siegfried (Photo: Bayreuth)

Finally, with a long, all-enveloping kiss on her mouth, Siegfried awakens Brünnhilde to the simultaneous rising of the dawn. The theme of the rising sun resounds in the massive Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (recorded in Vienna’s acoustically ideal Sofiensaal), as it accompanies Birgit Nilsson’s mighty voice in her bid to welcome the morning light: “Heil, dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!” She takes the phrase in one long, astounding breath.

It’s just one of the many spectacular sequences from this epic undertaking that provide all the proof one needs to confer its premier status as a high-water mark for recorded opera.

Ripe for Re-Disc-covery

The advent and promise of the compact disc, or CD, and the expectations it engendered as a viable “new” medium for preserving opera eventually sealed their fate more that it revived a by-now waning format. Anything and everything worth recording had already been done, or so the prevailing thought. Besides, where were the present-day artists who could replace the likes of a Pavarotti or a Domingo? The newest Caballé or the latest Price? Where was Milnes’ successor, or Ghiaurov’s or Ramey’s, for that matter? You get my drift.

Without an alternative replacement of the magnitude and resilience of the above-named artists, what purpose was there in re-recording something that had already been recorded a dozen or more times before — and better performed at that? Just to hear an opera in another medium, that is, in the digital realm, is that reason enough? How many inferior versions of Tosca or La Bohème can we handle? How many opera albums can pop idols and wannabe opera stars such as Andrea Bocelli or Josh Groban headline, to the inevitable damage of the very product they are attempting to sell?

Maybe I’m letting my inner “grumpy old man” get the better of me. But let’s be honest, here: when has anyone been bowled over by the current batch of complete opera recordings? What I have seen revived of late (and fairly successfully, too) is a welcome return to the single artist set-up — that is to say, the concept album: recitals and concerts of scenes and extracts from well-known or rarely performed operas and songs, recorded and sung to near perfection in a controlled atmosphere.

For an illustration of what I mean, we have Roberto Alagna’s Malèna, Jonas Kaufmann’s An Evening with Puccini, Dmitri Hvorostovsky Sings of War, Peace, Love and Sorrow, Pretty Yende’s A Journey, Anna Prohaska’s Serpent and Fire, Lawrence Brownlee’s Allegro Io Son, Anna Netrebko’s Verismo, Elīna Garanča’s Revive, and Jamie Barton’s All Who Wander. Each of these fine artists, in his or her own way (and in his or her own voice), has contributed to a better understanding of their respective country’s art.

Choice items and representative highlights from their concert programs, be they from North America, Italy, France, Spain, Mexico, Germany, Latvia, Russia, South Africa, or wherever, stress the diversity and depth of music and song in this big old world of ours. To coin a well-worn phrase, they each have offered audiences “something old and something new, something borrowed and something blue.” Something “blue” in this context would refer to something sad, but no matter.

My own feelings about this direction that opera recordings have taken, despite the diffuse nature of today’s constantly evolving technology, is one of joy and hopefulness. Joy that this newest crop of singers and artists, from sopranos to tenors, mezzos to basses, baritones to countertenors, are finally able to penetrate the storm clouds of uncertainty; and hopeful that tomorrow, they will bring forth the light of understanding as to what the operatic art truly involves: dedication, perseverance, suffering for one’s art, and, above all, a love for the form.

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Skipping the Groove: The Long-Lost Art of the Complete Opera Album (Part One)

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Enrico Caruso (ca. 1910) listening to a gramophone recording

Dawn of the Sound Era

In the beginning (of the recording industry, that is), there were wax cylinders. The tinny, scratchy sound that came out of those cylinders was one reason for their demise. And because of their fragility, longevity was not a strong point, either.

They were eventually supplanted by the longer-lasting yet heavier to carry 10-inch platters. That’s when thick, circular discs could be played at an astounding 78 revolutions per minute, mostly by hand-cranking a lever that would make rudimentary turntables revolve at approximately that speed.

A needle or stylus was lowered onto the turntable via an antiquated “tone arm.” This device would then cut into the record’s grooves. Vibrations that emanated from the grooves to the stylus were transmitted to a large acoustic horn, which emitted the sound of what was preserved on those same grooves that could then be heard in a record shop, or in one’s living room (known as the parlor).

Variations in the makeup and performance of these elemental record players (called gramophones) resulted in widely fluctuating pitches. This undoubtedly effected the enjoyment of an artist of Caruso’s renown as he flung forth his trademark “Vesti la giubba.” (Uh, was that A sharp or A flat, maestro?) Be that as it may, those fortunate enough to have afforded this revolutionary gizmo could indulge themselves to the fullest in the evolving pastime of record listening.

It was said at the dawn of this new era of sound reproduction that Puccini’s arias were made to order for the gramophone (later dubbed the phonograph) — an obvious reference to their brevity and an added boon to those enamored of his oeuvre. On the other hand, anything by Wagner, whose main quality was his persistent long-windedness, was clearly unplayable in this form.

