In the two weeks since it appeared Patrick Clement James’s fascinating inquiry into the cult of diva worship via James McCourt’s Mawrdew Czgowchwz has been much on my mind. By serendipity this week’s “Trove Thursday” (scheduled before Patrick’s piece was published) offers Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice, an opera also concerned with the quest for an aesthetic–and erotic–divine and featuring Anthony Rolfe Johnson, one of my very favorite divos. 

Being drawn to 17th and 18th century operas perhaps steered me away from the fiercer forms of diva idolatry satirized in McCourt’s novel. But La Cieca’s kind invitation two years ago to curate this podcast has allowed me to ponder my enthusiasm for works off-the-beaten-track and singers who bewitch me. I’ve never had my “Maria Callas revelation” and at this point probably never will, but I have encountered earthly transcendence with some less expected objects of adoration: Janet Baker, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Ann Hallenberg…and Rolfe Johnson among many.

The explosion of HIP recordings that began in the late 1970s neatly coincided with my thirst to discover as much Handel as I could handle and put Rolfe Johnson front and center in my consciousness. His large discography suggests that no modern tenor before or since has sung and recorded so much music by “il caro Sassone.” I immediately responded to his mellow and endearing suavity; his wonderfully clear and unfussy diction; his easy agility.

My first encounter must have been via John Eliot Gardiner’s Acis and Galatea in which Norma Burrowes and Rolfe Johnson form an exquisite pair. Soon enough I was grabbing up the inescapable tenor in Belshazzar, Semele, Athalia, Solomon, Hercules, Samson, Alexander’s Feast, and Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (twice!). While some may dismiss Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s uneven Saul, I find Rolfe Johnson’s occasionally stressed Jonathan extraordinarily moving proclaiming in Handel’s enraptured melismas that David is “thou darling of my soul.”

But of course Rolfe Johnson’s 18th century repertoire contained more than just Handel. His wonderfully communicative Evangelists enliven both of Gardiner’s Bach Passions, and it’s no wonder Felicity Palmer’s sorceress fell for his seductive Renaud in Gluck’s Armide. Tamino shines in Roger Norrington’s otherwise problematic Die Zauberflöte while his temperamental Roman dictator animates the often cardboard title figure in Patrice Chéreau’s stunning version of Lucio Silla—the hard-to-find video is worth seeking out; an out-of-print CD release drawn from live performances in Brussels is a bit easier to find.

As many English tenors have done, he eventually tackled works written by Britten for Peter Pears. Having heard (and not much liked) Pears in that repertoire I found Rolfe Johnson more than others could make that music sound really beautiful. Peter Grimes and Captain Vere in Billy Budd are available on CD but his Aschenbach comes to us only from a Met broadcast and this late Amsterdam concert.

I scheduled a trip to New York in 1988 to hear him in his Met debut role as Pelléas, but he canceled and I guessed he just might never appear there. But when Luciano Pavarotti dropped out of a revival of Idomeneo the opening week of the 1991-92 season, Rolfe Johnson was brought in. I remember being in the crowded downstairs standing room for that matinee thrilled by him as well as by Anne-Sofie von Otter and Cheryl Studer as Idamante and Elettra; only Hei-Kyung Hong’s small-scale Ilia let down the team. Gardiner’s recordings done the year before preserve both his noble yet tender Cretan king,

and his Tito, the role of his final Met appearances in 1997 again with von Otter and a fire-breathing Carol Vaness as Vitellia.

Opera-going can occasion bitter regret as often as it does ecstatic memory. Despite having relished Rolfe Johnson in the 1994 premiere of the Met’s second production of Death in Venice, I still kick myself for missing the Peter Grimes there later that year. Alas, based on the broadcast, he and the young Renée Fleming as Ellen were quite wonderful, but I had caught his sterling Ulisse when the Netherlands Opera brought Pierre Audi’s production of Monteverdi’s moving opera to BAM the year before.

However my first live encounter with the tenor was the most memorable—I was planning to visit Chicago in November 1988 to see Don Giovanni and Falstaff at Lyric when I discovered that during that same weekend Music of the Baroque was doing Handel’s Jephtha. In the title role Rolfe Johnson ripped through the florid challenges of “His mighty arm” with thrilling ease while his hushed “Waft her, angels” was truly heaven sent. In that church on a Sunday afternoon I absolutely experienced the exaltation that Patrick so elegantly examines.

How many passionate “Mawrdolators” are aware that McCourt’s fictional diva’s lover Jacob Beltane is in part based on Rolfe Johnson’s contemporary, the countertenor James Bowman?

Tomorrow is the seventh anniversary of Rolfe Johnson’s death following a long sad struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. The Voice of Apollo in this performance is sung by American countertenor Brian Asawa who also passed away too young in April of last year.

Britten: Death in Venice

Concertgebouw Amsterdam
17 March 2001

Anthony Rolfe Johnson –  von Aschenbach
David Wilson-Johnson – Traveller, Elderley Fop, Old Gondolier, Hotel Manager, Hotel Barber, Leader of the Players, Voice of Dionysus
Brian Asawa – Voice of Apollo

Radio Kamerorkest & Groot Omroepkoor
Kenneth Montgomery – conductor

Death in Venice can be downloaded by clicking on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the audio player above and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.

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