Mercoledi Musicale

Canadian bass Joseph Rouleau died late last week at the age of 90 after a remarkable career as singer, teacher, mentor and promoter of young musicians. Born in the small town of Matane on the Gaspé Peninsula he studied in Montréal, Milan and New York before making in debut in 1955 in New Orleans. Much of his career was spent at the Royal Opera House in London where he debuted in 1957. He went on to sing 850 performances over almost three decades at the ROH. He was to sing at the Met for several seasons and appeared with the Canadian Opera Company and Opéra de Montréal on various occasions but his career was primarily centred in Europe.

His recording career had an auspicious start – he sang Rochfort on a recording of the final scene from Anna Bolena with Maria Callas. Later he became associated both on stage and in the recording studio with Joan Sutherland, who was a close colleague during those early years at Covent Garden.

Amongst his favourite roles was Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. He sang the blind monk Pimen with the great Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff as Boris but graduated to the role of the tortured Tzar shortly after. While performing the role at the opera house in Kiev he donned the costumes worn by the role’s most famous interpreter, Feodor Chaliapin. In a recent interview he said: Before each performance, I crossed myself, prayed for my father’s support, and said, “Mom, my God, I’ve come a long way from Matane.”

In 1983 Radio Canada recorded the death scene from Boris in the Rimsky-Korsakov realization. At close quarters it may seem a touch OTT but vocally it is a remarkable interpretation. I programmed the clip to begin as Boris feels approaching death and calls for his son Feydor. I am not sure if that feature is working or not so please feel free to fast forward to the 14:46 mark.

May he rest in peace and may light perpetual shine upon him.

July 17th has a plethora of celebrations: World Emoji Day, National Hot Dog Day, National Peach Ice Cream Day, National Tattoo Day, Wrong Way Corrigan Day (!) and Yellow Pig Day (!!). Take your pick.

Mercoledi Musicale

Bohuslav Martinů was one of those composers I had heard about but never really paid too much attention to until the past five or six years.  I always figured his music would be too “modern” for me.  It wasn’t until I attend a performance of his The Greek Passion in Palermo that I began to understand him as a composer.  I came out of the Teatro Massimo that Sunday afternoon with tears streaming down my face, a complete and utter emotional wreck.  He had touched an emotional well and has continued to do so as I’ve explored his work.

Granted most of my exploration has centred around his vocal works – particularly The Epic of Gilgamesh and Hry o Marii (The Plays of Mary) I’ve started to listen to his symphonic and some of his chamber works.   Yes Martinů  broke with the romantic tradition but like Smetena, Dvořák, and Janáček is strongly influenced by the folk melodies of his Czech heritage.  And unlike many modern composers he writes vocal music to a language – it’s cadences, subtleties and rhythms.

First English edition
(publ. Bruno Cassirer)

The story of the opera is based on Nikos Kazantzakis‘s Christ Recrucified, a powerful novel that caused a stir when it was published in 1954.  It paints a painful and unflattering picture of the people of a Greek village, who turn away refugees from another village.  Their fear and bigotry is fuelled by the Church and their Politicians who incite them to murder a young shepherd who had been chosen to play Christ in their Easter Passion Play the following year.  His actions had become too Christlike and his association with the refugees threatening, particularly to their local priest.  The opera ends on Christmas Eve with his murder by the villager who was to play Judas.  As the bells ring and the Kyrie is sung by the devout villagers the refugees, lead by their priest Fotis, leave still searching for a place and people that will welcome them.

The final scene from that moving performance I saw in Palermo is available on YouTube but sadly not for embedding.  A left click will take you to the video – the quality is not the finest but it will give an idea of the performance that moved me so much and stays with me to this day.

“Toward midnight the bell began ringing, calling the Christians to the church to see Christ born. One by one the doors opened and the Christians hastened toward the church, shivering with cold. The night was calm, icy, starless.”

“Priest Fotis listened to the bell pealing gaily, announcing that Christ was coming down on earth to save the world. He shook his head and heaved a sigh: In vain, my Christ, in vain, he muttered; two thousand years have gone by and men crucify You still. When will You be born, my Christ, and not be crucified any more, but live among us for eternity.”

On this day in 1803: Thousands of meteor fragments fall from the skies of L’Aigle, France; the event convinces European scientists that meteors exist.

Mercoledi Musicale

Since I was 9 years old I’ve known that December 7th was St Ambroise Day – not because I was Catholic (which I wasn’t), not because the Roman church in our neighbour honoured that Saint, but because he was the patron Saint of the city of Milan.  And – and here comes the important part – and it was always the opening night of the new season at La Scala.

And I vowed that one day when I grew up I would be at one of those opening nights; it is still on my bucket list but at €2,400.00 a ticket I have a feeling that is one item that will never be checked off.  So as the close of December 7th approaches another Feast of Saint Ambrogio has come and the curtains at La Scala have parted on one more Opening Night without me.  It would have been a great night to be there: the opera was Madama Butterfly and Bryan Hymel, one of my favourite tenors, was singing Pinkerton.

