Saturday, December 10, 2016
January 2, 1958 marked one of the darkest days in the career of Maria Callas. After announcing to the management that she was ill, she was told there was no cover available for the title role of Norma for the opening night of Teatro dell’Opera, Roma in the presence of the president of Italy. The now-legendary performance was cancelled after Act I. Two days later, the season resumed with 26-year-old Anita Cerquetti who began commuting from Napoli where she was singing the druid priestess at Teatro di San Carlo. In Roma she joined up with Franco Corelli and Miriam Pirazzini. Cerquetti had one of the most remarkable, most brief careers in opera in the past century: she sang for a exactly one decade in dramatica d’agilita roles such as Norma, Aida, Abagaile in Nabucco (the role of her La Scala debut), Elena in I vespri siciliani, Elvira in Ernani, Elcia in Mosè in Egitto, and Matilde in Guglielmo Tell. Despite a handful of broadcasts available since the LP era, she made only two studio recordings: the title role in La Gioconda and a recital album, both for Decca. “O Re dei Cieli” from the Italian version of Gaspare Spontini’s Agnes von Hohenstaufen on the recital disc is often regarded as one of the greatest recordings ever made. (There is a rumor that she began a recording of Norma which remains in fragments in Decca’s vaults.) Cerquettti’s career was largely overshadowed by that of Callas; she often replaced her in the second cast of productions which the diva assoluta inaugurated. The reason for her early retirement was never clearly established: it has been attributed to her own physical health, the health of her mother, her marriage to baritone Edo Ferretti, and even to her mental health (one source reported that she spit on the steps of the church whenever she passed by). Her career was centered in Italy, with only a few appearances in Mexico City and with the Lyric Opera of Chicago including Amelia in Un ballo in maschera opposite Jussi Björling under Tullio Serafin in 1955. Her final performance was in 1961 at the age of 30. I met her once in the 1980s when she was a jury member of a Licia Albanese vocal competition at Alice Tully Hall along with Ebe Stignani and Irena Arkhipova. She spoke no English, but happily autographed the back cover of her recital LP (the unfortunate photo on the cover is notorious for showing a large woman with slightly frazzled hair and lipstick on her teeth). She died from cardiovascular disease at 83 in 2014. Corelli was by this time a well-known Pollione; he first sang the role opposite Callas in 1953 and joined her regularly through the end of her stage career. Pirazzini’s career is largely documented on recordings in secondary and comprimario roles, although she sang mezzo leads in Italy’s regional houses for 20 years; in this series of performances she replaced the ailing Ebe Stignani as Adalgisa. No obituary for her can be found on the Internet (including Italian Wikipedia) so she apparently turned 98 last August. This represents one of the last performances by Giulio Neri, who died at 48 from a heart attack three months after this series in the role of Oroveso.
With the parterre national holiday of Maria Callas‘s birthday coming up on December 3 (which is when we celebrate it, and no discussion is allowed!) La Cieca thought it would be nice to revisit an Unnatural Acts of Opera podcast which included selections from the diva’s 1958 US recital tour.
When Sonja Frisell‘s Met production of Aïda was new and starred Oklahoma native Leona Mitchell, the similarly-intialled Latonia Moore was nine years old, singing in the choir of her pastor grandfather’s church. Tonight, 28 years later, the Texas-born Moore will sing the title role in that production for the first time since her March 2012 Met debut, a one-night triumph of substitution. That performance was conducted by Marco Armiliato, who also returns Tuesday, leading Ekaterina Gubanova, Marco Berti, Mark Delavan, Dmitry Belosselskiy and Soloman Howard. Tuesday’s date brings to mind a story involving a third Aïda from a “red state,” a singer who blazed a trail for African-Americans such as Mitchell and Moore. On November 22, 1963, the nation and the wider world were plunged into shock and grief when President John F. Kennedy, 46, was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas. The Met canceled the night’s performance of, poignantly, Götterdämmerung. It was evening in Vienna when news of the assassination reached three Met stars, Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli and Robert Merrill, as well as Mirella Freni, two autumns shy of her Met debut. They were recording a deluxe Carmen in the Sofiensaal under the direction of Herbert von Karajan and producer John Culshaw. In the account of Karajan biographer Richard Osborne, “The crew’s first thought that evening– and, to his eternal credit, that of the Don José, Franco Corelli–was for the one member of the cast who was American, black, and deeply committed to the Kennedy cause: Leontyne Price. Culshaw offered to postpone the sessions for a day or two, but Price insisted on going on. Just about the next thing they recorded was the Card Scene.” That set of Bizet’s opera can b e an argument starter to this day (as can many opera recordings), but it is little wonder that its Card Scene is as mournful a rendition as ever has been set down for microphones. In the Mississippian soprano’s smoky tones, the French words throb with tears subdued and a tinge of bitterness, appropriate for a day when a decade’s trajectory was altered: “Mais si tu dois mourir, si le mot redoubtable est écrit par le sort, recommence vingt fois, la carte impitoyable répétera : la mort!” Although this date even now has grim resonance for Americans, it was not always a sad one for the country or for the opera house. Here is a look back at just some of what you could have seen, and perhaps did see, on November 22nd through the years at the Met. 1884: As twilight advanced on the Arthurian age (Chester Alan Arthur, that is), Leopold Damrosch led the company’s second Tannhäuser. Tenor Anton Schott vacillated between the purity of Auguste Seidl-Kraus and the carnality of Anna Slach. The Times‘s 29-year-old W. J. Henderson, who would review Met performances until shortly before his death in 1937, had expressed reservations about the first performance, while lauding the young company’s effort and the audience’s focus: “[T]he continuous attention bestowed upon the entertainment indicated that the occasion was viewed as of far more importance than the opportunity for a brilliant social gathering offered by the inception of the habitual series of opera nights.” 1919: “There are only two beautiful voices in the Metropolitan company,” wrote James Gibbons Huneker in the World, referring to Rosa Ponselle and Enrico Caruso. We might look back at the roster and disagree. Fortunately, Mr. Huneker was reviewing a new La Juive built around both of them. Artur Bodanzky “outdid himself, conducting with a nervous intensity that might better have been expended on a masterpiece instead of the unmusical fustian of La Juive. But then, he is not only a great conductor, but also a conscientious one and, with the cooperation of Caruso and Ponselle, made vital the faded music of Halévy.” The matinee audience was said to be “appreciative to fever heat,” and there was little time to cool down, with Claudia Muzio and Pasquale Amato lined up for an evening Trovatore. 1922: Two house favorites, tenor Giovanni Martinelli and bass José Mardones , were joined in Aïda by debuting leading ladies, Elisabeth Rethberg and Sigrid Onégin. The Times’s Richard Aldrich wrote of Onégin, “The new Amneris is a woman of majestic grace, broad gesture, brooding calm, while her voice was one of great power controlled with smoothness and beauty[.]” As for her onstage rival, amusingly, the Herald’s unidentified reviewer claimed that “Miss Rethberg was suffering so much from nervousness that she had almost no breath control,” while the World’s critic asseverated that “Miss Rethberg, not in least nervous, produced an abundance of fresh, brilliant tones.” On one point, all seemed in agreement: the German soprano was an important new voice. 1943: As the RAF began its air bombing of Berlin 4,000 miles away, the season opened with Mussorgsky’s bleak Boris Godunov. George Szell’s cast was headed by the tsar of Ezio Pinza. Virgil Thomson in the Herald Tribune lamented the decision to perform the opera in Italian, but appreciated “Mr. Szell’s fine understanding of this music and his ability to give shape to it (a quality it just possibly lacks a little bit in itself),” as well as “a certain good will on the part of the cast. It was amazing how carefully they all worked and how beautifully they all sang. If the opera sounded throughout like almost anything but a Russian opera, that was nobody’s fault that I could name.” 1947: Richard Tucker appeared in his first Met La bohème. Herbert Kupferberg of the Herald Tribune was equivocal: “He was in good voice, but he maintained a seemingly disdainful appearance, and most of his posturing was as absurd as the kiss he blew to the audience when it applauded his vocal accomplishments after the third act.” Rodolfo would be a frequent assignment for Tucker over the next quarter century. Kupferberg praised the “beautiful singing and unassuming demeanor” of Licia Albanese as Mimì. 1950: Margaret Harshaw, a mezzo for eight prior years with the company, made what Musical America‘s James Hinton Jr. described as a successful second debut as soprano, essaying Senta in Der fliegende Holländer. Fritz Reiner’s cast included Set Svanholm, Paul Schöffler and Sven Nilsson. Harshaw would carry on at the Met for another 14 years, alternating mezzo roles with the likes of Donna Anna, Isolde and Brünnhilde. 1951: Per Harold C. Schonberg in the Times, Alabama native Nell Rankin had a rough debut as Amneris in Aïda. “Her middle range sounded tentative, nor was there enough vocal authority for her to compete on even ensemble terms with Mr. [Mario] Del Monaco or Miss [Zinka] Milanov, both of whom virtually drowned her out in the first and second act trios.” Rankin would have other chances to impress, in this part and many others, through 1976. 