Halcyon Years at the Met: 1921-1926 December 29 2023
General Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza’s repertory policy remained unchanged for the seasons immediately following the death of Enrico Caruso. With seemingly inexhaustible funds at his disposal, he mounted new productions of revivals that were wonderfully cast and usually well received. Novelties also proliferated but were, at best, hailed as interesting experiments.
New York audiences took unfamiliar works to their hearts with diminishing frequency. If any of their titles are but the dimmest of echoes even to the most fervid operaphile, they prove that opera was still treated as a living, evolving art form. But whether presenting the old or the new, the Met thought of itself as the most illustrious theatre for opera in the world. The New York public, witness to a parade of the greatest singers across the Met’s vast stage, had no reason to quarrel with that opinion.
THE CAST CHANGES
Geraldine Farrar, one of the core members of the Met roster, announced her decision to retire at the conclusion of a Madama Butterfly on January 23, 1922. She asked the audience which role they preferred for her swan song. During a five-minute-long demonstration they shouted “Tosca,” strongly expressing their allegiance to Farrar who was being displaced by a sensational new soprano in that very role. Repeating his unchivalrous treatment of the departing Olive Fremstad in the same situation in 1915, Gatti obliged neither Farrar nor her fans but scheduled Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Zazà for her farewell.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Geraldine Farrar as Madama Butterfly in Puccini's opera
When the day came, nothing could dampen the emotions of the 500 vociferous young “Gerry-flappers,” each of whom carried a small flag with the star’s name. They showered her with flowers, unfurled a gigantic banner with the words “Hurrah, Farrar! Farrar, Hurrah!” and paraded their favorite through the streets in triumph.
Farrar had made it known to friends that she would indeed quit opera when she reached 40, but the immediate success of Maria Jeritza no doubt hardened the American soprano’s intention to leave the stage while she was still able to command it. Although only five years younger than Farrar, Jeritza had the healthier, more robust voice. For a decade, she had demonstrated her glamour and star quality in Vienna. Puccini was so enthralled by her Tosca that he sanctioned her “bionda” incarnation of the Roman diva, in spite of the “bruna” specified in the libretto; Richard Strauss wrote the marvelous roles of Ariadne (Ariadne auf Naxos) and the Kaiserin (Die Frau ohne Schatten) for her.
Jeritza’s New York debut was as Marietta in Erich Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, an event that signaled the return of German opera auf Deutsch to the stage of the Met. Korngold’s music inspired more praise than most other contemporary works. There were a few reservations about Jeritza’s singing, but not about her “engaging and brilliant” personality. The delirium produced by her first Tosca banished most of the reservations. Deems Taylor in the World reported that she “left a packed house alternately breathless and cheering.” There was shock at Jeritza’s rendition of “Vissi d’arte,” delivered prone on the stage, staring toward the footlights.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Maria Jeritza in the title role of Janacek's opera "Jenufa"
Comparisons with the great Sarah Bernhardt were not judged inappropriate. Jeritza would astonish Met audiences with her electrifying presence for eleven consecutive seasons.
The infelicitous task of opening the 1921-22 season at the Metropolitan without Caruso or Farrar fell to Amelita Galli-Curci, in her long-awaited company debut as Violetta. Although very popular with audiences, some critics found her portrayal of the doomed courtesan unmoving, and Henderson of the Sun complained of “the strangely convulsive drawing aside of her lips.” Despite having “one of the most beautiful voices this public has heard” the soprano did not become a mainstay during her nine seasons at the Met, singing only a scant 71 performances in New York.
A new Aïda went on to one of the longest and most varied tenures of any leading soprano in the company’s history, a total of 31 roles in 20 seasons. The impeccable musicianship and silvery spinto voice of Elisabeth Rethberg were especially admired in Verdi and the jugendlich heroines of Wagner, but were not sufficient attributes when she donned Cio-Cio-San’s ill-fitting kimono and Brünnhilde’s all too heavy helmet. Friedrich Schorr was immediately recognized as a Wagnerian bass-baritone of the highest order; Karin Branzell’s dramatic mezzo-soprano would serve Wagner nobly for 21 consecutive seasons.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Program clip for a performance of Wagner's "Parsifal" at The Met, April 2, 1926, starring Friedrich Schorr, Lauritz Melchior, and Nanny Larsen-Todsen
If the cause of Wagner was advanced by the arrival of sopranos Nanny Larsén-Todsen and Maria Müller, the Ring was beset with an unusually high share of accidents. Larsén-Todsen’s debut as Brünnhilde was delayed when the horse cast as Grane stepped out of character and onto her foot during a Götterdämmerung rehearsal. And the hapless tenor in Siegfried, Curt Taucher, fell 25 feet through a trap door. Miraculously, he was able to continue the performance, but the remainder of his season was compromised.
In 1922-23, some interest was aroused by Max von Schillings’ Mona Lisa, vividly acted by the composer’s wife, soprano Barbara Kemp, and by Michael Bohnen, a new bass-baritone who would contribute a large gallery of memorable characterizations to the Met during his ten-year stay. A superb athlete, Bohnen turned cartwheels and walked on his hands as Tonio in Pagliacci. Universally admired for his great voice, Bohnen was also given to eccentricities of gesture and costume. In a later season, his Götterdämmerung Hagen, who appeared bald save for a single knot of black hair in one performance, sprouted red hair and a red beard for another one.
Neither the novelties nor the revivals of 1923-24 had much impact on the repertoire. If luxurious casting had been enough to guarantee lasting popularity, Jules Massenet’s Le Roi de Lahore, Raoul Laparra’s La Habanera and Primo Riccitelli’s I Compagnacci, would have survived their initial season. But Jeritza and Giovanni Martinelli were able to give the heated passions of Umberto Giordano’s Fedora a respectable three-year run, thereby surpassing its premiere production at the Met with Caruso and Lina Cavalieri nearly two decades earlier.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Libretto for the opera "Mona Lisa" by Max von Schillings signed by him with a short music quote and her wife soprano Barbara Kemp
Two important 20th-century works were first heard at the Met in 1924-25: Leoš Janáček’s Jenufa (in German) and Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. New York was not yet ready for Janáček, even when sung by Jeritza. The eminent British critic Ernest Newman inexplicably deemed the score only “a cut above the amateur.” Debussy’s lost princess found an ideal exponent in Lucrezia Bori who, with tenor Edward Johnson, kept Pelléas et Mélisande at the Met for an astonishing string of 11 consecutive seasons.
In 1925-26, Gatti’s annual profusion of novelties included Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s I Gioielli della Madonna, Giordano’s La Cena delle Beffe, and Massenet’s Don Quichotte, the latter a splendid vehicle for Chaliapin, but none of these works was sturdy enough to withstand numerous repetitions.
A BARITONE SUPERSTAR: LAWRENCE TIBBETT
It was the modest 1923 debut of a young singer from California that eventually left the deepest mark on the Met. Lawrence Tibbett’s first year, though, in roles of variable importance (from Marullo in Rigoletto to Valentin in Faust), scarcely heralded one of the most brilliant careers ever to be enjoyed by an American artist. The performance that made Lawrence Tibbett a star took place the following season. Tullio Serafin was conducting an outstanding revival of Verdi’s Falstaff (the first at the Met since 1910) with Antonio Scotti, Bori, Frances Alda, and Beniamino Gigli, but it was Tibbett, in the secondary baritone role of Ford, who stole the headlines.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Lawrence Tibbett as Rigoletto in Verdi's opera -one of his signature roles on stage
At the conclusion of the opening scene of Act II, just after Ford’s monologue, the audience applauded for 15 minutes until Tibbett returned for a solo curtain call. The demonstration was partially a reaction against the Falstaff, Scotti, who had mistakenly accepted the thunderous applause. But, if we can judge the baritone from his records and films, it was Tibbett himself, with his ripening voice and his unmistakable theatrical presence, who truly earned the acclaim.
A NORMA FOR THE AGES: ROSA PONSELLE
Nineteen-twenty-five-1926 saw the company premiere of Gaspare Spontini’s La Vestale which shared the same brief single-season destiny of Maurice Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole, Peter Cornelius’s Der Barbier von Bagdad and Manuel De Falla’s La Vida breve,.Spontini’s opera was, however, a turning point in the career of one of the company’s most valuable members through the ‘20s and ‘30s-- Rosa Ponselle. Before taking on Spontini, Ponselle’s dramatic soprano voice had already served composers of the late romantic period. In the classical mode of Spontini she found the style most congenial to her temperament, and the musical rhetoric designed to show off her near-perfect technique.
Other sopranos gloried in the high C which Ponselle feared; some might have rivaled her, perhaps even surpassed her, in expressing the vociferous despair of Mascagni’s Santuzza or Giordano’s Maddalena. But no one could approach Ponselle’s ability to launch the long, arching phrases of Spontini’s Giulia, and more importantly, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, the role she would assume two years later, the Met’s first Norma since Lilli Lehmann’s in 1891. Before the universal revival of the bel canto operas in the 1950s, critics still condescended to Bellini.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Rosa Ponselle as Norma in Bellini's opera
Even more surprising is the reserve with which they initially received Ponselle’s Druid priestess. Irving Kolodin, in his history of the Met, temperately suggested that she “was a plausible Norma, if not yet a great one.” Her recordings, as well as reviews of later performances, show that greatness was not long in coming. Tullio Serafin, who conducted Ponselle’s Norma, was instrumental in the first, successful excursions of Maria Callas into the bel canto repertoire.
A COLORATURA AND A HELDENTENOR
Two debuts occurred in the matinee and evening performances of February 17, 1926. The more newsworthy was exemplary of the power of publicity to turn an artist with only modest talents into an instant (if shooting) star. The Gilda of 18-year-old American coloratura soprano Marion Talley was preceded by and greeted with chauvinistic enthusiasm. All the fuss over Talley seems inexplicable in light of the singer’s slight accomplishments, blatant in her recordings and short films. But the premature emergence on the opera stage of this home-grown (from Kansas City) and extremely young soprano captured the public’s imagination.
Talley’s father, a professional telegrapher, tapped out his version of her success on a wire installed backstage at the Met. Paternal satisfaction did not coincide with the negative response of the critics. Yet the impetus of fame survived the unflattering reviews. After amassing piles of money from opera, concerts, and recordings, Talley announced her retirement from the stage at the age of only 22. The precocious debutante was equally precocious in her farewell. Talley briefly resumed her career, but not with the Met, in 1933 and 1934.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Marion Talley was the youngest soprano to debut in The Metropolitan Opera at 18 in 1926.
The hysteria surrounding Marion Talley diverted attention from the new tenor in Tannhaüser that very afternoon. It was only Lauritz Melchior, who would prove to be the greatest heldentenor of the 20th century. Despite a slow warm-up and awkward acting, Melchior’s potential, in relation to the current cohort of Wagner tenors, was duly noticed. In his twenty-four Met seasons, he would establish the standard of execution and appropriate sound by which we measure, alas, for them, subsequent exponents of Tristan, Siegfried, and Wagner’s other super-heroes.
OPERA AND HOLLYWOOD
Melchior’s operatic fame was firmly established in the 1930s, but during the 1940s his rotund physique and white hair became familiar to millions of Americans who had never heard a note of Tristan und Isolde. Melchior became something of an avuncular movie star. Other Met luminaries--Lily Pons, Gladys Swarthout, Risë Stevens--preceded him to Hollywood and enjoyed varying degrees of success on movie screens. But at the dawn of talking films, there were Lawrence Tibbett and Grace Moore.
When Tibbett created the role of Simon Boccanegra at the Met in 1932, one critic credited the improvement in the baritone’s acting to his experience in the movies. And if not all the films in which Tibbett appeared were worthy of his genius, they fully captured his magnetism, a quality also amply displayed by Grace Moore, Tibbett’s co-star in the movie version of Sigmund Romberg’s operetta, The New Moon.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Danish-born American tenor Lauritz Melchior -one of the greatest heldentenor of the XX century.
The singing couple made tangible the bridge between opera and “talking pictures,” the new medium of mass entertainment, when they rendered the film’s principal duet at a Met gala. Moore had made her moderately successful Met debut as Mimì in 1928, following her experience in musical revues. Her first few seasons were unremarkable. But Moore was no Marion Talley. Hard work and great ambition turned her into a formidable interpreter of roles such as Tosca, Louise (which she committed to film under the direction of Abel Gance in 1939), and Fiora (L’Amore dei tre re). Like Geraldine Farrar, she proved that the glamour and fame of Hollywood were not incompatible with the demands of grand opera.
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