Sunday, April 07, 2013

Sunday Classics: From Risë Stevens in "The King and I" to Patricia Neway in "The Consul"


In 1960, the year after she created the role of the Mother Abbess in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music, soprano Patricia Neway re-created the role of Magda Sorel in The Consul, Gian Carlo Menotti's first full-length opera, which she had created in 1950, including a 289-performance Broadway run.

by Ken

As I mentioned in remembering mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens, after her retirement from the Met, she was tapped by Richard Rodgers for the production of The King and I he oversaw at the Music Theater of Lincoln Center in 1964. We heard a couple of excerpts from RCA's cast recording of the production in Friday night's preview. Today I thought we'd hear the musical numbers of our heroine, the widowed Anna Leonowens, who arrives in Siam with her son Louis to take up the post of governess to the King's chorus of children by his roster of wives.

Naturally, following normal Sunday Classics practice, we start with the Overture.


"I whistle a happy tune": Risë Stevens as Anna Leonowens and James Harvey as her son Louis from the 1964 Music Theater of Lincoln Center production of The King and I


Act I, Louis, "Mother, does anything ever frighten you?" . . . Anna, "I whistle a happy tune"

James Harvey (Louis Leonowens), Risë Stevens (Anna Leonowens)

Act I, Anna, "When I think of Tom" . . . "Hello, young lovers"

Risë Stevens (Anna Leonowens)

Act I, Anna, "It's a very ancient saying" . . . "Getting to know you"

Risë Stevens (Anna Leonowens), children

Act I, Anna, "Your servant, your servant" . . . "Shall I tell you what I think of you?"

Risë Stevens (Anna Leonowens)

Act II, Anna, "We've just been introduced" . . . "Shall we dance?"

Risë Stevens (Anna Leonowens), Darren McGavin (King of Siam)

Music Theater of Lincoln Center production, Franz Allers, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded July 12, 1964


That was back in January 2011, and I focused on the recitative:

Act I, Anna, "When I think of Tom" . . . "Hello, young lovers"

When I think of Tom, I think about a night
when the earth smelled of summer
and the sky was streaked with white,
and the soft mist of England was sleeping on a hill.
I remember this, and I always will.

There are new lovers now on the same silent hill,
looking on the same blue sea.
And I know Tom and I are a part of them all --
and they're all a part of Tom and me. . . .

Valerie Masterson (s), Anna; National Symphony Orchestra, John Owen Edwards, cond. Jay, recorded July 1994


When I wrote about the vicar Dr. Daly's first song in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Sorcerer, I suggested that while the ballad itself, "Time was when love and I were well-acquainted," is quite lovely, it's the introductory recitative, "The air is filled with amatory numbers," that really gets to me, that rises to the level of musical magic. I would say the same thing about Anna's remembrance of her dead husband in The King and I. While the song proper, "Hello, young lovers," is just fine, and became justly famous, the emotional dynamite is in the introduction, or verse, or recitative -- however composer Richard Rodgers thought of it.

Melodically and harmonically, what Rodgers does here looks ridiculously simple, even obvious. The only thing is that nobody else did it, or I think could have done it -- with a tip of the hat to the simple but simply magical orchestration of Robert Russell Bennett. Rodgers's lyric-writing partner Oscar Hammerstein II could write corny, and I think there are traces of that in the song, but not here. The words are not only simple and beautiful but emotionally explosive.

It's all so stunningly written that the performers don't have to do much more than, well, just do it, unless you count the small (I'm being ironic) matter of meaning it, as it seems to me Valerie Masterson does so hauntingly in this recording.
You'll note that Masterson and conductor John Owen Edwards take the recitative in particular a good deal slower -- all to the good, I think. I would love to have heard Risë Stevens sing it at this tempo.


Patricia Neway as the Mother Abbess and Mary
Martin as Maria in The Sound of Music

I thought we would tack on, from the Music Theater of Lincoln Center King and I, the anthem-like song so beloved of deep-voiced female singers: the defense of the King by his "senior" wife, Lady Thiang.

Act II, Lady Thiang, "This is a man who thinks with his heart" . . . "Something wonderful"

Patricia Neway (Lady Thiang); Music Theater of Lincoln Center production, Franz Allers, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded July 12, 1964

It's hard to believe that Richard Rodgers didn't have a hand in the casting of Patricia Neway as Lincoln Center's Lady Thiang. In 1959 Neway had won the Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical when she originated the role of the Mother Abbess in the last of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, The Sound of Music. (Hammerstein died within a year of the opening.)