1952: From a good seat, it may have seemed that Victoria de los Angeles was especially convincing in playing Cio-Cio San’s pain in Madama Butterfly. In fact, she was playing through pain, having injured her foot at some point in the second act. Her inadvertent “method” performance as Pinkerton’s faithful bride received a rave from the Times’s Noel Straus (“Never before at the opera house has this reviewer found the gifted soprano’s vocalism or acting so expressive or compelling”). 1957: “If you happen to have a friend with an aversion to opera houses, just take him or her to the Met for a performance of Der Rosenkavalier. If you don’t have a convert on your hands, we’ll attempt to eat a libretto right off a lobby stand,” wrote the Mirror’s Robert Coleman. The source of his folksy enthusiasm was a performance starring Lisa Della Casa, Hilde Gueden, Risë Stevens and Otto Edelmann. Karl Böhm conducted; the Herbert Graf/Rolf Gérard production framed. For New Yorkers feeling “kind of blue,” just a 20-minute walk away, the Miles Davis Quintet began a Carnegie Hall series. 1968: The release of the Beatles’ White Album was the day’s headline for the nation’s youth, but a new Rheingold also debuted, the second completed entry in a planned Ring from conductor/director Karajan and designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen. Debuting singers Josephine Veasey (Fricka), Zoltán Kelemen (Alberich), Gerhard Stolze (Loge) and Edda Moser (Wellgunde) joined Thomas Stewart (Wotan), Lili Chookasian (Erda), Martti Talvela and Karl Ridderbusch (Fasolt and Fafner). Baritone divo Sherrill Milnes took a holiday from Italian and French fare for a luxury Donner. Working with an orchestra a long way in 1968 from the ensemble it would become, Karajan drew a Rheingold praised for refinement, suggestiveness and buoyancy. “[Maria] Callas and Herbert von Karajan were the complete artists of my time at the Metropolitan, and I can criticize myself most effectively by complaining how few performances we got from either,” GM Rudolf Bing would write in his retirement memoir. 1976: “Without Love, there’s nothing you can do,” warned Aretha Franklin in a song of this era. Well, the Met had to do something: Shirley Love was unable to continue as Meistersinger‘s Magdalena after the first act. She was replaced by Cynthia Munzer, and the glorious quintet of Act Three remained a quintet, possibly a glorious one. Its other voices were Stewart, tenors Gerd Brenneis and Kenneth Riegel, and (in her first Met role) Eva Marton. 1983: The audience got its first exposure to Gösta Winbergh, Ottavio in a Don Giovanni with Carol Neblett, Kathleen Battle and James Morris. The Swedish tenor, whose “sweet tone[,] aristocratic style and technique” earned him an appreciative notice from the Times’s John Rockwell, would return periodically over the next 15 years for Mozart and Bizet. 1985: James Levine led the first of his 77 Met performances of Le nozze di Figaro, the occasion being Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s new production with Battle, Carol Vaness, Frederica von Stade, Thomas Allen and Ruggero Raimondi. This autumnal reconsideration of the Mozart/Da Ponte masterpiece was controversial for its imposing classical sets, stark costuming (“[T]hose who watch [a telecast] on black-and-white television sets will not miss very much,” quipped Tim Page in the Times) and liberties of character conduct taken by the director. Martin Mayer of Opera found it “generally nasty and ill-considered” but extolled the cast, especially the three female principals, and felt that “for the orchestra and Levine, no praise could be too high.” 1997: “Hungarian hardball” was how GM Joseph Volpe, in his retirement memoir, described Marton’s self-imposed exile following the 1988-89 season, when, “despite what [Marton had] been led to believe,” a rival was cast as Brünnhilde in the Met’s studio Ring recording. Marton finally returned for three dates in Franco Zeffirelli‘s overstuffed Turandot, in which she had been memorably filmed a decade earlier. Nello Santi‘s cast for Puccini’s valediction featured Ruth Ann Swenson and Kristián Jóhannsson as slave and prince, respectively. Marton would be back two Novembers later as Tosca, but the performance of the 22nd was her final Met Turandot. 1998: To mark his 30th Met anniversary, Luciano Pavarotti performed an act apiece from L’elisir d’amore, La bohème and Aïda, assisted by Levine and an array of this era’s vocal talent: Swenson, Ainhoa Arteta, Daniela Dessì, Maria Guleghina, Dolora Zajick, Leo Nucci, Dwayne Croft, Paul Plishka. At the evening’s close, Volpe presented Pavarotti with a Puccini autograph with music from Turandot. The beloved tenor, beset by recent health and personal concerns and not in best voice, was philosophical about criticism: “When a young man falls down in the street, they say he stumbled because he was looking at the sky. When a 60-year-old man falls down, if he is well known, they say it is because he is old.” 1999: After nearly 16 years on the shelf, Tristan und Isolde returned in a new production by Dieter Dorn, Maestro Levine at last having what he considered a worthy cast (Jane Eaglen, Katarina Dalayman, Ben Heppner, René Pape). The Observer’s Charles Michener awarded top honors to König Marke: “Mr. Pape’s riveting intensity of gesture, his nuanced