Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: The sound of aging, Verdi-style (1)


An aging Renato Bruson sings "Di Provenza" (to a here unseen Alfredo) at Ravenna in 1991.
[Some noise is heard outside.]
ALFREDO: There's someone the garden. [About to go out] Who's there?
[A MESSENGER appears at the door.]
MESSENGER: You're Monsieur Germont?
ALFREDO: I am, yes.
MESSENGER: Here's a note from a lady for you. I said I'd bring it. Her coach drove off for Paris.
[He gives ALFREDO a letter and leaves.]
ALFREDO: From Violetta! But why am I so nervous?
Does she want me to join her in Paris?
I'm trembling! O God! Have courage!
[He tears the letter open and reads aloud.]
"Alfredo, as soon as you have read this letter --"
[Turning, he finds himself face to face with his father. ALFREDO falls into his arms.]
Father, father!
GERMONT: Alfredo! I know you're suffering!
Come, no more sorrow!
Return and cheer your father, beloved Alfredo!
[ALFREDO, in despair, sits down and buries his face in his hands.]
GERMONT: In Provence, your native land,
we still long for your return.
We still long for your return.
in Provence, your native land.
Oh, how happy you once were --
not a trace of grief or pain!
Not a trace of grief or pain --
oh, how happy you once were!
For you know that only there
peace will shine on you again.
For you know that only there
peace will shine on you again.
God hear my prayer! God hear my prayer! God hear my prayer!

How we missed you, dearest boy,
you will never, never know!
You will never, never know
how we missed you, dearest boy!
How we hung our heads in shame
when you left without a word.
When you left without a word,
how we hung our heads in shame!
But I've found you once again,
and I will not let you go
If your honor still can claim
to instruct you what do do!
Now I've seen you once again,
I will never let you go!
God led me here! God led me here!
God led me here! God led me here!
-- singing translation by Edmund Tracey
(used in the ENO recording)

[in English] John Brecknock (t), Alfredo Germont; John Kitchiner (b), Messenger; Christian du Plessis (b), Giorgio Germont; English National Opera Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras, cond. EMI-Chandos, recorded Aug.-Oct. 1980

[from "My son"] Riccardo Stracciari (b); piano. Fonotipia, recorded 1906

by Ken

In the booklet for RCA's 1960 recording of Verdi's La Traviata with Anna Moffo, Richard Tucker, and Robert Merrill, then Met Assistant Manager and prized raconteur Francis Robinson tells this story about a celebrated Merrill Germont from 11 years earlier:
The elder Germont is the first role Robert Merrill undertook at the Metropolitan. His performance is recorded as having been "polished and powerful" but he was soon to face an ordeal more grueling than a Metropolitan debut. He was chosen by Arturo Toscanini for the historic broadcasts of La Traviata, a performance happily still available on RCA Victor records.

At one of the early rehearsals the Maestro fixed Merrill with a scathing eys.

"Have you ever been a father?" he demanded.

"No, Maestro," Merrill stammered.

"It sounds it," the old man said.

When Merrill did become a father the first telegram went to Toscanini, but before the Maestro had finished with him he was singing Germont with the compassion of a distressed parent.


But first I should back up and explain how we arrived at this week's musical snapshot.

Actually, I don't specifically recall the event that triggered it, but since it had to do with aging, it could have been most anything that got me to thinking again about a pair of gripping Verdian depictions of the physical toll of the aging process, and as best I can tell (I really wish I had the energy and endurance to update the ancient Sunday Classics index; it would help to know if it would be of any value to anyone besides me), while I've thought about them frequently over the life of Sunday Classics erea, we've never gone into them.

Which makes them worthy candidates for presentation in aural snapshot form, and this week we'll start with an aging father -- Giorgio Germont, who enters La Traviata in Act II with an urgent mission. He has made the arduous and presumably unenjoyed journey top from the southern pristine wonderland of Provence to the wicked fleshpot of Paris to rescue his son, Alfredo, from the greedy clutches of the courtesane he has entwined himself with. Partly this is for Alfredo's sake, but more urgently the marriage prospects of Alfredo's sister (whose name we never do learn) are imperiled by this stain on the family honor.

