Culture Magazine

Stream for Your Supper: After-Dinner Treats with Met Opera on Demand (Part Three) — More, More, More!

By Josmar16 @ReviewsByJosmar

It's been a long time for listeners to go without live opera. And it may get longer still.

Depending on how successful (or not) the United States, the European Union, Latin and South America, and/or Asian nations are in vaccinating their inhabitants - and keeping up with social distancing, mask wearing, and such - we, the fanatical opera buffs of this world, will have to settle for pre-recorded events for the foreseeable future.

Not that pre-recorded events are necessarily a "bad" thing in themselves. As a matter of fact, some are quite extraordinary. And many are downright pleasurable. But what I've been reading online, though, does not bode well for the operatic arts in North America.

For example, there are substantial and completely justifiable complaints concerning the Metropolitan Opera not having paid their laid-off musicians during the pandemic hiatus. True, the top talents always seem to get the lion's share of assignments. Lamentably, those lesser mortals who labor in subordinate positions, or behind the scenes (as artisans, craftspeople, scene painters, costumiers, stage designers, digital technicians, and the like), have been short-changed by the unavailability of work. Work, in this case, should be viewed as a steady stream of employment via frequent performances and long-term engagements.

And while we're at it, when will opera return to "normalcy," whatever "normalcy" happens to be in these trying times? Did we say "trying"? Maybe "critical" is a better word for conveying the dysfunction at hand. Surely, there must be some sort of reckoning, either now or in the years to come, involving this unresolved dilemma.

The astronomical cost of producing live opera may have to take a backseat to other lingering and far more pressing concerns, with our lives, health, and well-being top-most among them. Refusal to address these issues will ultimately lead to a perfect storm of problems and, quite possibly, the very extinction of what we hold most dear.

Sooner or later, these very issues (money, relevance, need, etc.) will have to be addressed. And one of them should be how important opera and the performing arts - not to forget orchestral and choral concerts, live theater, Broadway musicals, the ballet, and others - are to our lives and to the national conscience. For the past four years, there has been little regard in this country for the arts in general. By "arts," we also mean the cinematic and television arts and all that those entail.

In our estimation, they are all linked together, in an unbroken chain, to keeping faith with music and art as a viable means of expression, along with sustaining our humanity in the face of negative forces. Luckily, those negative forces, represented in this instance by the worldwide coronavirus outbreak, are slowly but surely being confronted and addressed.

Our hope lies on whether or not we, as a species, can survive in a conscious show of support for one another, and for the arts - the arts that we, ourselves, have created. Then, and only then, will we have conquered the darker forces of our nature. To defeat this foe, this coronavirus, and any other crisis that may arise, will be deemed a victory for humankind.

In the meantime, we'll continue to watch, read, enjoy, and review what there is of this artistic life (via streaming or other means), as embodied by our collective works. Let us also be reminded of the fact that "opera" is the plural form of the word "opus" or "oeuvre," both of which mean "work" - a true collective in every sense.

For those science fiction and Star Trek fans out there, here's a bone for you: all we ask is that you think of opera as the Borg of the artistic community. Yes, yes, I'm aware they're supposed to be the bad guys, but please bear with me for a minute. Like the Borg, opera assimilates. It complies to accepted (and unaccepted) norms. It adapts and it survives, for the benefit of the hive. A true collective, in every sense. Know, too, that although it may be a contradiction in terms, there are such things as "good" Borgs and "bad" Borgs.

For me, opera is a "good" Borg. And resistance to it is futile.

How Do You Like It?

Welcome back to the golden days of opera viewing, a time when the old "stand up and sing" methodology persisted in just about every Metropolitan Opera production, all the way up to the 1980s and, sometimes, beyond.

As I indicated in earlier posts, this approach was much favored by the Met Opera management. My own thoughts about this debatable technique go back to the types of productions staged at the time. Many of them featured a series of steps, an ongoing hazard of such presentations as Verdi's I Vespri Siciliani (by John Dexter) and the same composer's Ernani (by Pier Luigi Samaritani).

