Mercoledi Musicale

I grew up listening to opera – mostly on the radio and mostly from the Metropolitan Opera – in the 1950s and 60s and it was a “Golden Age”. Now I know every opera quee.. lover maintains that the previous generation of singers were “Golden Age” gods and goddesses but when I look at the list of performers I heard every Saturday I can’t help but believe that it was a true “Golden Age”: Callas, Tebaldi, Björling, Milanov, Tucker, Stevens, Berganza, Sutherland, Horne, Corelli, Price and this lady: Eileen Farrell.

The daughter of vaudevillians Eileen Farrell began her career in 1941 at the age of 21 when CBS offered her a half-hour radio programme. It was a mixture of classical and pop and guest artists were opera and popular singers including Frank Sinatra. She appeared frequently on radio programmes again performing everything from opera to pop. She also dubbed the voice of Eleanor Parker in Interrupted Melody the story of the Australian soprano Marjorie Lawrence. She appeared briefly in the film as a student struggling to hit a top note – a real feat of acting! She never missed a top note in her life.

These three selections are from her radio days and are remarkable for the absolute clarity of her diction. In an interview with Charlie Rose in 1993 she emphasized the importance of diction in any sort of music – whither it be aria or song you were telling your audience a story.

She made her stage debut in Opera in Tampa and went on to sing in Chicago, San Francisco and finally at the Met. Though her discography is extensive she recorded very few complete operas though thankfully there are off-the-radio transfers and pirated recordings of many of her performances. Always comfortable as a cross-over performer, many of her later recordings were popular, jazz and blues albums. She claimed that the great Mabel Mercer was a major influence on her approach to popular music. She told Charlie Rose that the pinacle of her professional life was a joint concert she gave with Mercer in 1982. Here she shows what she learned from Mercer in a classy and classic performance of a Gershwin standard

But when I was twelve or thirteen the voice that thrilled me sang opera though never Tosca. Listening to this you can believe she lived for her art. Or maybe it was just what she said to Charlie Rose: I love to sing!

On this day in 1913: King O’Malley drives in the first survey peg to mark commencement of work on the construction of Canberra.

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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