Songs of Travel
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Songs of Travel

PETER G. DAVIS shares some of his memories of the summer of 1956, when he made his first visit to some of Europe’s great opera festivals.

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Verona’s Piazza Bra, dominated by the first-century Arena di Verona
© akg-images/Interfoto/LP 2015
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spacer Correspondent reports from the 1956 European-summer-festival season.
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An audience at Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus in the 1950s
© akg-images/Interfoto/ATV 2015
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The spectacular marble grand staircase in Paris’s Salle Garnier
© Gregory Downer 2015

"Well, go ahead. Perhaps if you drown yourself in opera for six weeks, you’ll get it out of your system.”

I was astonished. My usually super-cautious father, a Boston banker, had agreed to let his fourth and youngest son spend college vacation on his own, traveling the European opera-festival circuit. I chose carefully — Wieland Wagner’s controversial Ring cycle in Bayreuth, three Strauss rarities in Munich, Mozart’s Idomeneo in Salzburg, where the composer’s bicentennial was in full swing. A travel agency in New York City easily made all the advance ticket arrangements; in 1956, Bayreuth’s ten-year waiting list was still far in the future, and, as I soon found out, postwar Europe eagerly welcomed visiting young Americans interested in their culture. There was more opera to be seen en route, in Paris and at the Verona Arena, but I figured I would take my chances and crash those gates when I arrived.

My parental blessing did not include a major financial grant, so I was on a tight budget. It took ten days for the rather woebegone Greek liner that I had shipped out on to make its way across the Atlantic, and the impromptu hotel accommodations I found after the boat train arrived in Paris were humble. All that was forgotten when I discovered I was just in time to catch the tail end of the Paris season. In those days, two principal companies with long pedigrees still dominated the scene — the Théâtre National de l’Opéra, which made its home in the luxurious Palais Garnier, and the more modest Opéra Comique, at that time taking up temporary quarters in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had its riotous premiere in 1913. The opera scene in Paris has changed drastically since those far-off days, and probably for the better. But what an opportunity to experience, even in decline, the two classic operatic institutions that had towered over Parisian musical life for more than three centuries.

Decadent or not, the first sight of the Palais Garnier was just as stunning as I’d hoped — the fabled grand foyer with its double loggias and ceiling frescoes, the dramatic upward sweep of the marble staircase, the gold-and-crimson decor of the auditorium with its awesome chandelier, all of it recently renovated, according to the program. The stage machinery had also been updated, but the three operas I saw might well have been presented in productions carefully preserved from the nineteenth century. Wagner’s La Walkyrie (all operas were still sung in French back then) was a traditionalist’s dream, representational down to the last bearskin, winged helmet and antique drinking horn; when Wotan conjured up Loge’s magic fire at the end, the fragrance of burning cedar logs wafted out over the audience. Most of the cast was unknown to me, singers who followed the time-honored French tradition of staying home rather than making careers abroad. Did I have the prescience to note two young exceptions who would soon be known and treasured internationally? One was Régine Crespin, already an exquisitely fragile but passionately intense Sieglinde, and the other Rita Gorr, a chilling Fricka with steely dramatic presence and voice to match, already tapped to relearn her Wagner in German and sing at Bayreuth.

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Tourists admiring the façade of the Paris Opera in the 1950s
© akg-images 2015

Veteran singers dominated the remainder of my Paris visit. It was a bit late in the day for José Luccioni, at one time a famous French Otello, but I was glad of the opportunity to hear him sing Boito’s French translation (with Camille du Locle) of his own Italian text. I knew Janine Micheau as a world-class soprano leggiero from her numerous British Decca recordings made in the early 1950s, and it was a treat to see her still accurate and elegant, if rather matronly, as Gounod’s Ju­liette. Best of all was my evening spent at the Opéra Comique with Jacques Jansen as the dashing revolutionary poet Ange Pitou in Charles Lecocq’s operetta La Fille de Mme. Angot. Jansen was the ardently plangent Pelléas on the classic 1941 recording of Debussy’s opera made in Paris during the Nazi occupation — the version I fell in love with as a teenager. I never thought to see him onstage, yet here he was, still looking handsome and youthful, sounding like a dream, and moving with the grace of a ballet dancer.