For now, it's on with the show:

Il Trovatore (1961) - The 2020-2021 radio season peaked early on with a re-broadcast of a classic Saturday afternoon live performance from the old Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway and 39 th Street. That performance took place on February 4, 1961, and documented the dual radio debuts of legendary diva Leontyne Price as Leonora and spinto tenor Franco Corelli as Manrico, her lover. Mario Sereni, a rising Italian baritone at the time, appeared as Count Di Luna, with bass William Wilderman as the family retainer Ferrando, and mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis as the crazed Azucena. Fausto Cleva, an old favorite at the old Met, conducted the orchestra and chorus.

If you've been privy to the Marx Brothers' ribald comedy A Night at the Opera, then you'd have a good idea what Il Trovatore is about. This work, which is filled with side-splitting quirks and last minute rescue attempts, has been parodied and hooted at long before Groucho, Chico, and Harpo put it out of its misery. Even the team of Gilbert and Sullivan took their pointed potshots with The Pirates of Penzance. So who are we to add fuel to this gypsy fire?

Listening to the re-broadcast of Il Trovatore proved enlightening. Maestro Cleva whipped the Met's forces into submission, pacing the piece as if it were running in the Belmont Stakes. The rapidity with which he moved the work along meant that rush hour came early that day. True, Cleva's exaggerated tempos took one;s breath away, but left most of the singers behind. An example was Leonora's entrance aria: it was over before it began. Ms. Price gasped audibly for air, a feat I never thought possible.

Another inexcusable yet common practice at the time were the vicious cuts to repeats and cabalettas. What's the rush, anyway? One answer may be that Trovatore, an opera in four acts, demanded an intermission between acts. That's three intermissions, people, each one lasting a half hour or so. This added to the work's overall length (about two and half hours' worth). Indeed, despite the cuts you're talking about a very long afternoon.

After four hours of dramatic singing, here were my takeaways: the youthful Ms. Price earned and received an enormous ovation for her sublimely sung Leonora, emitting a seamless line of perfectly placed legato in a meltingly lovely display. Mr. Corelli, a big favorite with the partisan crowd, hit his stride early on with a top D in the Act I trio (marvelous!). Here at last was a truly robust voice! Although Franco took the ringing "Di quella pira" down a tone (pulling off a high B instead of the unwritten high C), his virile bearing and long-lined fluidity in his various romanzas brought a tear to the eye.

But the surprise hit of the afternoon, for yours truly, was Mario Sereni's heroically forthright Count Di Luna, the supposed "villain" of the production. Sereni was well on his way toward making a name for himself in several studio recordings (among them, the classic Angel/EMI release of Puccini's La Bohème with Mirella Freni and Nicolai Gedda, and the RCA Red Seal Ernani by Verdi, with Ms. Price and tenor Carlo Bergonzi). One thing was certain: the clarity of Sereni's Italian diction and his easy top notes were a breath of fresh air.

Another fascinating realization was the ease with which William Wilderman, a reliable old standby, interpreted the thankless part of Ferrando. A potent yet flexible basso, Wilderman was much admired in his day for his versatility. The only adverse aspect was that he, and others in the cast, were incapable of producing the requisite trills demanded of their roles. For example, "Abietta zingara," which opens the piece, went by the boards, especially in Cleva's rapid-fire reading. And those triplet notes were nowhere in sight. What gives?

Another downside was the execrable Italian enunciation of Irene Dalis as the mad gypsy woman Azucena. Recognized for her wildly wicked Ortrud in Wagner's Lohengrin and the evil Nurse in Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten, as well as her sensuously intoned Kundry in Parsifal, Ms. Dalis, a native of San Jose, California, ran aground in Trovatore. Her phrasing of the line, "Sul capo mio le chiome sento drizzarsi ancor" (literally, "It made my hair stand on end"), and the repeated phrase, "drizzarsi ancor," were marred by an imperfect "r" sound (much too Americanized). Shame, shame.

La Forza del Destino (1984) - The refurbished John Dexter production, with sets by the late Eugene Berman (responsible for the Met's long-lived Don Giovanni, reviewed in Part One) and spanking new costumes and uniforms, was one I saw live in October 1983. In that performance, I was disheartened to learn that the originally scheduled Sherrill Milnes as Don Carlo was indisposed and would be substituted by Italian baritone Silvano Carroll in his Met Opera debut. Carroli proved an acceptable alternative, if without much individuality. He did possess a warm and manly tone, and wore Milnes' uniform about as well as one could given the last minute notice.

