When Sonja Frisell‘s Met production of Aïda was new and starred Oklahoma native Leona Mitchell, the similarly-intialled Latonia Moore was nine years old, singing in the choir of her pastor grandfather’s church.
Tonight, 28 years later, the Texas-born Moore will sing the title role in that production for the first time since her March 2012 Met debut, a one-night triumph of substitution. That performance was conducted by Marco Armiliato, who also returns Tuesday, leading Ekaterina Gubanova, Marco Berti, Mark Delavan, Dmitry Belosselskiy and Soloman Howard.
Tuesday’s date brings to mind a story involving a third Aïda from a “red state,” a singer who blazed a trail for African-Americans such as Mitchell and Moore.
On November 22, 1963, the nation and the wider world were plunged into shock and grief when President John F. Kennedy, 46, was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas. The Met canceled the night’s performance of, poignantly, Götterdämmerung.
It was evening in Vienna when news of the assassination reached three Met stars, Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli and Robert Merrill, as well as Mirella Freni, two autumns shy of her Met debut. They were recording a deluxe Carmen in the Sofiensaal under the direction of Herbert von Karajan and producer John Culshaw.
In the account of Karajan biographer Richard Osborne, “The crew’s first thought that evening– and, to his eternal credit, that of the Don José, Franco Corelli–was for the one member of the cast who was American, black, and deeply committed to the Kennedy cause: Leontyne Price. Culshaw offered to postpone the sessions for a day or two, but Price insisted on going on. Just about the next thing they recorded was the Card Scene.”
That set of Bizet’s opera can b e an argument starter to this day (as can many opera recordings), but it is little wonder that its Card Scene is as mournful a rendition as ever has been set down for microphones. In the Mississippian soprano’s smoky tones, the French words throb with tears subdued and a tinge of bitterness, appropriate for a day when a decade’s trajectory was altered:
“Mais si tu dois mourir,
si le mot redoubtable est écrit par le sort,
recommence vingt fois,
la carte impitoyable répétera : la mort!”
Although this date even now has grim resonance for Americans, it was not always a sad one for the country or for the opera house. Here is a look back at just some of what you could have seen, and perhaps did see, on November 22nd through the years at the Met.
1884: As twilight advanced on the Arthurian age (Chester Alan Arthur, that is), Leopold Damrosch led the company’s second Tannhäuser. Tenor Anton Schott vacillated between the purity of Auguste Seidl-Kraus and the carnality of Anna Slach. The Times‘s 29-year-old W. J. Henderson, who would review Met performances until shortly before his death in 1937, had expressed reservations about the first performance, while lauding the young company’s effort and the audience’s focus: “[T]he continuous attention bestowed upon the entertainment indicated that the occasion was viewed as of far more importance than the opportunity for a brilliant social gathering offered by the inception of the habitual series of opera nights.”
1919: “There are only two beautiful voices in the Metropolitan company,” wrote James Gibbons Huneker in the World, referring to Rosa Ponselle and Enrico Caruso. We might look back at the roster and disagree. Fortunately, Mr. Huneker was reviewing a new La Juive built around both of them. Artur Bodanzky “outdid himself, conducting with a nervous intensity that might better have been expended on a masterpiece instead of the unmusical fustian of La Juive. But then, he is not only a great conductor, but also a conscientious one and, with the cooperation of Caruso and Ponselle, made vital the faded music of Halévy.” The matinee audience was said to be “appreciative to fever heat,” and there was little time to cool down, with Claudia Muzio and Pasquale Amato lined up for an evening Trovatore.
1922: Two house favorites, tenor Giovanni Martinelli and bass José Mardones , were joined in Aïda by debuting leading ladies, Elisabeth Rethberg and Sigrid Onégin. The Times’s Richard Aldrich wrote of Onégin, “The new Amneris is a woman of majestic grace, broad gesture, brooding calm, while her voice was one of great power controlled with smoothness and beauty[.]” As for her onstage rival, amusingly, the Herald’s unidentified reviewer claimed that “Miss Rethberg was suffering so much from nervousness that she had almost no breath control,” while the World’s critic asseverated that “Miss Rethberg, not in least nervous, produced an abundance of fresh, brilliant tones.” On one point, all seemed in agreement: the German soprano was an important new voice.
