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Subject: Re: Bette and Joan
From: Scott Grunow <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:[log in to unmask]
Date:Thu, 6 Apr 2017 12:30:40 -0400

text/plain (143 lines)

I found what I referred to in my post on this thread in the archives. Jason McVickers aka Enzo Bordello, you were brilliant. Rest in peace.
"Another in a series of TOTALLY FICTIONAL chapters in operatic history:

Several years ago, La Cieca revealed in Parterre Box that Gian Carlo Menotti
had penned an opera based on the the lurid 1962 film "Whatever Happened to
Baby Jane?"  Menotti composed the work during the 1960's with the hope of
enticing Rosa Ponselle and Ebe Stignani out of retirement to play the juicy
roles associated with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, respectively.  A
production was planned for Metropolitan Opera but Ponselle balked at the
unbridled sadism of the piece.  In an interview, Ponselle stated emphatically:
"I want to be remembered for my flawless legato, not serving Stignani a
broiled rat."  Stignani had an even harsher retort:  "Better the Met had
allowed Rosa and me to show our mettle in La Gioconda or Norma, rather than
this distasteful celebration of assorted perversions.  Now it's too late.  I
deserved to enter the Met singing Verdi, not making a fool of myself in a

Further research confirms that Menotti mounted a private performance of his
"Che Mai Fu Alla Bambina Giovanna?" opera at the 1966 Spoleto Festival.
Menotti advocates Patricia Neway and Marie Powers portrayed the emotionally
enmeshed sisters.  In an interview given at the time of the work's premiere,
Menotti seemed baffled by the hostility of Ponselle and Stignani towards the
opera.  "I intended 'Che Mai Fu Alla Bambina Giovanna?' as a tribute to the
struggles of the declining diva.  In fact, I was less inspired by the film
than I was by an afternoon spent at the apartment of Anny and Hilde Konetzni.
They hosted a litte tea party in my honor when the Vienna Staatsoper gave the
local premiere of The Consul.  Anny expresed her wish to attend the prima but
she was disabled by a stroke and needed Hilde's assistance.  Hilde became
suddenly enraged, screaming:  'Is that so, Miss Big Fat Kammersaengerin?
Perhaps you'd like to crank out one more screechy Ortrud, huh?  And don't
think we've been living high off the hog because of the profits from your
Elektra recording!'  As the assembled guests watched in stunned helplessness,
Hilde wheeled Anny into her bedroom and locked the door.  Unperturbed, Hilde
returned to dispensing plates of sacher torte, explaining:  'I was the
talented soprano in the family.  At least Daddy always said so.'"

Despite the lack of interest by the two divas who inspired the work, sopranos
and mezzo-sopranos have been drawn to the opera since its initial performance.
The first large-scale production of the opera was given in German translation
at the 1968 Munich Festival with Astrid Varnay as Jane and Martha Moedl as
Blanche.  The local critic wrote:  "No more pathetic and moving spectacle can
be imagined than the once-heroic Varnay and Moedl playing fading film stars
who happen to be sisters in real life.  Munich audiences will not soon forget
the sight of Varnay in a blonde sausage-curl wig, swilling gin and executing
complicated tap routines worthy of 'the Dancing Duse from Duluth.'  The
Swedish hochdramatisch soprano was in particularly fine voice, relishing the
pianissimi mockery of such phrases as 'So, Blanche . . . weiss du dass wir
Ratten in den Keller haben?'  Moedl made a shaky attack on the high B that
concludes this scene but compensated for the lapse by pushing the character's
wheelchair around in a state of hysterical panic.  The audience greeted the
two beloved sopranos with excited ovations."  The supporting cast included
Annelies Burmeister as Elvira, Gerhard Stolze as Edgar and Marianne Schech as
Edgar's Mutter.

During rehearsals for a Elektra production at the Paris Opera featuring Varnay
as Klytemnestra and Leonie Rysanek as Chrysothemis, the older diva recommended
the part of Jane Hudson to her younger colleague.  Always eager for gratifying
new roles, Rysanek sang the opera for the first time at the Vienna Staatsoper
in 1970.  Christa Ludwig had been scheduled to sing Blanche but marital
troubles with Walter Berry kept the mezzo-soprano from honoring her contract.
The Vienna Intendant asked Leonie's sister Lotte to step in for Ludwig and the
Rysanek sisters became indelibly linked with their respective roles.  Die
Leonie admitted that the opera had evoked long-buried memories of sibling
rivalry:  "I was a very demanding sister, you know.  As children, Lotte and I
would act out various operatic parts.  Of course, I insisted on being Senta
and would dress Lotte in some, how you say, 'schlumpig' outfit to portray Mary
and all those maid characters.  So, here I am, years later, inflicting havoc
on my poor sister.  And I still keep her confined to a 'schlumpig'
repertoire!"  The supporting cast included Elisabeth Hoengen as Elvira, Ragnar
Ulfung as Edgar and Ljuba Welitsch as Edgar's Mutter.  One critic noted that
die Leonie inserted not one but *five* unwritten screams into the score, most
notably at the moment Jane mistakes a drunken Edgar for her sister Blanche.

Anxious to stage the Italian premiere of the work, La Scala presented "Che Mai
Fu Alla Bambina Giovanna?" in 1972 with Shirley Verrett and Montserrat Caballe
as the sisters.  Aficionados were puzzled by the reversal of voice types
represented by such casting.  Many shook their heads at the idea of an
abundantly gifted mezzo-soprano like Verrett risking her career to sing
dramatic soprano fare.  Menotti himself came to the defense of the Scala
management, proclaiming:  "Shirley sings everything I wrote.  The tessitura
poses no problem for this woman--per dio, she interpolates a high D in the
phrase "Tu sei bugiarda, Bianca!  Eri sempre bugiarda!"  Therefore, I had no
need to transpose the music.  And Caballe communicates a rare dolcezza not
often expressed by other interpreters of Bianca."  Caballe caused something of
a scandal when she burst into uncontrolable giggling while being dragged onto
the final beach set by an obviously winded Verrett.  The supporting cast
included Stefania Malagu as Elivra, Piero de Palma as Edgaro and Fedora
Barbieri as Madre di Edgardo.

San Francisco Opera gave the American premiere of "Whatever Happened to Baby
Jane?" in 1972, starring Inge Borkh as Jane and Regina Resnik as Blanche.
Borkh won new admirers for her searing artistry but Resnik was judged by many
to be unnecessarily aggressive as Blanche.  Just what was Resnik thinking when
she clobbered Borkh with a lamp during the skirmish at the bottom of the
staricase, the local critics wondered?  Resnik did not find the role
especially congenial from a vocal standpoint, either:  "a yowling caricature,"
as one wag put it.  Sona Cervena sang Elvira, Richard Cassilly was Edgar and
Regina Sarfaty played Edgar's Mother.

Always cautious about offering new works, the Metropolitan Opera waited until
1991 to present the opera.  The cast featured Gwyneth Jones as Jane and Helga
Dernesch as Blanche.  Much to the management's surprise, both the opera and
the Met cast were greeted with rapturous acclaim.  Jones was singled out for
her tour-de-force performance, earning praise for her spot-on delivery of the
sustained high C's on "But ya AHHHRRR, Blanche!  Ya AHHR!"  In addition, Jones
accompanied herself at the piano for "I've Written a Letter to Daddy!"  In a
playful mood one evening, Dernesch ad libbed her line as follows:  "Why, Jane,
just think of the roles I could sing if I weren't stuck in this fach!"  The
Met spared no expense for the production, with lavish decors by Guenther
Schnieder-Siemssen and costumes by Gaby Frey.  Other members of the cast
included Mignon Dunn as Elvira, Graham Clark as Edgar and Beatrice Arthur as
Edgard's Mother.

The Met planned a revival of the work during the 1994-95 season for Renata
Scotto and Tatiana Troyanos but the untimely death of the mezzo-soprano caused
the project to be scrapped.  It is rumored that the New York City Opera will
be co-producing a new staging of the opera with Glimmerglass Opera, featuring
former City Opera prima donnas Catherine Malfitano as Jane and Diana Soviero
as Blanche, with direction by Beverly Sills.  City Opera officials were
hesitant to comment but an inside source disclosed the projected staging is
definitely in the works:  "We're looking at a big opening night gala for the
2003-2004 season.  It will mark the 30th anniversary of Cathy and Diana's
debuts with the company and we can market the event as a big fundraiser."
Indications are that Menotti is adding some additional arias for the two lead
characters, including a dramatic number for Jane called "That Nice Dr. Shelby"
and a lullaby for Blanche entitled "Have You Forgotten Who Writes the Checks,
Jane?"  Susanne Marsee will return to the company as Elvira, with Enrico di
Giuseppe as Edgar and Maralin Niska as Edgar's Mother.

Enzo Bordello"

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