Cesare Valletti

October 24, 2008

Born in Rome in 1922, Cesare Valletti was the leading tenore di grazia of the 1950’s. A while back Malley Keelan asked me to post something about the late Roman tenor; this is it. Valletti’s tenure at the Met coincided with those of some of the 20th century’s greatest tenors. In 1956, for example, Björling, Bergonzi, Del Monaco, Di Stefano, and Tucker all appeared at the old Met along with Valletti. But in his fach Valletti was unmatched.

Mozart, Rossini, the lighter Donizetti and Bellini, Verdi’s Alfredo, and Massenet’s De Grieux and Werther were the roles in which he excelled. After studying with Tito Schipa he made his debut as Alfredo in La Traviata (Lunge da lei… De’ miei bollenti spiriti) in Bari in 1947.  The influence of Schipa is apparent, though there are also important differences. Their repertoires were similar. Schipa had a richer sound, Valletti had much more vocal agility. Both were short on top, but sang with impeccable line and style. When Valletti sang The Daughter of the Regiment (in Italian) there were no high C’s.

Over the next six years he appeared in most of the world’s most important opera houses. He came to the Met in 1953. His debut role was Don Ottavio in Mozart’s (is there another?) Don Giovanni. He appeared in this role 32 times at the Met over the next seven years. He was the best Don Ottavio I ever saw. He had good looks, was young, and knew how to act. Vocally he just about perfect. Dalla sua pace and Il mio tesoro show him at his best.

He was equally good as the Count in Rossini’s Barber (a role he sang 31 times at the Met) and as Elvino in Donizetti’s Don PasqualePovero Ernesto…Cerchero lontana terra. He would have been equally good in L’elisir d’amore if he had been allowed to sing it at the Met. In one of the strangest episodes of Rudolf Bing’s strange career he removed Valletti from the 1960 new production of Donizetti’s opera after the dress rehearsal. No one then or now seems to know what prompted Bing to make such a moronic move. The great Valletti was replaced by the forgettable Dino Formichini. Valletti withdrew from the company and never returned despite being asked back several times by the idiot Met. The Roman tenor who was 37 at the time and at the height of his powers was sorely missed by the Met and by American opera goers. In 1968 Valletti quit opera entirely to concentrate on his father-in-law’s pasta business. He died a rich man in 2000. This is what the Met missed – Quanto e bella and Una furtiva lagrima.

Though a very light tenor, he was as easily heard at the old Met as Jussi Björling. Though to be fair he never had to compete against Dimitri Mitropoulos. He was a considerate colleague and fluent in English. I attended the dress rehearsal and prima of the Met’s new production of Don Pasquale (1955) and remember how much he tried to cooperate with his leading lady – Roberta Peters. He appeared six times in the Met’s English version of Cosí Fan Tutte. He was an aristocrat in both temperament and art.

Finally here’s an excerpt from Bellini’s La Sonnambula. You might recognize the soprano. Prendi , l’anel ti dono. There are singers now active who can sing Valletti’s roles with much excitement, but none with such style and grace.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine


Mascagni’s Amica in Rome

October 15, 2008
Geraldine Farrar - the first Amica

Geraldine Farrar - the first Amica

Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera ended a run of six consecutive performances of Mascagni’s 1905 opera Amica on October 12. It was presented in its original French with Italian surtitles. Word about the opera’s lack of content must have gotten around town because the final performance was so sparsely attended that the performers may have outnumbered the audience. I’ve never attended a performance that was as deserted as this one. The production was co-produced by the l’Opèra di Montecarlo (the site of work’s world premiere) and il Teatro Carlo Goldoni di Livorno (Mascagni’s home town). Thus there was a reason, albeit slender, for these two companies to mount a new production of a largely and justly forgotten work, but how Rome allowed itself to be part of this operatic waste of time is not apparent to me. Perhaps the city has a soft spot for Mascagni as it was the site of the world premiere of the composer’s only success Cavalleria Rusticana.

