Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sunday Classics: Remembering Risë Stevens


Risë Stevens sings the "Habañera" from Act I of Bizet's Carmen -- I gather from a 1951 TV performance.

by Ken

As I mentioned in Friday night's preview, since Risë Stevens was an important exponenet of a number of roles that have commanded attention here at Sunday Classics that we've already heard a fair amount of her. For the most part, then, today's musical remembrance will involve literal remembrances, with the addition of a couple of items we haven't heard before.

The plan couldn't be much simpler: We're just going to revisit each of these classic roles from Stevens's repertory, starting with what I suppose must be considered her real signature role, Carmen.


As faithful readers know, I've been struggling with the Final Scene of Carmen. Things happen here, musically and dramatically, that I desperately want to spotlight, but I still haven't figured out how. I've had lots of audio files ready for the final onslaught, including this performance by Risë Stevens and Mario del Monaco.

Carmen: Act IV, Final Scene, Carmen, Don José, and (inside the arena) Chorus
The bullfight participants and the crowd have filed into the arena, revealing DON JOSÉ, leaving him and CARMEN alone downstage.

CARMEN: It's you.
DON JOSÉ: It's me.
CARMEN: They warned me
that you weren't far, that you would likely come.
They'd even told me to fear for my life.
But I am brave and didn't wish to flee.
DON JOSÉ: I'm not threatening you; I'm imploring, I'm begging.
Our past, Carmen, I'll forget it!
Yes, we are going -- both of us --
to start another life,
far from here, under other skies.
CARMEN: You ask the impossible.
Carmen has never lied;
her soul remains inflexible.
Between her and you, everything is finished.
Never have I lied;
between us, everything is finished.
DON JOSÉ: Carmen, there's still time!
Yes, there's still time!
O my Carmen, let me
save you, you whom I adore!
Ah, let me save you,
and save myself with you!
CARMEN: No, I know well that the hour has come.
I know well that you will kill me.
But whether I live or I die,,
no, no, I won't give in to you.
DON JOSÉ: Carmen, there's still time &c.
CARMEN [overlapping]: Why concern yourself still
with a heart that's no longer yours?
No, this heart is no longer yours!
In vain you say, "I adore you";
you will obtain nothing, no, nothing from me!
DON JOSÉ: Then you no longer love me?
[CARMEN is silent.]
Then you no longer love me?
CARMEN: No, I no longer love you.
DON JOSÉ: But I, Carmen, I still love you.
Carmen, alas, I adore you!
CARMEN: What good is all that? Just superfluous words!
DON JOSÉ: Carmen, I love you, I adore you!
Well then, if it's necessary, to please you
I'll remain a bandit, everything you may wish,
everything, you hear me?, everything.
But don't leave me,
o my Carmen!
Ah, remember, remember the past!
We loved each other formerly!
Ah, don't leave me, Carmen!
Ah, don't leave me, Carmen!
CARMEN: Never will Carmen yield!
Free she was born, and free she will die!
CHORUS AND FANFARES [inside the arena]:
Hurrah! hurrah! a grand fight!
Hurrah! on the bloody sand
the bull, the bull charges!
Look! look! look!
The tormented bull
comes bounding to the attack, look!
Struck true, right in the heart,
look! look! look!
[During the chorus, CARMEN and JOSÉ remain silient. Both listen. Hearing shouts of "Victory!," CARMEN. JOSE's eyes are fixed on her. The chorus over, she takes a step toward the main entrance of the ring.]
DON JOSÉ [blocking her way]: Where are you going?
CARMEN: Let me alone!
DON JOSÉ: This man they're acclaiming,
he's your new lover!
CARMEN: Let me alone! Let me alone!
DON JOSÉ: You're going to search him out. Say it -- you love him then?
CARMEN: I love him!
I love him, and in the face of death itself
I will repeat that I love him!
[Shouts and fanfares again from the arena.]
CHORUS: Hurrah, a grand fight! &c.
DON JOSÉ: So, the salvation of my soul
I will have lost so that you can go off, infamous creature,
into his arms, laughing at me!
No, by my blood, you won't go!
Carmen, it's me that you'll follow!
CARMEN: No! no! never!
DON JOSÉ: I'm tired of threatening you!
CARMEN: Well then, strike me then, or let me pass!
CHORUS: Victory!
DON JOSÉ: For the last time, demon,
will you follow me?
CARMEN: No! no! This ring that once
you gave me,
here! [She throws it away.}
DON JOSÉ [advancing on CARMEN, knife in hand]:
Well then, damned woman!
[CARMEN draws back, JOSÉ following, as fanfares sound again in the ring.]
CHORUS: Toreador, on guard!
And remember, yes remember, as you fight,
that a black eye is looking at you,
and that love awaits you!
[JOSÉ has stabbed CARMEN'; she falls dead. The curtains are thrown open. The crowd comes out of the arena.]
JOSÉ: You can arrest me.
It's I who killed her.
[ESCAMILLO appears on the arena steps. JOSÉ throws himself on CARMEN's body.]
Ah! Carmen! My adored Carmen!