Butterfly was the third live opera I saw when the Met toured to Toronto and brought it to Maple Leaf Gardens back on May 27, 1958.  It was a stunning new production starring Antonietta Stella and Carlo Bergonzi, conducted by Dimitri Metropolous with staging by Yoshio Aoyama and designs by Motohiro Nagasaka, both major figures in Japanese theatre.   Since then I have seen productions in Toronto, Chicago, Warsaw and Rome and heard it innumerable times on the radio and on the turntable.

One of the most original productions I’ve seen of any opera was Mariusz Treliński’s Madama Butterfly at the Opera Naradowa in Warsaw.  Here Butterfly, Suzuki and little Trouble keep their vigil in the shadow of the USS Abraham Lincoln as san pans glide through the night around the naval vessel.  A stunning stage picture set to the Humming Chorus.

This year at La Scala conductor Riccardo Chailly chose the original two act version that had its disastrous premiere at the same theatre in February of 1904.  In an article in the New York Times he says it “is partly an act of contrition, a symbolic apology to Puccini for the historic rebuff 112 years ago.”  And he continues on to say that he believes that the first version is as good as the final 1907 version – Puccini was to write a total of five versions before settling on a final one.  The article suggests some of the reasons that first night in Milan may have been what Puccini called “a lynching” and also highlights a few of the major differences in the two works – it’s well worth the read and can be found here.

One interlude common to all the versions is the gentle “Humming Chorus” as Ci0-Cio-San, Susuki and little Trouble keep vigil through the night waiting for Pinkerton to come up the little hill.  It is a moment of quiet before the emotional storm of the last scenes.

This touching performance is by the Hungarian State Opera Chorus and Orchestra.

On this day in 1724: Tumult of Thorn: Religious unrest is followed by the execution of nine Protestant citizens and the mayor of Thorn (Toruń) by Polish authorities.

Mercoledi Musicale

I mentioned yesterday that a story from Washington Irving’s The Tales of the Alhambra was the source of a poem by Alexander Pushkin that gave rise to an opera by Rimsky-Korsekov.  Written in 1834 The Tale of the Golden Cockerel was the last of Pushkin’s six fairy tales in verse.

Under the reactionary rule of Nicholas I, intellectuals such as Pushkin were subject to close surveillance and strong censorship.  The poet was angry and frustrated but like many others turned his outrage into his work with a particularly pointed satirical look at a bellicose Tzar who has fallen in to indolent old age – getting rid of his wise counselors and listening to the call of a golden cockerel to warn him of danger. The countries he has once waged war on are now looking of their revenge as they see the once mighty power reduced to feasting and sleeping.

Out of the devastation of the battlefield – in their ineptitude his two sons have killed each other in a fight against the foreign forces –  the enchanting Queen of Shemakha appears (right: Natalia Goncharov’s design for the Queen in the Diaghilev production in 1914) .  She totally bewitches the King who leads her back to his Kingdom and proposes to make her his Queen.  However the Astrologer who presented him with the magical Cockerel demands the payment he was promised with disastrous results.

Rimsky-Korsakov saw a similarity between the story of Tsar Dodon, Tsar Nicholas II, the Russo-Japanese War and the events of Bloody Sunday.  Though he had considered The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (1905) to be his last opera he decided that Pushkin’s story would allow him to compose ” a razor-sharp satire of the autocracy, of Russian imperialism, and of the Russo-Japanese war.”  Needless to say when Zolotoy petushok (The Golden Cockerel) was completed in 1907 the  work was banned by the Palace censors.  It was premiered posthumously in 1909 – one year after the composer’s death.

As the mist clears over the battlefield where Tsar Dodon has been mourning the death of his sons a tent is revealed.  As the sun rises the tent opens and the mysterious and beautiful Queen of Shemakha emerges and greets the rising sun.

The Hymn to the Sun is a concert favourite of many a coloratura soprano and has been recorded by many Russian sopranos, Amelita Galli-Curci, Beverly Sills, Mattiwilda Dobbs, Lily Pons and here the South Korean soprano Sumi Jo.  This was recorded during a live performance in Toulouse in 2003.  It’s quite easy to see how the old Tsar could become besotted with a voice like this.

Though it is not produced all that often these days there have been some notable revivals and my good friend David saw and reviewed a production in London last month.  It was part of a Diaghilev festival and was a reconstruction of his 1914 production that combined dancers on stage and singers in evening dress at the side.

An illustration by Arthur J. Dixon from “The Arabian Astrologer” for an early 20th century edition of Tales of the Alhambra.

In Irving’s Tale of the Arabian Astrologer Aben Habuz, the King of Granada, isn’t pecked to death by the Astrologer’s talisman but his old age is made miserable by the loss of the beautiful Princess, the forays of the surrounding nations into his Kingdom and the disappearance of the Palace of Delights he had been promised by Ibrahim Ebn Abu Ayub.  But the magical gate that was intended to led to this earthly paradise was eventually to become the Gate of Justice of the Alhambra.  And beyond it was built Al-Ḥamrā, a palace that “in some measure realizes the fabled delights of the promised Garden of Irem.”