Amica was written to a libretto by Paul de Choudens who used the pseudonym Paul Bérel. If you were associated with this project you’d also use a pseudonym. Originally intended as a vehicle for Emma Calvé, Geraldine Farrar performed the first performance with only five days of preparation after Calvé withdrew. The French diva must have panicked after seeing the score and the libretto. Supposedly, Farrar scored so great a success with the role (the audience must have been distracted by roulette) that she was hired by the Paris Opera where she was seen by the Met’s general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza who brought her to New York where she was a huge success. The only thing wrong with this story is that Farrar made her Met debut in 1906 while Gatti didn’t take over the house until 1908.

Amica is not only slight in content but in length as well lasting little more than 70 minutes which was too long for me even if I did get a 30% discount on the tickets. The setting is the Piedmont Alps around 1900. Amica lives with her uncle, Camoine. Uncle C has has also raised two orphan brothers – Giorgio (tenor) and Rinaldo (baritone). Rinaldo has been thrown out of the family manse for being a pain in the ass. Camoine wants to marry Maddalena a mezzo and who thus is insecure. She wants everybody out of the house. Camoine thinks the best solution is to force Amica to marry Giorgio, but she loves Rinaldo and runs away with him at the end of the first act. Here’s where you know something is really wrong. A verismo opera where the soprano runs off with the baritone. In this production this disconnect was mitigated as the baritone looked like a tenor; he resembled a beach ball. The tenor was slim. Thus the soprano’s confusion was made more plausible. In the second act Giorgio catches up with the runaway lovers atop a mountain and is shocked insensate when he learns that his rival is his brother. Amica has neglected to tell Rinaldo that she was supposed to marry his brother. Doing what any baritone would in this situation Rinaldo drops Amica and goes back to town. Amica loses her mind and throws herself off the mountain. Giorgio who has come to shouts “Accursed love”, and the opera ends. It sounds better than it is.

The opera begins with some pastoral mood music which contains little of interest. The rest of the act contains almost melodies. The music sounds as if a tune is around the corner, but the corner never gets turned. The closest to a scene of interest is the duet between Amica and Camoine in which the former begs the latter not to force her to marry a tenor.

The second and final act begins with a busy orchestral introduction that lasts almost as long as the rest of the act. Like the opening of the first act it goes nowhere, though it gets pretty loud at times. It’s accompanied by a monochrome movie of alpine panoramas and a man and a woman riding two horses to certain deaths at the rate they were going.  It was the most interesting part of the show.

One can sense how desperate Mascagni must have been to find a tune that could come close to what Puccini was turning out with repetitive ease. Since opera companies are frantic to come up with something different from endless repetitions of Aida and Boheme and since nobody living seems to be able to write an even mediocre opera, or at least one that anyone might wish to see more than once, I can understand why they turn to rarely performed operas by well known composers. But with Le Villi and Edgar almost never performed why perform Amica? Puccini’s first two operas have real melodies and are worth hearing more than once.

The performance was professional, but little more. Patrizia Oriciani sang the title role. She had no trouble conveying the hysteria that characterizes most of Amica’s personality. Though on pitch throughout the evening her voice is rather dry and shrill. Maurizio Comencini was the rejected tenor. His part offers little opportunity to impress. His voice was small and forced. Alberto Mastromarino was the beach ball baritone. He has a loud, but gruff voice. He spent all of his time ogling the conductor as if the hounds of hell were about to devour him and only a baton could keep them at bay. The best singing was done by baritone Marcello Lippi who sang the comprimario role of the wicked step-father Camoine. If looks could kill Maestro Anotonino Fogliani would not have made it alive past the first act. But being stared at didn’t phase him and he conducted with power and poise getting what little there was out of Mascagni’s anemic score. His orchestra played very well. The house’s acoustics are splendid making every performer easy to hear.

Amazingly the sets and costumes were appropriate for the time and place specified in the libretto. What’s Europe coming to? There’s a commercial recording of this opera available. I wouldn’t advise buying it.

A bit of cultural trivia. The lobby of the Vienna State Opera is flanked by busts of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. The foyer of the Rome opera has busts of Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and Beniamino Gigli at either end. The Opera House is on the Piazza Beniamino Gigli.