Romeo et Juliette

Met Opera Round Up: Singing the Broadcast Blues (Part Two): ‘Nabucco,’ ‘La Bohème,’ and ‘Roméo et Juliette’

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Set for Verdi’s Nabucco at the Met (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

Now, Where Were We?

Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio and Verdi’s Nabucco. The time interval between these two radically diverse works was half a century. Mozart composed his three-act comic masterpiece (a Singspiel, or opera with spoke passages) in 1782, while Verdi completed work on the four-act drama Nabucco in 1842.

Not only were these operas as different from one another as the proverbial day from night, but the lifestyles of their respective creators were equally as far apart. Despite the disparities, Verdi and Mozart were students of politics. All throughout his short life Mozart struggled with his inability to be taken seriously as an artist. Perhaps it had to do with his more playful, carefree nature. On the other hand, Verdi was dead serious from day one.

Who could have foreseen that these two great musical minds might have shared a commonality of thought: the humanist and eternal optimist Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart versus the darkly pessimistic genius of Giuseppe Verdi?

They both experienced extraordinary success as well as the deepest sorrow and tragedy. In Verdi’s case, as recognition in the Italian opera world was within his grasp, within a span of a few short years he lost his entire family, comprised of two small children (a girl and a boy) and his raven-haired wife, Margherita. In his own words, Verdi insisted they had perished in a matter of months. This was not so, although biographers have often cited his version of events for its dramatic impact.

We tend to forget in our so-called more “enlightened” times that early childhood deaths were a common occurrence in centuries past. This was why families, whether they had the means at their disposal or not, produced large broods of siblings. In fact, it is not generally known that Mozart had produced children of his own — by some counts, as many as six from his wife, Constanze Weber (some say no more than two). His papa, Leopold, beside Wolfgang and older sister Maria Anna (nicknamed “Nannerl” by Wolfie himself), fathered an additional handful of children, all of whom died young.

In contrast, Verdi sired no more offspring — and by that, we mean legitimate ones. His long-time relationship with a live-in lover, the former singer Giuseppina Strepponi, may have resulted in at least one illegitimate daughter (given up for adoption). Much later in life, Verdi was quite taken with a seven-year-old cousin of his, Filomena, whom the composer rechristened “Maria” and officially adopted as his own.

As far as politics was concerned, Mozart, during the time that he lived and worked in Salzburg, then later in Vienna, may have floundered on many occasions but continued to navigate the ever-changing political headwinds as best he could. Certainly, he ran into the censors; and finances (or the lack of them) were a constant, pressing issue.

It was Mozart’s fondness for living high on the hog, his immaturity regarding money matters and inability to maintain a steady source of income that historians felt contributed to his dire financial condition. They may also have precipitated his decline into a premature death at the age of 35.

With Verdi, who was born to modest means (even though he felt that his family was poor) and blessed with life-long robust health, musical ability, along with shrewdness, thrift and a peasant’s appreciation for cultivating the land, made the Master of Busseto a very wealthy man.

Lucky in life, lucky in art, right? But all that would come later. In 1842, however, Verdi had reached rock bottom. He was commissioned by a fellow called Merelli, the impresario of La Scala, Milan, to write an opera based on the Old Testament monarch Nebuchadnezzar, or Nabucco for short, and the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews.

The story goes that after the failure of his 1840 romantic light-comedy Un Giorno di Regno (“King for a Day”), coming so soon after his family’s passing, Verdi had given up the notion of composing as a stable occupation. Running into the impresario on Milan’s streets, the depressed Verdi, in the direst of despairs, reluctantly agreed to take up the challenge of a new opera. He had no choice, when you come right down to it: Merelli had his signed contract, so Verdi was honor bound, as well as legally constrained, to provide an opera for La Scala at the height of its season.

Ever the dramatist, Verdi would later claim that he came back to his hotel room and threw the libretto onto his bed (or a table, in some versions). Miraculously, the pages opened up to the words “Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate” (“Go, thought, on golden wings”), the cry of the Hebrew slaves yearning for their homeland. Duly inspired by the lyrics, set down by the librettist and poet, Temistocle Solera (a hell of personality in his own right), Verdi was overcome with emotion — but not enough to do it the proper justice at that point.

The chorus sings “Va pensiero,” the lament of the Hebrew slaves, from Nabucco

He tried to return the libretto, but Merelli would have none of it. Thrusting it back into the composer’s coat pocket, Merelli left Verdi to his own devices. This is a wonderful story, which, in Mary Jane Phillips-Matz’s scrupulously researched biography, she does not disprove outright but only questions as to its veracity. The fact remains that Verdi went on to complete the music, and Nabucco, as the opera came to be called and only his third work for the stage, became a tremendous hit.

Verdi’s future lover and spouse, Strepponi, was cast as Abigaille, Nebuchadnezzar’s adopted child. Their father-daughter relationship, fraught with nervous tension and high-flying vocal pyrotechnics, provides a powerful contrast to the prayer-full prophet Zechariah’s messianic musings.

But the crux of the work, and the raison d’être for its continued success, is the emotionally compelling third-act chorus “Va pensiero.” The Robert Shaw Chorale recorded the definitive version of this piece for RCA Red Seal’s Living Stereo label, but any opera company worth its weight in seasonal subscriptions can deliver the goods.

What You Hear is What You Get

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, led by its choir master Donald Palumbo, is one of the finest such ensembles on the planet. It got a stirring ovation at the premiere of Nabucco earlier in the season, with the “Va pensiero” chorus itself getting a deserved encore. No such luck at the January 7, 2017 Saturday matinee performance, which starred Plácido Domingo in the title role, soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska as the fiery Abigaille, and bass Dmitry Belosselskiy as Zaccaria (the spelling of these Slavic names will be the death of me!).