Act I, Mother Abbess, "Climb ev'ry mountain"

Patricia Neway (Mother Abbess); Original Broadway Cast Recording, Frederick Dvonch, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded September 1959

Neway sang most of her career as a soprano, perhaps most famously originating the role of the tormented Magda in Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul in 1950. For the 2004 video and audio release of a 1960 TV production in which she again sang Magda, she wrote:
The experience of preparing and presenting The Consul was unique. The opera was produced on Broadway with the usual schedule of eight performances a week and was called a musical drama instead of opera in order not to discourage a broad audience.

After Gian Carlo chose his singers there were backers' auditions in which several cast members did scenes without sets or costumes. Guests were invited as prospective backers to the homes of prominent people who hosted the evenings. It was exciting and challenging for all of us. I have one vivid memory -- Gian Carlo handing me a penciled musical manuscript and telling me that I was to sing it at the next backers' audition two days later. It happened at the home of Virgil Thomson, the composer and formidable critic on the Herald Tribune, at his apartment in New York's historic Chelsea Hotel. The first line of the manuscript read "To this we've come," Magda's aria at the end of the second act! I didn't have time to absorb all that I was dealing with, but when I finished singing it I was trembling from head to toe. It was my first realization of what a powerfully moving role I had been trusted with and what a remarkable work The Consul was.

When we started regular rehearsals with the whole cast, we had the privilege of working with Gian Carlo as composer and director. It was inspiring to have his genius guiding us. As we got close to opening, my colleagues and I would discuss what we thought was ahead of us. Many thought that we would have an artistic success but only a moderately successful run considering the seriousness of The Consul's subject matter and its tragic outcome.

On opening night there were no questions anymore. The opera was a phenomenal success -- the ovation after Magda's second act aria seemed to go on forever -- the reviews were ecstatic -- there were awards and accolades -- but most of all there were those people from the audience who came backstage with tear-stained faces to thank me for telling their story. The more we performed The Consul, the more I realized it was, above all, a work of enormous compassion and depth.

It is impossible for me to express what a rich experience The Consul has been for me through the years, or to thank Gian Carlo enough for the privilege of creating his first Magda.

To this day I meet people who saw it and tell me how much The Consul moved them. That generation is passing and I am deeply grateful to VAI for releasing this video so that future generations can experience this enduring work.


After its Philadelphia premiere, The Consul had a 289-performance run on Broadway -- pretty impressive for an opera, and at that an opera that doesn't in any way make nice to its audience. Fortunately American Decca made a complete recording, but what we're going to hear is the 1960 TV version, which you'll notice falls smack in between the Sound of Music and King and I recordings we just heard.

Here is the scene at the end of Act II which includes Magda's big aria.

MENOTTI: The Consul: Act II, Magda, "Any news for me?" . . . "To this we've come" . . . The Secretary, "You're being very unreasonable, Mrs. Sorel"
In an unspecified time and place (but remember, the opera was completed in 1950, at the dawn of the Cold War), in a climate of political terror, the dissident John Sorel, being harassed by the secret police, has gone into hiding, planning to escape from the country as soon as his wife Magda secures visas for herself, their young son, and John's mother enabling them to leave the country. The second scenes of Acts I and II take place in the unspecified consulate where Magda, amid a crush of desperate visa seekers, importunes The Secreteary for help. By Act II her chld is ill, and she has received word from John urging her to procure the visas quickly. So she returns to the consulate.

Patricia Neway (s), Magda Sorel; Regina Sarfaty (ms), The Secretary; Ruth Kobart (ms), Vera Boronel; Arnold Voketaitis (bs), Mr. Kofner; Maria di Gerlando (s), Anna Gomez; orchestra, Werner Torkanowsky, cond. VAI, soundtrack of the 1960 TV production


In Act I of The Sound of Music, Baron von Trapp asks Maria to teach him the Ländler, for which we hear some familiar music in Ländler form. There's no good reason for us to be listening to it now except that I happen to have downloaded it by mistake, and I hate to see the 99 cents go to waste.

As it happens, though, we have had our share of Ländler activity -- see the December 2012 preview post "Do I hear a Ländler?"

Act I, Ländler

Original Broadway Cast Recording, Frederick Dvonch, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded September 1959

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