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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Remembering Sholom Secunda

In honor of April 25, known among Jews as Yom Ha-Shoah and throughout the Western world as Holocaust Remembrance Day, I shall depart from my usual operatic commentary with an essay in memory of composer Sholom Secunda, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in the late 1960s upon the occasion of the world premiere of his cantata, “Yizkor.”

Sholom Secunda (1894–1974) emigrated from the Black Sea area of the Ukraine to the U.S. in 1907. As early as age 19 he was involved in the Yiddish musical scene in New York City, writing songs for the shows that were designed to entertain the huge influx of Eastern and Central European immigrants living and working on the Lower East Side. In 1914 Secunda was admitted to what eventually became the Julliard School, so it was not only popular music that captured his interest. But he had no apparent taste for jazz because, as the story goes, he rejected the opportunity to work with the as-yet-unknown George Gershwin in 1920, shortly after they were introduced by Boris Thomashevsky—acclaimed as the founder of Yiddish theater in America. Incidently, Thomashevsky did a great deal to promote radio programs in Yiddish, including the broadcast of musical revues for which Secunda wrote original music. He even co-owned an all-Yiddish radio station in Brooklyn (WEVD) that lasted into the 1950s.

Secunda had his first operetta produced in 1926, at the Hopkinson Theater in Brooklyn. Showing off his talent for composition, Secunda did all of his own orchestration. While many of the songwriters who wrote for the Second Avenue houses (the Yiddisher equivalent of Broadway) were fairly good tunesmiths, few of them had either the ability or the professional training to write complete scores. Secunda wrote more than a half-dozen musicals in the years before WWII; many of the tunes he created were as popular with Yiddish audiences as Broadway tunes were with the English-speaking population. Two of his most famous creations include the adaptation of a Polish folk tune into “Dona, dona”—which was recorded in English as a ballad by Joan Baez, Theodore Bikel and others in the 1960s—and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön,” the 1940s mega-hit that helped launch the career of The Andrews Sisters.

Secunda was equally fascinated by liturgical music. In Orthodox Jewish houses of worship, religious music employs tunes that have been passed down through the generations. Many of the songs that are sung by congregations at Saturday morning services or during the High Holidays have words and music traceable back to the 1200s or earlier. One popular tune, “Anim Zemirot,” has even retained its Aramaic lyrics! But the more modern aspects of Judaism, especially the Reform movement, embraced the concept of setting traditional text material to newer tunes. Meanwhile, some temples offer mixed-sex choirs and musical accompaniment, even organs.

Toward the end of the 1930s Secunda met a young synagogue cantor named Reuven Ticker, who shared the composer’s enthusiasm for creating and performing this original music. Later known to the world as opera star Richard Tucker, the two continued their personal and professional relationship until Secunda's death, which was followed a year later by Tucker's.

After the Second World War, the Catskills in upstate New York became THE place for a certain segment of New York society. Hotels that catered to all sorts of observant and semi-observant Jews offered a place to “get away from it all” while still providing the company of one’s co-religionists. Professional entertainment sprung up wherever the crowds gathered, notably Jewish comedians who tested out their material on these so-called Borsht Belt audiences every summer. The Concord Hotel—along with Grossinger’s one of the two upscale establishments in the region—hired Secunda as their music director. Not only did he conduct services for employees and guests alike for 28 years—a real treat for worshipers once Tucker became the Concord’s official cantor—but also weekly summer concerts with full orchestra. Oftentimes these concerts featured Secunda's compositions. My mother’s cousin Sam, who was a clarinetist from Pennsauken, New Jersey, got his professional start in the Concord Hotel’s orchestra.

As the immigrant generation began dying off, so did their offspring’s interest in Yiddish. Some of Secunda’s final musicals were composed to half-Yiddish, half-English librettos as late as the 1960s. His final stage work was the 1973 production of “Shver tzu zayn a Yid” (It’s Hard to be a Jew), the musical version of a Sholom Aleichem play originally staged in 1921.

