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ClassicsOnline Home » BANFIELD, R. de: Lord Byron's Love Letter (Varnay, Ribla, Carruba, Carlin, Rome Academy Symphony, Rescigno) (1958)
The RCA Victor recording of Raffaello de Banfield’s 1955 opera Lord Byron’s Love Letter is a true rarity, remaining in their catalogue for only a short time and never reissued on CD before now. Based on a Tennessee Williams play set in late 19th-century New Orleans during the Mardi Gras, it revolves around an eccentric old lady, lost in the past, who displays to visitors an old love letter for money, purportedly by the rakish English poet. The opera was praised by Time magazine for its ‘vocal beauty’.
Raffaello de Banfield (1922–2008)
Lord Byron’s Love Letter
The composer Raffaello de Banfield was born in 1922 in the English city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to the Austrian flying ace Gottfried von Banfield (the last Knight of the Military Order of Maria Theresa) and the Countess Maria Tripcovich, who originated from Trieste, Italy. The couple had settled in Newcastle in 1920. De Banfield studied in Switzerland at the international Lyceum Alpinum Zuoz and subsequently in Trieste at the Lyceum Dante Alighieri. He attended the University of Bologna and the Benedetto Marcello Conservatory in Venice, where he was a pupil of Gian Francesco Malipiero. In 1946 he moved to Paris, to study composition at the Paris Conservatoire with Henri Büsser, and also with Nadia Boulanger. He remained at the Conservatoire until 1949, and during this time came into contact with many leading figures in French intellectual life of the period, such as Picasso, Cocteau and Poulenc, as well as the conductor Herbert von Karajan, who remained a life-long friend. The painter Leonor Fini introduced him to the French choreographer and ballet dancer Roland Petit. As a result de Banfield composed the music for Petit’s ballet Le combat (The Duel), which had its first production in London in 1949. Based upon the Tancred and Clorinda episode in Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata, this ballet was subsequently performed frequently at the Vienna State Opera between 1959 and 1973, with choreography by Dimitrije Parlic.
De Banfield led an international existence, and in America he became a member of the intellectual circle surrounding the writer and composer Paul Bowles. Through this he met the writer and playwright Tennessee Williams and the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Up until 1958 he divided his time between Paris and New York, and maintained a friendship with Maria Callas. Later, after oscillating between homes in Italy, France, England and the United States, where he lived for more than ten years, he served between 1972 and 1996 as director of the Trieste opera house, the Teatro Giuseppe Verdi, which he comprehensively renovated and modernised. In addition from 1978 to 1986 he was director of the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, which had been founded in 1958 by the composer Gian Carlo Menotti. De Banfield achieved international recognition for his compositions, which included the ballets Quatuor (1957) and Acostino (1958), the one-act operas Lord Byron’s Love Letter (1955) and Alissa (1965), and the Ritratto lirico, Colloquio col Tango ossìa La Formica (Conversation with the Tango or The Ant) (1959), as well as several works for solo soprano and orchestra, including For Ophelia, sung by Kiri Te Kanawa at a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, London in the mid-1970s. He received many honours, including being made a Grand Ufficiale of Italy and a Grand Cavalier of the Légion d’Honneur in France. He died at his home at Rive d’Arcano, near Trieste, in 2008.
The opera Lord Byron’s Love Letter is as well-known for its libretto as for its music. The text provided by Tennessee Williams is based on a play that he wrote in 1946. The setting is Williams’s beloved New Orleans at the time of the annual Mardi Gras, during the late nineteenth century. The plot revolves around an eccentric old lady, lost in the past, and her spinster granddaughter. Together they live, none too comfortably, in a decrepit house in New Orleans. The focus of their lives is an old love letter, purportedly written by Lord Byron, which they display to visitors for money. The opera Lord Byron’s Love Letter was first performed at Dixon Hall, Tulane University, New Orleans on 17th January 1955, with the principal parts of the Old Woman and The Spinster taken by Astrid Varnay and Patricia Neway respectively. Both were leading singers of the time: Varnay was renowned for her unrivalled command of the Wagnerian repertoire on both sides of the Atlantic, and Neway for her creation of the part of Magda Sorel in Menotti’s opera The Consul (available on Naxos 8.112023–24, coupled with Menotti’s first opera Amelia al ballo). Neway subsequently created the rôle of the Mother Superior in the original Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, for which she received a Tony Award. The present recording of Lord Byron’s Love Letter was made in Rome by RCA three year’s after the work’s première, with the soprano Gertrude Ribla taking over the part of The Spinster, and the distinguished American-Italian musician, Nicola Rescigno, conducting. When released in America at the end of 1958, Time magazine commented that ‘Italian Composer Banfield’s score offers some green and willowy moments of vocal beauty’. Nonetheless the recording’s time in the catalogue was short, since when it has never been commercially reissued, becoming a sought-after rarity in the process, until its present republication.
