The Met 1910-17: The Toscanini Era and the Winds of War July 28 2023
At the start of the 1910-11 season, Giulio Gatti-Casazza and Arturo Toscanini had secured mastery over the artistic fortunes of the Met, but rather than settle into complacency, they strengthened their resolve to give New York a program of meticulously prepared revivals of the standard repertoire, premieres of works from past eras, as well an astonishingly large number of selections from the contemporary repertoire, all sung by the best artists money could buy.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Giulio Gatti-Cassaza, the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera between 1908-1935
A very high level of musical sophistication was set on opening night when Gatti and Toscanini made it clear that their vision of the Metropolitan was quite different from that of their predecessors, Abbey, Grau, and Conried. Rather than choose a familiar score, yet another Roméo et Juliette or Faust designed to be easily digested by a society audience more interested in their own display than in the one onstage, they presented Gluck’s Armide starring Olive Fremstad and Enrico Caruso. In this, its first U.S. performance, Armide was received rapturously by the critics. Yet the season will, in fact, be remembered for its three creations of 20th century works--two world premieres (in a span of less than three weeks) and one U.S. premiere.
DAVID BELASCO AT THE MET
If judged by its persistent presence in international opera houses, La Fanciulla del West by Giacomo Puccini is the most important world premiere ever presented at the Metropolitan. The object of enormous attention from the newspapers, the opera was supervised by the composer and conducted, of course, by Toscanini.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] David Belasco (1853-1931), the American theater producer and playwright behind Puccini's Madama Butterfly and La Fanciulla del West.
David Belasco, the writer-director responsible for the play upon which Fanciulla was based, miraculously transformed the largely Italian chorus and roster of comprimarios into a creditable bunch of California miners. He curbed their natural bent to expansive and frequent gesticulation by commanding that they keep their hands in their pockets.
The director’s magic even touched Caruso, who was persuaded to sing, when required, with his back to the audience. Emmy Destinn as Minnie and Pasquale Amato’s Jack Rance could not have been better. The Met supplied a stupefying number of horses for the Act III posse.
CRITICAL RESPONSE TO FANCIULLA
But not all the critics were enchanted with Fanciulla. One thought it lacked melody and was annoyed at the poor use of what he perceived to be traditional American folk tunes.
The public was initially attracted by the publicity and the extraordinary level of performance, so the opera did not fail, but neither did it prosper. It would have been impossible to predict the durability of Puccini’s bartending, gun-slinging heroine just a few seasons after her auspicious birth. For many years, American audiences found it easier to accept the Japanese geisha than the California saloon-keeper singing in Italian.
HUMPERDINCK'S GOOSE GIRL
The other world premiere turned out to be much more popular -at least at first, composer Engelbert Humperdinck was on hand to usher before the Met audience his fragile fairy tale, Königskinder, and he too required a brigade of animals, this time a gaggle of geese rather than a herd of horses. Geraldine Farrar denied her chance to play Puccini’s Minnie, made the most of Humperdinck’s Goose Girl.
THE PHILADELPHIA-CHICAGO OPERA AT THE MET
Farrar’s charms were not sufficient to quicken the public’s interest in Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, a piece some considered a plea for women’s suffrage. Other novelties heard this season were presented on the Tuesday nights when the Philadelphia-Chicago company came to New York, no longer a rival but a paying guest at the Met. The Philadelphia-Chicago group also produced a new American opera, Natoma with Mary Garden and John McCormack, by Victor Herbert, the popular Irish-American composer of operettas.
The next few seasons maintained the high level of achievement demanded by Gatti and Toscanini, with stunning casts, a steady stream of important debuts, a responsive orchestra, and spectacular décors. The contemporary operas tended to arouse immediate opposition or, at best, brief enthusiasm, but the company certainly deserved praise for attempting new works with such frequency.