Secunda’s oeuvre includes more than eighty musicals and operettas, plus settings of various cantorial and choral works for the synagogue. He also wrote a string quartet, a violin concerto, and incidental chamber music among which is a clarinet piece recorded by the musical scholar (and clarinetist extraordinaire) Dieter Klöcker.

My initiation into the world of Sholom Secunda began with my grandmother’s LP recording of “A Passover Seder Festival,” which I now own on CD. Many of the selections on that record were original compositions by Secunda, sung by Richard Tucker. In our household, Tucker and his baritone compadre Robert Merrill—“two nice Jewish boys” as my bubbe used to say—enjoyed the same veneration from us that Marian Anderson (and later, Leontyne Price) likely received in African-American households.

In the late 1960s, Secunda began to work on a cantata to honor the memory of Jews lost in the Holocaust. Despite having lived in the U.S. for more than six decades, some of his relatives likely perished in Europe—and certainly many thousands of people related to members of his stage and screen audiences. He titled his work “Yizkor,” which is the name of the memorial prayer service performed on Yom Kippur eve to honor relatives who have died.

The 1968-69 school year marked my senior year at Cleveland Heights (Ohio) High. Our choir—110 voices strong and directed by Dr. Clair T. “Mac” McElfresh—was selected to premiere this cantata at Temple of the Heights. We were in rehearsal for more than a month. During the last week before our performance, Secunda came to Cleveland and helped us with our preparations. Even today I remember him sitting in the pews, nodding his head in time to the music as we went through our paces. The piece is scored for chorus, tenor solo (naturally), narrator, and small orchestra. In lieu of the latter, we sang with only piano accompaniment. In an interesting twist of fate, our accompanist that year and my classmate, Bruce Shewitz, many years later became musical director at that selfsame temple.

A few weeks later, back in New York the piece debuted on television with Richard Tucker in the role of soloist. Sadly, the program did not play in the Cleveland market, and I know of no existing taped recording. Likewise I’m not familiar with any available commercial audio recordings of the piece. However, some few years ago I posted a query on a pre-Internet bulletin board, and someone was kind enough to send me a cassette tape of “Yizkor” that appears to have been dubbed off the original TV broadcast. It’s one of the most cherished recordings in my collection.

The first line of Secunda’s cantata has the chorus sing out in four-part harmony, “Yizkor, remember”—not once, but twice.

We shall.

Many thanks to the National Museum of American Jewish History, notably the online Milken Archive, for details on Sholom Secunda's life. His biography, aptly titled “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön: The Life of Sholom Secunda,” by his daughter and noted psychologist Victoria Secunda, regrettably is out of print. Published in 1982 by Magic Circle Press, it can be found in many libraries throughout the U.S. and is occasionally for sale on eBay.

Friday, April 21, 2006

A Prince among Opera Composers—Michele Carafa

Back on January 15, somewhere around here on this blog, an article by my colleague Stephen Agus—president of the Meyerbeer Fan Club— motivated me to begin discussing the works of forgotten 19th century Italian opera composers. My analysis unearthed 88 composers worthy of further examination, so I started the laborious research process with a brief essay five days later on the life and works of Giuseppe Lillo.

Every once in a while I check out the world opera schedule posted on a terrific Web resource, OperaBase. Searches can be done by opera title, composer, venue or artist. Want to know where “Aida” has been staged since August 2005? [Answer: In 32 different cities, alphabetically from Baden-Baden to Zurich] Curious what tenor Neil Shicoff will be performing from now through 2007? [Answer: “Simon Boccanegra,” “Manon Lescaut” and “La Juive”] Dying to know if anything by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari is being produced anywhere? [Answer: Three performances of “Il Campiello” this August in Buenos Aires] All that and more…

One search category is titled “festivals,” further broken down into subcategories such as “major,” “themed,” “contemporary works” and my favorite, “rarities.” I’m always looking to see if anything by obscure composers is being done anywhere. How about Valentino Fioravanti or Giuseppe Apolloni? Fat chance! Perhaps there’s something by Carlos Gomes? His opera “Fosca” is set for Manaus, Brazil, this May.

