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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Mercoledi Musicale

Yesterday the Christian church celebrated “Ognissanti” – All Saint – and today “tutti i fedeli defunti” – all the faithful departed – are commemorated. I’ve written previously about celebrations (and that is what they are) during our time in MexicoPoland, of my own personal sense of loss on this feast day and on the music that can bring comfort in times of that loss.

Strangely I have never found the Requiem as a ritual of sorrow but one of comfort and for a believer hope.  And amongst the most beautiful setting of the gentle invocation Pie Jesu is Fauré’s for his Requiem and when it is sung the way Lucia Popp does here soar as a sweet cry to heaven.

Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem. 
Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem sempiternam.

Gentle Lord Jesus, grant them rest.
 Gentle Lord Jesus, grant them everlasting rest.

Perhaps it is just that time of life but there seem to be even more people that I remember with a sense of loss on this day.

For Isabella, Albert, Joe, Frank, Deb, Steven, Linda, Jamie, Bill, Ryan, John, Lawrence and all those I have loved and lost.


02 novembre/November – La Commemorazione dei defunti

Mercoledi Musicale

Two Saturdays past the Academia di Santa Cecilia gave us one of those works that has become almost cliche: Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. But I remember when it was still a rarity and the music was something new and exciting. The first recording of it that I owned was conducted by Rafael Frübeck de Burgos, who led the forces of ASC at this most recent concert. His interpretation has matured over the years – and yes there are refinements to be found in the piece – but I missed a bit of that youthful exuberance that he brought to that first attempt. And maybe I’m missing the youthful exuberance I brought to first hearing it.

One of the great sopranos of the late 20th century, Lucia Popp, was the soloist on that recording. A few years later she teamed with baritone Hermann Prey in a rather bizarre Jean-Pierre Ponnelle film version. Ponnelle was a great designer-director and when he was on form – Falstaff, Italiana in Algeri, Cenerentola, Barbiere, Zauberflote – he was magnificent. But when he went for baroque, as he often did, the results could be beautiful but strange. His take on Carmina Burana, though scholarly and probably true to its 13th text, was one of those things that is just too over the top.

Before it became a beer commercial – one can only hope the Orff Estate is making lots of money on that one – the opening was a powerful statement of Medieval skepticism.

O Fortune, like the moon
you are changeable,
ever waxing and waning;
hateful life first oppresses
and then soothes as fancy takes it;
poverty and power
it melts them like ice.

Fate – monstrous and empty,
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is vain
and always fades to nothing,
shadowed and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
to your villainy.

Fate is against me
in health and virtue,
driven on and weighted down,
always enslaved.
So at this hour without delay
pluck the vibrating strings;
since Fate strikes down the string man,
everyone weep with me!

Ponnelle’s concept of The Court of Love, though politically incorrect for us, is actually very much in keeping with text and music. The troubadours saw love as both a courtly and a carnal thing. And if surrender is made to the carnal it couldn’t be anymore beautiful than Popp’s Dulcissime. Listen for it at around the 6:21 mark: Dulcissime! Ah! totam tibi subdo me! – Sweetest one! Ah! I give myself to you completely. Here the image meets the sound – both are stunning.


Though the performance at Santa Cecilia may have lacked great soloists it did have our brilliant chorus and orchestra again in top form. And Frübeck de Burgos showed that familiarity had only bred a deeper love and knowledge of Orff’s best known work. And perhaps now my more experienced ears discovered beauties that were hidden when I first heard it.

10 dicembre – Beata Vergine Maria di Loreto