Saturday, January 30, 2010

Some time after I arrived in Boston to begin studies at the Boston University Theater School, I began expanding my record collection in the new and exciting areas of Medieval/Renaissance/Baroque that had suddenly taken off like rockets. The market became flooded with inexpensive LPs licensed from European companies. Perhaps the most prominent label was Nonesuch--I bought scores of their records. Another was Vanguard and the prize of the bunch was a recording of Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks in a version not like any other available.

It was a time that saw the beginning of what's now called "authentic practice" by those who were exploring early music, but began as "original instrument." Violins were being outfitted with gut strings rather than steel, recorders in all their different registers and harpsichords were everywhere. The truly brave took up valveless "natural" horns and the little, brilliant Baroque trumpets with their stratospheric high notes; they were treacherous to play and before players had fully mastered them they cracked notes mercilessly. Audiences were introduced to the different sound of entire orchestras made up of original instruments; groups battled each other in print, on the concert platform, and via their recordings over which one was more authentic than thou.

In 1959 the young Charles Mackerras, soon to be a major force in original instrument authentic practice, looked at the original manuscript of the Fireworks Music and saw that its instrumentation was radically different from that of the smoothed over, reorchestrated scores made by Victorian-era arrangers and decided to see what the original sounde like. An English company agreed to make a recording. The sessions had to begin late at night after the musicians in London's symphony orchestras and opera house orchestra pits were finished their evening performances. The cream of the city's brass, woodwind and percussion players was engaged. This was the orchestra for which Handel had written:

24 oboes (26 were used for the recording), 14 bassoons (16 for the recording) , 4 contra-bassoons, 2 serpents, 9 horns, 9 trumpets, 6 tympani, and 6 side drums. A gothic church in the north of London was the recording venue.

The recording was a revelation when it came out, and over the years I literally wore the record out. The performance, the sheer glorious noise of it, had nothing to do with the reverent, polite performance style that had become standard for Handel and which frequently drained the life out of much of his work. This was exciting, striding, confident, full-blooded Handel.

As my LP deteriorated, I kept looking for a CD reissue and one may at some time have come out but I couldn't find it if it did. Two weeks ago Amazon sent one if its periodic notices of new releases it thinks I might like based on previous purchases - and there it was on the Testament label, the Fireworks, the other items on the original release, and other Handel performances conducted by the young Mackerras. There are even the two minuets from the Fireworks, with the sounds of actual fireworks and cannon shots mixed in, that had been released in England but not in the US as a bonus.

I played it last night during dinner and Fritz was captivated. There's a moment early in the overture to the Fireworks that is just breathtaking. It begins with a grand, stately section in the lower voiced winds, then a sudden, brilliant entrance by the nine trumpets, and an immediate response from the nine horns with a thrilling burr on their tone made all the more exciting by the crystal clear digitized sound. A whole era of baroque splendor is in that moment!


One of the longest and busiest careers at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere ended last week with the retirement of Charles Anthony. I began going to opera as a kid - literally - and Charley Anthony was in the first opera I ever saw: Rossini's The Barber of Seville in 1957. He'd already been singing there for three years at that time.

In his first years he sang not only the character roles for which he would became so famous, but also some lyric tenor leads. A repertory company can't exist, however, without a rock solid ensemble in support of the big stars. That's where the child of Sicilian immigrants who had settled in New Orleans made his mark. He was born Calogero Antonio Caruso; the article below got his original name wrong. He had a very big voice, which was just right for a 3800 seat opera house, and sang in French, Italian, German, English, and Russian operas.

After 57 Years at the Met, a Tenor’s Swan Song
By JAMES BARRON, NY Times January 27, 2010, 6:25 pm

Would a Caruso by another name be as memorable?

The tenor Charles Anthony has had 57 years to wonder about that. That is how long he has been on the Metropolitan Opera’s roster, appearing with stars who were household names. Plácido Domingo. Kiri Te Kanawa. Jessye Norman. Luciano Pavarotti. Leontyne Price.

They sang under their own names. Not Mr. Anthony.

Rudolf Bing, the Met’s imperious general manager when Mr. Anthony was in his 20s and had just made it into the semifinals of the Met’s auditions for promising young singers, told him that he had to choose another name.

It already had a guy with his last name: Enrico Caruso. So Charles Anthony Caruso became just Charles Anthony.

Now, at 80, Mr. Anthony has become a Methuselah of the Met. It is tempting to say that he has appeared too many times to count, but the Met counts things. It says he has appeared in 2,927 performances, the most of any solo artist in its history. He is comfortably ahead of George Cehanovsky, a Russian-born baritone who appeared 2,394 times in a career that began in 1926. (No. 3 on the list could steal the title in a few years: James Levine, the music director of the Met, has conducted 2,410 performances.)

As a younger man, Mr. Anthony concentrated on character roles. For the last few years he has been something of a bench warmer, singing some roles but also covering those of singers assigned to parts he once sang. If an understudy suddenly gets a sore throat, he steps in. That does not happen often, so most nights, he watches the doings on the stage on a wide-screen television in a dressing room.

