C1672. PAUL PARAY Cond. Detroit S.O., w.PHYLLIS CURTIN: Mozart Arias; Salome - Final Scene (Strauss), Live Performance, 16 Jan., 1964; w.ROBERTA PETERS: Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti & Johann Strauss Arias - Live Performance, 15 Dec., 1960. [A fine representation of Roberta Peters in concert, rather than from the opera house; treasurable performances in this cherished memento of Phyllis Curtin!] (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-572. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“Phyllis Curtin, an American soprano celebrated as a champion of new music, a mainstay of the New York City Opera in the 1950s and ’60s, was noted for the purity of her voice, the sensitivity of her musical phrasing and the crystalline perfection of her diction. On the opera stage and in recital, she gave the premieres of dozens of works by 20th-century composers – ‘more first, and last, performances than any singer in history’, as she was fond of saying, ruefully. But she sang many works with staying power, including music by Benjamin Britten, Ned Rorem and the American composer Carlisle Floyd, for whom she created the title role in SUSANNAH, his most famous opera, in a performance at Florida State University in Tallahassee in 1955.
In the standard repertoire, Ms. Curtin was widely praised for her Mozart - she sang all of his major heroines over time - and for the title role in Richard Strauss’ SALOME. Her other notable roles included Violetta in LA TRAVIATA and Alice Ford in FALSTAFF, Ellen Orford in Britten’s PETER GRIMES; the title role in Darius Milhaud’s MÉDÉE; and Cathy in Mr. Floyd’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS, a part she created at the Santa Fe Opera in 1958. Ms. Curtin also sang at the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Vienna State Opera, Covent Garden and La Scala. She appeared in concert with the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and other major ensembles.
In later years she taught voice at Yale and Boston Universities and at Tanglewood, where she held a sought-after master class each summer for more than half a century.
Though Ms. Curtin’s singing was esteemed by critics and opera aficionados, she remained less well known than contemporary sopranos like Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland. She performed with the Met just 35 times in the 1960s and ’70s, and recorded far less than many of her peers. Writing in The New York Times in 1998, Anthony Tommasini described Ms. Curtin as an ‘estimable American soprano, who has achieved notable success and respect throughout the field but never quite the recognition she deserves’. The reasons for this seem to reflect the difficulties faced by many American opera singers of Ms. Curtin’s era, when a European background was considered the sine qua non for landing contracts with major United States companies. What was more, as Ms. Curtin told it, her career was hindered by a set of backstage machinations as Machiavellian as anything in opera.
She envisioned herself as a recitalist – ‘a song-singer’, she liked to say - but fell into opera early. As a student at Tanglewood in 1946, she sang a small role in the United States premiere of PETER GRIMES, under Leonard Bernstein. Ms. Curtin gave her New York recital début at Town Hall in 1950 in a characteristically eclectic program that featured songs by Mozart, Fauré, Ravel, Mussorgsky and several Latin American composers. Reviewing the performance, THE NEW YORK TIMES said: ‘Miss Curtin’s voice is altogether lovely in quality, and is used with equal assurance throughout its entire range. But her concern was so exclusively with communication that one was conscious only of the music itself’.
She made her first appearance with City Opera in 1953, singing three roles in the United States premiere of THE TRIAL, an adaptation of Kafka’s novel by the Austrian composer Gottfried von Einem. The début was well received, as was her subsequent work with the company, but it was not until City Opera staged SUSANNAH in 1956, with Ms. Curtin again in the title role, that her reputation was truly made. Based on the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders, the opera, set in rural Tennessee, centers on a community’s condemnation of a sensual young woman and the tragic consequences that ensue. It went on to become one of the most frequently performed American operas, and Susannah became the character with which Ms. Curtin was most closely identified.
Yet operatic superstardom eluded her. She may have been hindered by her voice which, though almost universally praised for its purity, was not as immense as large opera houses can demand. She may have been tarred, too, by her association with 20th-century music, typically a hard sell to audiences.
Ms. Curtin made her Met début in 1961 as Fiordiligi in Mozart’s COSÌ FAN TUTTE. (‘Now Phyllis Curtin is at the Met, where she should have been a long time ago’, THE NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE wrote.) But after that, the company’s imperious general manager, Rudolf Bing, engaged her only occasionally.
Even more painful than her dealings with the Met was a rupture with City Opera in 1966, which Ms. Curtin called ‘the only heartbreaking thing in my career’. The company had been planning to stage Handel’s JULIUS CAESAR, with the role of Cleopatra going to Ms. Curtin. Then Ms. Sills, in her 30s and a City Opera regular though not yet a huge star, demanded the role for herself. She threatened to rent Carnegie Hall and present a competing program of arias from the opera if the company did not relent. The company relented. ‘That’s when the knife went into my back’, Ms. Curtin told THE TIMES in 1972. ‘After my life at the City Opera, which had always been successful for me and the company, I simply couldn’t believe that my family would do that to me’. Ms. Sills, who later said she regretted the episode, sang the role to immense acclaim. It was said to have made her career.
Ms. Curtin, who continued to perform well into her 60s despite having developed painful rheumatoid arthritis in her mid-40s, taught at Yale during the 1970s and early ’80s. In 1983 she became the dean of Boston University’s School for the Arts, a post she held until 1991, when she retired from the deanship but continued teaching there. Starting in the mid-1960s, she taught for 51 years at Tanglewood, where her students included the future opera stars Dawn Upshaw, Cheryl Studer and Simon Estes.