Music director emeritus James Levine conducted the Met Opera Orchestra in this Elijah Moshinsky production, with massive sets by John Napier and appropriately classical costumes by Andreanne Neofitou.

No need to tell readers that the opera Nabucco is a travesty of ancient history. It makes nonsense out of the plot, and even imposes on the title character an uncharacteristic religious conversion! Yet the music in this early work is stirring in the extreme. My favorite recording is the first note-complete stereo version on Decca/London, with the great Italian baritone Tito Gobbi as Nabucco, and the Greek-born Elena Souliotis (in her finest Maria Callas incarnation) as his daughter. The two make an impressive team, along with Lamberto Gardelli’s expert leadership on the podium. If only Carlo Cava as Zaccaria were of equal worth …

As for the Met’s radio broadcast, I’m a firm believer that Domingo has ventured far beyond his normal capacity as a tenor into the baritone realm. It may be too late for him to ever go back, but I must say that here, his dramatic instincts were far better served than his vocal ones. By all reports, Domingo managed to dominate the stage whenever he was on — even if his resources have now dwindled down to an audible but decidedly low-level caliber.

Abigaille (Liudmyla Monastyrska) confronts her father, Nabucco (Placido Domingo)

As Abigaille, Monastyrska made some imposing noises, although her coloratura needed steadiness and control. Notes poured out of her with a galvanizing wallop, but the dramatic purpose behind them was lacking. A mighty sound indeed! With careful nurturing, she may yet turn out to be a singer worth hearing. For now, let’s say that Liudmyla is getting a thorough workout at the Met’s dramatic bel canto wing. She knows how to husband her resources, which is a better verdict than some of her predecessors received, including the aforementioned Souliotis, whose career fizzled out much too soon, and that of Italian diva Anita Cerquetti in the late 1950s to early 1960s.

We’ve run into basso Belosselskiy before as Silva in the Met’s Ernani. What I said then about his performance goes double for his Zaccaria: an imposing sound, with a pleasant beat to the tone, but not the rolling, booming force of nature of, say, a Boris Christoff or a Nicolai Ghiaurov. Compared to them, Belosselskiy lacked individuality. His soft singing was admirable, but unlike another Slavic powerhouse, the Russian Yevgeny Nesterenko, who practically owned the part (on records, at least), one missed the massive weight of a voice that could rain down God’s wrath on Nebuchnezzar’s head.

In a change of pace, the January 14, 2017 Saturday broadcast of Puccini’s popular perennial La Bohème, in the by-now-classic Zeffirelli production (with costumes by Peter J. Hall), brought out an essentially youthful cast of aspirants, which it well deserved.

Among the raw talents on display were baritone Alessio Arduini as a tremulous Marcello, tenor Michael Fabiano as an especially ardent Rodolfo, bass Christian Van Horn as Colline, baritone Alexey Lavrov as Schaunard, veteran basso Paul Plishka in the dual role of the tipsy landlord Benoit and cuckolded old geezer Alcindoro, the lovely Ailyn Pérez as Mimì, and brassy Susanna Phillips letting it all hang out as the noisy Musetta. The opera was conducted by Carlo Rizzi, who knows this verismo terrain about as well as anyone.

While most of the above artists tread lightly over their parts, I was immediately impressed by tenor Fabiano’s bright, lava-like outpourings as the poet Rodolfo. Incidentally, I was also struck by his similarity in timbre to the late Franco Corelli. Mind you, this comparison to a primo tenore of the Met’s unrivaled Golden Age was more than just mere coincidence.

Mimi (Ailyn Perez) tells Rodolfo (Michael Fabiano) about herself in La Boheme (Met Opera)

I do not attribute Corelli’s incredible lung power and unmatched ability to coax high notes out at his will and pleasure (when Franco was able to exercise control over his output) to anything that Fabiano displayed. No, it was just that Fabiano’s basic sound, the way he shaped the poet’s words and phrases — most markedly, how he caressed the vocal line by either lengthening it or bending it to his particular purpose — smacked of a growth in artistry I had not expected of him.

The climax on high C of “Che gelida manina” (“How cold your tiny hand is”), the true litmus test for any aspiring lead, was well handled. I sensed only a slight discomfiture in his taking of it. He ended his narrative softly, running out of breath at the phrase “Vi piaccia dir.”

Ailyn Pérez was an appropriately vulnerable Mimì, without erasing the memory of such past luminaries as Montserrat Caballé, Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto, and Ileana Cotrubas. Soprano Phillips cleared the stage of rivals as a thoroughly bombastic, self-absorbed Musetta in Acts II and III. God help the fellow who got in her way! She powered down noticeably for Act IV, where Musetta displayed her sensitivity for and empathy with Mimì’s situation.

Wherefore Art Thou, Roméo?

About the best one can say for these January broadcasts was that here, in little old Raleigh, we had good weather for most of the month. That was not the case in New York City, my old Met stomping ground. Because of this, I had mixed feelings about the January 21, 2017 transmission of Charles Gounod’s romantic opus, the five-act French opera Roméo et Juliette, based on Shakespeare’s tragic play.

Romeo (Grigolo) & Mercutio (Elliot Madore) are threatened by Tybalt (Diego Silva) in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette

Gounod’s 1867 foray into this territory, after his highly ambitious retelling of the Faust legend by Goethe, was a step down in musical-dramatic vitality and distinctiveness but a decided step up in the development and enrichment of nineteenth-century French opera.

This new production, the handiwork of director Bartlett Sher and set designer Michael Yeargan, with costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, choreographer Chase Brock and fight director B.H. Barry, brought back fond memories of a relic from the Old Met’s days on Broadway and 33rd Street. During those halcyon times the company staged this piece with Bidu Sayão and Jussi Bjoerling in the leads. At Lincoln Center in the late 1960s, a production that starred Mirella Freni and Franco Corelli brought out these respective singers’ fans en masse. Perhaps all they wanted to see were Franco’s manly thighs in hip-hugging tights, along with those fearsome high C’s.

