Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Mezzo for All Time

I'm tempted to travel out to Santa Fe this summer, yes, for the opera, and yes, even though we managed to make it out there to the opera for the first time last summer. It was delightful even though none of the operas were perfect. Just watching the sun set over the mountains behind the main stage is enough reason to want to go back soon.

But this summer they are reviving Samuel Barber's Vanessa, the rare modern opera that has been revived quite a few times since its 1958 premiere at the Met. Now one prime reason I'd like to see this opera would not be satisfied by a trip to Santa Fe, but probably not by any place else either. Rosalind Elias, long-time adornment of the Met's mezzo roster, created the role of Erika, which she played to Eleanor Steber's title soprano role. It's of more than mild interest that the title role was written with Callas in mind, only the diva turned it down, saying Elias's mezzo part was better!

Ms. Elias is likely the only principal connected with that premiere almost 60 years ago who is still extant. She was interviewed by Opera magazine in its July issue and the story was a delight. As a very young singer, she lucked out by being offered a major role in a new production--a new opera, no less. And she dared to tell the imperious Rudolf Bing, then the Met's general manager, that she thought she should have an aria written for her part as well.

Bing was known to cater to singers he liked and clearly she was one of them. He called Barber right then and said, "Sam, Rosalind is here and has something to ask you." And lo and behold, the great Samuel Barber wrote one for her, a good one too: "Must the winter come so soon?" which has become a recital hall staple. Elias remains the sole Erika in Met history, having sung the role in each revival. She has also sung the role of the Baroness, originated by the wonderful Regina Resnik.

Elias was always lucky, it seems. In the 60s, she sang Zerlina, the first mezzo to do so at the Met since the 1880s, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf no less, who was getting on and not in good form, and who almost freaked Elias out, until Geraint Evans took Elias by the hand to get her away from the legend's problems. 

It's wonderful to recall that Elias starred in the first Met performance I ever attended--a student performance of Carmen in 1958, when I was in junior high and went on a school excursion to the old house on 39th Street. Just being in the amazing old building was exciting and now I realize what a trouper Elias was and why Bing must have liked her--here she is singing student performances, albeit of the opera with the greatest mezzo role, while in the same season singing the premiere of Vanessa.

Barber's opera, with libretto by Gian-Carlo Menotti, is now revived enough to be more than a curiosity. Should I be unable to make it to Santa Fe this summer, it's being done in the late fall at the Wexford Festival in Ireland.

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