Risë Stevens (ms), Carmen; Mario del Monaco (t), Don Jose; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Dimitri Mitropoulos, cond. Live performance, Jan. 12, 1957


We took a quick look at Gluck's Orfeo (or Orphée -- we heard it in both Italian and French) in the January 2010 post "Gluck confronts the basic life principle that when you're dead, you're dead." At that time Stevens was one of the Orfeos we wailing the dead Euridice's name inconsolably as the crowd of well-wishers tries in vain to console him. In Act III, after Orfeo -- against all the godly rules -- has been allowed to retrieve the departed Euridice from the Underworld, only to loser her again, he sings his famous aria "Che farò senza Euridice," and in 2010 we had enough other Orfeos to hear that we didn't hear Stevens. Now we do!

Orfeo ed Euridice: Act I opening chorus
The translation is of the French version. (The Italian is similar.)

ORPHEUS periodically punctuates the chorus with cries of "Eurydice!"

NYMPHS AND SHEPHERDS: Ah, in this tranquil and somber wood,
Eurydice, if your spirit hears us,
be moved by our alarms,
See our sufferings, see our tears
That are shed for you.
Ah, take pity on the unhappy Orphée!
He sighs, he moans, he laments his fate.
The loving turtledove,
always tender, always faithful,
thus sighs and dies of sorrow.

Risë Stevens (ms), Orfeo; Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Pierre Monteux, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded June 1957

Orfeo ed Euridice: Act III, Orfeo, "Che farò senza Euridice?"
The translation is of the French text. (The Italian is similar.)

ORPHEUS: I have lost my Eurydice.
Nothing equals my unhappiness.
Cruel fate! What severity!
Nothing equals my unhappiness.
I succumb to my sorrow.

Eurydice! Eurydice!
Answer! What torture!
Answer me. It's your faithful spouse.
Hear my voice that's calling you.

I have lost my Eurydice. etc.

Eurydice! Eurydice!

Fatal silence!
Vain hope!
What suffering!
What torments tear at my heart!

I have lost my Eurydice. etc.

Risë Stevens (ms), Orfeo; Rome Opera Orchestra, Pierre Monteux, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded June 1957


In Friday night's preview we heard Dalila's violently impassioned Act II-opening aria, "Amour! viens aider ma faiblesse," in which she importunes Love to enable her to overcome her weakness to wreak vengeance on Samson. Now we move back to the very different attitude we witnessed in Act I, as Dalila made all kissy-face to Samson after he has led his formerly ragtag band of Hebrew slaves in a heroic uprising against their Philistine tormentors. We first heard these excerpts in the June 2012 poat "Meet Saint-Saëns's Dalila."

Samson et Dalila: Act I, Trio, Dalila-Samson-An Old Hebrew, "Je viens célébrer la victoire"; Dance of the Priestesses of Dagon
DALILA [to SAMSON]: I come to celebrate the victory
of the one who reigns in my heart.
Dalila wishes for her conqueror
even more love than glory!
O my beloved, follow my steps
toward Sorek, the sweet valley,
to that isolated dwelling
where Dalila opens her arms to you!
SAMSON [aside]: O God! you who see my weakness,
take pity on your servant!
Close my eyes, close my heart
to the sweet voice that presses me.
DALILA: For you I have crowned my brow
with dark clusters of myrtle,
and put roses of Sharon
in my ebony hair.
OLD HEBREW: Turn away, my son, from her path!
Avoid and fear this foreign girl!

[And so on . . .]

