A birthday salute to Puccini, and memories of Margaret Roggero
It's that time of year again when I mark the further erosion of my youth. OK, so it eroded ages ago. I can pretend, can't I?
It's also the day I salute one of my favorite composers, Giacomo Puccini, who shares my birthday (or vice versa). I know some sources say he was born Dec. 22, but others, including my daily bible, the Boosey & Hawkes Music Diary, say the 23rd, which is good enough for me.
I get a kick out of sharing this little coincidence with the guy. It was Puccini, after all, who really opened my ears to opera, back in the dark days when I thought that the genre resembled some sort of barking dog contest.
But this Dec. 23, my thoughts of birthdays and Puccini intermingle with memories of ...
a cherished friend -- Margaret Roggero.
Last month, the exceptional mezzo-soprano died at the age of 93 in Florida, where we met years ago after she wrote me a letter as Margaret R. Ludwick, using her married name.
Margaret sang nearly 600 performances at the Metropolitan Opera in a repertoire that ranged from Mozart to Berg. She was perhaps most identified with the role of Suzuki, which brings me back to Puccini.
She was so proud of being in the Met's new production of that opera in 1958, directed by Yoshio Aoyama. (When I met Margaret, she had a Siamese cat named Goro, after a character in "Butterfly"; when that one went to the Great Big Litter Box in the Sky, Marget got a pair of Siamese, named for "Turandot" characters Ping and Pang.)
Margaret was a wonderfully elegant, witty woman, a joy to know. And the stories she had -- she sang with nearly every legendary vocal artist and opera conductor of the 1950s and early '60s, so the anecdotes were endlessly fascinating.
Although she left the Met rather embittered by the lack of advancement during Rudolf Bing's reign, Margaret never lost her appreciation of the times and friends she had in the old house.
There isn't a huge recorded legacy, but you can find some great examples of Margaret's talent on CD with a little searching. One non-operatic item of particular note: Berlioz' "Romeo et Juilette" on RCA, conducted by Charles Munch.
Margaret was an astute critic of today's vocal crop. You could not blame her for being rather unimpressed with most of what she heard (exceptions included Cecilia Bartoli -- I'm so glad I got to take her to as Bartoli concert and introduce the two artists afterward). You always knew how much Margaret missed the kind of majestic voices that have long since disappeared.
So today, let me honor her memory and Puccini's birthday with a performance recorded live in the old Met, led superbly by Dimitri Mitropoulos, one of Margaret's favorite conductors to work with there.
This is the Intermezzo from "Manon Lescaut," a work Margaret requested to be played at her funeral, because she thought it summed up all the beauty and passion of the art form she so dearly loved -- and, I would add, so richly served: