Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Mercoledi Musicale

Maurel was a bit of a dandy and considered a
matinee idol by his adoring public.  Here he
as captured by Spy (Leslie Ward) for the
October 20, 1898 edition of Vanity Fair.
As I said in my previous post Verdi's Falstaff is on of my favourite operas and I hope to write about last Friday's performance by the COC with Gerald Finley.  But for today's Mercoledi Musicale I thought I'd reach back to 14 years after the work's premiere in 1893; in 1907 the great French baritone Victor Maurel who had created the role recorded a short excerpt from the opera.  (The record label in the video indicates 1904 but apparently this is an error in the reissue.)

And I do mean short.  "Quand'ero paggio" lasts all of 35 seconds and is one of those moments in a score full of melodies that come and go with the speed of quicksilver.  In fact to fill the side of the 78rpm disc Columbia had Maurel sing it not once, not twice but three times - twice in Italian and once in French for good measure.  It is rather delightfully encored at the insistence of at least three stout fellows in the studio with encouraging cries of "Bravo" and a clarion call for a "bis".  I'm not sure but one of those voices sounds suspiciously like the good artist himself.

I always loved the way this tiny vignette just pops up in response to Alice Ford's less than flattering remark about Falstaff "vulnerabil popla" - amble flesh.   He quickly assures her that things were different when he was a mere slip of a lad:

Quand'ero paggio del Duca di Norfolk
ero sottile, sottile, sottile,
ero un miraggio vago, leggiero, gentile.
Quello era il tepo del mio verde aprile,
quello era il tempo del mio lieto maggio.
Tant'era smilzo, flessibile e snello
che sarei guizzato attraverso un annello.
When I was page to the Duke of Norfolk
I was so so slender, a mirage,
light and fair, and very genteel.
That was my verdant April season,
the joyous Maytime of my life.
Then I was so lean, so lithe, so slender,
you could have slipped me through a ring.

Maurel was to sing the role of Falstaff in many major opera houses including the work's premieres in France and the United States.  At the Metropolitan alone he sang it 22 times.  In each city his portrayal was greeted with unstinting praise.   And how this debonair French man turned himself into Verdi and Boito's "mountain of fat" was a favourite news topic of the day.   In April 1894 an article showing the transformation appeared in one of the many illustrated magazine to coincide with the Paris premiere.  Obviously it was a good press piece and possibly Maurel carried it around with him as it showed up in periodicals in England and America.

Maurel was one of the preeminent singing actors of his day and Verdi was quoted as asking in admiration,  "Was there ever such a complete artist?"  After hearing him Wagner  cried, "Friends, come, salute a great artist".  But his vanity - and vain he was of both his appearance and his standing in the music world -    almost ruined his chances of creating the two roles that would guarantee him a place in the operatic Pantheon:  Iago and Falstaff.   After it became known in the mid-1880s that Verdi was working on an opera based on Shakespeare's Othello Maurel began to brag that Verdi was writing Iago for him.  Now the working title of the new opera, in deference to Rossini's Otello, was Iago, and Verdi had mentioned that he was writing the villainous character with Maurel in mind but did not want it voiced all over Europe.  It's said he almost sought another singer for the role but relented because he knew what the baritone could bring to the role.

In 1903 Maurel recorded Iago's aria "Era la notte" - by this time his voice, never known for its lyrical beauty, had diminished but his artistry was still at its peak.

In the case of Falstaff correspondence reveal that Maurel became increasingly demanding of La Scala and to a certain extent Verdi.  He believe that he had a right to sing the role and asked for larger than normal fee.  There was some unpleasantness but again the threat of being deprived of the role he so desperately wanted made him back away from his demands. 

Maurel was to retire in 1909,  two years after he made that little recording of "Quand'ero paggio" for Columbia.  He did not give up the stage completely and turned to designing - a production he did for the Met of Gounod's Mireille evoked the colours and landscape of his native Provence.  After several years in Paris he settled in New York City where he taught young singers until his death in 1923 at the age of 75.

October 8 - 1645:  Jeanne Mance opened the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, the first lay hospital in North America.


Ur-spo said...

I very much enjoy your musical entries.

yvette said...

He was a Provençal Marseille born man from an educated background and had no difficulties in studying music and art of singing. Marseille honoured him by naming a Victor Maurel Street ! Very young, he sang Rossini's Guillaume Tell at Marseille Opera house. It is great to read about him from your part of the world! here's a link in French from Radio Bleue this summer, too short
Victor Maurel is much more vivid through your post but it is worth listening to the short passage for the 'accent' and I guess Victor Maurel had a bit of this accent, "educated' as Marcel Pagnol wrote once in one of his books 'Il avait l'accent éduqué du haut de la rue Paradis", equivalent to Paris 16è !