The cause of American opera was served by a competition that offered $10,000 to the winning composer. The 1911-12 season featured the premiere of the victorious Mona by Horatio Parker. Her victory was short-lived, a run of only 4 performances. In an age of ferment for and against women’s rights, some thought Mona excessively bellicose, suggesting that she should have minded a woman’s business rather than lead her people in revolt against Rome!
Another opera in English marked the return of Walter Damrosch to the Met, this time as composer rather than conductor, with his Cyrano de Bergerac. Rostand’s heroic poet did not survive beyond his initial season.
MET PREMIERES, DEBUTS, AND FAREWELLS
Toscanini assured the triumph of the U.S. premiere of Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Gatti’s favorite opera. Performed in Italian except when Fedor Chaliapin sang the title role in Russian in 1921, Boris stayed in the repertoire for seventeen consecutive seasons. Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann did not capture their hold over the public’s imagination as strongly as they would in subsequent productions.
The new coloratura, Frieda Hempel, was well-received in an all-star Huguenots, with Caruso, Destinn, and Antonio Scotti, but it was the visiting Philadelphia-Chicago company that provided the début sensation—stentorian baritone Titta Ruffo in Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet.
THE FIRST MET ROSENKAVALIER
The following season, 1913-14, was one of the busiest and most distinguished of Gatti’s regime, with ten new productions, including two significant American premieres. As it turned out, the more important of the two, Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, despite the delectable Marschallin of Hempel and Margarete Ober’s Octavian, had only a qualified reception with the critics.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Vintage photograph of the star German composer Richard Strauss
THE LOVE OF THREE KINGS AND THE SEQUEL TO LOUISE
Italo Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei tre re was considered by some to be the better opera, and the composer was praised for his independence from the style of Puccini. Montemezzi’s highly theatrical and concise work enjoyed a much more lasting success at the Metropolitan than at any other theatre in the world.
Other novelties disappeared without a trace after their initial season. Not even the potent team of Caruso and Farrar could salvage the sequel to Louise, Gustave Charpentier’s Julien, which had been attacked at its Opéra-Comique premiere less than a year before.
Following his successful 1913 debut, Giovanni Martinelli would stay with the Met for 34 seasons, singing a mind-boggling total of 663 performances in 36 roles.
The farewell of Olive Fremstad was the more newsworthy event. In their dealings with Fremstad, Gatti and Toscanini showed a shocking smallness of spirit. Difficult, high-strung, and demanding, Fremstad was only 43, still in her prime, popular with the audience and the critics, and probably one of the greatest singing-actresses to ever command the stage of the Met.
The management resented her inconvenient feud with rival Wagnerian Johanna Gadski (Fremstad and Gadski co-starred in several operas), her high fees, and her refusal to rehearse on the days preceding and following a performance.
Spitefully, Gatti mandated that her final performance would be as Elsa in Lohengrin, a role she disliked, rather than as Isolde, a role she adored. Fremstad was apprised of this fact in a newspaper article! At the end of the performance, the safety curtain was lowered four times in a vain attempt to curtail an ovation that went on for more than 40 curtain calls.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Olive Fremstad (1871-1951) in role by photographer Herman Mishkin, New York.
Tribune critic Krehbiel described it as “the most remarkable demonstration ever given to an artist in the history of New York opera” and he had seen them all. In what was probably an oblique reference to her involuntary retirement, Fremstad said in her curtain speech, “Goodbye, dear friends, and may we all someday meet in that land where peace and harmony reign.”
Gatti would live to regret, if briefly, his summary dismissal of Fremstad. He invited her back to the Met in 1917 when, after the outbreak of the war, his German sopranos were banned from the Met stage. Alas, the German operas themselves were banned soon after, so Fremstad was denied her return to her adoring public.
The Met was, of course, able to survive the departure of Olive Fremstad, but the unexpected departure of Arturo Toscanini, at the end of the 1914-15 season, threatened the basic health of the company.
Toscanini’s mysterious decision to end his association with the Met was greeted with dismay. Kahn and Gatti tried every possible blandishment to win back the man responsible for the company’s primary artistic decisions, but to no avail. In fact, Toscanini never again conducted a staged opera in the United States.
