Cher Public

Bells are ringing

With the world’s focus on France this week (and if it isn’t, it should be!), it seems appropriate to offer you a staple of the French repertoire: Lakmé, the oriental fantasia by Léo Delibes.  This 1980 performance from Dallas stars Ruth Welting, Alfredo Kraus, and Paul Plishka, conducted by Nicola Rescigno. 

Lakmé, composed for American coloratura Marie van Zandt, scored 500 performances at the Opéra Comique in the 26 years after its 1883 premiere, and 1000 by 1931.

The opera quickly spread throughout the world and had its premiere at the old Met in its first decade in 1892 staring van Zandt.

A new production in 1932 was a triumph for Lily Pons, who sang 50 complete performances (excluding galas and concerts) until the opera’s last appearance by the Met in 1947, missing only two shows in the 15-year run.  She sang the role for opening night of the 1946/1947 season, and the program for her 25th anniversary with the company in 1956 included – to no one’s surprise – “Où va la jeune Hindoue?” also know as the “L’Air des clochettes.”  It was her RCA Victrola 78 recorded on 8 December 1930 that turned me on to the opera.

I had to wait till September 1984 to see a fully-staged Lakmé: a New York City Opera production starring Gianna Rolandi, Barry McCauley, Susanne Marsee, and Harry Dworchak.  It hasn’t been done anywhere near me since then (Wiener Staatsoper last performed it in 1925).

Ruth Welting had one of those amazing, almost-freakish voices which soared comfortably to an A in alt, a startlingly perfect trill, and incredibly clear articulation of all those little notes on the way up there.  She sang the Lucia mad scene in the original key of F major.

She performed all the standard coloratura roles in her years at NYCO, as well as 16 seasons at the Met, mostly as die Könegin der Nacht, Olympia in Les contes d’Hoffmann, and some Zerbinettas.

By the age of 46, with 20+ years of a busy schedule behind her, her voice started to show some strain and she quit singing to take up studies of government and foreign affairs.  She was diagnosed with cancer in early 1991 and died a few months later at age 51.

Alfred Kraus had a legendary, worldwide, well-documented career that spanned over 40 years with a relatively small repertoire.  He is often given as an example of the theory that once you find your Fach and a few roles of which you are master, don’t start dibbling with heavier repertoire.

Kraus was a textbook light lyric tenor who never ventured very far away from Nemorino, Roméo, Tonio, Ernesto, Massenet’s Des Grieux, and Edgardo.  His heaviest roles were, most likely, Hoffmann and Werther.

He made his operatic debut in 1956; just two years later he performed Alfredo to the Violetta of Maria Callas in what we all know as “The Lisbon Traviata.”

Here’s some fascinating trivia: Kraus made the first of his 136 Met performances as the Duca in Rigoletto alongside Cornell MacNeil and Roberta Petersat the old house in January 1966; he ended his tenure with the company in the same role in November 1994 with Paolo Gavanelli and Sumi Jo, sounding much the way he had 28 years earlier.  He returned in April 1996 at age 68 for the 25th anniversary of James Levine and delivered an unforgettable “Pourquoi me réveiller?”

He died in Madrid in 1999 at age 71.

  • Camille

    This looks legitimately AbFab!!! Hard to imagine a better cast of the time.

    Marie van Zandt was from BROOKLYN!!! IMAGINE Lakmé with a “Brooklyn” accent, if you will!!!! If you DARE!

  • O Jungfer, I thought I’d mention I worked with Ruth, who was a wonderful, funny, sweet (and quirky) person, quite brilliant. It’s good to see this sample of her remarkable gifts. I adored Alfredo (I’ve written about him before on Parterre) and Nicola Rescigno was also a wonderful man, with a big heart (and a better conductor than reviewers liked to claim). We used to have ice cream binges, the rule of which was that before we plunged in on a new batch we had to rebuke each other for being fat, horrible sinners!

    Ruth’s life, if told, would read like a novel, she was QUITE an adventuress to use a word faintly naughty old lady writers were fond of. Her death was very sad, but sadder still, was that her very restless spirit had finally found a degree of peace with a companion she loved, accepting what her remarkable gift had brought (and what developing it had robbed her of).

    • MisterSnow

      I just noticed that next week’s schedule of Met Opera on Sirius includes an Ariadne with Caballe, Troyanos, and Ms. Welting. Looking forward to her Zerbinetta (and Caballe’s Ariadne)

  • Maus Merryjest

    Kraus in Lakmé? How could I resist?

    I adore Alfredo, I use him as a reminder to stick reasonably within my fach, and not to let temptation take me -too- far.

    • Camille

      Look, it goes like this—

      “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way--

      From your first cigarette to your last dying day”

      You gotta stick with the plan and with your clan, man!

      Fácher were invented for a variety of reasons and might well be constricting but they do, as a general rule, help guide and protect a lot of singers. Take Angela Gheorghiu, for instance: she knew what she was good at and stuck strictly to it, well, for a number of reasons. She is criticised for it but I think she was quite savvy to have done so.

      Not everyone waa born to be a Fach Hopper and, especially with tenors--such a tricky voice--they need special loving care. Excepting PláDo and he just plain don’t care no mo’. Just my dos centavos.