Getting more than they bargained for, followers of the contemporary teaming of German soprano Diana Damrau as Juliette with Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo were regaled with his (as per the Met’s sure-fire ad campaign, he was supposed to be shirtless) appearance as an intensely involving Roméo. Grigolo was the hit of the season, and not just for his hunky Roméo, with high notes blazing, sword flashing, and crooning and carrying on to his fans’ delight; he made an especially memorable Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, as well as a brooding, Byronesque Werther in Massenet’s eponymously titled opera.

With a voice to match his strikingly good looks, this was French opera in the raw. Especially endearing were Vittorio’s vulnerability and athleticism. Could Signor Grigolo be the next generation’s embodiment of Corelli? Already he’s been tapped to replace the smoldering Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi in next season’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca. Wait till you hear Vittorio’s second act cry of “Vittoria!” We shall await his presence with bated breath.

Romeo (Vittorio Grigolo) embraces his Juliette (Diana Damrau) at the Met (Photo: Marty Sohl)

Damrau, as his Juliette, was recovering from a recent illness which left her out of the dress rehearsal. Still, hers was a peculiarly non-French traversal of this part, one that emphasized the girl’s rapid development from youthful impulsiveness to considerate adult. Her passage work, roulades and coloratura scales were above criticism, so easily did she encompass every facet of her character’s opportunities to shine. Dramatically, she made one believe that Juliette was an over-eager, tempestuously minded sixteen year old who gained in maturity and understanding as the opera progressed. THAT made all the difference.

Her duets with the handsome Grigolo was one of the Met’s most propitious pairings to date. Damrau made equal gains in her prior encounter with Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, in which her partner was the ever-dependable Matthew Polenzani.

Mezzo Virginie Verrez was a quicksilver Stéphano, as was Elliot Madore as Mercutio. His “Queen Mab” air was light and airy, as it should be, yet he showed real bite when the going got rough in his duel to the death with the vengeful Tybalt, played by tenor Diego Silva. Madore showered Met Opera audiences with an ample, vibrant baritone sound of assertive proportions. In fact, his deportment and that of the extras who embodied the feuding Montagues and Capulets betrayed the pervasive influence of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton in the staging and choreography of Gounod’s opus.

One can either praise or revile director Sher for this obvious intrusion into what Broadway does best. There’s no denying it, since Sher has long been associated with the Great White Way (his 2008 Tony Award-winning staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is a perfect case in point). This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a reflection of the times. Still, I have no doubt that Elliot Madore would make an excellent Marquis de Lafayette, should the occasion arise.

The other citizens of Verona were sung and acted by bass-baritone Laurent Naori, as an authentically Gallic Capulet; bass-baritone David Crawford as Paris; mezzo-soprano Diana Montague (!) as the nurse Gertrude; bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha as Grégorio; peripatetic tenor Tony Stephenson as Benvolio; and bass Oren Gradus as the grave Duke of Verona. The only cast member who disappointed was bass Mikhail Petrenko as an easily bristled Frère Laurent, his mushy-sounding tones and wavery notes above and below the staff were inadequate for this key character.

Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who has spent the last few years in St. Petersburg, Russia, as the principal conductor of the Mariinsky Theater, in addition to his duties with the BBC Philharmonic, drew splendid brass and string playing from the Met Orchestra. This was not a particularly Italianate reading of the piece, but rather an elegantly conceived interpretation —personable, authoritative where it needed to be, yet stylish and enveloping, with just the right amount of Gallic reserve.

If I have mentioned the hallowed name of Franco Corelli often in this piece, it is because his grand style of vocalism and outsized personality are in desperate need of revival on the world’s opera stages. If the likes of the young Michael Fabiano and Vittorio Grigolo have embraced Corelli’s galvanizing stage presence and formidable technique, then more power to them (and to us).

 Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes       

Who’s Afraid of Opera? — Composers and Their Silly Opera Plots (Part Two): Once More, With Feeling

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“Oh, Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou, Romeo?”

Piotr Beczala as Romeo, and Nino Machaidze as Juliette (Photo: Robbie Jack)
Piotr Beczala as Romeo, and Nino Machaidze as Juliette (Photo: Robbie Jack)

One of the more diverting aspects of “silly opera plots” is how certain stories get constantly recycled, over and over and over again. We’ve already touched upon one of them, i.e., that of the musician Orpheus, in which composers from the dawn of opera have attempted to remake his fable for each succeeding generation of theatergoers.

The same can be said for the plays of William Shakespeare, in particular one featuring sweet Juliet and her dashing beau, Romeo. Some of the better-known examples of operas based on the Bard of Avon’s most romantic work include Frenchman Charles Gounod’s five-act Roméo et Juliette; an aborted one by the Russian-born Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, which was turned into a concert-hall favorite, the Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture; and a fabulous choral/symphonic showpiece, also titled Roméo et Juliette, by that French firebrand Hector Berlioz.

In addition to the ones noted above, there are two other versions, in Italian, based not on Shakespeare but on the original source material from the early Renaissance period: the first, called The Capulets and the Montagues, was written by bel canto specialist Vincenzo Bellini; the second, going by the name of Giulietta e Romeo, was the work of a twentieth century composer, Riccardo Zandonai, who seemed to have a thing for medieval subject matter: his operatic adaptation of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Francesca da Rimini, for example, comes from an obscure passage found in Dante’s Inferno.

And speaking of the Inferno, what about all those Faust operas we’ve heard so much about? Do you know Faust? He’s that old doctor, alchemist, mathematician or what-have-you from medieval times who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil — Mephistopheles, in this situation. His story was purportedly based on an actual historical figure, immortalized in English poet Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and later, in the gigantic, two-part epic poem, Faust, by German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, both of which form the basis for various operatic versions.

Wouldn’t you know it, but there also happens to be a French Faust — two of them, to be precise: one by Monsieur Gounod, the same fellow who brought you Roméo et Juliette; and the other by — you guessed it — Monsieur Berlioz, which he named The Damnation of Faust. It was staged a few years ago at the Met to great acclaim.

Moving right along, there’s even an Italian Faust. If you’ve been following my blog with any regularity, you know that I’ve written extensively about this next opera. Only this time, its composer, Arrigo Boito, one of Verdi’s finest librettists, decided on the name Mefistofele for its multi-syllabic title; and last, but certainly not least, there’s also a German Faust, called appropriately enough Doktor Faust, by the musically eclectic Ferruccio Busoni. Note to readers: despite his Italian moniker, Busoni studied and settled in Germany. So for all intents and purposes, he’s usually considered a Germanic composer — go figure!

Now the way I see it, with practice comes perfection: sooner or later, ONE of these fine gentlemen is going to get the Faust story right. That also holds true for the tale of Juliet and her Romeo. My own personal favorite, from among the wealth of operatic inspirations that are out there, happens to be an American setting: West Side Story from 1957.

Maria (Natalie Wood) kisses Tony (Richard Beymer) for the fist time in West Side Story
Maria (Natalie Wood) kisses Tony (Richard Beymer) for the fist time in West Side Story

With a superb score by the great Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by the equally talented Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by ballet master Jerome Robbins, this modern street-gang rendition is possibly the most popular version yet.

We’re going to hear the first-act solo number, “Maria,” sung by Tony, our upper-Manhattan substitute for Romeo, with Maria sitting in for his fair Juliet. As you listen, keep in mind the work’s origins as a Broadway theater piece.

Let no one tell you otherwise: this magical moment fulfills all the requirements of an operatic air at its finest. It has warmth, beauty of tone, lyricism to spare, sweeping high-lying phrases, and a uniquely identifiable — and highly enjoyable — hit tune to please the masses. “Maria” is a special favorite of operatic singers, as we will hear in this lovely sequence by the late American tenor Jerry Hadley: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_AArumG76U

Tenor Jerry Hadley
Tenor Jerry Hadley

In 1985, Bernstein himself recorded this wonderful work with legit opera singers José Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa as the star-crossed leads, along with mezzo Tatiana Troyanos, baritone Kurt Ollmann and contralto Marilyn Horne — all of them bringing a sense of seriousness and purpose to the venture that made one sit up and take notice at how near to perfection Bernstein and Sondheim had come to achieving the “operatic ideal” of blending music and drama with words and story.

Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Law

No doubt, Leonard Bernstein was one of the more formidable musical figures of the mid- to late twentieth century. Going back a bit, we can say the same thing about Richard Wagner, one of the mid- to late nineteenth century’s most controversial and influential musical figures of his or anybody else’s time.

Described by record producer John Culshaw as “a man possessed” (and with good reason), Wagner single-handedly changed the face of opera from a mildly passive form of entertainment to a politically charged spectator sport of earth-shattering proportions.

Within a span of about 40+ years (from about 1840 to his death in 1883), the Dresden-born titan managed to spread his far-flung theories of a “total artwork” of the future (or Gesamtkunstwerk in German) to the four corners of the globe.

You could say that the great Greek dramatists of the past — especially Aeschylus — in addition to the influences of his predecessors Gluck, Mozart, Carl Maria von Weber, Bellini and Giacomo Meyerbeer, all came together to find expression in one totally self-absorbed individual, one Herr Wagner.

The most representative of his body of work, which he termed “music dramas,” and the one that best illustrates our topic of “silly opera plots,” is his mighty epic The Ring of the Nibelung. Musicians, scholars, producers, fans and singers alike have spent a lifetime (if not a fortune) studying these complex scores.

But none of them came close to reveling in their “hidden truths,” as it were, as the late singer-actress Anna Russell did, in her comedic synopsis of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, the operas that make up the four-part Ring of the Nibelung saga, as it is most commonly known to operaphiles.

Anna Russell -- singer, actor, comedian, raconteur
Anna Russell — singer, actor, comedian, raconteur

Ms. Russell, who was Canadian by birth, did to Wagner’s 16-hour opus what Gilbert and Sullivan had done to Verdi’s four-act Il Trovatore: she lampooned it to no end, taking the stuffiness out of its highfaluting, high-minded pretensions and bringing it down from the lofty heights of Valhalla to our own level of earthly silliness.

Anna Russell lived well into her 90’s before passing on in 2006. Fortuitously, in her absence we still have Ms. Russell’s lively text which we can read and enjoy to our heart’s content. Here is a reenactment of her classic analysis of The Ring of the Nibelung:

“Now, the first thing is that every person and event in the Ring cycle has what is grandly called a leitmotif. Now you don’t need to worry about that, it merely means a ‘signature tune.’ The scene opens in the River Rhine. IN IT! If it were in New York, it would be like the Hudson River. And swimming around there are the three Rhine Maidens… a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters.

“The Rhine Maidens are looking after a lump of magic gold. And the magic of this gold consists of the fact that anybody who will renounce love and make a ring out of it will become Master of the Universe. This is the gimmick!

“Now up from underneath the river — as it might be, let’s say, the Holland Tunnel — comes a little dwarf called Alberich. Well, he’s an excessively unattractive fellow. He makes a pass at the Rhine Maidens, who think he’s perfectly dreadful, and so they’re not very nice to him. So he thinks, ‘I’m not going to get any love anyhow, so I may as well renounce it, and take this lump of gold, make the Ring, and become Master of the Universe.’

“Well, now, up here, as it might be on top of the Empire State Building, we find Wotan, the head god. And he’s a crashing bore, too. He and his wife, Mrs. Fricka Wotan, have had a castle built for them, called Valhalla, by a couple of giants named Fasolt and Fafner.