This highlighted one of the major defects of the 78-rpm record, i.e., its short playing time. At three to four minutes per one-sided disc (depending on the turntable’s speed and accuracy, as well as the record’s groove spacing), this was hardly enough time for the prelude to Lohengrin to reach its climax. When 12-inch platters came out, the time-span increased to just over five minutes per side, give or take a few. You can imagine how many platters it would take to hear a relatively brief work such as Mascagni’s 80-minute Cavalleria Rusticana, let alone something of Der Rosenkavalier’s heft.

Gramophone with horn and wax cylinders strewn about

Soon, cumbersome 78’s were replaced by longer lasting 45-rpm’s, to be replaced later still by the microgroove LP sometime in the late 1940s. Around the mid-1950s, the 45 had been relegated to such genres as folk, pop, blues, jazz and rockabilly, music that barely lasted a full three or four minutes per side.

With further technical refinements and the development of the 33 1/3 long-playing album, as much as a half hour of time on either side (again, depending on the microgrooves in between) could be taken up with vocal, instrumental, orchestral and/or choral programming of varying types and degrees. Hah, Götterdämmerung be damned!

Thus the notion of the complete opera album came into existence, with “complete” being a relative term — not that opera wasn’t available on those old 78’s, not by a long shot!

Surprisingly, a goodly amount of the standard repertory had already been committed to disc by the 1930s and 40s, the so-called Depression and War years. The downside, as stated earlier, was the sheer size and bulk of those albums. In many cases, a work such as Verdi’s Aida would require a huge financial outlay (for the time, of course). Not to be done in by the cost factor, the weight of having to lug around 30 or more platters was off-putting, to put it mildly.

Along with the above problems, most opera sets were severely cut in order to fit what remained of the music onto those hulking discs. Added to which, the vintage sound quality of those early acoustics and the slightly more tolerable electrics were hardly what one would call state of the art.

Indeed, the 33 1/3 LP record had come along at precisely the right time.

Opera as Spectator Sport

LP record with tonearm on turntable

Even better for opera buffs, the next series of tweaks and innovations — the development of stereophonic sound reproduction with that of the opera album itself, which included deluxe librettos, copious liner notes, and historical and biographical information — became a godsend to novice listeners such as myself.

For the first time one could hear an uninterrupted presentation of Wagner’s Ring cycle, or stretch one’s comfort zone immeasurably by taking a chance with those interminable Strauss monstrosities. The other novelties that stereo reproduction introduced us to were the enhancement of and appreciation for opera as a performing art.

Still unsatisfied, avid collectors the world over would scour their local record shops for ever more out-of-the-way anomalies on what knowledgeable opera aficionados might call “privately issued” labels. Others less inclined to political correctness would prefer to use the term “pirated editions” of their favorite artists or works. Such rarities as Catalani’s Loreley, Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, or the Lisbon Traviata, for example, were at one time considered the Holy Grail for lovers of the form.

Opera fans my age and older would search high and low and over a vast range of pre-recorded formats, either on reel-to-reel tape or low quality discs, for that one outstanding performance, or that one elusive moment, that towered above the rest — many preserved, unfortunately, in positively excruciating sound.

Franco Corelli & Birgit Nilsson in Turandot (Photo: Louis Melancon/Met Opera)

Still, what price wouldn’t fanatics pay to to relive Maria Callas’ spontaneous high C from Mexico City in the conclusion to the Triumphal Scene from Aida, or tenor Franco Corelli’s voluminous, gasp-inducing, stratospheric assumption of Calàf to soprano Birgit Nilsson’s icy Princess Turandot? How about Mario Filippeschi’s dramatically declaimed Radames from the Naples Opera? Did he really take that phrase, “Sacerdote, io resto a te!” all in one incredible breath? You bet he did! Opera was treated as a spectator sport in days gone by….

Moments such as these were unheard of when complete opera albums appeared on the scene. What was so often felt in the opera house could not hope to be duplicated in the studio — nor would it. The point of record albums was to introduce prospective buyers, both amateurs and veterans alike, to the joys of listening to a given work in the comfort of one’s abode, just like the old days of grandpa’s gramophone. There, one might begin to cultivate an intimate relationship with opera, one that would nurse you through tough times.

Today, we have YouTube, live streaming and other Web-based methods of revisiting those fabulous moments from the past. Back in the LP era, though, you were limited not so much by the medium of the analog recording itself as to the content the record companies put out into the marketplace. Standard works were the norm, while adventurous repertoire was a risky maneuver. And therein lies the rub: economics and the reality of the complete opera recording business.

As they approached the end of the millennium, the classical divisions of the most highly respected record labels of the 1950s through the late 1980s (RCA Victor, Decca/London, EMI/Angel, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, etc.) experienced shrunken budgets and cost-cutting measures on an ever-widening scale. It was an accepted fact that, over the span of many decades and with the exclusion of artistic merit, complete opera albums were considered a money-losing proposition.

Given the cost of having to pay for a 100-piece orchestra, for 60 or more choristers, for conductors of unquestioned repute, and for singers of superior abilities, to include sound engineers, recording technicians and other highly skilled professionals, the size and scope of such an endeavor as recording a complete opera remained prohibitively expensive.

