Mercoledi Musicale

Back in May of 1961 the Metropolitan Opera made its annual appearance in Toronto but with a big difference. Rather than presenting the greats of the time – Tebaldi, Stella, Bergonzi, Del Monaco, Warren, Peters, Merrill et al – in the cavernous Maple Leaf Gardens hockey rink they played in the brand spanking new O’Keefe Centre. The O’Keefe had open the October before with the world premiere of Camelot and the first season was coming to an end with the Met on its Spring Tour.

The colour scheme may be pretty close but there was a big difference between seeing the Met at
Maple Leaf Gardens and the O’Keefe Centre – a really big difference.

Every year since 1952 the vast hockey rink on Carlton St was turned into a makeshift theatre and every year since 1957 my father and I had climbed to the grey section at the top of the Gardens to see – in the far distance – Carmen, Die Fledermaus, The Gypsy Baron and Madama Butterfly.

But in 1961 it was a real theatre and I had an orchestra seat – sadly on my own because my father had had the first of the series of strokes that would take him from us later that summer – for the opening night on May 29.  And I was wearing the white dinner jacket that my mother had made for the occasion.  It was all pretty heady stuff for a thirteen year old.  Strangely Mr Bing had choosen a rather low keyed opera for that opening night – the last for seven years.  The Met struck Toronto from its Spring Tour schedule and would not appear in the city again until 1968.

The fussiness of Oliver Smith’s decor, Motley’s costumes and Carl Elbert’s stage direction meant that
an opera that delighted audiences of the Golden Age was less engaging than it really is.

Martha was a popular work in the early history of the Met – a favourite of artists such as Marcella Sembrich,  Adelina Patti, Enrico Caruso, Eduard de Rezske, Freida Hempel, Frances Alda, Benjamino Gigli – but had last been performed in1928.  It was a favourite “Golden Age” opera that had fallen out of favour.  Mr Bing decided to revive it with, if not quite a Golden Age cast, certainly a remarkable one for the time:  Victoria de los Angeles, Rosalind Elias, Richard Tucker and Giorgio Tozzi.  If vocally we weren’t let down by the cast unfortunately the production team – director Carl Ebert, designers Oliver Smith and Motley – didn’t hold up their end.  The fussy misé-en-scene and bad English translation used were major impediments to what could have been a delightful revival.

If the production wasn’t a total success the singing of (left to right) Giorgio Tozzi, Richard Tucker, Victoria de los Angles and Roselind Elias more than made up for it. Veteran bass Lorenzo Alvery (almost out of sight) completed the cast.

The original German libretto by Friedrich Wilhelm Riese had never been heard at the Met nor was it to be for this revival.  Since its first performance back in 1884 it had always been sung at the house in Italian.  Bing decided to commission an English version from Ann Ronell, the lyricist of Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, which proved to be a less than successful match for the graceful music.  And for some reason it was decided that Tom Moore’s words for The Last Rose of Summer would be replaced with a crass substitution.  None the less de los Angeles sang it with a beauty that transcended any translation.

Here singing the original German of the Irish folksong that weaves in and out of the opera is Lucia Popp, one of the most beautiful singers – in every way – of the 20th century. She was taken from us far to young by a brain tumor in 1993 at the height of her career.  She and Siegfried Jerusalem often sang together at their home house in Munich.

I wonder at Martha not being more popular these days – the story is no more contrived than any other operatic libretto and beautiful melody follows beautiful melody.  There are lyric arias, spirited quartets, rousing choruses, drinking songs, moments of high drama and some simply gorgeous ensembles.  One of the most lovely moments is the”Goodnight” quartet from Act 2.  In this version it becomes “Dormi pur” as sung at the Met in 1912 by Frances Alda,  Josephine Jacoby, Enrico Caruso and Marcel Journet with Walter Rogers conducting.

As well know as The Last Rose of Summer is the tenor aria Ach so fromm though it is probably better know by the Italian M’appari as oft record by Caruso.  In 1961 Richard Tucker dutifully sang the rather stilted English translation but at the April 13 performance he reverted to the Italian in order, he said, to “let his fans know how Caruso sounded.”  Unfortunately there is no recording of that performance but the Broadcast matinee a few days earlier when he sang it in English was recorded.

Listening to this, and that broadcast performance I think I may have misspoken earlier – the quartet of singers that evening were indeed part of a “Golden Age”.

March 5 – 1960: Cuban photographer Alberto Korda takes his iconic photograph of Marxist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

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Classical Nerman

I thought I’d post a few more of the wonderful Nerman caricatures from that little book I was mentioning last week.

Einar Nerman’s contract with Eve magazine required a monthly page of caricatures of singers, conductors and notable musicians who played the Royal Albert Hall and other concert venues in the London of the 20Ss and 30s. His talented pen found plenty of scope in the full-bosomed prima donnas and eccentric conductors who mounted the podiums.

By the time Nerman inked these drawings of these two musical Dames, they were both approaching the end of long careers. Nellie Melba was a reigning prima donna of the opera stage from the 1880s until her retirement in 1928. Much loved by the public she was less appreciated by her colleagues. The Melba stories are numerous as the dishes named after her and most suggest that the Australian soprano did not “work and play well with others”, but damned she could sing! Clara Butt was much loved by the British public though her stock within the musical world was not always as high. Sir Thomas Beecham, well known for his sarcastic wit, once quipped that she could stand on the Cliffs of Dover and be heard on the shores of France. Rather snidely Nerman has her cradling Kennerley Rumford, her stage and life-partner, to her amble bosom.

Frieda Hempel and Amelita Galli-Curci shared much of the same repertory though the petit Italian soprano never ventured into the realms of Wagner the way her saftig colleague did. Though Hempel had a successful career in Europe it is thought that her North American career was overshadowed by Galli-Curci. Both turned to recitals in the late 20s and that was Hempel chief venue until her retirement. Galli-Curci’s singing days were cut short by surgery which left her vocally damaged and she retired to a life of teaching.

By the time Nerman drew this caricature of Enrico Caruso, the great tenor had been dead for 20 years. I’m not sure where Nerman got his inspiration but he captured the well-known roguishness of his subject. Its interesting to see that current tenor heart throb Jonas Kaufmann wasn’t the first one to go for that rugged five o’clock shadow look. Of course while Nerman was in New York Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior ruled the roost in all thing Wagnerian at the Met. He was never known for his convincing acting but when you sang like he did – on a night when he felt like it – acting really didn’t matter. I agree with Sandy Wilson who says of this drawing that Nerman “has, I could swear, capture sound on paper.”

These two great conductors of the 20th Century were as different as night and day. Arturo Toscanini was the martinet, the terror of the podium; Sir Thomas Beecham was the avuncular uncle. Both were magnificent in their own way. My own preference has always leaned towards Beecham, I’ve always found Toscanni’s readings to be cold – to my ears his Falstaff robs that masterpiece of all its humour and joy. However with Beecham you always feel the joy of a true “amateur”: he was chiefly self-taught as a conductor, championed various neglected works and seemed to be in the habit of founding orchestras when he couldn’t find any to hire him as their conductor. His recordings of La Boheme and Carmen are still – to my mind – the touchstones for those two war horses.

Its probably just me being an old “fogie” – no it is definitely me being an old fogie – but I can’t imagine a caricaturist having as much fun with today’s crop of singers or conductors.

16 luglio – La Beata Vergine Maria del Monte Carmello