But on Thursday, he is going on, as Emperor Altoum in Puccini’s “Turandot.” It will be his last appearance at the Met, the end of a run that began with “Boris Godunov” and continued with “Pagliacci” and “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” on tour, opposite Roberta Peters. And that was just during his first season, in 1954.

“We’re talking about a huge range of roles,” Mr. Levine said. “We’re talking about a guy with phenomenal resilience.”

Mr. Anthony learned the emperor’s role when he was 66, an age when many singers’ voices have left them. He had sung another character in “Turandot” in the 1960s — Pong, one of the three ministers at the emperor’s court in Beijing. “Then Zeffirelli came along” in the 1970s, Mr. Anthony said, “and I did Pang.”

“I always wanted to do the emperor,” he said, but Mr. Levine told him, “Your voice sounds too young. I guess at 80,” Mr. Anthony said, “I’m old enough.”

In all those years at the Met, he has not only sung a lot, he has seen a lot: the understudy who leapt over a wall, the way the star always did, only to pull the wall down. The donkey in “Il Trittico” who ruined a scene with the nuns.

Or the time the soprano in “Salome” finished the Dance of the Seven Veils, only to have a tenor who had a role in that scene whisper, “Can she sing ‘Melancholy Baby’?”

Mr. Levine said that it was true that, back in the ’70s or the ’80s, he had said Mr. Anthony still sounded too young to sing the emperor’s part. “The other thing I remember saying was, he was a beacon of really intelligent bel canto singing,” Mr. Levine said, “and that was important for the incoming singers to see that this isn’t about screaming or forcing it.”

Two newcomers Mr. Anthony appeared with probably already knew that. One was Marian Anderson, who made her Met debut in January 1955 in “Un Ballo in Maschera.” “I didn’t realize what a momentous evening that was,” he said. “The Jackie Robinson of opera.”

Seven years later, he had a hand — literally — in Ms. Price’s first night at the Met, in “Il Trovatore.”

“I had to lead her on stage” for her big scene in Act IV, Mr. Anthony said. “Her hands were ice cold. She didn’t want to move. She was petrified. She had to sing the toughest aria in the show. I hear our cue. I say, ‘That’s our cue.’ She says, ‘I can’t go.’ Then she looked up and says, ‘Well, God, you got me here, now get me out of here!’”

She sang the aria, “D’amor sull’ali rosee.” For a long moment after the last note, there was silence in the house. “I’m going, ‘Oh, my God, they’re not going to applaud?’” Mr. Anthony recalled. “And then the audience roared like an airplane.”

The conversation turned to Pavarotti. They appeared in more than 130 performances together, starting with “La Traviata” in 1970. The performance he remembered was in 1981, the first time they were in the same cast of “Rigoletto.”

“Most singers are petrified before they go on,” he said. “Pavarotti said, ‘Anthony’ — and he was shaking — ‘I wouldn’t wish these three minutes before the orchestra starts on my worst enemy.’ And then there’s a moment when they fall back on their technique and lock in. I’ve been scared all my life. I prayed my way through every performance.”

I've seen a total of 859 performances of opera so far in my life from Sydney, Australia to Kiev, Ukraine with the majority at the Metropolitan. I don't know how many performances I've seen with Charley Anthony over the years - perhaps as many as a hundred. But even if it was "only" ninety, there was something reassuring knowing that every season I bought tickets for the Metropolitan, Charley would be involved somehow. He was there the first time I saw a live opera, and as good as it will continue to be for me at the MET, one small but meaningful component of that great organization is gone and will be sincerely missed.

You've seen 859. And I've seen one. Uno. Single.

Mozart's The Magic Prague.

Clearly, I need to get started with my opera endeavors.
Thanks for sharing both of these items, Will.
I've nominated you for a Kreative Blogger Award.

Don't do the meme unless you want to, but I wanted to tell you. :)
I am fascinated how you kept track of the # of operas you have seen. I would not have a clue to my number.
"Lots' comes to mind, but not 859 (yet)
Michael, the key is that I kept every program for every opera, ballet, play, musical or concert I ever attended. Several years ago I sat down and transcribed the date, cast and company, along with whether it was an opera I had designed myself, onto a Word file. So, I can simply open the file and get the info quickly and easily.
A favorite of mine next week- Cossi Fan Tutti at Portland Opera.
Thanks for the story about MR. Anthony. I am always learnning new things from you.
I love your passion for music. It really comes out in your writing. It's wonderful the way you explain listening to the recording with Fritz at dinner.

As I just posted on Ur-Spo's blog, I've never been a big fan of Opera but that's more out of a lack of experience more than anything. My ex was a big Wagner fan so I got accustomed to some but never attended a single performance - let alone 859!

I do however love Classical, admittedly a novice though. I'll have to listen to the MacKerras recording. I never knew about the "authentic practice" -- very interesting.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?