When record companies first started recording their efforts at, say, La Scala, Milan, or inside the Rome Opera House, as many of them did early on in the process, the costs were shared by most participants. Frequently, budgets were kept in check or out of the equation entirely over the objections of those in charge of the enterprise. “Never mind the bottom line,” some record executives would insist, “it’s the preservation of the art form we most care about.” Oh, really?

As salaries skyrocketed and the tremendous physical and financial demands of traveling overseas increased exponentially, the break-even point for producing and releasing complete opera albums had long-ago vanished.

Nowadays, with most of the standard and not-so-standard repertory items already firmly “in the can,” what was there left to record apropos of the opera?

My Time with My Favorite Pastime

Album cover for 1939 Gigli-Dal Monte recording of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

Recalling my own adventures with the recorded art, I can tell you that everything I learned about opera first started with my listening to it. And what was it I listened to? Why, the radio, of course! Where else could a kid from the inner city enjoy opera at his leisure — and for free?

In my early teens, I couldn’t afford to attend live performances, not until I started working. Oh, there were plenty of live options: the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, City Centre, and Lincoln Center. All were available, but not to me.

No, I grew up listening to the Met on the radio, as many people my age did. Fortunately, I discovered a wealth of opportunity at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. There, I could borrow complete opera albums to my heart’s content. Prior to that, I had spent many a free hour at our local branches, pouring over books and librettos of my favorite works, and jotting down the words to my favorite arias, in between studying for exams and such.

New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center

The unalloyed pleasure of listening to a complete opera, unencumbered by daily chores or current events, is something I will always treasure with fondness, longing and a large measure of nostalgia. Those were the times I could really sink my teeth into dissecting the content of what the performers were trying to achieve when they sang their roles in a foreign tongue. Having the original Italian, French, German or Russian libretto at hand, while following along with an accompanying English translation of the text, opened up a marvelous new world of knowledge and comprehension.

More significantly were the influences on me of such classic albums as the Georg Solti-conducted Ring cycle on Decca/London and the RCA Victor Madama Butterfly with Gigli and Dal Monte, real eye-openers as far as my acquaintance with the medium was concerned. I would also add the RCA Victor Aida with Milanov, Bjoerling, Barbieri, Warren and Christoff, along with the Decca/London Fanciulla del West with Tebaldi, Del Monaco and MacNeil, as testaments to their staying power.

My self-studies began in earnest with the earliest of the items indicated above, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Originally released on 78-rpm records in 1939, this RCA reissue introduced me to my parents’ favorite work, one they had heard often in Brazil, in particular on the night before my birth (for a more detailed description of this event, please see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/opera/). These old monophonic LP’s had been played so often that the staccato fugue introduction was by now unlistenable, so scratched were the sounds that emanated from their grooves.

Beniamino Gigli, the Pinkerton, was in his element. The lieutenant’s caddish nature, the good humor he exhibited in his exchanges with Goro and Sharpless, and the ardent deference paid to his teenage bride Cio-Cio-San, were well preserved, to which can be noted the pouting, sighing tones Gigli was famous for. No other tenor on records has captured that quizzical aspect of the line, “Milk punch o whisky?” when offering the American Consul some refreshment. I always wondered, as many listeners no doubt have, what the hell “milk punch” was? My best estimate would be the Italian librettists’ erroneous translation of Japanese saké.

Italian soprano Toti Dal Monte, 1925 photo

Toti Dal Monte, a renowned coloratura at the time the recording was made, was a controversial choice for the title role. On record, her voice was thin, wiry and high-pitched, and may strike listeners’ ears as irritating. However, she alone (among a surfeit of recorded Butterfly interpreters) immediately convinces us of the “little girl” behind the arranged marriage to the foreign naval officer. Because we know she was only a child-bride, her rapid transformation into adulthood is all the more striking for its fierce determination. With tears flowing and an astounding ability to act with the voice, Dal Monte’s ritual suicide is the most heart-breaking on record, and the most emotionally wrought. It takes a steady hand not to be overcome by the sheer intensity of her performance.

The thing I noticed most, however, as I followed along with the libretto, was where the text diverted from what was actually recorded. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but RCA Victor had inadvertently printed the ORIGINAL 1904 libretto to the opera, not the thoroughly revised 1907 Paris edition of Butterfly — the one most opera-goers are familiar with and which the world’s opera houses have continuously staged. How odd, then, and how confusing for a neophyte such as myself! But instead of frustration, curiosity got the better of me. I needed to learn WHY there was a difference between what Gigli was singing and why a large portion of his dialogue was missing from said recording.

Years later, when I became aware of the multiple versions of Puccini’s opera, I realized the Butterfly we’ve seen on stage was not what the composer had intended. I sought out and bought a CD that included what was available of the original source material, along with the various modifications introduced at Brescia not four months after the work’s disastrous premiere at La Scala, as well as further snips and cuts.

The result was a more refined reworking of the composer’s conception, one that centered primarily on the character of Cio-Cio-San, as the above recording certainly does, and on her growing maturity, both personal and psychological, as a mother and as a woman, which Dal Monte superbly encapsulated.

All this from a sonically compromised, monophonic recording.

(End of Part One … To be continued)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes