"Richly detailed . . . For better or worse, where the Met goes, other companies follow; and as the Affrons’ gracefully written and finely researched history so often reminds us, the history of the Met is frequently the history of opera itself."—Ditlev Rindom Cambridge Humanities Review
January 14, 2016 - Lincoln Center, NYC
A Matter of Boxes, 1883-1884
The confusion outside the new opera house on opening night October 22, 1883, and the commotion within, delayed the prelude to Charles Gounod's Faust. As one wag put it, no one seemed to mind except "a few ultra musical people in the gallery." On the sidewalk out front, scalpers hawked parquet seats at $12 and $15 each and places in the balcony at $8. Overeager takers apparently failed to notice that as late as 7:30, $5 balcony tickets were still on sale at the box office. "It comes high but we must have it," read the caption under Puck's lampoon of the rush for pricey tickets. Ushers in evening dress escorted patrons to their seats. The three tiers of boxes and the parquet were filled, the balcony nearly sold out. Only the $3-a-pop uppermost section, the "family circle," so renamed to repel roués accustomed to calling it their turf, showed empty seats. When the prelude was over and the curtain rose on the old philosopher's study, the audience finally fell silent.1
Before the show was over, the most affluent, the least, and all those in between had cause for complaint. The carriage trade had had to cope with long lines at the three entrances, north on 40th Street, east on Broadway, south on 39th. Many of their seats, despite prime locations, had poor sight lines and equally dismal acoustics. Nonetheless, seventy boxes offered what a set of prominent New Yorkers had demanded and ultimately resorted to buying for themselves: a house that would accommodate the spectacle of their power and riches. The press paid particular attention to the movements of William Henry Vanderbilt, whose two boxes held, among other distinguished guests, the Lord Chief Justice of England. In the course of the evening, Vanderbilt sat by turn in each of his boxes and was seen stopping in at those of friends and relations. His valet was posted at the door to pass on the calling cards of visitors-unfailingly male, women rarely left their seats-who sought an audience with the son of the Commodore. The cumulative wealth of the several Vanderbilts and of the others of their crowd was estimated at upward of $500 million.2
The building's design guarded class distinctions most jealously through a feature modeled on European examples: a staircase at street level that segregated the upper galleries from the select precincts of the house, barring holders of cheap tickets from mingling with their betters below. In the family circle, the stage was visible only to those willing to crane their necks. And to these least privileged patrons, the high notes alone were audible. From the overheated rear of the balcony, one tier closer to the stage, the single "animated thing visible to the occupants of a seat was the expanse of [conductor] Signor [Auguste] Vianesi's cranium. At first the audience knit their brows and cocked their heads, and there was a disposition to lay the blame upon their own ears, which many imagined had suddenly become defective, but during the entr'acte, on comparing notes, it was discovered that persons in each of the various tiers and in all parts of the house-near as well as at a distance from the stage-experienced the same inability to catch the notes of the artists clearly" (Times).3
Vanderbilt made show of his satisfaction with the occasion: "[He] loomed up against a pallid background and appeared to enjoy the music, though his soul, probably, was filled with a different sort of harmony." Savvy subscribers would have picked up Life's wink at the widely circulating story of the birth of the Metropolitan. They would have translated "a different sort of harmony" as the particular gratification the glittering evening promised Vanderbilt, erasing as it did the slight to his name suffered three years earlier when his wife was denied a box at the Academy of Music, since 1854 the dominant venue for opera in New York. His offer of $30,000 had been turned down; there were no suitable boxes to be had. Overflowing the already full Vanderbilt cup may have also been the memory of the ball seven months earlier at which Knickerbocker society, "the Nobs" or "the Old Families," turned out in numbers at the invitation of his daughter-in-law, Alva. That night had trumpeted the acceptance by the Colonial and Revolutionary gentry of the far wealthier parvenus, "the Tens" (the upper ten thousand fashionable nouveaux riches) or "the Newcomers," moneyed during and after the Civil War. The process had taken four decades.4
The Academy of Music at 14th Street between Third Avenue and Irving Place was a sufficient home for opera. Its resident impresario, James H. Mapleson, or better, Colonel Mapleson, as he liked to be called, delivered the stars his patrons considered their due. But as the city's upper crust grew in size and, more to the point, in financial clout, it became apparent that the Academy was saddled with a fatal flaw: its too few boxes could not accommodate New York's growing elites. And further, on those rare occasions on which a box became available, it went to a member of the tight Knickerbocker circle and not to one of "the Newcomers." Approached by George Henry Warren, a Vanderbilt lawyer, for a way out of the impasse, leading Academy stockholders offered to increase the number of boxes from eighteen to forty-four, a supply still substantially short of the demand. Worse, the twenty-six additions would not necessarily be in the coveted proscenium. The occupants would be less advantageously exhibited than they thought befit their station. And so the proposed remodeling was rejected and the campaign for a new opera house was on. Within days, Warren had secured the required capital through sixty-two subscriptions. The central committee of the infant Metropolitan Opera Company met on April 10, 1880, and agreed to move forward with the project, later recapitalized by the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, the Roosevelts, and others. There were bumps in the road: negotiations for a site on 43rd Street and Madison Avenue fell through; at a later point, the anticipated costs had so escalated that there was pressure to abandon the undertaking altogether. In the end, will and fortune prevailed and, amazingly, in just two and a half years, between the March 1881 acquisition of the 39th Street block and the October 1883 opening, construction was completed, the boxes (ultimately tagged at $15,000 each) were assigned by lot, an impresario was hired, and the inaugural season launched.
As they stepped out of their carriages, some among the box holders must have had buyer's remorse. The new edifice looked nothing like the stupendous Paris theater dedicated just eight years earlier, an obligatory stop on the grand tour. The Opéra, standing proudly on a pedestal above the pavement, its broad staircase leading to the seven portals of the sumptuously adorned neo-Baroque façade crowned with gilded statues, was the focal point of the principal thoroughfare that bore its name. The exterior of the Metropolitan, in the moderate Renaissance style, aspired to no such magnificence. J. Cleveland Cady and his colleagues, architects of the still extant Romanesque revival southern wing of New York's American Museum of Natural History, avoided flights of fancy for this, their first theater commission. Their chief concern was that the most capacious auditorium for opera in the world meet the expectations for display, comfort, and safety of its prosperous patrons. And to these desiderata, they bent whatever largesse the budget allowed. The snide sobriquet of "yellow brick brewery" attributed to Mapleson stuck. Others disagreed, finding the "elegance" of the new building admirable: "Architecturally it is a fine creation, imposing not alone by its size but by its dignity, simplicity, and intelligent adaptation to its ends. And if on the exterior we miss the grandeur and beauty which must belong to a building ere it can be called truly monumental, we have a scholarly, quiet, eminently respectable piece of work."5
The five-hour-long Faust allowed first-nighters a leisurely look at the theater's interior. They found not the traditional stage frame capped by an arch but a nearly square opening, likely inspired by Wagner's dictates for his 1876 opera house in Bayreuth.The decision to forgo proscenium boxes obviated the difficulty that had precipitated the break with the Academy. The stockholders occupied the first and second of the three tiers, grouped as "a republic of oligarchs with no precedence among themselves, nodding on equal terms all round Olympus." With the parquet orchestra floor and the two upper galleries, the capacity of the Met exceeded three thousand. Critics grumbled that the cramped staircases, corridors, and lobbies were inadequate to assembly, let alone parade, during the long intermissions. Public spaces had been sacrificed to the volume of the hall. The color scheme that provided the "pallid background" for Mr. Vanderbilt's posturing met with scorn. The Times, ever attentive to the interests of ostentation, railed against what it judged an unbecoming contrast to "full dress"; the Herald lamented that the diamonds were deprived of "that flashing and blazing of rays that come from a darker setting." More generally, appreciations of the new Metropolitan ranged from the Mirror's (Oct. 27) quip that "if Oscar Wilde had a nightmare in which an opera house played a conspicuous part we imagine it would appear to him as the Metropolitan did," to the encomium of the Critic (Oct. 27, 435): "one of the best-arranged places of amusement in the world." For the more than eight decades of the building's life, through the devastating fire of 1892 to the major reconstruction that followed, and subsequent modifications to the seating and décor, sight and sound at the Met continued to be hit or miss.6
Faust: October 22
The lease of the house to theatrical manager Henry E. Abbey came with the board's charge that he assemble a company for the Met's first season. Abbey's enviable client list included the actors Sarah Bernhardt, Edwin Booth, Henry Irving, and Lily Langtree. The "Italian" of his "Grand Italian Opera" meant that French and German works would be sung in Italian. That was no surprise. Years later, in evoking an 1870s Faust with Christine Nilsson at the Academy of Music, Edith Wharton took a jab at this practice: "An unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences." Abbey chose that same Faust and that same Marguerite for his opening fare. He had his conservative patrons in mind. No sooner had Gounod's original version of the work as an opéra comique, that is, with spoken dialogue, premiered in Paris in 1859 than it was on its way to the top of the operatic charts. At its 1863 landing in New York, Faust "leaped . . . into popularity. . . . All the leading morceaux were encored" (Times, Nov. 30). But unlike the performance retrieved in Wharton's The Age of Innocence, at the lackluster Met premiere, the principals were off their form: "Mme. Nilsson and Signor Campanini sang positively badly."7
