Last month “Trove Thursday” presented two 20th century American operas, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Barber’s Vanessa, but on Independence Day we have instead an early work by one of the many émigrés who fled to the US during the 1930s: Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt in a 1967 Vienna broadcast appropriately featuring three American stars: John Alexander, Marilyn Zschau, and George London.
2019 is shaping to be the Year of Korngold. Recently La Scala mounted Tote Stadt with Klaus Florian Vogt and Asmik Grigorian, and in November Kirill Petrenko will conduct a new staging of it at the Bavarian State Opera with Jonas Kaufmann and Marlis Petersen.
Closer to home, much of Bard’s Summerscape Festival opening later this month is devoted to Korngold and features the US premiere of Das Wunder der Heliane in a production by Christian Räth featuring Ausrine Stundyte, Daniel Brenna and Alfred Walker as well as a concert staging of Tote Stadt.
It might seem odd that this broadcast comes from the Volksoper but the archives reveal that Korngold’s best-known opera was absent from the Staatsoper stage from 1921 (its premiere starred Maria Jeritza and it later moved to the Operntheater) until Götz Friedrich mounted a production in 1985 again with Americans in the leading roles: Friedrich’s wife Karen Armstrong as Marietta/Marie opposite James King.
This Vienna Tote Stadt was an unusual starring vehicle for Alexander in Europe. While Zschau and London had worldwide careers, Alexander’s mostly centered in the US primarily at the Met. After singing extensively with New York City Opera (to which he continued to return), he debuted at the Met at age 38 in 1961 as Ferrando in Così fan tutte and gave nearly 400 performances over the next 26 years.
A good portion of those occurred outside the Met itself: on the spring tour, in the city parks, even during the Met’s brief visits Lewisohn Stadium and in Newport, Rhode Island.
The tenor from Mississippi was known for his extraordinary versatility; his repertoire at the Met alone ranged from Handel to Mussorgsky to Johann Strauss to Menotti. If he may have lacked the absolute star tenor quality the Met seemed to have in spades during the Bing years and later into the Pavarotti-Domingo era, Alexander demonstrated admirable dependability and saved many a show when the scheduled tenor failed to materialize.
That he was often taken for granted can be seen in the ungracious title of his obituary in the Los Angeles Times: “J. Alexander; Journeyman Opera Tenor.”
Scanning through Alexander’s data in the Met Archive can be fascinating: in the 68-69 season alone, he sang eight performances of Elvino in La Sonnambula followed by Faust, Walther in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, a single Tosca Cavaradossi and a bunch of Italian Tenors in Der Rosenkavalier.
By accident or luck, he was onstage for a good number of Met debuts: Renata Scotto, Montserrat Caballé and Sherrill Milnes, Theo Adam, Ivo Vinco, Norman Bailey, Christiane Eda-Pierre and Mechtild Gessendorf. Even his final Met appearance in 1987 jumping in as Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos at age 64 featured the first Met appearance of its Zerbinetta, Barbara Kilduff.
Many may know Alexander best from his long association with Joan Sutherland and indeed he was Edgardo the night Richard Bonynge first conducted at the Met. He was her first-ever Pollione (and subsequently recorded Norma with her and Marilyn Horne) and Gennaro in Lucrezia Borgia, both in Vancouver.
Video footage of Alexander in action is scarce so I’m grateful to La Cieca for making available a little seen clip I dug out from an old DVD of the tenor and Sutherland in the great third-act duet from Bellini’s I Puritani from 1967. Please excuse the flawed video image of this exciting television clip.
Alexander graduated from the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati and later returned there to teach. I don’t remember seeing him around during my years nearby CCM but I did get to hear him twice at the Cincinnati Opera. He was a powerful Florestan in a 1980 Fidelio rescued by a glowing Johanna Meier who was later the Marschallin with the same company in 1986 when Alexander was yet again the Italian Tenor—it was the final time I heard him.
More memorable for me though were two Mozart roles he took on late in his Met career. His intense Arbace nearly stole the opening night of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s Idomeneo that I attended–even in a cast featuring Ileana Cotrubas, Hildegard Behrens, Frederica von Stade and Luciano Pavarotti (on his best behavior).
Two years later Alexander’s noble Tito was another standout in a stellar Clemenza with Carol Vaness, Tatiana Troyanos, Ann Murray and Hei-Kyung Hong.
Korngold: Die Tote Stadt
25 May 1967
Marietta/Marie – Marilyn Zschau
Brigitta – Sonja Draksler
Juliette – Britt Bern
Lucienne – Elisabeth Sobota
Paul – John Alexander
Fritz – George London
Frank – Marcel Cordes
Victorin – Wolfgang Witte
Graf Albert – Peter Baillie
Conductor – Lee Schaenen
Die Tote Stadt 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 files will appear in your download directory.
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