“Of course, the giants want to be paid for building this castle, and part of the giant-builders union scale consists of this magic ring that Alberich’s made. So Wotan goes all the way down from where he is to Alberich and takes the Ring away from him. Well, of course, Alberich is simply FURIOUS. So he puts a terrible curse on the Ring.

“But Wotan takes no notice. He takes the Ring up and gives it to Fasolt. Right away Fafner kills Fasolt to get the Ring himself. So Wotan knows that the curse is working. And this worries him, so he goes down to ground level to consult an old fortune-teller friend of his, Erda; she’s a green-faced torso that pops up out of the ground — at least we THINK she’s a torso, since that’s all anyone’s ever seen of her. And she says to Wotan, ‘Be careful, Wotan! Be careful!’ She then bears him eight daughters.

“These daughters are the Valkyries, headed by Brünnhilde… and they are the NOISIEST women. ‘Heiaha! Heiaha! Hojotoho! Hojotoho!’ Well, that’s the end of Part One.”

Met Opera "Ride of the Valkyries"
Met Opera “Ride of the Valkyries”

After that rendition, we just have to wrap this session up with a BANG, so put on your earmuffs, gang, and let’s give it up for the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” from Act Three of the opera Die Walküre: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPcrqkViZKw

Wow! That was a BANG, all right! Everybody from Bugs Bunny, in the Warner Bros. cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?” to director Francis Ford Coppola, in his Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now, has used this musical interlude as foreground and background music. It’s a surefire audience pleaser!

There’s a lot more to Wagner’s Ring cycle, I assure you. So let’s pick it up at our next session, shall we? Until then, do your homework and listen to a few choice selections from some of the other works in The Ring of the Nibelung.

End of Part Two

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Three Titanic Tenors — Del Monaco, Corelli, and Tucker

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We are all familiar with the universally hailed trio of the Three Tenors, comprised of Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, and the late Luciano Pavarotti. But does anyone remember, with any degree of affection, Three Titanic Tenors who came before them — namely, the great Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli, and Richard Tucker?

Is there anybody around today who recalls how their voluminous, dramatic, larger-than-life voices seemed to fill every inch of the theaters they sang in, with such ease and facility and without apparent effort? Why, I’m sure there is!

They were all more or less contemporaries of each other, and epitomized to a postwar, opera-starved generation the “Golden Age of Tenor Singing” at the Metropolitan Opera, and abroad, for the better part of three decades.

The first of these truly magnificent and unforgettable vocal phenomena — for these are the only words that come to mind in describing what their voices meant to me personally — was Del Monaco.

Mario Del Monaco (drawing Josmar Lopes)

Mario Del Monaco was born on July 27, 1915, in Florence, Italy, in the same region that would later produce Franco Corelli. He made his initial appearance, in 1939, in Pesaro as Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana. Officially, however, he debuted in the 1940-41 season at the Teatro Puccini in Milan, as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly.

It was only after World War II that the full, dramatic singing voice we came to know and adore was developed, as Del Monaco inevitably moved on to bigger and heavier parts, particularly that of Andrea Chénier, which he sang for the first time at La Scala, Milan, in 1949. It was a role he had carefully prepared with the work’s composer, Umberto Giordano, and became for him, along with Otello, his two most frequently performed parts.

His debut at the Metropolitan Opera was in 1951, as Radames in Aida. While at the house, Del Monaco sang Canio in Pagliacci, Don Alvaro in La Forza del Destino, Don José in Carmen, Dick Johnson in La Fanciulla del West, Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana, Ernani, Andrea Chénier, and, of course, his greatest role, that of the Moor in Verdi’s Otello.

When a decade later it was Franco Corelli’s turn to appear there, Del Monaco politely bowed out. For ten years he had sung many of the great Verdi and verismo roles at the Met. Unfortunately, he could not bring himself to share the spotlight with this young rival, so he departed.

In 1965, Del Monaco was involved in a life-threatening automobile accident that necessitated frequent kidney-dialysis treatment. Despite this setback, he continued to sing all over the world until he officially retired from the stage, in 1975, at the age of sixty. He had been singing professionally for over 35 years.

Mario Del Monaco died on October 16, 1982, near Venice, of congestive heart failure. He was 67 at the time.

A Lion on the Stage

Del Monaco’s iron-lunged approach to singing has never been equaled by any tenor, with the possible exception of Corelli. But even Franco had never sung a complete Otello on the stage as Mario had so often done.

In many people’s minds, the Lion of Venice was Del Monaco’s most complete portrayal. He showered the role onstage (and on records) with a torrential volley of sound, not to mention his total commitment to the part. Other major roles were treated with equal care: his Canio became a wounded beast; his Chénier, utterly tremendous as well as heroic; and his Radames, a warrior first and foremost.

Del Monaco’s voice in its prime was a huge instrument: it was even and firm, from top to bottom. My father first heard the tenor in performance, at the Teatro Municipal in São Paulo, Brazil, during the late 1940s, as Enzo Grimaldo in La Gioconda, then as Radames. Dad was part of the paid claque at the time. Years later, he would recount that while it took Del Monaco an unusually long time to warm up — much to the impatience of the audience hearing “Celeste Aida” — he gave truly stupendous interpretations of these parts.

In addition to close study of the vocal score, the tenor also designed most of his own costumes, and brought to the theater his ferocious presence and thorough understanding of the drama behind the words.

Del Monaco’s recordings were generally the first complete stereo versions of many of the standard repertory items we now take for granted. His were the ones I and many of my generation grew up with and heard. Because of his talents, Del Monaco was one of the first singers to have been given an exclusive contract with Decca/London Records for nearly two decades; in addition, he twice committed the roles of Canio, Turiddu and Otello to disc for the label, an unheard-of practice at the time.

His frequent partner for many of these historic sessions was the opulent-voiced Italian soprano, Renata Tebaldi. The couple’s first complete stereo recording of La Fanciulla del West, made in 1958, featured a luxury lineup of artists: Cornell MacNeil, Giorgio Tozzi, Piero de Palma, and conductor Franco Capuana. I consider it the best recorded Fanciulla around, and the most vocally and dramatically satisfying.

Del Monaco as Dick Johnson (photo cs.princeton.edu)

The tenor’s prodigious outpourings in his two dramatic solos, “Or son sei mesi” (with much judicious word painting and a wonderful choice of phrasing) and “Ch’ella mi creda,” must be heard to be believed, although Del Monaco offered surprising gentleness and grace in his duets with Tebaldi.

His recording of Faust in Mefistofele is his most underrated achievement, a sensitive portrayal of the old philosopher who longs for youth and love. He joined the sessions late, after the original tenor, Giuseppe Di Stefano, had been let go. For such a large, unwieldy instrument as his, Del Monaco instinctively grasped the heart of the role; indeed, his renditions of the arias “Dai campi, dai prati,” “Colma il suo cor d’un palpito,” and especially the final “Giunto sul passo estremo,” are unsurpassed in line, beauty, sensitivity and passion. You’d have to go back to Aureliano Pertile for a better example of legato singing as fine as this.

Incidentally, critics accused the dramatic tenor of lacking a true legato line, or of not putting enough lyricism into the part. My advice would be to listen carefully to this recording. You’ll be convinced otherwise, and amply rewarded, with what Del Monaco does here. True, Di Stefano may have had a sweeter sound, but Del Monaco delivers the goods, in spades! He may just miss out on a few high notes, but the rest is nuanced poetry. The opera was committed to disc in 1959, and remains a personal favorite of mine among all the tenor’s commercial output.

The two versions he made of Canio in Pagliacci  likewise showcase his continuing evolution as a performer and interpreter. Whereas the earlier one from 1953 (in mono sound) concentrated itself more on sheer volume, the later (and better) 1960 stereo remake featured a more vocally mature artist, with an insightful characterization of the tragic clown who laughs though his heart is breaking — and with only a slight diminution of vocal resources.

His “Vesti la giubba” is gripping from first note to last. Notice how Del Monaco climaxes the piece with a stunning catch in the throat instead of the usual hysterical sobbing. The aria does not feel like a single, self-contained showstopper but an integral part of the whole. It’s a classic performance to place alongside that of the great Caruso.

Del Monaco had a late blooming vocal autumn. Around the years 1967-70, London issued several recordings, many of rarely performed verismo works. Among them is the first complete stereo recording of Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally with Tebaldi and Piero Cappuccilli, great scenes from Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, and a complete stereo version of Fedora by Giordano, the latter two starring the legendary diva, soprano Magda Olivero. These were more nostalgic than revelatory, and spotlighted Del Monaco’s rather unfortunate tendency to bleat out the notes, but they still managed to earn him considerable accolades and complemented Olivero’s ripe emoting to perfection.

His less frequent forays into Wagner territory — Siegmund’s two scenes from Act I of Die Walküre, for instance — did not prove convincing due to the tenor’s poor command of German and his rather hectoring vocal style. He can be commended, however, for at least having attempted this change of pace so late in his career.

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Franco (real name Dario) Corelli was born in Ancona, Italy, on either April 8, 1921 or August 23, 1923. This discrepancy in his birth dates has never been completely reconciled. But then again, most concrete facts about Corelli remain an impenetrable mystery.

Take, for example, his operatic debut, which Corelli made in 1951, after having won a vocal competition that, as legend had us believe, he never wanted to enter in the first place — so much for advance planning.

He was completely self-taught after early lessons nearly ruined his ample top notes, or so Corelli claimed. He learned most of his vocal artistry by imitation and repetition, after listening to numerous recordings of the great Italian tenors Beniamino Gigli, Galliano Masini, Aureliano Pertile, and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi.

He sang often in his early career, appearing in a variety of offbeat roles, many in infrequently performed works such as Spontini’s Agnese di Hohenstaufen, Donizettí’s Poliuto, and Zandonai’s Giulietta e Romeo. He was Pierre Bezukhov in the La Scala premiere of Prokofiev’s War and Peace, and even sang in Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Hercule.

Corelli made his first recordings for the Italian Cetra label in the early 1950s. They reveal a large, almost uncontrollable voice of raw animal magnetism, with an uncharacteristic vibrato to his tone (which later disappeared almost entirely), as well as a certain “cavalier” attitude toward note values. Nevertheless, the potential for greatness was undoubtedly there.

Franco Corelli (francocorelligaleon.com)

In 1956, he made a widely admired film of Puccini’s Tosca, opposite the Floria Tosca of Franca Duval, and Afro Poli as Scarpia (voiced by Maria Caniglia and his close friend, baritone Gian Giacomo Guelfi). Indeed, Corelli never looked more heroic — especially in his frock coat, frilly shirt and tights.

He went on to sing all over Italy and Europe, before making his debut, in 1961, at the old Metropolitan Opera House alongside soprano Leontyne Price in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. He appeared in a variety of leading roles there, including Cavaradossi, Calaf, Turiddu, Rodolfo in La Bohème, Don Carlo, Ernani, Maurizio in Adriana Lecouvreur, and Enzo in La Gioconda.

Parlez-vous Français?

His surprise transition to the French repertoire occurred somewhat late in his professional career, although he had previously sung Don José in Bizet’s Carmen, in Italy, but only in his native tongue. Corelli also sang Raoul de Nangis in a star-studded, Italian-language revival of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots at La Scala in 1962, but he first encountered the part of Roméo in 1968, and later sang in Massenet’s Werther in 1972, both new productions at the Met.

Though Corelli also recorded Faust for Decca/London, he never sang the role onstage; a pity, for he obviously had the looks and requisite lirico spinto sound for Gounod’s romantic protagonist. He continued singing until 1976, when he gave his final stage performance as Rodolfo in Bohème at Torre del Lago, with soprano Adriana Maliponte.

Corelli quite possibly possessed the most powerful and masculine tenor voice I have ever heard. His enormous high C’s were the most potent and thrilling imaginable, as evidenced by his recordings of Manrico, Cavaradossi, and Calaf. He was certainly one of the handsomest leading men ever to set foot on the operatic stage, so much so that it left soprano Maria Callas in a jealous tizzy — unjustly so, for Corelli was reported to have been invariably kind and considerate to all his colleagues.

He was the reigning Calaf at the Metropolitan and at La Scala — and has there ever been a more thrilling rendition of the Act II confrontation scene with the icy Princess Turandot, voiced by the incomparable Birgit Nilsson? Despite the notoriety, he considered his favorite role that of the poet Andrea Chénier.

I personally thought his greatest triumphs were as Roméo, and especially as Werther. Werther was certainly an unusual assignment for him, one he only assumed as a personal favor to outgoing Met Opera general manager, Sir Rudolf Bing. Franco begged out of the premiere, but the second night audience got to see a major undertaking.

Although he spoke little to no French, Corelli did surprisingly well with the vocal aspects; and physically, he was the melancholy poet personified. His legato at the time wasn’t as smoothly flowing as in earlier days. Still, he shared a real oneness with the part. Corelli captured the true essence of the character, despite the imperfect diction and noticeable vocal decline.

Final Appearances

His last U.S. television appearance came in 1972. It was at Rudolf Bing’s gala farewell concert, taped by network TV to be shown in prime time. Unfortunately, the station had decided to air only brief excerpts of scenes, so viewers were denied the chance of seeing the complete performances.

The tenor did get to sing a portion of the Act I love duet from Otello, with Polish soprano Teresa Zylis-Gara as Desdemona and German maestro Karl Boehm at the helm. Franco had already sung that afternoon’s final Met broadcast of Verdi’s Don Carlo, and was visibly tired; but he sang his heart out for the cameras, and he (and the prompter) were in exceptionally good voice.

It was his first live rendition of anything from the Verdi opera anywhere, and what a treat it was for his many fans! The final note of “Venere splende” poured out of him like free-flowing lava. I imagined at the time that a commercial break would eventually have to cut him off, but I was proven wrong. The audience roared their approval to the rafters.

Corelli had an almost irrational fear of failure, and suffered constantly from a bewildering and increasingly troubling stage fright. He wasn’t helped by a nagging wife, who’s only task was to wait for him in the wings in order to criticize his every fault.

Corelli & Mirella Freni (francocorelli.com)

When his top notes began to fail him, Corelli wisely decided to call it a career. I last heard him in a live broadcast of the Met’s Roméo et Juliette from Boston in the mid-seventies, where he cracked on his high B-flat in an otherwise lovely interpretation of the air, “Ah! Leve-toi, soleil.” He recovered later on to deliver a most powerful and moving performance.

Corelli left many recorded extracts of arias, duets, scenes, popular songs, complete operas, and the like for posterity. One of his all-time best is an early album of complete scenes from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, which was originally released in the early fifties by Cetra, and co-starred his Italian colleague, Gian Giacomo Guelfi as Don Carlo.

These two immense and leonine voices joined together to vibrate the very studio foundation they were in; it was probably the loudest, most earth-shaking display of male testosterone ever recorded. Hearing the album even once will forever spoil you for this type of ferocious, take-no-prisoners approach to singing — clearly nowhere in evidence today.

Corelli passed away quietly on October 29, 2003, in Milan, the city of his earliest stage triumphs. He was the longest lived of the three.

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Richard Tucker (drawing Josmar Lopes)

Richard Tucker (né Reuben Tickel or Ticker) was born on August 13, 1913, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, a heavily orthodox Jewish neighborhood. He studied to become a cantor, but circumstances conspired to turn him into the greatest American tenor of the past 60 years.

He made his first appearances at the Metropolitan Opera House at the urging of then-general manager and former tenor Edward Johnson, who recognized in the young man a truly remarkable Italianate voice.

His debut there was in 1945 as Enzo in La Gioconda, and an unqualified triumph it was. Tucker’s early career at the Met was spent mostly in lighter parts, as he proved with his singing of such roles as Ferrando in Cosi fan tutte, Lensky in Eugene Onegin, Hoffmann in The Tales of Hoffmann, and Alfred in Die Fledermaus (all in English translation).

Later, he took on the great tenor roles of the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, Don Alvaro in La Forza del Destino, Radames in Aida, Manrico in Il Trovatore, Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera, Don Carlo, Canio in Pagliacci, and Samson in Samson et Dalila.

Eléazar in La Juive was a role most often associated with Enrico Caruso, and one that Tucker had long wanted to do at the Met. Unfortunately, he was denied that privilege and was only able to sing it in Barcelona in the seventies, just a few years before his untimely death. His recorded highlights on RCA Victor are a cherished memento of that occasion.

The American Caruso

Tucker’s voice had often been compared to Caruso’s for its beauty, vibrancy, and superb staying power. Even his physical appearance led many critics to dub him “The American Caruso.” Obviously, he was a particular favorite in Italy, and was even honored there with the title of Commendatore of the Realm.

He was unbeatable as Rudolfo in Verdi’s early-period masterpiece Luisa Miller, but he has gone on the record as declaring his favorite part to be that of the Chévalier Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut. Although he never recorded the role complete, his many recordings featuring arias from Puccini’s first big success illustrate Tucker’s fondness for this passionate, youthful role. It is without a doubt his most extroverted performance on disc, full of vigor and vitality, crystal-clear phrasing, and full-throated vocal abandon.

He also sang Cavaradossi in Tosca, Calaf in Turandot, Rodolfo in La Boheme, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana, and Andrea Chénier.  He died on January 8, 1975, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, just before a joint concert he was about to give with his old friend and frequent stage partner, baritone Robert Merrill.

Although fervently religious, Tucker had a wonderful sense of humor and an infectious joie de vivre. He was full of outrageous pranks and practical jokes, as attested to by his various colleagues. He and fellow New Yorker, mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens, were such a hit together as Don José and Carmen, and so believable in their respective roles, that their sold-out performances at the Old Met were coined, at one time, “the hottest ticket on Broadway.”

Recorded Highs

Tucker was an early and frequent recording artist in his career, and carved out a fine niche for himself at Columbia Records, a lifelong association. He recorded many of his most famous roles prior to singing them on the stage.

One of these was done at the insistence of the iron-willed Arturo Toscanini. The Italian maestro wanted Tucker for the part of Radames in Aida. The young tenor told the conductor that he had not previously sung the strenuous role before, but Toscanini felt (and quite rightly so) that Tucker’s more straightforward approach was absolutely perfect for the young warrior. The RCA Victor recording and accompanying video of the sessions is now considered an established classic.

Tucker had an unfortunate running rivalry with another of Toscanini’s favorite singers, the tenor Jan Peerce, who in reality was his brother-in-law. Seriously hampered, at times, by his short stature, clunky stage deportment and silent-movie acting style, Tucker nevertheless persevered sufficiently enough to convince theatergoers of his total sincerity in whatever he did.

Tucker (richardtucker.org)

A good case in point is his late occurring Canio from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which he sang excerpts from on The Ed Sullivan Show in late 1969. It is a fitting document of his renowned ability to move an audience. His unrivaled intensity and powerful, explosive interpretation of “No, Pagliaccio non son” and “Vesti la giubba” galvanized television viewers; he was even more spectacular in the part at the Met. He also wore Caruso’s old clown costume, which gave his appearance an air of nostalgia.

Tucker had few rivals for the role of Don Alvaro in Forza. Whether he admitted it or not, his early vocal training as a cantor helped him through the difficult, high-lying passages. In the hands of another tenor, the role becomes pure vocal mush, but in Tucker’s experienced shoes, we feel the desperation in the character’s voice. Obviously, his commitment to the part is never in doubt. This is what set Tucker apart from his younger colleagues.

He made two memorable complete recordings of Forza del Destino: the first, in 1954, for EMI/Angel under Tullio Serafin, and co-starring Maria Callas, Carlo Tagliabue, and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni; the second (and superior) one a decade later for RCA Victor, with Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, his friend Robert Merrill, and bass Giorgio Tozzi.

Tucker’s Duke of Mantua and Alfredo in La Traviata were well-nigh classic portrayals. He even sang Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra in his last season at the Met, and was all set to assume another new role, as Arrigo in I Vespri Siciliani, when he suddenly passed away.

It may have been one of those once-in-a-lifetime coincidences, or a powerful portent from the entertainment gods, but between the years 1975 and 1976 the opera world lost all three of the Titanic Tenors, who ceased to captivate us with their vibrant voices either through early retirement or an untimely passing.

It was a loss we are still reeling from today. We will never have another triumvirate such as this incomparable tenor threesome. Fortunately for their fans, they recorded extensively, and left us a suitably rich legacy of their roles for each succeeding generation to enjoy and thrill to. ◙

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

Recommended Recordings

Mario Del Monaco:
Andrea Chénier (Tebaldi, Bastianini – Gavazzeni) London/Decca
Cavalleria Rusticana (Simionato, MacNeil, Satre – Serafin) London/Decca
La Fanciulla del West (Tebaldi, MacNeil, Tozzi, De Palma – Capuana) London/Decca
Fedora (Olivero, Gobbi – Gardelli) London/Decca
La Gioconda (Cerquetti, Simionato, Bastianini, Siepi – Gavazzeni) London/Decca
Mefistofele (Tebaldi, Siepi, Cavalli, De Palma – Serafin) London/Decca
Otello (Tebaldi, Protti, Romanato, Corena, Cesarini, Krause – Karajan) London/Decca
Pagliacci (Tucci, MacNeil, Capecchi, De Palma – Molinari-Pradelli) London/Decca

Franco Corelli:
Andrea Chénier (Stella, Sereni – Santini) EMI/Angel
Carmen (Price, Freni, Merrill – Karajan) RCA Victor/BMG
Faust (Sutherland, Ghiaurov, Massard – Bonynge) London/Decca
Pagliacci (Amara, Gobbi, Zanasi, Spina – Matacic) EMI/Angel
Roméo et Juliette (Freni, Gui, Lublin, Depraz – Lombard) EMI/Angel
Tosca (Nilsson, Fischer-Dieskau, Mariotti, De Palma – Maazel) London/Decca
Il Trovatore (Tucci, Merrill, Simionato, Mazzoli – Schippers) EMI/Angel
Turandot (Nilsson, Scotto, Giaiotti, De Palma – Molinari-Pradelli) EMI/Angel

Richard Tucker:
Aïda (Nelli, Gustavson, Valdengo, Scott – Toscanini) RCA Victor/BMG
La Bohème (Moffo, Costa, Merrill, Tozzi – Leinsdorf) RCA Victor/BMG
La Forza del Destino (Price, Verrett, Merrill, Tozzi, Flagello – Schippers) RCA Victor/BMG
La Juive: Highlights (Moffo, Arroyo, Giaiotti, Sabaté – López-Cobos) RCA Victor/BMG
Pagliacci (Amara, Valdengo, Harvuot, Hayward – Cleva) CBS/Columbia
Rigoletto (Capecchi, D’Angelo, Pirazzini, Sardi – Molinari-Pradelli) Philips/Columbia
La Traviata (Moffo, Merrill – Previtali) RCA Victor/BMG
Il Trovatore (Price, Elias, Warren, Tozzi – Basile) RCA Victor/BMG