Every July the Rossini Festival operates in the spa town of Bad Wildbad, Germany, featuring operas “by Rossini and his contemporaries,” as it says on their Web site. I noticed that they’re doing something this year called “I Due Figaro” by Carafa. Having recognized the composer’s name from my List of 88, I decided to make this gentleman the subject of my second essay.

Michele Enrico Francesco Vincenzo Aloisio Paolo Carafa (di Colobranno) was born in Naples in 1787. With a name like that he HAD to have royal blood coursing through his veins—either that or his parents couldn't agree on what to call him. He was descended from several centuries’ worth of well-off Neapolitans, with Carlo Carafa the first of this lineage to carry the title “prince,” so named in 1617. The family’s source of wealth appears to have accumulated via the minding of debts and mortgages, and their coat of arms prominently displayed a set of balance scales to commemorate that fact. But the death in 1890 of Marzio Gaetano Carafa—the last remaining male heir in this branch of the family—apparently brought down the royal house of Carafa.

Michele Carafa began his musical studies at a local conservatory but journeyed to Paris with his mother to study with Luigi Cherubini. Because many of his male ancestors were army men, he returned to Naples in 1808 to finish his schooling at a military academy. At this point in its history, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Naples was its capital) was controlled by the French House of Savoy. In later years, Giuseppe Verdi’s grand opera “Les Veprés Sicilienne” would illustrate how much southern Italy chafed under French rule. However, the Carafa clan appears to have been on the other side of this conflict, at least at the beginning of the 19th century. As a result, Michele joined the French cavalry as a line officer and served in several army campaigns. He even went so far as to receive a knighthood in the Order of the Two Sicilies for heroism at Calabria and was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor, by Napoleon himself, for fighting in Russia. After the French Army was defeated at Waterloo in 1814, however, Carafa hung up his spurs to pursue a career in music. He returned to Naples and began composing operas in earnest.

His Gallicization was so complete that Carafa moved permanently to Paris in 1827, becoming a naturalized French citizen seven years later. He was named professor of counterpoint at the Paris Conservatory in 1840 and held that position until 1858. Carafa died in his adopted home town in 1872 at the ripe old age of 84.

Carafa wrote a total of 37 operas, which spanned the years 1805 to 1847. Nearly all of his early works debuted in Naples and, although he returned to the city of his birth a few times after relocating to the City of Lights, almost everything he wrote from the mid-1820s onward opened in Paris—primarily at the Opéra-Comique. His librettos came from a variety of sources, created by many of the biggest names of his day. They included Felice Romani—who wrote most of Bellini’s librettos, many for Donizetti (although they quarreled dozens of times because Romani often failed to keep up with Donizetti’s incredibly fast pace of composition), plus the final few operas Meyerbeer composed in Venice—and Andrea Tottola, best known for his librettos for Rossini.

A listing of Carafa’s operas shows a few titles shared by other composers—some of whom lived earlier, some later, and a few who were his contemporaries. Back when dozens of new operas premiered every week in houses across Western Europe—much the same way new feature films open weekly throughout the U.S. today—it wasn’t unusual to see the same stories set over and over again by different composers. A list of Carafa’s operas whose stories were also employed by others—some known by slightly different names but describing the same or similar circumstances—include “Gabriella di Vergy,” Il Paria” and “Le Nozze di Lammermoor” (Donizetti), “Ifigenia in Tauride” (five others including Gluck), “Il Sonnambulo” (a sex-change via Bellini), “Thérèse” (Massenet), and “Masaniello” (the same character as portrayed in Auber’s “La Muette de Portici”).

Among the rest of his works, the one that’s the most compelling to me—thanks to its title anyway—has to be “Gl’Italici e gl’Indiani” [“The Italians and the Indians”], which debuted in 1825 at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. I’d love to have seen the costumes for that one!

