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Met 'Aida' On Tv : Price Sings Farewell To Opera

January 05, 1985|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

Leontyne Price was not the first black singer to grace the roster of the mighty Metropolitan. That belated honor fell to Marian Anderson.

Nor was the mighty and influential Met the first major opera company to dare break the race barrier. Black singers such as Mattiwilda Dobbs, Camilla Williams, Todd Duncan, Charles Holland, Anne Brown and Lawrence Winters brought distinction to opera houses in London, Glyndebourne, Paris, Stockholm and New York--the City Opera, that is--long before Rudolf Bing invited Anderson to sing her ritual Ulrica in 1955.

But Price was the first international operatic diva, the first universally adulated prima donna, whose skin happened to be dark.

The young woman from Laurel, Miss., first attracted attention singing Mistress Ford in a student "Falstaff" at Juilliard. In 1952 Virgil Thomson drafted her for "Four Saints in Three Acts." Soon thereafter she became an irresistible Bess in performances of Gershwin's opera from New York to Moscow. NBC chose her for a televised Tosca in 1955 and two years later San Francisco introduced her as Mme. Lidoine in the U.S. premiere of Poulenc's "Dialogues des Carmelites."

Important engagements followed in Chicago, Vienna, Verona, Milan, London and Salzburg. The Met finally got on her bandwagon--it really wasn't vice-versa--with an "Il Trovatore" in 1961.

During the intervening years, she has appeared in what may be our leading opera house less often than one might have wished. She has encountered some vocal difficulties and suffered some casting mistakes. Her acting, once passionately uninhibited, often became a matter of striking poses. But Price set and sustained standards that made her a worthy, logical and utterly independent heir to the repertory of Rosa Ponselle and Zinka Milanov.

A central challenge in that repertory, of course, is the role of Verdi's Aida. And it was as Aida that Price, a youthful 57, bade farewell to opera in general and to the Met in particular Thursday night. It was a sentimental occasion, in some ways a historic occasion and, thanks to Public Broadcasting, the nation could watch.

It was not, by many means, an ideal performance of Verdi's opera. In fact, this "Live From the Met" relay as seen on KCET and heard via stereo simulcast on KUSC, was not very lively. It documented a tired rehash of an 8-year-old production in which John Dexter reduced the protagonists to singing statues who adorn the stark and silly unit set of David Reppa.

This concert-in-costume, sensitively conducted by James Levine, offered a cast dominated by veterans. James McCracken, 58, reappeared as a heroic, overstuffed, vocally threadbare Radames who could barely negotiate "Celeste Aida." Fiorenza Cossotto presented a big-voiced, rough-voiced Amneris who was strained by the high climaxes. Simon Estes, at 45 the baby of the cast, brought much dignity but not-so-much vocal amplitude to the stances of Aida's father. John Macurdy was a stolid, unresonant Ramfis.

Price loomed proudly in the middle of this orgy of operatic pretension. She looked slim and beautiful in new costumes--never mind that they befitted a princess more than a slave girl. She exuded dignity and authority, as well as a certain degree of dramatic intensity. At the outset, when the vocal line dipped low she sounded husky. When the line turned high and heavy, she sometimes tended to sound clumsy.

Then the Nile Scene came. Then 20 years disappeared.

Here the noble spinto soared with ease, freshness and luster. Price caressed the arching phrases of "O patria mia" as if she had never uttered them before, floated ravishing pianissimo tones, gave object lessons in the art of the seamless legato, rose to an extended high C that hung sweetly in the night air.

The ovation that followed tested her composure, but there was no letdown in the ensuing duets and final act. By the time she and McCracken concluded "O terra addio," even the stoic Radames seemed to be in tears.

A great singer had said a poignant goodby.

A spokeswoman for the Met reports that the house went wild during 25 minutes of curtain calls. PBS called it quits abruptly, however, at midnight and barely mentioned the valedictory.

Price, incidentally, had made an intermission-feature film in which she announced and explained her retirement. She consigned the film to the cutting-room floor, however, when her plans were scooped by the New York Times.

Viewers had to content themselves with the usual Levine interview, a fatuous quiz interlude featuring Kitty Carlisle, Madeline Kahn and Charles Nelson Reilly, a crash course in mock Egyptology, and a recycled Verdian travelogue courtesy of the late Francis Robinson.

There was some compensation, however, in the debut of Edwin Newman as hosting operatic-sophisticate.

Cable viewers within reach of the rarefied Arts & Entertainment network were treated, after a fashion, to a Covent Garden "Fledermaus" Wednesday night.

The same production with an almost identical cast under Zubin Mehta had spread some holiday cheer in 1977. This revival, vocally uneven, proved most notable for the announcer's blithe success in mispronouncing every German name, for a barbaric barrage of commercials--many separating the overture from the first act--and for the conducting of Placido Domingo.

The energetic tenorissimo-turned-maestro, unfortunately, seemed to confuse the lilting Viennese operetta with a zarzuela.

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