Saturday, June 19, 2010

Sunday Classics flashback and tribute: More of Berlioz' "Roméo" -- and of tenor Cesare Valletti


Soprano Roberta Peters and tenor Cesare Valletti were the Rosina and Almaviva of Cyril Ritchard's 1954 Met production of Rossini's Barber of Seville as well as the 1958 Met studio recording made by RCA.

by Ken

No, I haven't forgotten about Berlioz' Roméo et Juliette. Now that, as of last night's "flashback," we've gotten through the prologuelike Part I, we need to go back over all the orchestral music from Parts II and III which we heard in last Friday's preview, and then tackle the great finale of reconciliation.

For tonight, let's just recall the explanation Berlioz offers in the Preface to Roméo as to why he chose to entrust "the famous scenes of the garden and the cemetery, the dialogue of the two lovers, the asides of Juiet and the impassioned expressions of Romeo" to the orchestra alone, beyond the fact that "we're dealing with a symphony and not an opera," which of course is entirely his own distinction:
[D]uets of this nature having been treated vocally a thousand times and by the greatest masters, it was prudent as well as intriguing to attempt a different mode of expression. It's also because the very sublimeness of that love made portraying it so dangerous for the musician that he had to give his imagination a latitude that the positive sense of sung words wouldn't have allowed him, and recourse to instrumental language, a language richer, more varied, and less fixed, and, by its very vagueness, incomparably more powerful in such a case.

When I first quoted this last week, I should have pinned down on the spot what the composer was talking about, but I left it to the reader to refer back to the preview in which we'd already heard much of this sublime music. (What can I say? We had so much work to do on Part I and its connection to Berlioz' opera Béatrice et Bénédict, and we still didn't get through it!) To make partial amends, let's dip into that sublime music, first with an orchestral suite conducted by Pierre Boulez which I suddenly rediscovered while I was trying to get my Mahler CDs into some sort of order (it's a filler to his BBC Symphony performance of the Third Symphony).

BERLIOZ: Roméo et Juliette: Orchestral excerpts:
i. Part II, 2. Love Scene
[15:28] Part II, 3. Queen Mab Scherzo
[22:31] Part II, 1. Romeo alone -- Melancholy -- Distant noises of music and dancing -- Grand festivities at the Capulets'

New York Philharmonic, Pierre Boulez, cond. Recorded live in Lucerne, 1975

Two notes about this suite:

(1) The order, you'll note, doesn't follow that of either Shakespeare's drama or Berlioz' dramatic symphony. The "Romeo Alone" sequence begins Berlioz' Part II, and is followed by the "Love Scene" and "Queen Mab Scherzo."

(2) The standard orchestral version of the "Love Scene" begins as Berlioz wrote it, with the atmospheric orchestral introduction for full strings with selective wind participation (note the simple but haunting alternating-two-note horn solo at 0:52 in the Boulez performance). However, at about 1:11 we skip over some 80 bars of choral writing depicting the departure of the guests from the Capulets' great ball -- which in our suite hasn't even happened yet! -- taking us smack into the Adagio that marks the proper start of the "Love Scene," in which I hope you'll recognize some music we've heard before, in the preliminary telling of the story in Part I.


In listening again to the "Queen Mab Scherzo," we should remember that Berlioz offers two versions of Mercutio's evocation of the minuscule queen of the fairies. In addition to the breathless orchestral showpiece we just heard, there's the Scherzetto sung by the tenor (with the semi-chorus) in Part I, which we heard last night performed by (I thought) an interesting assortment of conductors and especially tenors.

I mentioned last night that I had a clear order of preference among our three tenors. It's a pleasure to hear both competent singing and idiomatic French from Jean Dupouy (Ozawa-DG), a distinct advantage over Michigan's Kenneth Tarver (Boulez-DG). Still, Cesare Valletti (Munch-RCA) sings if anything more beautiful French, and also brings some zestfully Mercutio-like flair to Shakespeare's and Berlioz' bravura flight of fantasy.

In honor of this fondly remembered light lyric tenor of the '50s and '60s, I've thrown together a little tribute, drawing just on what I happen to have on CD -- and not including a recording I literally just got, a 1953 Milan Radio performance of Tchaikovsky's Yevgeny Onegin, in Italian, with Rosanna Carteri as Tatiana, Valletti as Lenski, and Giuseppe Taddei in the title role. I haven't heard it yet, and could have sworn I brought it home for the weekend (I'm really curious), even having no idea I might be writing about Valletti. Alas, it doesn't seem to be here, and I assume Monday I'll find it sitting on the desk in my office. (However, we will be hearing Carteri and Valletti together in La Traviata, from their 1956 RCA recording with Leonard Warren as Alfredo's father and Pierre Monteux conducting.)