articulation of the text and the force of his huge, burnished tone jolted the opera out of a dreamscape and into the painful here-and-now.” 2010: The 1979 production of Verdi’s Don Carlo gave way to a new one. The Observer‘s Zachary Woolfe felt that director Nicholas Hytner’s work suffered from lapses in tone (“Sombre splendor there is frequently not”), but he praised the royal couple of “rich-voiced and eloquent” bass Ferruccio Furlanetto and young soprano Marina Poplavskaya (“[A] single motion of her hand […] was a model of operatic gesture: stylized yet true, tiny yet able to register across an auditorium. She gets it”). The brotherly love of Carlo and Rodrigo was enacted by Roberto Alagna and Simon Keenlyside. In his second Met opera, future music director designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin drew acclaim from the Times’s Anthony Tommasini as “a born communicator who brought youthful passion and precocious insight to his work.” Photo: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
Maria Callas, 1958. By Houston Rogers. Courtesy WikiMedia Greek-American soprano Maria Callas was one of the most talented prima donnas the world has ever seen – but despite her artistic achievements she faced relentless scrutiny about her personal life and was dogged by journalists at every turn. Headlines and memoirs weave together a sketchy outline of her longstanding affair with the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis . The billionaire was said to have relentlessly pursued the singer, reportedly sending buckets of red roses to stage door before performances, surreptitiously signed ‘the other Greek’. Callas first performed Bellini 's Norma at the Royal Opera House in 1952 – a performance described in the press as resulting in a ‘tumultuous ovation’. She returned to the Covent Garden in 1957 to reprise the role, her appearance much altered, after her much-remarked weight loss. Maria Callas in Norma © 1952 Roger Wood/ Royal Opera House The role of Norma became the part she performed more than any other, touring the finest opera houses across the world until her last full performance of the part at the Palais Garnier in Paris in 1964. Her final known performance of the work was during a masterclass at Juilliard in 1971, where she sung the aria 'Sgombra è la sacra selva', six years before her early death at the age 53. ‘Norma resembles me in a certain way. She seems very strong, very ferocious at times’, Callas said. ‘Actually, she is not – even though she roars like a lion.’ Giacomo Vaghi, Maria Callas and Mirto Picchi © 1952 Roger Wood/ Royal Opera House Onassis and Callas never married. Instead, Onassis wed another of the world’s most famous women – Jacqueline Kennedy , the widow of President John F. Kennedy who was assassinated in 1963. They married five years later on the Greek island of Skorpios and Callas retreated from public view to her apartment in Paris. But this was far from the end of the affair – months later, Onassis was photographed dining out with the soprano and a tabloid frenzy ensued. In a twist of fate, Jaqueline Kennedy or ‘Jackie O’ as she would later become, had long been an admirer of Callas. The singer initially caught her attention when she performed in a concert for her husband’s birthday in 1962. After the performance at New York’s Madison Square Garden , Jaqueline wrote to Callas inviting her to sing at the Winter State Dinner at The White House . ‘We would do everything to make it perfect for you’, she implored. ‘It would really be a great moment of history for this great house.’ ‘I thank you for having thought of me,’ replied Callas, ‘especially as being an American, I would feel deeply honoured to sing at the White House.’ But the singer was locked in a tight recording schedule and so was forced to decline. They were unaware of course how their later life would become intimately intertwined. In November 1973, Callas briefly discussed Onassis. Speaking on CBS’s '60 Minutes' she revealed, ‘I think we understand each other as nobody does.’ ‘We had a wonderful life. I don’t regret any bit of it. But I do regret when I stopped singing,’ she answered. The interview marked her return to the stage after an eight year career break embarked upon in 1965. Despite her many artistic accomplishments, the focus of interviews fixated on the Onassis and what Callas made of his new marriage to the former first lady. In April 1974, she told Barbara Walters on 'The Today Show ' that she refused to be painted as a victim, saying ‘I left him of my own accord. We agreed to that.' ‘We loved each other maybe too much. Men usually want to completely domineer a woman and I want to be dominated by my own accord.’ Despite relentless attempts by journalists, we will never know the truth of the Callas/Onassis affair. It is a story that speculation has transformed into a modern myth, much like the operas that Callas starred in, a tale of two lovers – doomed and unforgettable. Norma runs until 8 October 2016. Tickets are now sold out . The production is a co-production with Opéra national de Paris and is staged with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Susan A. Olde OBE and The Tsukanov Family Foundation.