1943: As the RAF began its air bombing of Berlin 4,000 miles away, the season opened with Mussorgsky’s bleak Boris Godunov. George Szell’s cast was headed by the tsar of Ezio Pinza. Virgil Thomson in the Herald Tribune lamented the decision to perform the opera in Italian, but appreciated “Mr. Szell’s fine understanding of this music and his ability to give shape to it (a quality it just possibly lacks a little bit in itself),” as well as “a certain good will on the part of the cast. It was amazing how carefully they all worked and how beautifully they all sang. If the opera sounded throughout like almost anything but a Russian opera, that was nobody’s fault that I could name.”
1947: Richard Tucker appeared in his first Met La bohème. Herbert Kupferberg of the Herald Tribune was equivocal: “He was in good voice, but he maintained a seemingly disdainful appearance, and most of his posturing was as absurd as the kiss he blew to the audience when it applauded his vocal accomplishments after the third act.” Rodolfo would be a frequent assignment for Tucker over the next quarter century. Kupferberg praised the “beautiful singing and unassuming demeanor” of Licia Albanese as Mimì.
1950: Margaret Harshaw, a mezzo for eight prior years with the company, made what Musical America‘s James Hinton Jr. described as a successful second debut as soprano, essaying Senta in Der fliegende Holländer. Fritz Reiner’s cast included Set Svanholm, Paul Schöffler and Sven Nilsson. Harshaw would carry on at the Met for another 14 years, alternating mezzo roles with the likes of Donna Anna, Isolde and Brünnhilde.
1951: Per Harold C. Schonberg in the Times, Alabama native Nell Rankin had a rough debut as Amneris in Aïda. “Her middle range sounded tentative, nor was there enough vocal authority for her to compete on even ensemble terms with Mr. [Mario] Del Monaco or Miss [Zinka] Milanov, both of whom virtually drowned her out in the first and second act trios.” Rankin would have other chances to impress, in this part and many others, through 1976.
1952: From a good seat, it may have seemed that Victoria de los Angeles was especially convincing in playing Cio-Cio San’s pain in Madama Butterfly. In fact, she was playing through pain, having injured her foot at some point in the second act. Her inadvertent “method” performance as Pinkerton’s faithful bride received a rave from the Times’s Noel Straus (“Never before at the opera house has this reviewer found the gifted soprano’s vocalism or acting so expressive or compelling”).
1957: “If you happen to have a friend with an aversion to opera houses, just take him or her to the Met for a performance of Der Rosenkavalier. If you don’t have a convert on your hands, we’ll attempt to eat a libretto right off a lobby stand,” wrote the Mirror’s Robert Coleman. The source of his folksy enthusiasm was a performance starring Lisa Della Casa, Hilde Gueden, Risë Stevens and Otto Edelmann. Karl Böhm conducted; the Herbert Graf/Rolf Gérard production framed. For New Yorkers feeling “kind of blue,” just a 20-minute walk away, the Miles Davis Quintet began a Carnegie Hall series.
1968: The release of the Beatles’ White Album was the day’s headline for the nation’s youth, but a new Rheingold also debuted, the second completed entry in a planned Ring from conductor/director Karajan and designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen. Debuting singers Josephine Veasey (Fricka), Zoltán Kelemen (Alberich), Gerhard Stolze (Loge) and Edda Moser (Wellgunde) joined Thomas Stewart (Wotan), Lili Chookasian (Erda), Martti Talvela and Karl Ridderbusch (Fasolt and Fafner). Baritone divo Sherrill Milnes took a holiday from Italian and French fare for a luxury Donner. Working with an orchestra a long way in 1968 from the ensemble it would become, Karajan drew a Rheingold praised for refinement, suggestiveness and buoyancy. “[Maria] Callas and Herbert von Karajan were the complete artists of my time at the Metropolitan, and I can criticize myself most effectively by complaining how few performances we got from either,” GM Rudolf Bing would write in his retirement memoir.