Risë Stevens (ms), Dalila; Mario del Monaco (t), Samson; Giorgio Tozzi (bs), An Old Hebrew; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Fausto Cleva, cond. Live performance, Apr. 12, 1958

Samson et Dalila: Act I, Solo, Dalila, "Printemps qui commence" (with interjections from the Old Hebrew)
DALILA: Spring that begins,
bringing hope
to amorous hearts,
your breath that passes
erases from the earth
unhappy days.
Everything burns in our souls,
and the sweet flame
comes to dry our tears;
you restore to the earth,
by a sweet mystery,
fruit and flowers.
In vain am I beautiful!
My heart full of love,
weeping for the unfaithful one,
awaits his return!
Living in hope,
my desolate heart
holds onto memory
of past happiness.
[Addressing SAMSON]
At falling night
I will go, a sad lover,
and sit in the stream,
awaiting him, weeping!
OLD HEBREW: The spirit of evil has led this woman
onto your path to disturb your peace of mind.
Flee the burning flame of her glances!
It's a poison that consumes the bones!
DALILA: Chasing away my sadness,
if he comes one day,
for him my tenderness.
[DALILA while singing regains the steps of the temple and glances provocatively at SAMSON; the latter seems under her spell. He hesitates; he struggles and betrays the unquiet in his soul.]
For him my tenderness.
And the sweet delight
that a burning love
holds onto for his return!

Risë Stevens (ms), Dalila; Giorgio Tozzi (bs), an Old Hebrew; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Fausto Cleva, cond. Live performance, Apr. 12, 1958


We heard the interrupted Breakfast Scene excerpts in the December 2012 preview and the rest of the excerpts (and some others without Octavian) in the main post celebrating our three "K" conductors -- Rafael Kubelik, Josef Krips, and -- our Rosenkavalier conductor -- Rudolf Kempe. (The interruption in the interrupted Breakfast Scene came about because I had originally picked an earlier end point for the audio clip, then realized it was unfair not to continue the extra minute and a half to resolve the crisis, and so I added the second clip as an "update.")

Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59: Act I, Breakfast Scene, Octavian-Marschallin, "Marie-Theres'!" "Octavian!" . . . "
The MARSCHALLIN's breakfast has been brought into her bedroom. Now OCTAVIAN seats himself close beside her. They breakfast very tenderly. OCTAVIAN buries his face in her lap. She strokes his hair. He looks up at her.

OCTAVIAN: Marie-Thérès'!
OCTAVIAN: Bichette!
OCTAVIAN: My darling!
[They continue breakfast.]
OCTAVIAN: The Fieldmarshal sits in the Croatian forest
and hunts bear and lynx.
And I, i sit here,
young as I am, and hunt what?
I am in luck! I am in luck!
MARSCHALLIN [as a shadow crosses her face]: Leave the Fieldmarshal in peace!
I dreamt of him.
OCTAVIAN: Last night you dreamt of him?
Last night?
MARSCHALLIN: I don't order my dreams.
OCTAVIAN: Last night you dreamt of your husband?
Last night?
MARSCHALLIN: Keep your eyes in your head!
I can do nithing about it.
For once he was home again.
OCTAVIAN: The Fieldmarshal?
MARSCHALLIN: There was a noise of horses and men
in the courtyard, and he was there!
The shock woke me suddenly.
No, look, look how childish I am.
I can still hear the noise in the courtyard.
I can't get it out of my ears.
D'you hear something too?
OCTAVIAN: Of course I hear something!
But does it have to be your husband?
Think where he is --
in Raitzenland, even farther than Esseg.
MARSCHALLIN: Is that really very far?
Well then, it'll be somethng else.
Then all is well.
OCTAVIAN: You look so anxious, Thérès'!
MARSCHALLIN: D'you know, Quinquin --
even if it is far --
the Feldmarshal is very swift, you know.
One time --
[She hesitates.]
OCTAVIAN [jealous: What happened one time?
[The MARSCHALLIN listens absentmindedly.]
What happened one time? Bichette! Bichette!
What happened one time?
MARSCHALLIN: Ah, be good!
You don't need to know everything!
OCTAVIAN [throwing himself on the sofa in despair:
That's how you play with me!
I am an unhappy creature!
MARSCHALLIN: Stop being difficult.
Now it's serious. It is the Fieldmarshal.
If it were a stranger
the noise would be outside my antechamber.
It must be my husband
who wants to come in through the dressing room
and is arguing with the servants.
Quinquin, it's my husband!

[OCTAVIAN takes his sword and runs to the right.]
MARSCHALLIN: Not there, there is the antechamber!
There my warrant-holders are sitting,
and half a dozen servants.
[OCTAVIAN runs over to the small door.]
Too late!
They're already in the dressing room!
Only one thing to be done!
Hide yourself . . . [a short pause of indecision] . . . there!
OCTAVIAN: I'll jump in his path.
I'm staying with you!
MARSCHALLIN: There, behind the bed!
There in the curtains!
And don't move!
OCTAVIAN [hesitating]: If he catches me there,
what will happen to you, Thérès'?
MARSCHALLIN: Hide yourself, my dear!
OCTAVIAN [by the screen]: Thérès'!
MARSCHALLIN [stamping her foot impatiently]:
Be quite quiet!
[with blazing eyes]
I would like to see anyone dare
to make a move in that direction
whlie I stand here!
I am no Neapolitan general!
Where I stand, I stand!
[going energetically toward the small door and listening]
They're stalwart fellows, my footmen.
Don't want to let him in.
They say I'm asleep.
Very good fellows!
[The BARON's voice is heard outside.]
That voice!
But that isn't the Fieldmarshal's voice!
They're addressing him as "Herr Baron"!
It's a stranger!
Quinquin, it's a visit! [She laughs.]
Risë Stevens (ms), Octavian; Lisa della Casa (s), Marschallin; Rudolf Kempe, cond. Live performance, Jan. 18, 1956

I didn't have the heart to further expand the original post by providing texts for the following excerpts, which by any reckoning encompass some of the most beautiful music ever written (no, not just by Strauss). I've simply reproduced here the comments I offered in December.

Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59: Act II, Opening and "Presentation of the Rose"
The errand for which the Marschallin's odious cousin Baron Ochs came calling in Act I was to seeki her help in choosing a "rose knight" to present the traditional silver rose to formalize his engagement to young Sophie von Faninal.

The"Presentation of the Rose" is a ritual wholly invented by librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and then given luminous beauty by Strauss, despite the horror it marks here, in the betrothal of the cherishable young Sophie to the odious Ochs. At the opening we hear the frenetic excitement in the Faninal household -- first from Herr von Faninal himself, then from Sophie, who is out of her mind with excitement (the phrase that finally came to me to describe it is that she's jumping out of her skin), as voiced to her duenna, Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin. Then we hear the arrival of Octavian, more formally Count Rofrano, and the actual presentation. Hilde Gueden is probably still the most cherishable Sophie I've heard.

Ralph Herbert (b), von Faninal; Hilde Gueden (s), Sophie; Thelma Votipka (s), Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin; Risë Stevens (ms), Octavian; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Rudolf Kempe, cond. Live performance, Jan. 18, 1956

Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59: Act III, Trio, Marschallin-Octavian-Sophie, "Hab's mir gelobt"
Finally, I don't see how we can skip the climax of the opera, the Act III trio in which the Marschallin gives Octavian, whom she has always known would leave her for a younger woman, to Sophie. This is a pretty impressive vocal trio we hear -- della Casa as the Marschallin, Risë Stevens as Octavian, and Gueden as Sophie.

Lisa della Casa (s), Marschallin; Risë Stevens (ms), Octavian; Hilde Gueden (s), Sophie; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Rudolf Kempe, cond. Live performance, Jan. 18, 1956

IN OKLAHOMA! (with a promissory note for
Stevenss'performance as Anna in The King and I)

Rodgers and Hammerstein's ground-breaking musical Oklahoma! opened on Broadway in March 1943. Here, presumably from the same 1944 broadcast as the Stevens-Melton performance of Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin's "Long Ago (and Far Away)" that we heard Friday night, is a lovely performance of the sarcastic Laurey-Curly duet "People Will Say We're in Love."

This is a promissory note of sorts. I thought going into this post that I would be dubbing Stevens's contributions from my LP of the 1964 Music Theater of Lincoln Center cast album of The King and I, in which she sang Anna opposite Darren McGavin's King of Siam). (Bear in mind that the president and producing director of MTLC was none other than Richard Rodgers!) But I think we've all had enough for today., so let's leave that for another time. Meanwhile, I'm reeling from my discovery that my copy is mono! Oh well, I only paid $1 for it.

RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN: Oklahoma!: "People Will Say We're in Love"

Risë Stevens (ms) and James Melton (t), vocals. Broadcast performance, 1944

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