Shakespeare´s "Macbeth" is one of the blackest tragedies he wrote and the most concise. It matters little that this Medieval Scottish drama disregards history, for in fact Duncan was the villain and Macbeth a good ruler. What counts is its terrible denunciation of murder as the route to absolute power, the psychological complexity of the ruling couple, the corroding strength of remorse, and the memorable phrases that stay in the mind. One of the mysteries of music is that the best operas on Shakespeare weren´t written by Britishers but by an Italian: Giuseppe Verdi. He only knew the great playwright in translation, but that was enough to heat his imagination and understand that he had found golden material. And indeed, Verdi´s "Macbeth", "Otello" and "Falstaff" are the most important Shakespearean operas in history. The first version of "Macbeth" is dated 1847 and is by far Verdi´s greatest opera prior to the so-called popular trilogy ("La Traviata", "Rigoletto", "Il Trovatore"). Although he revised it in 1865, most of the material stayed as it was, the basic changes being the addition of Lady Macbeth´s aria "La luce langue" and a new triumphant ending. Francesco Piave´s libretto (with some additions by Andrea Maffei) is extremely faithful to Shakespeare, though some scenes are excised. And the witches´ crucial two scenes are respected, for the underworld is essential both in Shakespeare and Verdi. As the original was premièred in Florence and the revision in Paris, the latter had to have a ballet for the witches, and this is currently cut. Verdi was only 34 when he created his tenth opera, and in it what he did was unique for he explores new grounds: the singers rarely have to deal with virtuosic writing but need to involve themselves with the characters to the point of total identification: you need great artists rather than outstanding singers. And the orchestra creates ambiences of disquiet and terror. At the Colón it was offered only in 1939 before the great performances of 1962 and 1964 established it in the repertoire: Shuard, Colzani/Taddei, conductor Previtali, and the truly innovative production by Pöttgen. Unfortunately by 1998 the production by Jérôme Savary was contaminated by the distortion trend that has ruined European production ever since. And last year something even worse happened: a South African company presented a total travesty with a "Congolese Macbeth" where snatches of Verdi could be heard and poor Shakespeare was torn to pieces. The opera is Medieval and Scottish, but in this operatic season Marcelo Lombardero´s production happens in the Nineteen Fifties in a vaguely Balcan location. So the references to Glamis, Birnam Wood, Cawdor, Fiffe and the English go for nothing. Ah, but you have to resignify it for our times, for we are so silly that we can´t understand Medieval struggle for power. So at the end you see a modern bombarded town and not an inkling of the Birnam wood advancing. Banquo is killed in a train station. Why a barbed wire in "a deserted spot near the border with England" ? And why after the final chorus of peace are people repressed? But we have plenty of red blood. Granted, the massive stage designs of Diego Siliano are well executed, and the apparitions of ghosts are effective (also by Siliano). Costumes by Luciana Gutman follow the producer´s instructions. The lighting by Horacio Efron is skillful. Lady Macbeth is a fearsome role, and Callas´s record of the arias set the standard. Chaira Taigi (debut) is beautiful but that´s not a plus in this role: she has to inspire dread with her acting and singing, and she doesn´t. The voice is middling, for she neither has a firm top nor solid lows. However, she found her best form in the Somnambulist scene. The Argentine Fabián Veloz, replacing the announced Jorge Lagunes, was admirable, a true Verdian baritone with timbre, volume, musicality and dramatic presence. A plus: for the first time at the Colón, we hear Macbeth´s farewell to the world (from the 1847 version). Aleksander Teliga (debut) was a Banquo of little vocal presence, but Gustavo López Manzitti was very expressive and accurate as Macduff. The rest were in the picture. Excellent work from the Colón Choir (Miguel Martínez). And a welcome return of conductor Stefano Ranzani, who gave full dramatic impact to the music with a collaborating orchestra. For Buenos Aires Herald
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