The leading man was the Spaniard José Carreras (he of the Three Tenors). He, too, was announced as being under the weather but acquitted himself well as Don Alvaro, despite a cautious approach to his high notes (this was before he was diagnosed with leukemia). Fluttery veteran soprano Lucine Amara took on the daunting challenge of Leonora (to be frank, she was a major disappointment), and bass-baritone Ruggero Raimondi sang the gravely part of Padre Guardiano. Buffo baritone Enrico Fissore was a fussy Melitone, while mezzo Barbara Conrad appeared as the gypsy fortune-teller Preziosilla. James Levine conducted.

In the live telecast in question (from March 24, 1984), things improved markedly with prima donna Price's star turn as the stratospheric, hard-pressed Leonora (there are multiple Leonoras in opera, not all of them of the Italian variety). At full voice or in those soaring high-lying passages that Verdi allotted the soprano, Ms. Price outdid herself, betraying only a momentary scooping up to high notes. Her potent mid-range was particularly effective, but the hollow sound she emitted at the lower end of the scale was troubling.

Only a year or so later, Price would retire from the Met stage (see Aida below). But her legacy as a model and unrivaled Verdi singer, and especially her acceptance as an African American artist of the absolute front rank, will remain with us for as long as artistry and exquisite singing are in vogue.

This opera, long sliced and diced by the Met (I heard a peculiarly distressing performance on the radio, back in March 1968, which placed the famous Overture between Acts I and II), was presented here, in 1984, as nearly complete. I say "nearly" because, as long-time fans may know, the original 1862 St. Petersburg, Russia production featured an entirely different ending (where Don Alvaro leaps from a parapet to his death) and an additional aria for our leading man. This initial version, put on by the Mariinsky Theater and preserved on CD, was led by Russian maestro Valery Gergiev. It deserves a second hearing.

In 1984, however, listeners were shown as complete a presentation as was possible. The plot, to state the obvious, is preposterous in the extreme. Coincidences and chance encounters abound, some more outrageous than others. But the prevailing theme of "revenge," that relentless "Force of Destiny" indicated by those triple horn blasts throughout the work, marches inevitably on. Revenge and honor envelope the protagonists in a winding storyline that takes them from a Spanish mansion to the fields of battle, from an inn filled with rowdy patrons to a convent inhabited by pious monks, to a military encampment and army field hospital, and finally to a hermit's grotto. Whew! Talk about destiny!

Verdi loved his Spanish sources, and this one - from the play La Fuerza del Sino by the Duke of Rivas - was a real barn-burner. There are dramatic twists of fate from the hand of German playwright Friedrich Schiller, as well as heroic shades of the composer's earlier triumphs, Il Trovatore and Ernani. Something about the Spanish thirst for vengeance and honor, at all costs, captured Verdi's imagination. The emotional quandaries found in Luisa Miller may also have been influential.

The story, in sum, is old-fashioned and far-fetched. Still, I like what author William Berger, in his book Verdi With a Vengeance, had to say about Forza: It's "not how events unfold in real life but how passion dictates lives." Ain't it the truth? And passion is what governs this work, from beginning to tragic ending. There are flaws aplenty, that much is certain. But a great cast can, and will, do wonders. Assembled in this 1984 production were the likes of Ms. Price as Leonora (one of her specialties), mezzo-soprano Isola Jones as Preziosilla, dramatic tenor Giuseppe Giacomini as Don Alvaro, baritone Leo Nucci as Don Carlo, bass Bonaldo Giaiotti as Padre Guardiano, and the aforementioned Enrico Fissore as Melitone.

Giacomini at the time was a rare find, a heroic-sounding vocal product of solid bearing and purpose. His ringing quality and sonic semblance to Corelli (particularly in lower passages) is noticeable from the outset. However, the higher up the range he goes, the more diffuse the sound. The voice tends to spread and lose focus, while the highest notes squeeze out in sometimes strangulated fashion. Despite all that, Giacomini brought luster to a shrinking vocal category: that of a true Verdian of respectable proportions. His model was Mario Del Monaco, and it clearly showed.