New Yorkers had reason to expect better from stars they knew well. Nilsson and Campanini had been Mapleson singers; both had been seduced by Abbey's lucrative offers. Nilsson had made her US debut in 1870, soon after her Paris creation of Gounod's heroine in the grand opera version of Faust, through-composed, that is, without spoken dialogue, and with lengthy ballet. The high point of the Met opening was the interruption of the garden scene to mark Nilsson's proprietary relationship to the role. Presented with a sash of golden leaves in a velvet case, "first holding the box down so that the audience obtained a view of its contents, she placed it upon the chair in front of the casket, and kneeling repeated the [aria]" (Times). But for the reviewer, who took note of the soprano's wonted acting and musical expressivity, the "Jewel Song" "was scarcely rendered with the requisite buoyancy and brilliancy." Campanini, arguably the world's leading tenor, had been Italy's first Lohengrin, London's first Don José, and New York's first Radamès. As Faust that night, his "old-time sweetness" was intermittent and his "old-time manly ring" suffered "the evidences of labor" (Tribune). In their subsequent appearances that season, separately and together, in Lucia di Lammermoor, Lohengrin, Mignon, Don Giovanni, and Mefistofele, reservations about Nilsson and Campanini vanished. Their initial reception might have been more sympathetic had the architects gotten their way in situating the orchestra. Borrowing again from Bayreuth, they had sunk the pit below the level of the parquet, though less deeply than the covered "mystic gulf" of the Festspielhaus. But Vianesi and his band objected to the near invisibility to which they had been relegated. The pit was raised, putting maestro and orchestra in full view, obstructing the stage picture for many seated in the parquet, and, of greater import still, undoing the balance of voices and instruments. The orchestra descended to the intended plane two weeks later, and there, with sporadic minor adjustments, it stayed.8
Lucia di Lammermoor: October 24
When Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, as comfortably old-shoe as Faust, had its turn two days later, disquiet about the acoustics had subsided. The Evening Post's Henry Finck conjectured that on the previous Monday the sound had been dampened by the mass of the near-capacity audience. The far smaller Wednesday crowd compensated for its poor size by its vociferous response to the twenty-five-year-old Polish soprano Marcella Sembrich in her New York debut. Notices pointed to her perfectly placed tone, to her "refinement of expression," and to a voice of great compass capable of both bel canto brilliance and "velvety softness" (Tribune). Sembrich had learned from the disappointing Faust "to sing her arias as near the footlights as possible" (Evening Post). The scenery was "admirable, the chorus resplendent in voice and real satin" (Sun), the "Sextet" and the "Mad Scene" were encored, and Campanini convinced his critics that "the greatest of living tenors retain[ed] his position at the front" (Times). A mile or so south at the Academy, Sembrich's formidable competitor, Etelka Gerster, was cast as Gilda in Rigoletto. For the second time in three days, New Yorkers took up sides for either Mapleson or Abbey. They had had to choose between Gerster's Amina or Nilsson's Marguerite. Adelina Patti, the Academy's headliner, would enter the fray two weeks later. But for the Times, Sembrich had "nothing to fear from the few popular rivals she now has." One reviewer went so far as, "[her Violetta] surpasses [Patti's] in sympathy." In the age of Patti, there could be no higher praise. Soon after her debut, the company's first new diva remarked cheerfully, "I have sung never before such an empty house in my life. . . . Naturally, I am not known yet, or rather I was not known until last Wednesday" (Times, Oct. 28).9
Sembrich was the product of the pedagogy of bel canto, itself derived from the technique of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century virtuosi. Briefly put, bel canto is founded on the most rigorous command of the breath, indispensable to the accuracy of intonation and to the emission of equalized, linked tones from the bottom of the range to the top, whether singing piano (softly), singing forte (loudly), or executing the messa di voce (the swelling and diminishing of a note). The perfection of breath control is also essential to the free and even use of fioritura (embellishment): melismatic trills, turns, appoggiature (grace notes), scales, arpeggios, and other figures of the bel canto rhetoric. Well into the nineteenth century, all students of singing were expected to master the technique and its battery of florid ornaments. Later, the ornaments became the nearly exclusive property of the high soprano.
Following Lucia, Sembrich went on to play the other bel canto heroines of the 1883-84 season: Vincenzo Bellini's Elvira (I Puritani) and Amina (La Sonnambula), and Gioacchino Rossini's Rosina (Il Barbiere di Siviglia). Tribune critic Henry Krehbiel leveled his sarcasm at the "lugubrious" I Puritani, charging it with "a simplicity that is almost amusing"; W. H. Henderson (of the Times from 1887 to 1902, then of the Sun until 1937) thought the soprano irreproachable and the orchestra and chorus in better form. The Evening Post extoled the principals of La Sonnambula, Campanini, who, in the space of a few days, sang a lyric Elvino and a heroic Lohengrin, and Sembrich, who lent the sleepwalker the "warm, emotional quality" of her voice, her bravura, her "artistic discrimination and taste." As for Il Barbiere di Siviglia, the Times opined that "without a great Rosina" it would be "simply unbearable," to us a startling appraisal. But then, the Met had a great Rosina. During the inaugural season, Sembrich applied her refined art to many other roles: Violetta, Gilda, Zerlina, Martha, Ophélie, Marguerite de Valois, and Juliette.