The Italian leg of my operatic journey very nearly came to nothing. In Milan, La Scala was closed for the summer, and all I could do was tour the building and hope to return one day. Then it was off to Verona, which threatened to be another dead end, since every hotel in town was booked up. While headed glumly back to the train station, I stumbled into what looked like a U.S. officers’ mess hall (American soldiers were then stationed all over central Europe), where one helpful Italian-speaking GI took me to the apartment of a Veronese lady of his acquaintance, a Signora Arduini, who kindly rented me her spare room for three nights.

No wonder the town was packed. Merely sitting in the Verona Arena waiting for the performance to begin is an opera in itself — the vast expanse of the ancient Roman amphitheater, the starlit velvet-blue sky, a massive remnant of the arena’s original circular stone enclosure looming at the rear, thousands of tiny candles lit by audience members just before the performance begins: “un incanto per l’orecchio e per gli occhi,” murmured the awed man on my left.

The ears were certainly enchanted in Verona that summer — Nabuccowith Anita Cerquetti and Giangiacomo Guelfi; Il Barbiere di Siviglia, with Virginia Zeani, Cesare Valletti, Ettore Bastianini and Giulio Neri; La Gioconda, with Caterina Mancini, Fedora Barbieri and Giuseppe di Stefano; Tosca, with Gigliola Frazzoni, Franco Corelli and Tito Gobbi. I saw the latter two operas, both stolen by their respective tenors: Corelli, whose Met debut was still five years off, drove the audience crazy and had to sing an encore of his last-act aria; di Stefano had not yet blown his gorgeous instrument to smithereens, although one could certainly hear what was coming. It was a thrill to see Mancini chew up everything in sight, even if she had lost the top half of her soprano since recording those Verdi voice-killers for the Cetra label nearly a decade earlier. Alas, I never did get another chance to see the fabled Anita Cerquetti, who would soon end her shooting-star career almost before it began. At any rate, it was time to move on to Bayreuth.

Every first-time visitor is awed by Bayreuth, for better or worse — the cozy Bavarian charm of the winding streets, the fanatical devotion of nearly everyone in town to the master’s memory, and of course the legendary Festspielhaus. Here is my description of the latter from the journal I kept that summer: “The inside auditorium is truly disgraceful. The seats are barbaric, made out of wicker and have no arms. The floor is rough boards. All the paint on the ceiling and walls is peeling and the columnry [sic] is chipped. The whole decrepit atmosphere is heightened by the pervading musty odor of a half cellar.... In spite of the discomforts the acoustics are perfect.” Snotty little twit. Perhaps no one had told me that a mere ten years earlier the Festspielhaus had been playing host to American GI variety shows, and that Germany’s amazing postwar economic recovery, the Wirtschaftswunderhad yet to kick in.

Even this know-it-all twenty-year-old had to admit that Wieland Wagner’s spare, abstract productions were rather mystifying — genuine culture shocks after seeing the Paris Opéra’s antiquated Walkyrie a couple of weeks earlier. Luckily, I was able to revisit Bayreuth frequently over the next decade, right up to Wieland’s death in 1966, and by then the director’s style not only made powerful sense but gave me insights into Wagner’s operas that few productions have given me since. I was doubly fortunate to live part of that time in Stuttgart, Wieland’s winter home base, where he not only experimented with the entire Wagner canon, including Rienzi, but staged such diverse fare as Gluck’s Orfeo, Beethoven’s Fidelio and Orff’s Antigone.

I had never seen a complete Ring cycle before, and however much the staging may have puzzled me, the overall effect on a lad addicted to opera since the age of twelve was undeniably potent. The singers may have accounted for that to a great extent. They were all Wagnerian veterans versed in the old ways but eagerly embracing the new — Astrid Varnay, Gré Brouwenstijn, Wolfgang Windgassen, Hans Hotter and Gustav Neidlinger, among many others who once made Bayreuth both a flexible ensemble and a closely knit family of great singers. Fortunately, nearly all of the “new Bayreuth” performances of the 1950s are preserved on radio transcripts in excellent sound.

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Wieland Wagner’s 1956 Bayreuth staging of Die Meistersinger, with Gré Brouwenstijn (Eva) and Wolfgang Windgassen (Walther)
© akg-images/ullstein bild 2015

After seeing the Ring, I gazed longingly at the posters announcing performances of Wieland’s severely abstract new production of Die Meistersingerwhich was that summer’s major scandal (some called it Die Meistersinger ohne Nürnberg), and a revival of his acclaimed 1951 Parsifal. Luckily, my landlady, Frau Frieda Stummbaum, came to the rescue. A colorful charmer who claimed to have known and sheltered every Bayreuth star since 1930, Frieda magically produced a ticket to Parsifal and then arranged for the agreeable tenor who rented the room next to mine, Josef Traxel, to get me into a Meistersinger in which he was singing Kunz Vogelgesang. Meistersinger may have left me truly perplexed, but the Parsifal was sublime. Wieland’s geometrically plotted stage groupings of both crowds and individuals uncannily emphasized the opera’s ambiguous dramatic tensions, while Martha Mödl (Kundry), Ramon Vinay (Parsifal) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Amfortas) formed a perfect erotic–sacred triangle. It’s said that Fischer-Dieskau’s baritone was too small to be effective in opera — he never sang a staged role in the U.S. — but in Bayreuth’s friendly, close-up acoustic he sounded searing, haunted and powerful. With that cast, the provocative ambience and Hans Knappertsbusch’s spacious reading of the score, this Parsifal remains among my half dozen most memorable opera experiences.

Like Wagner in Bayreuth, Richard Strauss in his hometown of Munich has always been a potent living presence — particularly so when I first arrived, since by 1956 Strauss had been dead only seven years. His operas dominated the annual summer festival at the Prinzregententheater, a virtual architectural replica of Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus (Munich’s principal opera house, the Nationaltheater, still lay in ruins), and the three works I was most eager to see — Die Ägyptische Helena, Die Frau ohne Schatten and Capriccio — were then infrequently staged connoisseur items. I knew the operas from score-reading only, and watching them come to musical and dramatic life onstage for the first time was heady stuff, especially since I had always been assured by my elders that Strauss never wrote anything worth hearing after Der Rosenkavalier.

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Leonie Rysanek
© Sabine Toepffer 2015

Two singers helped adjust my perspective on Strauss. Listening to the live recording of Die Ägyptische Helena can at least suggest young Leonie Rysanek’s expressive generosity and incandescent soprano in the title role, but the seductive stage magic she created as this most enigmatic of all the Strauss–Hofmannsthal heroines has evaporated into operatic history. More sight-and-sound documents exist of Lisa Della Casa, another singer whose vocal beauty matched her glamorous presence. She made the most of both assets in Capriccio, when the Countess enters in elegant eighteenth-century evening dress, dreamily strolls out on the balcony of her elegant country estate and, flooded in moonlight, sings the most gorgeous soprano finale Strauss ever wrote. I often timed subsequent Munich visits to catch Della Casa in Capriccio, a subtly inflected interpretation that seemed to me even more bewitching after the production moved to the Cuvilliés-Theater, that tiny jewel of a rococo court theater in the Altesresidenz.

My last festival stop was Salzburg and a performance of Idomeneo so depressingly awful that I left halfway through. Years later, after stumbling on a pirate LP issue of the occasion, I finally did hear Act III and realized I had made the right choice. Karl Böhm presided over a heavy-handed account of the score, while the all-German cast headed by Rudolf Schock, Hildegard Hillebrecht, Waldemar Kmentt and Christl Goltz sounded crude and out of touch with Mozart, at least to my young ears. Worse, the town seemed determined to use the composer’s 200th birthday as a cheap marketing gimmick, and the whole experience permanently soured me on Salzburg.

No matter. Even that forgettable Idomeneo hardly spoiled my six weeks immersed in opera; if my father expected me to return home cured, he must have been disappointed. I wonder if young travelers to Europe in 2015 will discover up-and-coming vocal talents as promising as Franco Corelli, Leonie Rysanek, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Régine Crespin, or see productions as revelatory as Wieland Wagner’s Ring cycle and Parsifal, or hear a Strauss singer as ravishingly beautiful as Lisa Della Casa. I hope so. spacer 

PETER G. DAVIS, author of The American Opera Singer: The Lives & Adventures of America’s Great Singers in Opera & Concert from 1825 to the Present, has been a longtime contributor of classical-music articles and reviews to such publications as The New York Times and Musical America. 

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