The dramatic soprano Astrid Varnay (1918–2006) was born into an operatic family: her mother was a coloratura soprano and her father a spinto tenor. The year in which she was born they founded the Opera Comique Theatre in Kristiania, Sweden, although they were both born in Hungary, and they managed it until 1921.The family then moved to Argentina and later to New York, where her father died in 1924. Her mother subsequently remarried another tenor, and the young Astrid, after studying to be a pianist, decided at the age of eighteen to become a singer. She worked intensively, first with her mother and then with the Metropolitan Opera conductor and coach Hermann Weigert, whom she later married. She made her sensational stage début at the Metropolitan in 1941, substituting at short notice for Lotte Lehmann as Sieglinde in Die Walküre with no rehearsal. After this triumph, six days later she replaced Helen Traubel in the same opera as Brünnhilde, and her operatic career was effectively launched. She made her Covent Garden début in 1948 and, at the suggestion of Kirsten Flagstad, her Bayreuth Festival début in 1951. She sang every year at Bayreuth for the next seventeen years and at the Met until 1956, when she left following a disagreement with Rudolf Bing. She henceforth concentrated her career on Germany where she was revered, living in Munich. She moved from the dramatic soprano repertoire into that for mezzo-soprano in 1969, and during the 1980s into character parts. She made her last appearance in Munich in 1995, almost fifty-five years after her Metropolitan début. Her brilliant career is well documented in both commercial and unofficial sound recordings.
Gertrude Ribla (1919–1980) was born in New York and studied singing with Frances Alda. She won an amateur singing competition in 1936 and made her first NBC radio broadcast in 1941, subsequently singing in the 1943 national NBC broadcast of the third act of Rigoletto with Toscanini conducting. She won the Metropolitan Opera’s Auditions of the Air in 1948, and made her début at the Metropolitan during the following year as Aida. Other parts which she sang there until 1951 included Leonore in Il trovatore. During the 1950s she was active across America, singing in Chicago and New Orleans as well as with the New York City Opera. In 1958 she took part in an Italian radio broadcast of Weinberger’s Schwanda the Bagpiper. Other parts which she sang included the title rôle in Turandot, Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana, and Marie in Wozzeck, excerpts from which she recorded with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1947. These are included as a bonus in this present release.
The conductor Nicola Rescigno (1916–2008) was born into a musical family in New York. He studied music with Pizzetti, Giannini and Polacco and made his conducting début in 1943, leading La traviata in Brooklyn. He subsequently was music director for opera companies in Connecticut and Havana, and first appeared at San Francisco in 1950, directing Madama Butterfly and Il barbiere di Siviglia. He was a co-founder of the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1953, and worked there until 1956, when he left to inaugurate the Dallas Civic Opera, where he was the music director until 1990. Here he worked with many of the world’s top singers, having already struck up a close professional relationship with Maria Callas, with whom he recorded extensively. He first conducted at the Metropolitan Opera, where his father had been a trumpet player, in 1978. He appeared as a guest in Italy, Mexico, Portugal and the United Kingdom. He was particularly admired for his skills as an operatic accompanist.
— David Patmore
The setting is the parlour of a faded house in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The time is the late nineteenth century. The noise of the Mardi Gras festivities may be heard from outside. Set stage left there is a marble mantelpiece, and beyond it there is a thick, dark and dusty curtain. Stage right a high door opens onto a cavernous hall. The furnishings are heavy Victorian in style. Beside a rose shaded lamp a woman of forty, the Spinster, is playing an upright piano, faultily. In the opposite corner, the Old Woman, in a black silk dress, sits motionless.
