Monday, January 23, 2017
By Jacob Stockinger Vienna has been called “The Paris of the Reich.” Perhaps that is why the Viennese took such a liking to the suave and debonair French conductor Georges Prêtre (below, in a photo by Dieter Nagli for Getty Images ), who died last Wednesday at 92. The urbane Prêtre – who specialized in French music but also was much in demand for a lot of German and Italian repertoire — studied karate and judo. But he also enjoyed the good life and by all accounts had a terrific sense of humor coupled to a “joie de vivre.” He often said he preferred being a guest conductor to being a music director because the former was like a love affair and the latter was like a commitment. Yet Prêtre was committed: He is survived by his wife of more than 50 years. His conducting career spanned 70 years. He was known for his association with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna Symphony. But he also conducted 101 performances of seven operas at the famed Metropolitan Opera in New York City . He also frequently conducted in Milan, Philadelphia and Chicago. Here is a good summary obituary, with sound clips of orchestral and operatic music, from National Public Radio (NPR): http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/01/05/508374381/georges-pr-tre-a-conductor-with-a-70-year-career-dies-at-92 And here is a longer obituary, which gives you the French flavor of the man and the musician, from The New York Times : http://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/04/arts/music/georges-pretre-french-conductor-known-for-improvisation-dies-at-92.html And here is George Prêtre’s most popular video on YouTube , which also serves as a fine memorial in sound: Tagged: A German Requiem (Brahms) , Arts , Austria , choral music , Classical music , commitment , conductor , France , French music , Germany , good life , guest conductor , Italian music , Italy , joie de vivre , judo , karate , La Scala , love affair , Maria Callas , Marriage , Met , Metropolitan Opera , Mozart , Music , Music director , New York City , New York Times , NPR , Orchestra , Philharmonic , repertoire , symphony , United States , University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music , University of Wisconsin–Madison , Vienna , Vienna Philharmonic , Vienna Symphony , vocal music , Wagner , wife , Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart , YouTube
French conductor Georges Prêtre (1924–2017) has died. Prêtre made his Royal Opera debut in 1965 when he was engaged to conduct the first revival of Franco Zeffirelli ’s historic production of Tosca . Prêtre conducted the cast of the original production – Maria Callas , Tito Gobbi and Renato Cioni – and his interpretation was hailed for its understanding of the score and his sympathetic coaxing of a clearly ill Callas in the title role. In fact, Callas only sang one of the four scheduled performances, a Royal Gala. This performance turned out to be her final operatic appearance. The Australian soprano Marie Collier – one of Covent Garden Opera Company’s resident artists – was rushed in to take over. Prêtre with great musical skill guided the young soprano through the demands of the role, both musically and dramatically, and joined the soprano for her rapturous reception at the end. They were given 14 on-stage curtain calls and won rave reviews. In 1980 Prêtre returned to conduct the premiere of Les Contes d’Hoffmann in John Schlesinger ’s acclaimed production. Prêtre accompanied the stellar cast – including Plácido Domingo , Geraint Evans , Agnes Baltsa and Ileana Cotrubas – with a rare and commanding authority. The Financial Times commented, ‘The orchestra were on admirably light-fingered form for Prêtre’, while The Observer wrote, ‘Prêtre conducts with warmth and vitality’. Hoffmann was soon established as one of The Royal Opera’s most popular productions and has been regularly revived. Prêtre returned in 1983 to conduct the first revival of Elijah Moshinsky ’s production of Samson et Dalila, with Jon Vickers and Shirley Verrett in the title roles. He had a genuine love of the Saint-Saëns score and brought a real vitality to the evening. Prêtre supported Vickers’s towering performance as Samson and The Times warmly greeted his conducting of the ‘beautifully soft choral singing and orchestral playing of endlessly versatile finesse’. Prêtre was recognized worldwide as an inspiring conductor. He enjoyed an exceptional rapport with Callas – both on stage and in the recording studio – and his musically assured appearances at Covent Garden in three epic productions make a fitting legacy.
How many books have been published about Anna Maria Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou Meneghini Callas, great operatic goddess of the dark arts? Just in my own lifetime it’s nearly become its own cottage industry. Scandalous tell-alls alternate with a major opus by some gossip columnist printed on good paper. Some tend to the chatty and catty, others take more scholarly slants. All of them still try to capture a piece of that simultaneously iron-willed yet fragile personality that dominated the world of opera from the moment the curtain came down on her game changing performance as Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani at La Fenice in Venice in 1949 until the, sad and far too early, death in 1977 at age 53. It’s a funny thing about books written about Maria Callas. Many of them, although penned by skilled and proficient biographers, lack musical context because the authors may well have done mountainous research but they themselves aren’t opera lovers. Consequently they don’t really see the wider frame of historical reference. It’s important to also touch on what sets Callas apart and made her one of the greatest interpretive artists of the 20th century. In the end a lot of these books feel empty. It’s all just a lot of blather and conjecture about motives and emotional reactions without a true appreciation for the artist as anything but a tabloid personality. What we have before us now, though. is something unique. Roads Publishing has come forward with The Definitive Maria Callas: The Life of a Diva in Unseen Pictures . Many of these photos have been “unseen” by you and me because they’ve been languishing away in the Villa Marzotto in Trissino. After the death of Bruno Tosi, who was the head of the Maria Callas Association, there was some legal wrangling before the Fondazione Progetto Marzotto could take charge of her personal archives with the many memorabilia and personal objects that had been left sadly decaying and unkempt in Mr. Tosi’s possession. Now, after careful preservation, these and many others of the most famous portraits and candids of La Divina are on display in this new coffee table volume for our quiet genuflection and devotion. At just over 300 pages it’s printed on heavy paper with a flat matte finish so the only glare you’ll see is from those famous Greek eyes. It’s not just a book of pictures it’s a book of the pictures. And yet is is still surprising to see Callas in so many early photos from Greece and Mexico City when the career was in its infancy and she was full -igured. It’s even more surprising to read her letters to her husband Giovanni Meneghini, cooing and whimpering of her unhappiness without him by her side. Her complete devotion is rendered in the kind of solicitous language you wouldn’t even think Maria Callas was capable of. Yet still the personality we think we know peeks out occasionally from behind the veil, ”Are you never jealous of me? That’s not good, and I’m displeased,” she writes to him. Can you hear thunder from distant mountaintops? Many photos are printed in larger format than we’ve seen before, often only one to a page. Nine chapters, each prefaced by a potent quote of Madame’s, and lightly scattered throughout with fairly brief biographical content just to give the reader a timeline. Among the things I had never seen were pictures from that famous Fenice Puritani, candids from a vacation on the island of Ischia in 1956 (Callas smokes!), and dressed as Princess Hatshepsut of Egypt for Elsa Maxwell’s costume ball at the Waldorf in New York. Then we have Callas with a host of celebrities backstage and at dinners including Marlene Dietrich, Princess Grace of Monaco, Elizabeth Taylor, and standing next to Marilyn Monroe (in THAT dress) at the famous JFK 45th birthday party at Madison Square Garden. (Callas also sang that night.) Some of the snapshots show her looking pensive when I don’t think she was aware she was being captured. I especially like the use of the original tints on some of the fashion photography. There are even a couple of Callas’ recipes in her own hand. Karl H. van Zoggel is to be praised for writing the biographical text and having already written two books on Callas (in Dutch) he knows his subject well enough that he doesn’t have to prove it. He’s not fawning or overtly dramatic in a tabloid way which suits the slow pace of the book and its content. I appreciated his clear style because we all know there’s enough drama in the story of this woman’s life just in the reciting of it. There’s little need to fan those flames. “I thought when I met a man I loved, that I didn’t have to sing,” begins one of the last chapters and you start to see the sadness creeping up behind her in her face and her eyes in the pages that follow. I suppose it shouldn’t be astonishing that she wanted fulfillment and validation as a woman as well as an artist. Ultimately, her life wasn’t really hers. In the meantime we now have this wonderful, and you could say definitive, pictorial document of this extraordinarily talented woman who had such a sense of high style and was one of the consummate artists of her era. Meanwhile it’ll look stunning on the coffee table and it’ll tide you over until they open the theme park. Photo © Marzotto Collection
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.
Great opera singers