Many have speculated on the reasons for Toscanini’s refusal to return for the 1915-16 season: dissatisfaction with an opera house whose physical plant was already hopelessly old-fashioned; insufficient rehearsal time; the war in Europe. The probable cause was romantic, not musical or political--his affair with Geraldine Farrar had become so serious that the soprano was pressuring the conductor to leave his wife in order to marry her.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Photograph of Maestro Toscanini signed by him, shown in performance
Instead, Toscanini left the Met and America, after leading a rapturously acclaimed production of Weber’s Euryanthe and the world première of Umberto Giordano’s Madame Sans-Gêne. Giordano’s music was dismissed, but the title role was a personal triumph for Farrar.
THE 1915-16 PREMIERES
Two of the three 1915-1916 novelties, Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor and Hermann Goetz’s Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung (The Taming of the Shrew), were applauded by the critics for their musical values but barely survived the echo of the applause.
The story of the season’s world première is much sadder still. Using his celebrated piano suite as a point of departure, Enrique Granados had written Goyescas for Paris. The Met took on the work when the war made unfeasible the production at the Opéra. Accompanied by his wife, Granados came to New York to supervise the première. Goyescas, the first opera in Spanish ever to be sung at the Met, was, however, severely criticized for its lack of dramatic interest.
On their way back to Spain, Granados and his wife perished when their steamship, the Sussex, was torpedoed by the Germans in the English Channel. At the benefit performance for the six Granados orphans, the Met assembled an extraordinary array of musicians--Ignace Paderewski, Fritz Kreisler, Pablo Casals, John McCormack, Maria Barrientos.
THE 1916-17 PREMIERES
Perhaps it was the war, impending for the United States, tragically raging in Europe, that the 1916-17 season had more than its share of failure. Not even Caruso and Farrar had luck with their new roles. The myth that the audience would happily listen to Caruso sing anything does not survive a look at the statistics. Nowhere is this more surprising than in his pitiful sum of three performances in Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Superstar Italian tenor Enrico Caruso circa 1915, who reigned supreme at The Metropolitan Opera since the 1910s
Caruso’s recording of “Je crois entendre encore” seemed to be on everyone’s Victrola. On the other hand, it is doubtful that the photograph of the chubby, mustashioed tenor, beturbaned and beskirted as a Ceylonese fisherman, achieved similar popularity, except for collectors with a deep sense of the ridiculous. Farrar certainly had the looks to essay the role of Thaïs, but memories of Mary Garden as the Alexandrian courtesan were too fresh.
The most important new singer was Claudia Muzio. At her 1916 debut as Tosca, she already displayed the temperament and imagination for which she became legendary. She made a profound impression during her first six seasons at the Met (returning briefly in 1934 for two Violettas and one Santuzza), and her New York career might have lasted longer if her records had borne the all-powerful label of Victor rather than that of Columbia.
THE U.S. GOES TO WAR
The March 1917 world première of Reginald De Koven’s The Canterbury Pilgrims was yet another failed experiment in American opera. A later performance of Canterbury Pilgrims was the occasion, however, for one of the Met’s most dramatic evenings. Just before the third act was about to commence, it was announced from the stage that the United States and Germany had entered a state of war.
The interior of the Metropolitan Opera House in the 1910s, with the "Golden Horseshoe" partially visible
The orchestra struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner” followed by calls for “La Marseillaise” and cheers for President Wilson. Margarete Ober, playing The Wife of Bath, was overcome with emotion and led offstage by another German singer, Johannes Sembach, whose role was that of the very English poet and author of The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer.
The effect of World War I on the United States and on the Metropolitan Opera would be deep and long-lasting.
Charles Affron, co-author (with Mirella Jona Affron) of Grand Opera: The Story of the Met, and the blog OperaPost; author of the recently published opera-themed novel Just Off Grand.
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