In this February 2011 post we devoted a fair amount of attention to the scene -- one of the stupendous scenes in the theatrical literature -- in which Germont confronts the courtesane in question, Violetta Valéry, in the country house in which she and Alfredo are living an idyllic existence, and has his world turned upside down, discovering that all his assumptions about her were wrong, with the sole exception that he must get Alfredo separated from her for his daughter's sake.

In that same post we tacked on Violetta's soaring improvised farewell, "Amami, Alfredo" ("Love me, Alfredo"), to a bewildered Alfredo, who has returned sooner than expected and actually interrupted her writing the letter we're about to see him receiving. From here Alfredo, who has been warned by letter of an impending visit from his father, for which Violetta claims to absent herself, becomes progressively bewildereder unil a "commissario," a messenger who may simply have been a passerby entrusted with the message by a lady in a coach appears at the garden door asking for "il Signor Germont."

Violetta had warned Germont, when she agreed to break things off with Alfredo, that he was going to get his son back in unimaginable dreadful condition, and so it happens. Germont père has taken the precaution of standing by at the ready -- ready to swoop, that is.

The consolation he has to offer Alfredo comes, of course, in one of the more famous arias in the Italian baritone repertory, and one that's sometimes picked on as irrelevant to the opera. Which seems to me utterly uncomprehending, and unlistening. So today I'm going to encourage you to really listen to it.

In each stanza Germont begins in the upper midrange and proceeds in phrases (which, by the way, have noticeably more dynamic, articulation, and expressive markings than Verdi usually provides; there's hardly a note that's unmarked) that not only are marked by exact verbal repetitions but keep dropping pitch-wise, until Germont makes the effort to rally, in his sense of urgency, and rises into the upper part of the voice. Exactly how to execute all of this, including the little grace note that leads into the first note of many of the phrases, is left to the singer, but there seems to me no doubt that Verdi is portraying a man of advancing age fighting fatigue, and in fact showing off that age and fatigue in an effort to sway his son, even as he rallies his physical resources to underscore the urgency of his pleading.


Before reencountering this charming memory, I had already planned to include a Merrill performance -- not quite as early as the one with Toscanini, but, for the sheer liquid beauty of the voice in those early years, one from 1949, which also gives us a snatch of the young Giuseppe di Stefano's Alfredo. Even after the 1960 RCA Traviata Merrill (1917-2004) in fact recorded Germont again, two years later, for Decca, with Joan Sutherland and Carlo Bergonzi -- but not again after that, though it was a role he continued singing as long as he continued singing, which at the Met was until 1976. Though I've probably got a later broadcast performance on tape, in honor of the Francis Robinson anecdote I thought we'd hear the "Papa Merrill" 1960 RCA version -- still pretty darned beautiful, I think you'll agree.

VERDI: La Traviata: Act II, Scene 1, Diaglogue and aria, Alfredo, "Qualcuno è nel giardino" . . . Germont, "Di Provenza il mar, il suol" ("Provence's sea and soil")
A salon in Violetta Valéry's country house, with a door leading to the garden. In a grueling scene with Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont, Violetta has promised to end her relationship with his son. Alfredo returned early, interrupting a highly emotional Violetta in the writing of a letter, which she refused to let him see. Supposedly in anticipation of an expected visit from Alfredo's father, Violetta rushed out of the house. The gardener Giuseppe then came in with the strange news that his mistress had gotten in a waiting coach that sped off for Paris, and left puzzled that Alfredo seemed to think this perfectly fine. Alfredo imagined that she had gone to sell off her possessions but was confident that her loyal maid Annina would prevent that.

[Some noise is heard outside.]
ALFREDO: Someone's in the garden. [About to go out] Who's there?
[A MESSENGER appears at the door.]
MESSENGER: Monsieur Germont?
ALFREDO: That's me.
MESSENGER: A lady, from a coach, for you,
not far from here, gave me this note.
[He gives ALFREDO a letter and leaves.]
ALFREDO: From Violetta! Why am I worked up?
Perhaps she's inviting me to rejoin her?
I'm trembling! O heavens! Courage!
[He tears the letter open and reads aloud.]
"Alfredo, by the time you receive this note --"
[Turning, he finds himself face to face with his father. ALFREDO falls into his arms.]
My father!
GERMONT: My son! Oh, how you're suffering!
Dry, ah dry those tears!
Return to being your father's pride and joy!
[ALFREDO, in despair, sits down and buries his face in his hands.]
GERMONT: Provence's sea and soil,
who erased from your heart?
Who erased from your heart
Provence's sea and soil?
From the shining sun of your native land
what fate took you away?
What fate took you away
from the shining sun of your native land?
Oh, remember even in sorrow
that joy shone on you there,
and that peace, there alone,
can still bathe you,
and that peace, there alone,
can still bathe you.
God guides me! God guides me! God guides me!