August 13 – 1792: King Louis XVI of France is formally arrested by the National Tribunal, and declared an enemy of the people.

Mercoledi Musicale

So this was all this to-do this past weekend about an opera singer – AN OPERA SINGER I tells ya! – performing the American National Anthem at a major sports event.   When they weren’t otherwise occupied with the uproar over a song about the United States being an all-inclusive country sung in foreign languages the waves were atwitter with silliness about how well/badly this opera singer – AN OPERA SINGER I tells ya! – did.

Sorry but I had to snicker behind my hand – well okay a few times I just outright guffawed – at the way both opera fans and the “common man” were treating this as an unusual, never before in the history of human existence occurrence.

Every Sunday night we tuned in
to Ed Sullivan’s “Really big show!”

Damn folks, let cast our minds back to a time, not that long ago, when an opera singer on television wasn’t such a big deal just part of normal programming.  In those days opera singers were regular guests on many of the variety and talk programmes – hell at one point NBC had its own opera company and its own orchestra (anyone every heard of a guy called Arturo Toscanini?).   And then there was this guy called Ed Sullivan.  He had a show on Sunday nights – the show where Elvis Presley, The Beatles, MARIA CALLAS, the Rolling Stones, The Supremes, JOAN SUTHERLAND,  Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand, RICHARD TUCKER, the Jackson Five and a whole gang of other song birds strutted their stuff before the households of North America. 

From 1948 until 1971 The Ed Sullivan Show was the quintessential variety show and for that hour from 8:00 PM to 9:00 PM America almost came to a standstill.  It featured everything from ballet to Broadway and often opera was up there with the best and the emerging best in entertainment.

Roberta Peters as Rosina in Il Barbiere – one of her
signature roles.  Her’s was a Rosina for the canary
fanciers – but what an extraordinary canary it was!

The record for appearances on Ed’s show is held by two Canadians – the witty and erudite Wayne and Schuster with 58 appearances, followed by comedians Jack Carter with 49 and Myron Cohen with 43.  And right behind them in #4 place: opera singer Roberta Peters with 41!  AN OPERA SINGER I tells ya!  Who would have thunk?

Peters was a real American success story, she made her unscheduled debut at the Met in November 1950 at the age of 19 having never sung on a stage in her life.  At the time Met General Manager Rudolph Bing observed: To be thrown on the stage at the Met for the first time like that is a shock few can survive.  Peters did!.  She not only survived but she went on to become an established star at the Met and sang over 520 performances with the company in New York and on tour.   She was a great favourite there and, it would seem, with the audiences across America on Sunday night too!

Perhaps these two clips will explain, a little, why she was a favourite in both the Big Bad Apple and the heartlands.

In a broadcast from 1955 Roberta Peters sings the Doll’s aria from Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann.  I’m not sure but this looks like it could be from The Voice of Firestone, another classic classical television show.

At her audition for the Met Rudolph Bing had her sing the Queen of the Night’s vengeance aria from Die Zauberflöte which contains four high Fs.  He had her sing it seven times!  That’s 28 high Fs for anyone who’s counting.  He was unsure if her voice would carry in a house the size of the old Met and listened from all parts of the auditorium.  It did and would both at the old Broadway house and at the new Lincoln Center Met for the next 35 years.

In 1964 she appeared at the Salzburg Festival as the Queen of the Night in Otto Schenk’s production of Die Zauberflöte under the baton of István Kertész.  She subsequently recorded the role with Karl Böhm.  Vocally she is completely in control but that costume and the need to be positioned on the trap seem to literally hobble her dramatic performance.

She was only one of a list of opera singers that included Beverly Sills, Robert Merrill, Franco Corelli, Renata Tebaldi, Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, Anna Moffo, Lily Pons, Jan Peerce, Marilyn Horne, Dorothy Kirsten, George London Eileen Farrell and Eleanor Steber – all who appeared “right here on our stage”!

While looking up some information I came upon these opening and closing paragraphs from an entry on The Ed Sullivan Show:

The Ed Sullivan Show was the definitive and longest running variety series in television history (1948-71). Hosted by the eponymous awkward and fumbling former newspaperman, the show became a Sunday night institution on CBS. For twenty-three years the Sullivan show fulfilled the democratic mandate of the variety genre: to entertain all of the audience at least some of the time.


The Ed Sullivan Show reflected an era of network television when a mass audience and, even, a national consensus seemed possible. Sullivan became talent scout and cultural commissar for the entire country, introducing more than 10,000 performers throughout his career. His show implicitly recognized that America should have an electronic exposure to all forms of entertainment, from juggling to opera.

Ron Simon
Museum of Broadcast Communications
Encyclopedia of Television

An interesting observation.

February 5 –  62 CE: Earthquake in Pompeii, Italy.

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