One of his best-known operas is the 1825 “La Belle au Bois Dormant,” known to English-speaking audiences by its translated title, “Sleeping Beauty.” Carafa composed it for the Venue of ‘Em All—the Paris Opera House—where renowned tenor Adophe Nourrit created the role of Prince Lindor, the character who bestows the magic kiss that awakens the napping princess.

Not only was Carafa a contemporary of Rossini, he was apparently his good buddy as well. They met in Paris, where Rossini wrote a number of his later operas for either the Théâtre-Italien (in Italian) or the Paris Opera (in French). Carafa scored a writing credit in Rossini’s “Mosè in Egitto” (libretto by Tottola), composing an aria that remained with the production even after it had been rewritten into “Mosé et Pharaon.” The Grand Man of bel canto was apparently secure enough in his own popularity that he didn’t feel threatened by the success of others—hardly the case with other composers of that day, some of whom even went so far as to hire people to boo the performers at their competitors’ premieres.

As one might guess from the title, “I Due Figaro” is a continuation of the Beaumarchais series originally played out in “Barbiere” and “Nozze.” At this point in the story, Cherubino—transformed from a “trousered” mezzo into a bass—returns to Almaviva’s estate after serving a dozen years in the army. He intends to marry Inez, the Count’s youngest daughter, but Figaro somehow gets tangled up in the affair. I’m guessing that the story uses the mistaken identity device so common to early 19th-century stages. But plot information on the Internet is pretty sparse, so one can only surmise. The opera premiered on June 6, 1820, at La Scala in Milan. The libretto was written by Romani, which he adapted from a four-act stage comedy by Martelli that debuted in Naples in 1809. Romani recycled this same libretto for Saverio Mercadante in his own version of “The Two Figaros,” performed in Madrid in 1835 where that composer was director of the Royal Spanish Opera. Carafa later reworked his opera for Parisian audiences. It opened at the Théâtre Odéon in Paris in 1827 with a French libretto, titled “Les Deux Figaro.”

Sadly, not one complete Carafa opera is available on CD, so far as I can tell. Even the venerable Italian publisher Bongiovanni, with its huge collection of operas that includes many “first world recordings”—Donizetti’s “Pia de Tolomei” and “L’Esule di Roma,” Giordano’s “La Cene Delle Beffe” and “Mala Vita,” Leoncavallo’s “Chatterton,” plus two operas by Carlo Coccia—has nary a Carafa. Opera Rara does feature Carafa arias on several of its compilation CDs, however. A song from “Gabriella di Vergy,” performed by soprano* Yvonne Kenny, is on its sampler disc, “Opera Rara Collection: Volume Two,” while a quintet from “Le Nozze di Lammermoor” appears in its box set, “A Hundred Years of Italian Opera: 1820–1830.”

The composer’s first success in Paris was “Jeanne d’Arc à Orléans,” which opened in 1821 at the Opéra-Comique. Given the number of times it was performed during Carafa’s lifetime (although apparently never in the last century nor in this one) plus the glowing reviews it reportedly enjoyed, it may be one of the composer’s best choices for revival. After all, there’s nothing like ending an opera with a good stake-burning to get the audience pumped up. And one can only hope that the Wildbad production of “Two Figaros” will somehow find its way onto CD, at which point I’ll likely force myself to dig deep and buy it.

*Mistakenly called a mezzo before Sarah so kindly corrected me.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Rethinking Catalani’s “La Wally”

In an earlier post on this site I made the offhand remark that the soprano aria, “Ebben? ne andrò lontano,” was the only worthwhile bit from an otherwise rightfully forgotten opera. This song is quite famous, performed often by sopranos in recital and a big hit from a foreign film (“Diva”) that enjoys a cult-like following, while also providing the movie’s major plot point.