Ah, your old parent,
you don't know how much he suffers!
You don't know how much he suffers,
your old parent!
With you away, with desolation
his roof is covered!
His roof is covered,
with desolation, desolation!
But if at last I find you again,
if hope wasn't in vain in me,
if the voice of honor
in you is no longer muted,
but if at last I find you again,
if hope wasn't in vain in me,
God granted it to me! God granted it to me!
God granted it to me! God granted it to me!

Robert Merrill (b), Giorgio Germont; with Giuseppe di Stefano (t), Alfredo Germont; (unidentified), Messenger; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Giuiseppe Antonicelli, cond. Live performance, Jan. 1, 1949

Robert Merrill (b), Giorgio Germont; with Richard Tucker (t), Alfredo Germont; Sergio Liviabella (b), Messenger; Rome Opera Orchestra, Fernando Previtali, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded June 1960


In a way they all sound sort of the same, because the piece does tend to make its effect no matter what you do to it. But if you listen more a little more attentively, I think you'll begin hearing a staggering variety of differences, from obvious ones like "faster" or "slower" to striking differences in dynamics and articulation and phrasing. This is just a musical snapshot, so I'm going to leave all of that to you.

VERDI: La Traviata: Act II, Scene 1, Diaglogue and aria, Alfredo, "Qualcuno è nel giardino" . . . Germont, "Di Provenza il mar, il suol" ("Provence's sea and soil")
For texts, see above.

Nicolae Herlea (b), Giorgio Germont; with Ion Buzea (t), Alfredo Germont; Constantin Dumitru (b), Messenger; Orchestra of the Romanian Opera, Bucharest, Jean Bobescu, cond. Electrecord-Vox, recorded 1968

Giorgio Zancanaro (b), Giorgio Germont; with Peter Dvorsky (t), Alfredo Germont; Augusto Frati (bs), Messenger; Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Carlos Kleiber, cond. Live performance, Dec. 9, 1984

Ettore Bastianini (b), Giorgio Germont; with Gianni Raimondi (t), Alfredo Germont; Giuseppe Morresi (bs), Messenger; Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Antonino Votto, cond. DG, recorded 1962

Mario Sereni (b), Giorgio Germont; with Alfredo Kraus (t), Alfredo Germont; Manuel Letão (b), Messenger; Orchestra of the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos (Lisbon), Franco Ghione, cond. Live performance, Mar. 27, 1958

Leonard Warren (b), Giorgio Germont; with Cesare Valletti (t), Alfredo Germont; Salvatore di Tomasso (b), Messenger; Rome Opera Orchestra, Pierre Monteux, cond. RCA, recorded 1956

Sherrill Milnes (b), Giorgio Germont; with Luciano Pavarotti (t), Alfredo Germont; John Trehy (b), Messenger; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Richard Bonynge, cond. Live performance, Sept. 18, 1970


It would be the obvious place to note that Germont in fact has still upcoming the second half of the common 19th-century Italian operatic form of the "double aria," a cabaletta that always used to be cut and still often is, for good reason -- it's not very good. For that matter, Alfredo too has a cabaletta to his aria, which opens Act II, and it's even worse. For some people it may be shocking to learn that there are these two dangling parts to a score of the quality and legendariness of La Traviata, but there you have it. Actually, I think the baritone cabaletta isn't so terrible, and I can imagine a really spectacular artist making it work, after a fashion, but there's no denying that it's musically much inferior to everything else in the score, except Alfredo's even worse cabaletta.

Luckilly, this is just a snapshot, so it's not going to include Germont's cabaletta. If anyone cares, we can always come back to it.

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