On her 90th birthday “Trove Thursday” presents the late great Belgian mezzo Rita Gorr parenting Régine Crespin in Massenet’s Hérodiade, a 1963 concert by the American Opera Society at Carnegie Hall which also features Guy Chauvet and Robert Massard.
In the 1950s and 60s the American Opera Society, founded by Allen Sven Oxenburg and Arnold Gamson, produced many star-studded concert performances of rarely encountered works at Town Hall or Carnegie Hall. Notable were Cherubini’s Medea with Eileen Farrell, Giulietta Simionato in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Jennie Tourel’s La Grande-duchesse de Gérolstein, and even Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Orfeo ed Euridice (with Lucia Popp as Amore!)
Joan Sutherland made her NYC debut with AOS in 1961 as Beatrice di Tenda beside Marilyn Horne in her local debut and together they reappeared four years later in Semiramide. Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi sang both La Wally and Mefistofele (with Nicolai Ghiaurov) for AOS which also hosted Elena Souliotis’ notorious 1967 Norma, as well as her less controversial Anna Bolena opposite Horne, Janet Baker and Placido Domingo.
In 1965 Horne canceled her scheduled Lucrezia Borgia with AOS and instead New York heard Montserrat Caballé for the first time. She made history that evening and returned to AOS for La Straniera, Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda opposite Shirley Verrett. Beverly Sills sang her only Marguerite in Les Huguenots (with Angeles Gulin and Tony Poncet) and her only French La Fille du Régiment during AOS’s final season in 1970. But the most famous AOS concert of all was, of course, Maria Callas’s 1959 Il Pirata.
Like today’s Hérodiade and all of the other performances I have mentioned, a much-circulated recording of that Pirata exists because it was taped by (appropriately) a “pirate.” Unfortunately any number of tantalizing AOS projects seem not to have been recorded; I would love to hear Spontini’s La Vestale in French with Crespin also from 1963; Les Dialogues des Carmélites with Denise Duval presented the following year and the unlikely pairing of Schwarzkopf and Cesare Siepi in a 1958 Giulio Cesare with countertenor Russell Oberlin as Sesto!
Soon after American Opera Society ceased, Eve Queler started Opera Orchestra of New York and for over 40 years it too introduced important singers and rare operas, but apparently OONY is no more. Collegiate Chorale has become MasterVoices and begun to focus on lighter music and Leon Botstein’s American Symphony Orchestra performed no opera this season, so perhaps the decades-long tradition of eagerly awaited, locally-produced high profile concert opera is over.
Many thanks to parterre’s own Dawn Fatale who kindly supplied me with her copy of Hérodiade after I discovered that mine was corrupted. By the way, this Massenet performance took place just three days after the famous Met Aïda broadcast conducted by Georg Solti with Leontyne Price, Gorr, and Bergonzi.
American Opera Society
10 December 1963
Salomé: Régine Crespin
Hérodiade: Rita Gorr
Jean: Guy Chauvet
Hérode: Robert Massard
Phanuel: Robert Patterson
Vitellius: Allan Cathcart
Conductor: Alain Lombard
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