Let's start with a Valletti signature role, the dashing young Count Almaviva in Rossini's Barber of Seville. We've talked recently about the heart-rending deterioration of the relationship between these young lovers by the time they're the maturely married Count and Countess of The Marriage of Figaro (both Beaumarchais's play and Mozart's opera). This makes Rossini's depiction of their youthful courtship if anything more powerful. We hear the Count --

* first, serenading the beautiful young woman who's captured his heart at dawn beneath her window in the home of her guardian, Dr. Bartolo, accompanied by a band of street musicians he's hired, and then, getting no response from inside the house, trying to quiet the musicians he has paid perhaps too generously;

* then, fortuitously joined by his old friend, the barber and general factotum Figaro, he sings again, introducing himself as the poor student Lindoro, this time getting an excellent response, until his beloved is yanked away from the window; now Figaro, stimulated by the Count's offer of gold, "at the idea of that metal" shifts into high conspiratorial gear.

ROSSINI: Il Barbiere di Siviglia: Act I, "Ecco ridente
in cielo
" . . . "Mille grazie, mio Signore"

Cesare Valletti (t), Count Almaviva; George Cehanovsky (b), Fiorello; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Alberto Erede, cond. Recorded live, March 6, 1954

Il Barbiere di Siviglia: Act I, "Se il mio nome saper voi
" . . . "All'idea di quel metallo" (Scene 1 finale)

Cesare Valletti (t), Count Almaviva; Roberta Peters (s), Rosina; Robert Merrill (b), Figaro; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Alberto Erede, cond. Recorded live, March 6, 1954

[Note: This is not the 1958 Met-RCA commercial recording conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, with almost identical principals -- Giorgio Tozzi, who by then was indeed singing Basilio at the Met, sang in the recording rather than Cesare Siepi. With certain stylistic reservations, I happen to be quite fond of the RCA recording, but these excerpts are from something you're less likely to have heard: the broadcast from the 1953-54 season, in which Cyril Ritchard's Barbiere production was introduced.]

Next we hear Valletti in a role that's something of a stretch for so light a voice (designed by nature to operate, operatically speaking, in the Mozart-Rossini-Donizetti repertory): Alfredo in Verdi's La Traviata.

* In the opening scene, a party at the home of Violetta, young Alfredo Germont is introduced by the gregarious viscount Gastone (at 1:29 of the track 1). Later (at 2:57) Gastone informs their hostess of Alfredo's heretofore silent devotion to her. Then, invited to offer the crowd a drinking song, he first declines (at 4:36), then asks Violetta if it would please her (at 4:48), and (track 2) launches into a brindisi, or drinking song (this is not only the world's best-known brindisi but one of the world's most loved tunes), to which Violetta joins in with a stanza of her own.

* Alfredo, left alone with Violetta, tells her of his love for her (his "Un dì felice" seems to me quite special), and after an interruption from Gastone (track 2), gets her to agree to see him the next day ("Ebben, domani").

VERDI: La Traviata: Act I, Opening scene . . . "Libiamo"

Rosanna Carteri (s), Violetta Valéry; Glauco Scarlini (t), Gastone; Leonardo Monreale (bs), Marquis d'Obigny; Cesare Valletti (t), Alfredo Germont; Lidia Marimpietri (s), Flora Bervoix; Arturo La Porta (b) Baron Douphol; Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Pierre Monteux, cond. RCA/BMG/Myto, recorded 1956

La Traviata: Act I, Alfredo: "Un dì felice" . . . Gastone: "Ebben, che diavol fate?" . . . Violetta: "Ebben, domani"

Cesare Valletti (t), Alfredo Germont; Rosanna Carteri (s), Violetta Valéry; Glauco Scarlini (t), Gastone; Rome Opera Orchestra, Pierre Monteux, cond. RCA/BMG/Myto, recorded 1956

Finally we hear a real stretch: Pinkerton in Puccini's Madama Butterfly. RCA's George Marek had decided that the opera had become overburdened by vocally-too-heavy casting, and thought he would "reveal" it by casting much lighter, with Anna Moffo as Buttefly and Valletti as Pinkerton. Of course the heavier casting is dictated by the vocal writing, but the recording isn't without interest.

After the wonderfully vigorous orchestral prelude (track 1), which we heard back when we were heard the remarkable openings of all the mature Puccini operas, we meet Pinkerton, an American naval lieutenant stationed in Japan in the early 1900s, being shown (track 2), by the marriage broker Goro, the sliding-wall house on a hilltop overlooking Nagasaki which he will occupy after his imminent marriage to the radiant 15-year-old Cio-Cio-San. Goro also introduces Pinkerton to his bride-to-be's three servants, including her devoted maid and companion Suzuki. The American consul Sharpless, having huffed his way up the hill and joins Pinkerton in a drink and a tribute (track 3, "Dovunque al mondo") to what Pinkerton considers the idyllic lifestyle of "the Yankee vagabond," who "drops anchor at will," until a storm tells him it's time to move on. In response to a question from Sharpless, Pinkerton says (track 4, "Amore o grillo") that he doesn't know whether his infatuation with Cio-Cio-San is "love or fancy," and also makes clear that the doesn't care.

PUCCINI: Madama Butterfly: Act I, Prelude . . . Opening scene . . . "Dovunque al mondo" . . . "Amore o grillo"

Cesare Valletti (t), Lt. B. F. Pinkerton; Mario Carlin (t), Goro; Rosalind Elias (ms), Suzuki; Renato Cesari (b), Sharpless; Rome Opera Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded July 1957


We finish up (finally!), I think, with Parts II and III of Berlioz' Roméo et Juliette.


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