Sembrich returned to the company in 1898 after a hiatus of fifteen years. Some time later, thanks to the Met's librarian, Lionel Mapleson, her voice was captured live from the stage. Between January 1901 and March 1903, Mapleson, the Colonel's nephew, first placed his recording device, replete with horn, in the prompter's box, and then in the flies above the stage, an aerie that produced better results. His primitive equipment and makeshift conditions yielded transcriptions rich in the vibrancy of the event. The dim and scratchy sounds emitted by modern transfers of the Mapleson cylinders are the only echoes of "golden age" voices accompanied by full orchestra caught in the ambience of a large auditorium. In the case of two historic artists, Jean de Reszke and Milka Ternina, they are all we have. With Sembrich, we are more fortunate. Her very late commercial "Mad Scene" (1906) and "Sextet" (1908) bear traces of the impression she must have made in 1883. These acoustic records, though superior to Mapleson's, suffer the shortcomings of attempts to reproduce sound prior to the introduction of electrical processes in 1925. The limited range of frequency cuts the harmonics, impacting negatively on the body and resonance of the tone. Particularly affected were sopranos. But if the quality of Sembrich's timbre is compromised by crude technologies, her agility, range, and phrasing survive, and they are prodigious.10
Before making her farewell in 1909, Marcella Sembrich had appeared nearly five hundred times on 39th Street and on tour. Her final Met performance was a splashy exhibition of the range of her artistry: she topped off three acts from her favorite operas by interpolating two show pieces into the "Lesson Scene" of Il Barbiere di Siviglia and then accompanying herself at the piano in Chopin's "A Maiden's Wish." At her retirement banquet, Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Farrar, Antonio Scotti, Louise Homer, and others of the company sang the titles of many of the twenty-seven operas in her New York repertoire to the tune of "The Merry Widow" waltz, beginning, "Ri-go-let-to, Pu-ri-ta-ni, Hu-gue-nots." Henderson, who at the time of Sembrich's death in 1935 had heard everyone from Adelina Patti and Christine Nilsson to Rosa Ponselle and Kirsten Flagstad, wrote in memoriam, "this famous soprano was not only one of the greatest singers of her period, but of all lyric history."11
With the docking of Manuel Garcia's troupe on November 7, 1825, well over a half-century before the 1883 Lucia, Italian opera alighted in New York on the wings of Rossini. It was a time of high civic pride and optimism. Three days earlier, the arrival of the Seneca Chief, the first packet boat to make the trip from Buffalo to Albany through the newly completed Erie Canal and then down the Hudson, had been the occasion for a demonstration one hundred thousand strong, the largest yet seen in North America. The canal, waterway to the West, guaranteed the city's position as the country's manufacturing, commercial, and financial center. Ambitions to be its cultural capital too had begun to stir. Garcia, a Spanish tenor, composer, and impresario, launched his New World venture on November 29 in Park Row's Park Theatre with Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia. His Rosina was his seventeen-year-old daughter, mezzo-soprano Maria Garcia, soon to be the legendary Maria Malibran. In attendance on that evening were personalities as disparate as Mozart's librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, instrumental in bringing Garcia to New York; Napoleon's brother Joseph Bonaparte, for a time King of Naples and then of Spain, now a resident of New Jersey; and novelist James Fenimore Cooper, whose The Last of the Mohicans was soon to be published. Garcia himself sang Count Almaviva, the role he had created in Rome in 1816. During his one New York season, Garcia introduced the city to nine works, among them Don Giovanni and four more by Rossini.12
It would be another seven years before New York built a venue expressly for opera, and it would be twenty-two more and three tries before one such effort, the Academy of Music, would become firmly embedded on the city's cultural map. However different the three failed enterprises, they had in common the near monopoly of bel canto on their stages. The first, the Italian Opera House, owned and administered by a group of business and civic leaders, was another effort on Da Ponte's part to bring opera to his adopted country. From the time of Garcia's visit, Da Ponte had been a vigorous proponent of Italian music and letters, and professor of Italian literature at Columbia College, the first such position in the United States. The Italian Opera House (1833-1835), a small theater located at Leonard and Church streets, opened with Rossini's La Gazza ladra. Nine years later, Palmo's Opera House (1844-1847), also small, seating only eight hundred, opened on nearby Chambers Street. For a single season it was owned and operated by Ferdinand Palmo, a former restaurateur, who raised his first curtain on Bellini's I Puritani. Bellini shared the season's bill evenly with his two bel canto competitors, Rossini, of course, and Donizetti. In contrast to the Italian Opera House and to its immediate successor, the Astor Place Opera House, Palmo's mission was to bring opera to the people at prices families could afford. But his target audience of immigrants had not swelled to numbers sufficient to support his intentions. For the next two years, a series of directors and companies made doomed attempts to rescue the project. As with the Italian Opera House, Palmo's small capacity and mediocre casts were the undoing of the balance sheet. On the heels of Palmo's demise came the Astor Place Opera House (1847-1852), administered, like the Italian Opera House, by wealthy patrons.
New York had taken sharp financial, social, and demographic turns between the passing of the Italian Opera House in 1835 and the christening of the opera house on Astor Place in 1847. The accompanying cultural turn was animated by the inauguration of steamship service between Bristol and New York in 1837; it had increased and quickened transatlantic itineraries for goods and persons, including singers and instrumentalists. The establishment of the Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York in 1842, still the oldest orchestra in the United States, had begun to shape the musical taste of the city's population. The new opera house had pursued the affluent to 8th Street and Broadway, a neighborhood undergoing upscale development. And although bel canto continued to hold sway over the repertoire, the opening night Ernani bore witness to the advent of Giuseppe Verdi. The problems of the eighteen-hundred-seat house were obvious from the beginning: disappointing subscription rolls and ticket sales, unexceptional casts. The fatal blow was the Astor Place riot of 1849, the bloodiest episode in New York theater history. On May 10, armed with stones, nativists in support of the American actor Edwin Forrest, who was playing Macbeth at the Bowery Theatre, laid siege to the Astor Place Theatre, where the English actor Charles Macready was performing, he too as Macbeth. The militia, called to reinforce the police, fired into the crowd. Before it was over, the dead numbered around twenty-five-no one could say for sure. Tangential to opera, at least on the surface, the riot raged in front of the opulent edifice built by the establishment largely for its own gratification. More importantly for our discussion, the issues that provoked the carnage were also central to debates about the place of opera, if any, in the American democratic order. On one side stood the old guard, determined to defend the patrician signs of their European origins. On the other stood the nativists, joined by fiercely anti-English Irish immigrants for whom opera represented a foreign, aristocratic tradition incompatible with their republican slogans.13
It took three decades for Italian opera to plant lasting roots in New York, the span that separated Garcia's visit from the 1854 inception of the Academy of Music, the last of the Metropolitan's antecedents. In the interim, various incongruous sources were on the attack: "populists who disdained aristocratic pretense in Americans, intellectuals who mistrusted music's power over people, moralists for whom a foreign- language genre could not contribute to theatrical reform, romantic conservatives who wanted to hold onto the 'palmy days' of the legitimate stage, and self-proclaimed outsiders who disparaged the wealth and social prestige that attendance at the opera was seen to represent."14
Led by German-born banker August Belmont, the subscribers of the Academy of Music made an appeasing gesture in the direction of "populists" and "self-proclaimed outsiders" by attaching "academy" to the name of the impressive new building six blocks north of Astor Place, thereby underscoring the institution's didactic mission: the promotion of American composers, the training of American performers, and the musical education of the people. Moreover, the enormous initial capacity of the hall, pegged by the press at four thousand and greater (rebuilt after an 1866 fire, it shrank by more than half), was cited as prima facie evidence of the will to accommodate the vast spectatorship of the polis. But high-minded social purposes went largely ignored. Critics focused instead on the miserable sight lines, lighting, and ventilation; while the rich were framed to flattering effect by the extreme pitch of the tiers and the elegance of the setting, fully half the seats, primarily those at prices as low as $.25, offered scant, if any, visibility of the stage.15
On the Academy's first night, October 2, 1854, the New York debuts of two undisputed international stars, Giulia Grisi and Giovanni Mario, crowned what was already an event of significance to New York's standing. The three-month-long inaugural Grisi-Mario season began with Norma and continued with works by the bel canto composers exclusively. Grisi had created the role of Adalgisa in Bellini's opera, as well as those of Elvira in I Puritani and Norina in Donizetti's Don Pasquale; Mario was widely touted as the greatest tenor of his generation. The magical resonance of their names is captured by Henry James who, as a boy, lived with his family a stone's throw from the nascent Academy: "when our air thrilled, in the sense that our attentive parents reechoed, with the visit of the great Grisi and the great Mario, and I seemed, though the art of advertisement [James refers to the theater's billboard] was then comparatively so young and so chaste, to see our personal acquaintance, as he could almost be called [Monsieur Dubreuil, a comprimario, a singer of secondary roles], thickly sandwiched between them. Such was one's strange sense for the connections of things that they drew out the halls of Ferrero [a nearby dancing school] till these too seemed fairly to resound with Norma and Lucrezia Borgia, as if opening straight upon the stage, and Europe, by the stroke, had come to us in such force that we had but to enjoy it on the spot."16
Grisi and Mario had sailed in the wake of the fabled Jenny Lind and Marietta Alboni, lured to New York by generous fees. In the years to come, the Academy's sponsors leased the theater to a series of managers, some for only a season, others returning to try again. Bel canto programs were peppered with the first American performances, soon after their European premieres, of Verdi's Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Il Trovatore, Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, and Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. On February 20, 1861, on his way to his inauguration, Abraham Lincoln's stop in New York included an Academy performance of Verdi's Un Ballo in maschera; the President-elect left before act 3 and was thereby spared the onstage spectacle of a ruler's assassination. Less than two months later, on April 12, Fort Sumter would be attacked and the American Civil War would begin. New York would soon enjoy the boom that led to its recognition as a magnet for capital. By the 1880s, the city was no longer a cultural backwater where fading singers could succeed on the strength of a European reputation. A discerning and exigent musical press was ready and able to point out in expert detail a performer's technical weaknesses, faulty intonation, and stylistic vulgarities. The public had evolved as well. In 1850, P. T. Barnum had created frenzy for Jenny Lind with concerts largely devoted to timeworn melodies; thirty years later, Adelina Patti, the acknowledged "Queen of Song," undisputed star of Europe's opera stages, returned to the United States after a two-decade absence, prepared to feed her public a diet of ballads. "But it was another America to which Patti came. It was an America which had half outgrown the Italian opera, and which listened with delight to the music of the future . . . [a] cultivated, intelligent, musically developed America." On November 8, 1880, to take one spectacular but by no means unique example, Gerster sang La Traviata at the Academy, Campanini was at Steinway Hall, a block or so away on 14th Street, and, at Booth's Theatre on 23rd Street, Sarah Bernhardt was making her US debut in the Scribe-Legouvé melodrama Adrienne Lecouvreur.17
First Opera War
By 1878, the year Colonel Mapleson took over at the Academy, society had again moved northward. Fourteenth Street was no longer the fanciest address in town. Millionaires had marched their mansions up Fifth Avenue, the Astors to 34th Street, the Vanderbilts to 52nd, the Roosevelts to the corner of 57th. The Metropolitan had followed in the footsteps of its stockholders. If the opening round of the opera war was a dustup between the "Old Families" and the "Newcomers," as soon as the Nobs and the Swells were amicably ensconced in their fauteuils (some had boxes in both houses), a second battle was engaged, on another ground, the stage, and with other contestants, the stars. Sopranos, in particular, would vie night after night on boards little more than a mile apart. The managements had no choice but to compete in ways they knew would perforce end in the ruin of one or the other of their companies. In fact, it ruined both. Mapleson was at an initial disadvantage. He had lost some of his best-known artists to offers from Abbey that could not be refused. But, he held two trump cards, Gerster and Patti. Early on, the [Dramatic] Mirror (Oct. 27) predicted, adopting the inescapable military metaphor, that the Academy would emerge victorious as long as Mapleson would keep "on giving such eminently satisfactory performances as that which opened his campaign." But sometimes even Patti could not fill more than two-thirds of the auditorium; on Gerster nights, the theater was two-thirds empty. Patti's fee, the highest of any singer in the world, could simply not be amortized. And what is more, her grip on the company, not to mention on the public's attention, rankled Gerster and put the mediocrity of other colleagues in unflattering relief. The quality of the Met's ensemble was decidedly higher and its new sets and costumes beyond the Academy's reach. Still, Abbey was faced with his own problems. Best estimates put the cost of the Met's principal singers, comprimarios, orchestra, chorus, and the rest just shy of $7,000 per performance; revenues fell far short of expenses. If Mapleson's season closed deeply in the red, it also closed in glory: Patti trilled in duet with Sofia Scalchi, who had wandered downtown at the expiration of her Met contract. They, and Rossini, and Semiramide filled every seat and "all available standing room" (Herald, April 25).18
Each company had presented a fall and spring season of nineteen operas (Abbey added a twentieth for Philadelphia alone); nearly half the titles were identical, for the most part bel canto and early Verdi works. The titles exclusive to Mapleson were Rossini's La Gazza ladra and Semiramide, Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix and L'Elisir d'amore, Bellini's Norma, the Ricci brothers' Crispino e la comare, and Verdi's Ernani. With the exception of Aïda and Roméo et Juliette, none of the Academy's offerings was thought of as modern. The contrasting profile of the Met emerged from relatively recent French works, along with Lohengrin, Arrigo Boïto's 1868 Mefistofele, and the first US performance of Amilcare Ponchielli's La Gioconda, premiered at La Scala in 1876. Abbey, unlike Mapleson, was bent on demonstrating that his "Grand Italian Opera" was alert to the public's predilection for Wagner and for contemporary fare.
Lohengrin showed off the company to marked advantage, and although sung in Italian, of course, this edition of Wagner prompted Krehbiel to make the case for Abbey's more inclusive policy. A passionate Wagnerite, he cited the audience's patience as proof "that the patrons of the opera in New York are ripe for something better and nobler than the sweetmeats of the hurdy-gurdy repertory, and that a winning card to play in the game now going on between the rival managers would be a list, not necessarily large, of the best works of the German and French schools" (Tribune). Mefistofele and La Gioconda were, for the most part, well performed. By all accounts, Campanini and Nilsson sang Boïto's Faust and Margherita to far better effect than they had when impersonating the same characters in Gounod's version on opening night. Krehbiel chose to take issue with the opera itself, "the novelty of Boïto's conception having worn off"; he now found it "bizarre . . . inane, insipid, when it is not positively vulgar in style" (Tribune). Despite the misfire of its act 2 explosion, the premiere of Ponchielli's sumptuously staged La Gioconda elicited lengthy and mostly positive reactions. Henderson, who thought it "among the most important art occurrences of the season," placed the composer in "a sort of half-way ground between Verdi's latest manner and the moderate productions of Wagner," his score, though unoriginal, containing "much that is beautiful and impressive." While Henderson judged Nilsson ill cast in a role intended for dramatic soprano, Krehbiel reported that she "kept the audience in a state of almost painful excitement by the vivid manner to which she depicted the sufferings of the street singer" (Tribune). He was harsher on Ponchielli than his colleague, charging the composer with resorting to "the old style." The two magisterial critics agreed that the enterprise did credit to the fledgling company by offering "grand opera in a style worthy of the metropolis" (Tribune).
Performed in Abbey's new raiments, some of the "old style" operas made strong impressions. On the third night of the season, Il Trovatore introduced Roberto Stagno. The tenor thrilled the audience with his long-held high B at the end of "Di quella pira." The Azucena of Zelia Trebelli "was a triumph of high vocal art worthy of being ranked with Madame Sembrich's brilliant performance on Wednesday" (Tribune). On hearing the Leonora of Alwina Valleria, the Met's first American-born diva, the Tribune declared, "there can be no 'off night' at the Metropolitan so long as she relieves either Madame Nilsson or Madame Sembrich" (Tribune). Soprano Emmy Fursch-Madi had glowing notices for her Alice in Meyerbeer's Robert le diable. Fursch-Madi was also compelling as Ortrud to Nilsson's Elsa and as Donna Anna in a Don Giovanni that flaunted Nilsson as Donna Elvira and Sembrich as Zerlina. Abbey's Met had its fair share of disappointing evenings as well, many occasioned by the weak contingent of male singers. Stagno soon found that his reliable high notes did not suffice to trigger favorable reviews for his Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni), Jean de Leyde (Le Prophète), Lionel (Martha), and Enzo (La Gioconda). Italian baritone Luigi Guadagnini was trounced as Rigoletto: "It is a thousand pities that the poor man came so far to do so little" (Times). In an underprepared Mignon, Nilsson was judged to have fallen short of her own more youthful and graceful performance of thirteen years earlier, when she had introduced Ambroise Thomas's portrait of Goethe's touching waif to America. Trebelli's Carmen compared unfavorably to Minnie Hauk's, New York's first, in 1878. Thomas's take on Hamlet was denounced as lèse-Shakespeare in its solitary New York hearing. With the exception of Nilsson, Campanini, and Scalchi, the principals of Les Huguenots were "simply earnest, correct, and lifeless" and the orchestra "almost continuously irresponsive to Signor Vianesi's baton" (Times).
Fall and Rise of Bel Canto
The lesson of the Met's first season was that Thomas, Bizet, and Meyerbeer, not to mention Wagner, Gounod, Boïto, and Ponchielli, had eclipsed "old" Italian opera. Verdi's Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata and the bel canto works fell well below the 1883-84 box-office average, trailing far behind Faust, Lohengrin, Mignon, La Gioconda, Les Huguenots, and Don Giovanni. No one, not even Marcella Sembrich, could stem the tide. In the interest of protecting their investment, the pro-bel canto box holders took a grudging back seat to the ticket-buying public. The influential coterie of Wagnerite critics that had railed often and loudly against the dramatic implausibilities and musical shallowness of Italian opera, together with the "ultra musical people in the gallery," had won the day. In a moment of particular hauteur, Krehbiel dismissed Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, throwing in Verdi for good measure, for clinging to "the petty world of feelings," the "skeleton" for their abiding and exclusive interest in melody (Tribune, Nov. 6, 1883). For the next seven years, the war would be waged not between two houses and two companies, but as a latter-day "quarrel of the ancients and the moderns." Lucia, Elvira, and their sisters lived on at the Academy for the remaining season-and-a-half of Mapleson's tenure. At the Metropolitan from 1884 until 1891, its German years, Donizetti was absent, Rossini was represented only by his French grand opera, Guillaume Tell, and Bellini was confined to just three performances of Norma. When Lucia di Lammermoor was revived for the formidable Nellie Melba in 1893, Henderson, unmoved, pronounced the opera "dead to the world" (Times, Dec. 5). And so it went for decades. Caruso himself was unable to shield the 1904 premiere of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia from the vituperations of Krehbiel ("a mouldering corpse") and Henderson ("empty formulas . . . without a trace of dramatic characterization"). In fact, bel canto programming continued to be so spotty that partisan critical attacks were largely moot.