 The Old Woman asks the Spinster when she is going to be able to play the piece of piano music correctly. The Spinster stops, distressed, and opens the window, swaying slightly to the sound of the music outside. She returns to her sewing. A knock is heard from the hall. The Old Woman conceals herself behind the curtain while the Spinster goes out to open the door.
 The Spinster invites the Matron in. The latter explains that she and her husband are visiting New Orleans from Milwaukee for the Mardi Gras. She asks to see the letter of Lord Byron advertised on the door. The Spinster explains that it was written to her grandmother, who had met Byron in Greece. The Old Woman keeps up a laconic commentary while the Matron and the Spinster talk about Byron’s exploits.
 The Matron, interested, goes out to fetch her husband.
 The Matron returns with her Husband. He is wearing a paper cap sprinkled with confetti. The Matron explains to her Husband that the Spinster’s grandmother met Byron. The Old Woman asks the Spinster to read a passage from the journal recording the encounter. The Old Woman comments that the Husband has been drinking.
 The Spinster starts to read from the journal while the Old Woman repeats and comments upon passages from it.
 While they speak an image of the Acropolis may be seen with a young girl and her middle-aged companion present. The companion leaves the young girl on her own. The Old Woman speaks of the scene as if in a trance. The Spinster describes the presence of Byron. On stage a handsome young man can be seen watching the young girl. She drops her glove, which the young man returns to her. The Spinster reads how the young girl recognizes Byron, while the Old Woman relives the scene.
 The Old Woman tells the Spinster to stop reading. The Matron asks if there is any more. The Old Woman replies that there is, and the Spinster offers to show the Matron the letter. As the Matron starts to open it, the Old Woman says she cannot do this. The Spinster explains that shortly afterwards Byron was killed; when her grandmother heard this she retired from the world. The Matron comments that this was foolish, which provokes reactions from both the Old Woman and the Spinster. The Spinster offers to read a sonnet which the young lady wrote to Byron’s memory, entitled ‘Enchantment’.
 The Spinster starts to read the sonnet. As she does so the Old Woman starts to accompany her, becoming more intense as she does so. At the climax she enters the room from behind the curtain.
 As the music from outside also gets louder, the Husband rushes out. The Spinster requests some money. Distracted by her Husband’s departure, the Matron herself leaves hurriedly.
 The Spinster bitterly calls after the departing couple. At the door she is momentarily held by a figure in a grotesque mask. She yields but the figure rushes out, slamming the door. The Old Woman points to the letter from the Spinster’s grandfather which the Spinster has dropped on the floor. The Spinster gives the letter to the Old Woman, as the noise of the Mardi Gras festivities outside grows louder.
Berg: Three scenes from Wozzeck, Op. 7
 After the interlude which links the second scene of the first act, in which Wozzeck experiences frightening visions, and the third scene, a military parade passes by outside the room of Marie, Wozzeck’s mistress. Marie, after singing along to the military music, shuts the window and proceeds to sing a lullaby to her son by Wozzeck.
 At the beginning of the third act, Marie, in her room at night, reads to herself from the Bible. She cries out that she wants forgiveness, as she is haunted by her infidelity to Wozzeck.
 Wozzeck has killed Marie, and drowned himself. After an intense interlude, which starts by depicting the rising water that leads to Wozzeck’s death, children are seen playing in the sunshine. Hearing that Marie’s body has been found, the children run off to see it, except for her little boy, who after an oblivious moment, follows the others.
— David Patmore
The sources for the transfer of the de Banfield were first edition red “Shaded Dog” label American RCA pressings. Although taped a year after RCA began recording complete operas in stereo in Rome, this disc was only ever released in mono. A rarity, it did not remain long in the catalogue, and has never been reissued. There is a momentary pitch fluctuation at 3:09 in Track 2 which is present in the LP master tape. The “Academy Symphony Orchestra of Rome” is most likely a nom de disque for the orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia.
Since Astrid Varnay is already well represented on compact disc, I have chosen to fill out this release with one of the few recordings made by her Lord Byron co-star, Gertrude Ribla, again heard in twentieth-century opera. The Wozzeck scenes were transferred from the early 10-inch LP (ML-2140) which was its only previous reissue and was itself transferred from Columbia’s wide-frequency range 33 1/3 rpm master lacquer discs.
— Mark Obert-Thorn
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