It's a shame to have to fault his inability to act. Giacomini's Don Alvaro, of noble Incan ancestry, molded the character through purely vocal means. Visually, he was the romantic hero to a "T," balanced against the one-track-minded Don Carlo di Vargas of Leo Nucci. Nucci, a shade underpowered in other roles, outdid himself in pure villainy. Though short of stature, with a faintly bawling mannerism, Nucci managed the high-lying tessitura with ease, inserting a few extra high notes when called for (as in his Act II aria, "Son Pereda, son rico d'onore," and at the fiery climax of the duet, "Invano Alvaro," in Act IV). Both he and Giacomini earned a massive ovation for their work together, the highlight of the evening.

Bonaldo Giaiotti's firm-toned Guardiano was fine in its lowest reaches, but wobbled mightily up on top. His "enactment" of this part was limited to raising his arm up or down, as the need arose. Fissore continued to top his previously fussbudget portrayal of a friar at the end of his patience. Mezzo Isola Jones and a stalwart cast of supporting players rounded out the proceedings. A youngish James Levine led a virile reading of this bombastic score, while the Met Orchestra and Chorus continued their stellar work in providing a solid musical accompaniment.

Ernani (1983) - This Pier Luigi Samaritani production, from December 17, 1983, preserved what was best and what was worst about the Met at that time. In the title role was warm-voiced tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who brought a bel canto refinement to a part previously given to more, shall we say, "robust" instruments. The likes of Giovanni Martinelli, Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli, and the later Marcello Giordani were among the era's biggest (and loudest) vocal attractions. That Signor Pavarotti deigned to venture into such illustrious company said a lot about the star tenor's ambitions.

Amazingly, Pavarotti did not come off too badly. In fact, his singing was above reproach, and much less mannered than it became later on in his career. Free-ringing and wide-ranging, Lucky Luciano made it through this grueling assignment, one of the more "dramatic" turns in the standard repertoire. He even got to sing one of those rarely heard extracts that was inserted before the second act finale. Bravo to that! Histrionically, the outcast Ernani (in reality, the royal-blooded Don Juan of Aragon) seeks revenge against the Spanish King Don Carlo, soon to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. You'll remember him from Verdi's Don Carlo: he's the ghostly apparition who appears, as the contrived deus ex machina, toward the end of that work (Oy vey, these names, these names!).

African American soprano Leona Mitchell, once heavily criticized (if you can believe that) for taking on the highborn Donna Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni, made an auspicious appearance as (come on, now, you can guess it) Donna Elvira, the object of the tenor's, and baritone's, AND the bass's affections - yes, a veritable ménage à quatre. No, really! In this early work, Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave (a favorite of the Bear of Busseto), surpassed themselves in playing up the honor angle to the hilt. This "honor" business soon becomes a running joke, to put it mildly.

We turn once again to William Berger, who had a tongue-in-cheek knack for encapsulating the least desirable aspects of classic works: "The characters rave at great length about their honor, and generally act without any except when they are grandstanding." That's Ernani in a nutshell. Verdi later mocked the notion of honor somewhat, with Falstaff's Act I "Honor" monologue.

Nevertheless, Ms. Mitchell fulfilled every prerequisite, including the wide-ranging leaps and bounds, so reminiscent of Abigaille in Verdi's first big hit, Nabucco, but without that hysterical quality. The opera's hysterics, such as they are, were reserved for the ludicrous (and constant) clash of egos, both in Act I and in the remaining three sections. Regardless, there are more melodies per pound in this work than in any number of similarly themed pieces.

In support, Sherrill Milnes had a good night as the lustful Don Carlo (boy, talk about a reoccurring motif!), his high notes blasted at full volume. After a while, his basic sound quality began to waver, and during the intervening years between 1984 and 1992, when Milnes reappeared as Sheriff Jack Rance in Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, his assignments on the Met stage were few and rife with cancellations. His wan rendition of Rance, more muffled than of yore, bespoke of better days. But his stalwart stage presence, as authentically American as apple pie, reigned supreme. Milnes could have stepped out from a John Wayne movie or a Kevin Costner Western. He looked THAT good.

In any event, Milnes got the most massive reception for an outstanding "O, de' verd'anni miei" and the follow up, "O sommo Carlo," which led to one of those impressive ensembles that Verdi was supreme master of, a harbinger of similar ones to be found in Un Ballo in Maschera, Don Carlo, and, of course, Aida.

Bologna native Ruggero Raimondi's smoothly-shaded bass-baritone nearly equaled Milnes in volume and output as the dastardly Don Ruy Gomez da Silva (aka Silva), the old fogey who longs for his youth and believes, that by marrying Elvira, he can recapture his glory days. Sorry, Señor Silva! One thing about Raimondi that remains paramount: he possessed powerful high notes and a rock-solid technique. Where he was most wanting was in his all-but nonexistent low tones. They tended to disappear below the staff, as that long-ago Padre Guardiano pointed out and to which I was privy.

We would be remiss in our duty to point out the obvious: This production was in the old "stand up and sing" tradition from the minute the curtains were parted. This egregious practice continued unabated, with Mitchell staring into space and spreading her arms out in imitation of a doll atop a bedroom vanity. Pavarotti peered out wide-eyed at the conductor, sweating profusely beneath a full-headed wig. Milnes' generalized raising and lowering of his arm, an affectation he employed in countless stage assignments (for instance, in the January 1979 Luisa Miller broadcast), grew more monotonous with each passing gesture. And Raimondi's hand on heart (or hand on sword hilt, take your pick) grew tiresome with every succeeding act.

With those beefs out of the way, it was wonderful to hear veteran Charles Anthony's solid character tenor in the short but crucial part of Don Riccardo. And James Levine's bombastic conducting of anything by Verdi was masterful, as always, his love for this opera shining through in every bar and in every musical statement.

Aida (1985) - Billed as the night Leontyne Price bid farewell to her opera career, this January 3, 1985 performance of Aida, one of the soprano's most celebrated roles, remains a cornerstone of her artistry. Her "soaring phrases," the "shimmering top" notes, and that absolutely emotional quality she brought and was known for throughout her career continued to make an impact.

Price had to hold back the floodgate of tears as the audience filled the soundtrack with well-deserved bravos - in fact, it hardly let up at all. Hearing her anew as Leonora in that now-historic 1961 Trovatore, in which Ms. Price was greeted with prolonged cheers throughout and at the end, solidified the irrefutable view that the Mississippi-born singer was and will forever remain an audience favorite.

Beginning with that incredible breath control she displayed in "Ritorna vincitor" from Aida's Act I aria, and moving on to the most moving of all her Met Opera appearances, that third act "O patria mia," where an obviously emotional Price refused to break character to acknowledge the endless applause, this Egyptian princess proved her mettle in a way only an artist of her exalted caliber could.

If only the production itself, a barebones affair exemplified by circular platforms, dreary costumes, and outlandish headgear, could match the diva's stately stage presence. Instead, we had old school bawling from powerhouse Italian mezzo Fiorenza Cossotto as Aida's jealous rival Amneris. Usually an invaluable artist, on this occasion I felt that Ms. Cossotto overdid the strictly vocal portions. She over-sang to the point that her fourth act Judgment Scene lacked the impact it normally would have, had the sparks not been expended early on. Anyway, that's my interpretation.

Simon Estes as Aida's father, Amonasro, certainly looked the part of the King of Ethiopia. But his bark proved worse than his bite, the voice seemingly swallowed up by the vast Met Opera reaches. As it happened, Estes scored an early career triumph with his portrayal of the doomed Vanderdencken in Harry Kupfer's 1978 Der Fliegende Holländer production at Bayreuth. He also appeared as Porgy in the Met's 1985 production of The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, and as Wotan in The Ring cycle in 1983, all three roles more congenial to his nature.

In the role of Radames, hefty heldentenor James McCracken appeared over-parted as Radames, his "Celeste Aida" lacking in comfort and the basic long-lined legato called for. In the role's heavier moments (from Act III on), McCracken's largish voice and squeezed-out high notes chewed up the scenery. This was not a particularly commendable assumption for the blue-eyed, barrel-chested artist, but he did give the part his considerable all. A famous Otello and Florestan, McCracken had to wrestle with an ill-fitting costume topped with an atrocious headpiece. John Macurdy's sturdy bass as the High Priest Ramfis anchored the ensembles well enough. And once again, maestro James Levine brought a knowledgeable command of Verdi's bombastic score.

Not as festive an occasion as one would have liked, Aida was acceptable sendoff for one of opera's most beloved and invaluable performers, Ms. Leontyne Price.

End of Part Three

(To be continued....)

Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog