Monday, December 7, 2009

Mary Curtis-Verna: Rest in Peace

I’m very sorry to learn of the passing of this wonderful singer. As an opera- obsessed teenager I knew the name of Mary Curtis-Verna as a sort of “joke” – which I always heard older opera-lovers going on about. They would laughingly mention purchasing a ticket to see “Tebaldi or Nilsson or Milanov,” etc. – but instead “all we got was Mary Curtis-Verna.” I was well into young adulthood before I found out there really WAS a singer named Mary Curtis-Verna, and it was a few more years still until I happened to stumble upon a recorded performance of hers.

To say I was “shocked” is an understatement. This was a beautiful, major voice and I was then a bit horrified that such a major singer (who apparently was also one gracious lady) could have been the recipient of such bitter, malicious, queeny “jokes.” Honestly, it made my blood run cold then – and still does.

The first thing I heard with this wonderful singer was the 1958 Chenier with no less a Chenier than Richard Tucker. I know Tucker fans who crow endlessly about this recording yet barely mention the soprano, and yet while I’ve heard Tucker this good (at least) before, nothing prepared me for the full onslaught of Curtis Verna’s Maddalena. She is at least the tenor's equal here, appearing fully engaged and noble throughout, and offers one of the most emotionally
touching (yet maudlin-free) renditions of “La mama morte” – I've yet encountered. She understood how to put the aria across in masterful fashion with resorting to . . . well, what this aria can sometimes unnecessarily bring out in a soprano. Even that aria, however, didn't fully prepare me for the blazing intensity she brings (and matches Tucker in) in during the final duet.
Holy smokes, I needed a respirator after hearing this! It has become - hands down - my favorite performance of that final scene out of all the Chenier’s I know. It isn't ALL the tenor, y'know!

I recall an article describing how Curtis-Verna was a minor singer who added a fake Italian name in hopes of a major career., and another claiming she was less than a blip on the radar. It would take no one more than minute of internet research to discover this lady successfully sang many
major roles throughout Europe and Italy. She was frequently commented upon as not only an excellent singer but “a tall, good looking blonde and fine actress on the stage.” She sang with a number of established and rising stars including no less than Franco Corelli.

She was only 30 when she came to the Met and for a decade or so become the major “Go-To-Girl” routinely jumping in without rehearsal virtually at the last minute to save Tosca or Aida or Turandot or Don Giovanni whenever Tebaldi, Steber, Nilsson or Milanov and others could not go on. That she wasn’t appreciated didn’t seem to phase her (publicly at least) and she seemed to be a singer who was happy to be making great music on a great stage with great partners. That, in and of itself is, to me, a definition of class and contentment and a knowing self-worth; something to be admired rather than ridiculed or mocked.

Her roles at the Met included: Tosca, Elisabetta in Don Carlo, Aida, Mimi; Amelia in both Ballo and Boccanegra; Donna Anna, the Forza Leonora; Gutrune; Violetta; Turandot; Adriana Lecouvreur; and Alice Ford. She frequently was partnered by and/or sang with the Who’s Who of the Met’s so-called “Golden Age”: Richard Tucker, Leonard Warren, Franco Corelli, Jean
Madeira, George London, Walter Cassel, Robert Merrill, Carlo Bergonzi, Giorgio Tozzi, Birgit Nilsson, Nicolai Gedda; Licia Albanese, Cornell Macneil, Jussi Bjoerling, Roberta Peters and Irene Dalis. She was conducted by - and apparently spoken well of by; most of the major conductors appearing with the company including Fausto Cleva, Max Rudolf, Dimitri Mitropoulos and Silvio Varviso.

I know too few of her performances, but virtually everything I’ve heard from her was stellar, tasteful,, beautifully and stylishly sung. Many dismissed her as “adequate” – but whatever I’ve heard from her was always far more than what I’d consider “adequate.”

About a decade ago I posted something about Ms. Curtis Verna, and received a lovely note from a friend of hers who said my note had found its way to her (as seems to happen more and more in this computer-age) and she had been most touched by it, as well as a bit surprised that she was evidently still “discoverable.”

Thank you, Mary Curtis-Verna for all you gave to the world of music and opera – and for your generosity and beautiful spirit which will live on.