The beginning of the turnabout came with the February 18, 1918 revival of I Puritani. Without explanation, the Bellini that Krehbiel had once pilloried was suddenly a model to be emulated: "If only the composers of Francesca da Rimini or Mârouf could exchange three-quarters of their orchestral mastery for a tithe of the lyric ecstasy which floods the operas of Bellini, the world of modern opera would take on a more hopeful aspect" (Tribune). Krehbiel's conversion aside, I Puritani served the critic's present purpose: to bludgeon Riccardo Zandonai and Henri Rabaud, whose operas had had recent Met premieres. A week later, Krehbiel devoted an entire column to a summary of I Puritani notices, nearly all glowing (Tribune, Feb. 24). When Olin Downes became principal music reviewer for the Times in 1924, bel canto found a true champion. He took the occasion of the January 18, 1926 production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia to celebrate Rossini. The next year, it was Bellini's turn. Norma retained "a surprising amount of its formal strength, its beauty and eloquence" (Nov. 17, 1927). And he loved La Sonnambula: "The music unfolds one faultless melody after another, always appropriate in warmth or pathos or tenderness to the emotion of the text, yet never violating the shape of the formal musical speech" (March 16, 1932). By the mid-1930s, the bel canto operas most frequently revived at the Met, Lucia di Lammermoor, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, L'Elisir d'amore, Norma, and Don Pasquale, were no longer wanting for rehabilitation by the critical establishment. They had stood the test of time and belonged to the ages.
It took another couple of decades for the neglected operas of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini to emerge from near oblivion. Their rediscovery turned on the confluence of two phenomena, a soprano, Maria Callas, and a technology, the long-playing record. In January 1949, soon after the start of her career, Callas stunned the Venetian public by following a run of Walküre Brünnhildes with her first Puritani Elviras. During these performances at La Fenice, a role unquestionably the property of the soprano leggero (a light, flexible soprano voice) was triumphantly reinvented by a soprano drammatico d'agilità (a soprano voice of both power and agility). Her recording of Bellini's then unfamiliar opera was released on the heels of the familiar Lucia. Callas went on to breathe new musical and dramatic life into other works long in limbo as Italian theaters mounted rarities specifically for her, Rossini's Il Turco in Italia and Armida, Donizetti's Anna Bolena and Poliuto, and Bellini's Il Pirata, all captured live or in the studio. The conservative Met trod more timorously than did venues abroad. During her all-too-brief string of twenty-three performances with the company, the only bel canto roles Callas sang were Norma, her calling card, and Lucia. The December 8, 1956 broadcast finds her in less than optimal form. Still, the poignancy of Lucia's predicament explodes at the intersection of bel canto ornamentation and Callas's incisive accents and diction. She brings the plangency of a "Lacrimosa" to the "Soffriva nel pianto" duet; for the "Mad Scene," she summons despair and ecstasy at will. Many sopranos, mostly leggero like her predecessors, have followed Callas as Lucia at the Met; few have been deaf to her lessons.19
Least of all Joan Sutherland. And she had none of Callas's instability in the upper register, none of the weakness of most coloraturas in the lower. Her 1961 Met debut as Lucia was front-page news (Herald Tribune, Nov. 27). Twelve minutes of curtain calls saluted the "Mad Scene." Alas, cameras and microphones were absent. Two months later, television's Bell Telephone Hour documented her star turn live, preserving not only the voice of "la Stupenda," but the impact of her interpretation. As her career progressed, Sutherland was often perceived as an indifferent actress. In this telecast, she makes vivid the young woman's hallucination, the encounter with her beloved by the fountain, her joy at hearing the wedding music, the tender evocation of love, the febrile search for the invisible flute. For the nearly fourteen minutes of scrutiny by the cameras, the singer's virtuosity serves the drama. Sutherland's complete Lucia was captured in a Met telecast on November 13, 1982. At fifty-six, less nimble of foot and, naturally, less fresh of voice, hers remained the standard to be met.
It was the drive to find vehicles for Sutherland that called back works not heard at the Met for at least three decades: La Sonnambula (1962-63), Donizetti's La Fille du régiment (1971-72), I Puritani (1975-76), and new productions of Lucia di Lammermoor (1964-65) and Norma (1969-70). She had become one of the company's most potent and ultimately most durable attractions. Marilyn Horne was the raison d'être for Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri (1973-74) and Semiramide (1990-91), both long absent. The newsworthy debut of Beverly Sills at La Scala in The Siege of Corinth propelled the soprano and Rossini's opera onto the Met stage for the first time (1974-75). Cecilia Bartoli secured a place for Rossini's La Cenerentola (1997-98). For Renée Fleming, keen to add bel canto credentials to her title of Mozart-Strauss specialist, the management scheduled Bellini's Il Pirata (2002-03) and Rossini's Armida (2009-10). Juan Diego Flórez, the sole tenore di grazia (a light, flexible tenor voice) in Met history to spearhead a bel canto premiere, was matched by Joyce DiDonato and Diana Damrau in the pyrotechnics of Rossini's Le Comte Ory (2010-11). Donizetti's Anna Bolena (2011-12) provided another opportunity for Anna Netrebko to extend her lyric voice into the domain of the coloratura. And DiDonato shone in the title role of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda (2012-13). Callas had worked her magic. The appetite for unfamiliar bel canto she reawakened has continued to be satisfied by ensuing generations of artists trained to negotiate the most difficult embellishments with amazing virtuosity. The feast continues.20
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