Ms. Curtin was by all accounts an undivalike diva, and though she maintained a deep regard for the music she sang, she did not appear to take the operatic life too seriously. In an interview with THE HERALD TRIBUNE in 1964, for instance, she set forth her modus operandi for kindling theatrical passion: ‘When I come out onstage I give the tenor a loving, seductive look’, she said. ‘If he turns and runs … oh, well, I have to do it all myself. If he blushes and hesitates and then shapes up … well, we’ll worry about it later’.”
- Margalit Fox, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 6 June, 2016
“Roberta Peters, who would sing with the Met 515 times over 35 vigorous years, was internationally renowned for her high, silvery voice; her clarion diction in a flurry of languages; [and] her attractive stage presence. In addition to the Met, with which she appeared regularly from 1950 to 1985 - one of the longest associations of any singer with a major opera company - Ms. Peters was heard at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Cincinnati Opera, the Vienna State Opera, Covent Garden and elsewhere. Known for taking meticulous care of her voice, she continued to sing in recital until well into her 70s, a good two decades past the de facto retirement age in her line of work.
On 23 Jan., 1950, the 19-year-old Ms. Peters stood on the stage of the old Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway and 39th Street in Manhattan. There, in the darkened hall, she sang ‘Der Hölle Rache’ from THE MAGIC FLUTE, which, with its fiendish series of high F’s, is among the canonical texts of the coloratura repertory. Somewhere out in the darkness was Mr. Bing. ‘It was the first audition I had done for anyone, and I was so scared’, Ms. Peters told The Chicago Tribune in 1993. ‘When it was over he asked if I would sing it again. Then he asked me to do it again. Well, I sang it four times, not knowing that he had silently brought in conductors Fritz Reiner, Fausto Cleva and Fritz Stiedry to hear me’. Peters made her impromptu Met début 17 Nov., 1951, substituting for Nadine Conner. ‘The delightful surprise of last night’s performance of DON GIOVANNI at the Metropolitan was the emergency début of little Roberta Peters in the part of Zerlina’, The New York World-Telegram’s review the next day said. ‘The voice came through the big house as clear as a bell, the notes equally bright and focused and the phrasing that of a true musician’.
Ms. Peters was by all accounts one of opera’s least diva-like divas.”
- Margalit Fox, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 19 JAN., 2017
"Throughout its history, treble clef graphic classical music developed in distinct national schools. While European artists occasionally would entrain for Russia or set sail for the New World, most were content to remain nestled in their own culture. Recently, though, that all changed.
Blame America as the catalyst. At first, we were the poor stepchild, with no distinct heritage of our own. But as repression and then genocide pushed European artists to emigrate to fill the vacuum among our wealthy but unenlightened masses, something new emerged - a multicultural force that blended together into a pluralism that gleamed brighter than any of its components....the very essence of refined French culture is in the Motor City, or at least it was from 1952 to 1963. That's when the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (the 'DSO') led by Paul Paray recorded a legendary series of LPs with Mercury's 'Living Presence' label.
Paray established a solid reputation as a French conductor, heading orchestras in Lamoureux, Monte Carlo and Paris. American guest stints led to his appointment as permanent conductor of the recently reorganized DSO. Their very first records prove that he quickly forged the ensemble into a truly great orchestra and transformed its sound into a replica of those he had known in France.
It's especially remarkable that the fiercely proud French tradition should thrive in the heart of America, the very place where national trends became forsaken and assimilated. After all, French culture is the most deeply chauvinistic of any, proudly defended to the death against the pollution of foreign influence. Indeed, the most famous French music has a unique sound, often described as impressionistic, much like the paintings of Monet and Renoir. It's a valid analogy. Like that art, French impressionist music is concerned more with color effects than formal structure, as sensual melodies briefly appear before flitting away. While the overall effect is of subtle, blended mist, the sound is achieved through a layering of distinct instruments, much as in a Seurat painting in which the pastel atmosphere arises from dots of intense color. That's what Paray gives us - not a sonic blur but precise dabs of bold instrumental coloration. Just as brushstrokes are carefully placed, the DSO's rhythm and articulation of individual notes are always precise and luminously clear.
Naturally, Paray brought an appropriate Gallic touch to the great French repertoire. His Debussy, Ravel, Chabrier and Roussel are magnificent, beautifully capturing their elegance with a self-effacing confidence. The DSO complements Paray's approach with superb playing, each instrument gleaming with individual pride yet perfectly nestled in the ensemble. Paray also produced unusually polished and convincing readings of overtures and light pieces, according them a respect usually reserved for more challenging music....He works similar wonders with Rachmaninov, Sibelius and even Wagner, the epitome of German music and about as far from the French aesthetic as possible.
Paray brought to all his work the highest achievement in any art, whether acting, painting or music - from careful preparation, constant revision and grueling work emerges something natural, accessible and inviting. And through this process, Paray created and preserved an island of his native land in a most unlikely place, as distant geographically and culturally as could be. His DSO records prove his undeniable success."
- Peter Gutmann, classicalnotes