1976: “Without Love, there’s nothing you can do,” warned Aretha Franklin in a song of this era. Well, the Met had to do something: Shirley Love was unable to continue as Meistersinger‘s Magdalena after the first act. She was replaced by Cynthia Munzer, and the glorious quintet of Act Three remained a quintet, possibly a glorious one. Its other voices were Stewart, tenors Gerd Brenneis and Kenneth Riegel, and (in her first Met role) Eva Marton.
1983: The audience got its first exposure to Gösta Winbergh, Ottavio in a Don Giovanni with Carol Neblett, Kathleen Battle and James Morris. The Swedish tenor, whose “sweet tone[,] aristocratic style and technique” earned him an appreciative notice from the Times’s John Rockwell, would return periodically over the next 15 years for Mozart and Bizet.
1985: James Levine led the first of his 77 Met performances of Le nozze di Figaro, the occasion being Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s new production with Battle, Carol Vaness, Frederica von Stade, Thomas Allen and Ruggero Raimondi. This autumnal reconsideration of the Mozart/Da Ponte masterpiece was controversial for its imposing classical sets, stark costuming (“[T]hose who watch [a telecast] on black-and-white television sets will not miss very much,” quipped Tim Page in the Times) and liberties of character conduct taken by the director. Martin Mayer of Opera found it “generally nasty and ill-considered” but extolled the cast, especially the three female principals, and felt that “for the orchestra and Levine, no praise could be too high.”
1997: “Hungarian hardball” was how GM Joseph Volpe, in his retirement memoir, described Marton’s self-imposed exile following the 1988-89 season, when, “despite what [Marton had] been led to believe,” a rival was cast as Brünnhilde in the Met’s studio Ring recording. Marton finally returned for three dates in Franco Zeffirelli‘s overstuffed Turandot, in which she had been memorably filmed a decade earlier. Nello Santi‘s cast for Puccini’s valediction featured Ruth Ann Swenson and Kristián Jóhannsson as slave and prince, respectively. Marton would be back two Novembers later as Tosca, but the performance of the 22nd was her final Met Turandot.
1998: To mark his 30th Met anniversary, Luciano Pavarotti performed an act apiece from L’elisir d’amore, La bohème and Aïda, assisted by Levine and an array of this era’s vocal talent: Swenson, Ainhoa Arteta, Daniela Dessì, Maria Guleghina, Dolora Zajick, Leo Nucci, Dwayne Croft, Paul Plishka. At the evening’s close, Volpe presented Pavarotti with a Puccini autograph with music from Turandot. The beloved tenor, beset by recent health and personal concerns and not in best voice, was philosophical about criticism: “When a young man falls down in the street, they say he stumbled because he was looking at the sky. When a 60-year-old man falls down, if he is well known, they say it is because he is old.”
1999: After nearly 16 years on the shelf, Tristan und Isolde returned in a new production by Dieter Dorn, Maestro Levine at last having what he considered a worthy cast (Jane Eaglen, Katarina Dalayman, Ben Heppner, René Pape). The Observer’s Charles Michener awarded top honors to König Marke: “Mr. Pape’s riveting intensity of gesture, his nuanced articulation of the text and the force of his huge, burnished tone jolted the opera out of a dreamscape and into the painful here-and-now.”
2010: The 1979 production of Verdi’s Don Carlo gave way to a new one. The Observer‘s Zachary Woolfe felt that director Nicholas Hytner’s work suffered from lapses in tone (“Sombre splendor there is frequently not”), but he praised the royal couple of “rich-voiced and eloquent” bass Ferruccio Furlanetto and young soprano Marina Poplavskaya (“[A] single motion of her hand […] was a model of operatic gesture: stylized yet true, tiny yet able to register across an auditorium. She gets it”). The brotherly love of Carlo and Rodrigo was enacted by Roberto Alagna and Simon Keenlyside. In his second Met opera, future music director designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin drew acclaim from the Times’s Anthony Tommasini as “a born communicator who brought youthful passion and precocious insight to his work.”
Photo: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera