Account and Review of Paul Hume in the Washington Post
A STAR-STUDDED GALA FAREWELL TO THE OPERA WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL MAN
New York – The 22-year era of General Manager Rudolf Bing, the most powerful man in the world of opera, ended at 1:30 a.m. yesterday in the new Metropolitan Opera House he opened six years ago.
The 71-year old manager enjoyed a longer tenure than any other Metropolitan ruler except for Giulio Gatti-Casazza. For his farewell the controversial Austrian-born man who began in New York as plain Mr. Bing and ended up as Sir Rudolf, was tendered a marathon Gala Performance.
It was studded with singing by stars like Birgit Nilsson, Cesare Siepi, Leontyne Price, and Franco Corelli, whose careers, begun during Bing’s years, evoked some of the loudest ovations in the old house he insisted on seeing destroyed, and the new house of which he is so proud.
Admired for the brilliance of the many great voices he brought to the Met, often in handsome new productions that boasted famous conductors and stage directors, Bing was consistently praised by his board of directors as a model of fiscal efficiency.
But any manager with the power to dictate who will and will not sing in the house that is the mecca of every opera singer in the world is bound to be vigorously disliked as well as admired.
Bing was charged, within and without his company, with a frosty aloofness, and impersonal autocratic manner in dealing with artistic personnel and favoritism in advancing singer’s careers.
Both hate and love were present on Saturday night in an audience that held both former Met stars and famous opera-goers like Mayor and Mrs. John Lindsay, U. N. General Secretary Kurt Waldheim, the Italian Ambassador and Senora Ortona and over 4000 more.
Forty of the Met’s singers appeared in arias or duets, plus a single trio, to bid farewell to the man of whom actor-director Cyril Ritchard once said, “Don’t be misled – behind that cold, austere, severe exterior, there beats a heart of stone.”
This is not the time for assessing Bing’s years at the Met. Such judgments will be made in the weeks, months, and years ahead. Sir Rudolf himself will lead off the procession of books on the subject with his own memoirs, entitled “Managing: A Life in Art,” due for publication next October by Doubleday.
Saturday Night’s parade, which included a charming sequence by the ballet and scenes from its mixed and men’s choruses, was a review of much that characterized the Bing regime. The films and tapes of CBS and DGG recorded sights and sounds that will thrill future audiences, but will also puzzle and in not a few cases shock them.
There was magnificent conducting, and corresponding orchestral playing, when Karl Böhm led music from Verdi’s “Otello,” and Strauss’s “Salome.” Böhm was the only giant conductor there out of a long list of those that Bing introduced to the Met, names like Ansermet, Solti, Mitropoulos, Stokowski, Bernstein, and Karajan. Bing further inherited orchestral geniuses of the caliber of Reiner and Szell. But he also had a gift for the mediocre, flooding the opera house with forgettable conductors whose work made a shambles of countless performances. One of these, Kurt Adler, led five excerpts on Saturday night, in two of which he was unable to keep chorus and orchestra together.
A sign of the near future, however, was present and exerting the finest kind of influence in the conducting of young – 26-year-old – James Levine, who has already been named principal conductor, by Bing’s successor, Goeran Gentele. Levine is the first man in the history of the Met to hold such a title.
His appointment, together with the designation of Rafael Kubelik as music director, another Metropolitan first, is a clear sign that Gentele intends to make topflight conducting the rule rather than the sometime affair it was in the Bing years.
The caliber of singing, that magical lure that keeps bringing thousands of opera lovers into theaters around the world, was as various on Saturday as the conducting. The unedited tapes of the night’s work will surprise no one with the brilliance of Birgit Nilsson’s closing scene from “Salome.” although her voice was not as perfectly controlled as it had been in Washington the previous Monday. Miss Nilsson said before the gala that she could not decide whose head she would most like to have served up to her on the odious silver platter: that of Bing or that of Gentele. She sang without either.
Opera lovers will rejoice in the purity and freedom of Leontyne Price's “Dove Sono” from Mozart’s "Figaro,” and Pilar Lorengar sang Marietta’s Song from Korngold’s “Die tote Stadt.” with lovely clear tone.
The Korngold scene held very special meaning because Maria Jeritza, unforgettable in a dozen roles, who made her Metropolitan debut in the opera, was in the house, radiant in dress and regal manner. So was Bidu Sayao who had her own private thoughts when Anna Moffo shrilled her way though Manon’s Gavotte. Every time Sayao moved from her seat in the huge auditorium, she was greeted with cheers and shouts from opera fans who have loyalties to the truly great ones that never die.
Zinka Milanov, one of the greatest of them all, was there, too, full of doubts and concerns about the generally poor level of singing. But no one could mistake the superb vocal art of Ezio Flagello and Fernando Corena in a hilarious scene from Rossini’s “Cenerentola.” or the tremendous vocal and emotional power of Placido Domingo and Montserrat Caballe in the duet from “Manon Lescaut.” one of the finest and most exciting episodes of the evening.
Another came when Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti joined in the final scene of the first act of “Lucia” though Pavarotti, like Franco Corelli, Ruggiero Raimondi, and Thomas Stewart looked unhappily out of character singing in white tie and tails instead of the more customary costume.
Corelli sounded well in the love duet from “Otello.” a role he usually – and wisely – avoids taking on. But in company with the exquisite Teresa Zylis-Gara, one of the Bing’s finest acquisitions, he easily handled the famous scene.
Raimondi sang in tandem with Paul Plishka, a duet from “Luisa Miller” in a way that made some people wonder why Raimondi gets more attention; Plishka made a far finer sound.
Stewart’s aria was a rather routine Iago’s Credo, but it was vastly better than Mario Sereni’s embarrassing stab at “Nemico della patria,” from "Andrea Chenier.” Still, it was the poorer level of singing that dominated the evening – as it often has on average Bing nights.
There was Teresa Stratas, unable to decide which of two voices to use in Mimi’s “Addio,” from "Boheme,” the opera that has been given more often than any other in Bing’s years. Some in the theater wondered, as Stratas sang the final phrase, “Addio, senza rancor,” or “Farewell, without rancor,” just how many in the company feel that way about the departing manager. He is, after all the man who once said publicly, “I am sick and tired of having to deal with singers,” a comment hardly designed to endear him to those upon whose work he depended.
He was also the man whose regime was interpreted by an artist-management deadlock in 1961, a collision smoothed out, temporarily, by then Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg. The whole thing broke out far more bitterly five years later when an orchestra strike threatened the [launching] of the new house. Settled on that day, the long-impending strike finally blew up in 1969, delaying the start of the season for three months.
At that time, the musicians of the orchestra as well as many in the chorus, the ballet, and among the principal singers were outspoken in their opinion that the management of the company had become impersonal and indifferent to their feelings.
Bing’s own memoirs will discuss at length his particular bitterness, to one of which he referred obliquely, in a brief speech that came about 11:45 p.m., Saturday night. Responding to a platitudinous greeting from Lowell Wadmond, Chairman of the Board, who called Bing “the greatest opera impresario of our day,” Sir Rudolf spoke with both wit and bite.
“This had been an overwhelming evening,” he began, “and your reception has not made it easier. There are two things I must say: I want to introduce to you my successor. Goeran Gentele – I am sure he will guide the house to greater heights. Then I want to unload my thanks to you, and the Board – we have not always agreed.
“But they have been generous with advice, and, which is perhaps more important, with money. Then I must thank my staff of colleagues, especially three who have decided to resign with me: John Gutman, Robert Herman, and Herman Krawitz. And finally I must thank this wonderful, magnificent company, the soloists, the chorus, orchestra, and ballet, the stage hands, and all those who have helped to accomplish what we have done.”
It is in the matter of Gutman, Herman, and Krawitz that Bing is said to feel a special bitterness, one he discusses in his forthcoming memoirs. He thinks that he built up a superior administrative staff that ought to be retained, Gentele, however, accepted their resignations and let it be known that he felt it imperative, partly because of the intensity of feeling around the house about the departing management, that he had to have a completely new team. Some of the new manager’s most difficult decisions will involve which singers to retain.
On Saturday night young Gail Robinson, who has been highly favored lately, to the point of singing a Gilda in a Saturday afternoon broadcast of “Rigoletto,” sounded, as usual, like a poorly trained conservatory student. Martina Arroyo, one of the company’s finer young voices, is being put into roles she cannot yet handle. Her “Tacea la notte” from “Trovatore,” was unbelievably broken up in phrases that call for a complete legato. Grace Bumbry has been working so hard to convert her mezzo to a high dramatic soprano that she now has a big, loud top, but underneath it little is left except a terrible vibrato and no soft sound at all.
Regine Crespin, lovely in an Oscar Straus waltz, now sings largely in an explosive manner than means here career must be coming to its close. And surely Richard Tucker, for all the assurance of his duet with Robert Merrill, who sounded fine, should retire.
Regina Resnik sang a witty song about Bing, to Prince Orlofsky’s aria from “Fledermaus.”
With words by Gutman, it recalled some of Bing’s rows with singers during his regime: with Callas and Merrill, both of whom he “fired” and later rehired; with Nilsson, for whom Bing once had to find three Tristans during a single performance, and with whom, later in a feud with Karajan, he lost out on the entire second half of a Ring Cycle by Wagner.
Gutman recently summed up some of the company sentiment about Bing by saying “Never before have so many rejoiced so much over the departure of so few.”
James McCracken, his huge stomach shaking even when he was not singing, shouted his way through Manrico’s “Di quella pira.” the word from on high being, that he is slated for Don Jose in Gentele’s first presentation, a new production of “Carmen” for next September’s first night of the season.
Sandor Konya had trouble singing Lohengrin’s Narrative, and Gabriella Tucci, whose lovely lyric voice has been wrecked by the Bing regime, was disastrous in the Aida-Amneris duet with Irene Dalis, who did not sound much better.
As Siegmund and Sieglinde, Jon Vickers and Leonie Rysanek, singing the entire finale to the first act of ‘Walküre” would have been fine if someone had told Vickers to stop scooping on every note, and if conductor Max Rudolf, one of Bing’s oldest friends, though no longer on the Met staff, had kept the music moving instead of letting it die a thousand deaths.
The Met’s orchestra, which had played a handsome “Don Carlo” in the afternoon, went through the five-and-a-half hour endurance test Saturday night like the great veteran artists they are. And it should be noted, on behalf of all, that these special bits-and-pieces galas are particularly hard on any singer.
One of the unanswered mysteries about the evening was the thereabouts of several great artists listed on this season’s roster who were not on the program. Chief among them were Nicolai Gedda, Giorgio Tozzi, Evelyn Lear, Walter Berry, and Jess Thomas, the absence of each of whom made the presence of some who sang the more regrettable.
The one name that more than any other, was missed was that of Renata Tebaldi, but hers is a special case, for by now her vocal estate is such that she can rarely manage any aria without severe difficulty.
And so, with better and with worse, Bing ended a term in which he presented 4170 performances of 79 operas. It was characteristic of his entire regime that in his final season, the latest opera to be given was “Salome,” which had its premiere in 1907. It was equally characteristic that his last opera performance was Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” with whose greatness he introduced his management to the Met public.
Now the country’s foremost opera theater is in the charge of its new, Swedish director. Perhaps some day an American will be given that tough top spot. It would seem appropriate.