Alfredo Catalani (1854–1893) came from Lucca, Italy, the birthplace of his contemporary and oft-claimed rival, Giacomo Puccini. But while Puccini—four years younger than Catalani—lived until 1924, Alfredo died at age 39. He was done in by consumption—an old term for tuberculosis. Catalani wrote five complete operas, the first of which was a student composition. His four mature works began with “Elda” in 1880, premiered at the Teatro Reggio in Turin. That was followed by “Dejanice” (1883) and “Edmea” (1886) at Milan’s La Scala, and then a revision of “Elda” in 1890 under the name “Loreley,” also for Turin. Incidentally, the Italian music company Bongiovanni has recorded all three of these pieces in their entirety.

In the world of Italian music, Catalani was far from a lightweight. Gustav Mahler personally selected “Dejanice” as the work he wanted to conduct in Leipzig, and Arturo Toscanini marked his debut at age 19 by conducting the first performance of “Edmea” in Turin. The latter became an Alfredo-backer for life, even naming two of his children for characters in the composer’s final creation.

Strong artistic personalities oftentimes create lasting enemies, and Catalani's reputation suffered for that. He was an outspoken critic of the “verismo” style of opera, directly in conflict with the growing popularity of works by Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and especially Puccini. But he also ticked off Verdi, publicly describing his music as, “stir[ring the public] with screams and stagy effects that are completely lacking in common sense.” Since Verdi and his publisher—Ricordi—effectively controlled late 19th century Italian opera, that probably wasn’t an optimal career move. There are reports that Verdi actually started the squabble, back when Catalani’s student opera, “La Falce,” was performed no fewer than three times at the Milan Conservatory (such compositions were rarely staged more than once) in 1875, decrying Catalani’s style as “blithely Wagnerian.” Back in those days, them was fightin’ words!

The composer also enjoyed the collaboration of several famous librettists. The book for “Edmea” was written by Antonio Ghilanzoni, creator of forty-plus opera librettos including “Aida.” He also wrote lyrics for several operas by Ponchielli (although NOT his most famous, “La Gioconda”) and Gomes, the latter a Brazilian composer who was heralded early and often by Verdi.

“La Wally” premiered at Milan’s La Scala on January 20, 1892. The libretto was one of the earliest by Luigi Illica, best known for collaborating with Puccini on “Manon Lescaut,” “La Boheme,” “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly,” not to mention librettos for Mascagni, Alberto Franchetti (“Cristoforo Columbo”) and Giordano (“Siberia,” “Andrea Chenier”).

The opera is in four acts, based on a German novel titled “Die Geyer-Wally” [The Vulture-Wally] by someone named Wilhelmine von Hillern. Considering Illica's adaptation, I’m not sure where the “vulture” part comes into play; it may have been one of those instances where the concept got left on the cutting-room floor.

Set in the Tyrol, it’s your basic operatic premise of girl-loves-boy, girl’s-father-betroths-her-elsewhere, true-love-triumphs-briefly, and then lovers-die-tragically. Given the geographic setting, the fact that Wally (the soprano heroine) and Hagenbach (her tenor lover) perish together in an avalanche seems rather fitting. There are also roles for Wally’s father (bass), the father’s preferred suitor (baritone), the heroine’s rival (mezzo), and a young zither player (soprano) who imparts important information to move the plot forward. There are also myriad townsfolk, shepherds and other hangers-on who populate the scenery.

In February 1989, a “New York Times” article by John Rockwell reviewed a performance of “La Wally” at Sarasota (Fla.) Opera. He wrote, “[while] Catalani’s operas crop up occasionally in Italy…his best known score had apparently not received a full staging in this country since 1909 at the Metropolitan Opera.” In April 1990, Eve Queler led an Opera Orchestra of New York concert performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Aprile Millo sang the title role in that production. A quick scan of the OperaBase Web site, which posts past and future performances for nearly every major opera house worldwide, shows several performances in Dusseldorf (Germany) at the tail-end of 2005, but nothing else.

