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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Ramblings of an Addlepatted Old Theatre Buff

Fifty years ago this week the O’Keefe Centre (now the Sony Centre) opened in Toronto – it was the performing arts venue the city had lacked and needed for many years. Though the wonderful Royal Alexandra Theatre (I grew up in the nose-bleed inducing second balcony) was used for touring shows it couldn’t house some of the bigger attractions. As I mentioned not so long ago in those days the Metropolitan Opera, The Royal Ballet, The Bolshoi Ballet and even Maria Callas appeared in a makeshift theatre set up in a hockey arena. Finally we had a “theatre” where the big names and the big shows could shine.

The opening production was the world premiere of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot with Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, Robert Goulet, Robert Coote and Roddy McDowell. It was one of the most eagerly awaited events of the North American theatre season. The first night lasted over 4 hours though by the time I caught a matinée two weeks later it had been cut down to 3 1/2 hours – as one critic said almost as long as a Wagner opera but not half as funny.

The rest of the year was chock-a-block with theatrical delights – My Fair Lady (just to prove that Lerner and Loewe knew what they were doing), Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, The Metropolitan Opera, The New York City Ballet, The Royal Ballet and the list went on. I saw most of them: matinées because I was 13 at the time and the hour long ride back home – two street cars and a bus – was not considered a good idea at eleven o’clock at night. Though I was allowed to go to the first performance the Met gave at the new Centre wearing a white dinner jacket my mother had made for me and given the money to take a “gasp” taxi home.

And a less starry summer season was arranged with amongst other things Stars of the Paris Opera Ballet and Carol Channing in a revue called Showgirl. This was Carol Channing’s pre-Dolly days. She had come out of revue theatre and gone on to fame in Wonderful Town (replacing Rosalind Russell) and then as Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In those days she was known for her uncanny timing, the siren call (in both senses) of her vocals and her ability to do some very funny impersonations. To this day I recall her Brigitte Bardot as Lady Macbeth in the Sleepwalking Scene – I only wish it were available on video.

One of the classic numbers she did in that particular revue and performed off and on for the rest of her career was the sad story of a silent cinema star: the great but forgotten Cecilia Sisson.

Sadly much of Channing’s talent seemed to have gotten lost over the years under a layer of camp and mannerisms to the point where she almost became a parody of herself that often bordered on impersonation. Interestingly she has returned to the stage at 85 with an act that reveals her uncanny ability as an impersonator which featured so prominently in Showgirl. I tried to embed her Marlene Dietrich however it has been disabled – you might just want to click on the Carol caricature at the right and it will take you to one of the slyest take-off’s I’ve ever seen on the eternally youthful Frau Sieber.

05 ottobre – San Placido monaco