The opera is fairly scarce on CD. The only version available on a major recording label is from London/Decca, with Renata Tebaldi in the title role. The other singers include Justino Diaz, Mario Del Monaco and Piero Cappuccilli, and the conductor is Fausto Cleva. Turning to Amazon.com for further details, five reviewers each gave this recording top marks (five stars), including one from Larry Cantrell of Vancouver, B.C., who wrote:
“This is not a familiar work for most opera lovers. That
is a shame because it is a hoot! Where else is there a yodeling
aria? In what other opera does the tenor despise the soprano until almost
the [very] end? And, I ask you, where can you find a tenor so dumb that he
falls off a cliff TWICE before the curtain falls?”

Tebaldi also figures on a live Opera’d’Oro recording from Rome in October 1960, but her cast-mates—Silvio Majonica, Jolando Gardino and Giacinto Prandelli—could just as easily be the starting midfielders for Italy’s World Cup team, for all we might have heard of them. La Renata owned the role of Wally throughout her career, which is why it was such a challenge for me to find a complete recording of the opera on CD by some other soprano. You see, I’m not especially crazy about Tebaldi’s voice—especially late in her career, which is when this Decca recording was made.

Luckily for me I stumbled upon a Eurodisc box set from 1991 on eBay, with Hungarian soprano Eva Marton as Wally. The rest of the singers include Francesco d’Artegna (bass), Alan Titus (baritone), Francisco Araiza (tenor) and Birgit Calm (mezzo). Other than Marton, the conductor boasts the most recognizable name in the bunch—Pinchas Steinberg.

In his “NYT” review Rockwell commented that Catalani’s “lack of visceral musical drama…complex orchestral parts and lack of big, fat tunes,” plus his “quaintly pastoral” libretto, were all factors that contributed to the opera’s demise among audiences more attuned to the excitement of verismo. But having listened to it last weekend in its entirety—two-plus hours played straight through—I have to agree with his further assessment that “La Wally” seems worthy of a major revival.

A short time ago one of my fellow bloggers, Maury D’Annato noted that it’s difficult to judge the worth of a rarely performed opera, since only one complete recording of it may exist, oftentimes performed by less-than-stellar casts and obscure orchestras—the National Ensemble of Moldova, for example.

But I found the Eurodisc recording quite pleasing, with clear-sounding instruments (Munich Radio Orchestra) and well-cast soloists. The orchestral music sounded modernistic for something written in the late 1800s—almost movie-like in a Korngold sort of way. Alan Titus sounded so much like Robert Merrill that I practically had to check the liner notes a second time. Further research has turned up a Web site on the Julliard-trained baritone, with a fairly decent number of roles under his apparently ample belt and a fair discography.

What Catalani did with the chorus was especially enjoyable. They blend well with the orchestra and ably suit the pastoral setting in which the opera takes place. Despite a pretty lame story line, the music does a good job of moving the plot ahead. The only annoying part was the composer’s use of the “musical laugh” in an inordinate number of locations—plus a few piercing screams, but I suppose one has to expect that when people are falling off cliffs or being buried in avalanches.

I’ll probably listen to “La Wally” again in the not-too-distant future and, as I have often found, operas I like seem to get better the more I hear them. A search for this work on DVD has turned up a “private” recording available on the House of Opera Web site with Mara Zampieri as Wally, recorded at the Bregenz Festival in 1990 and conducted by our old friend, Maestro Steinberg. Maybe I’ll take a chance on it, since it’s not available on a commercial disk, not likely to be anytime soon, and it’s on sale there for $9.98.

I extend thanks to the Opera Italiana Web site for biographical data on Alfredo Catalani and a synopsis of the plot of “La Wally.” It’s a valuable source of information on many Italian composers of opera. And for a small membership fee it offers audio clips for quite a few arias.

Monday, April 10, 2006

New Reader?

Many thanks to Charles Ralph for the kindly blurb at the end of this week's "Opera Pronto" newsletter. If you're a new reader of this blog, please note that comments may be left by first clicking on the time stamp at the conclusion of each post, and then clicking on the "Post a Comment" highlight.

Charles generously calls me insightful, although having tried for the past five-plus years to get a high-tech start-up off the ground, my wife and various acquaintances would probably challenge that description.

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