Il core vi dono

With February 14th falling on a Sunday, there will be no Valentine’s Day Met performance this year. However, Richard Eyre’s production of Manon Lescaut, starring Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna, premieres tonight, and the romantic Italian fare continues on Saturday with a matinee of Il trovatore and an evening twin bill of Cavalleria rusticana/Pagliacci.

As you will see below, Valentine’s Day often has been special at this house, whether by design or by happenstance. There have been so many significant debuts that in choosing highlights over 132 years, I left a few out (conductor Fausto Cleva, Barbiere di Sivigila, 1942, for one). Here is a look back at just some of what you could have seen, and perhaps did see, on February 14th through the years at the Met.

1896: Dame Nellie Melba was always up for an encore, and in later years she would perform Lucia’s Mad Scene for those who stayed to the end of Puccini’s then-unfamiliar La bohème. On this night, following an all-star Faust with brothers Jean and Edouard de Reszke and Victor Maurel, she sang “Home Sweet Home” with piano accompaniment by her Faust (Jean). According to an unsigned review, “The crowd still cried for more, but the singer’s breath and almost her patience was exhausted, and she came back only once more to shake her fist. Then the ushers came in and gradually pushed the people out, but the house was not entirely clear until long after midnight.”

1919: Also shaking a fist was the Herald’s Reginald de Koven, who bemoaned “the tempestuous psychology, orchestral extravagance, and melodic emptiness which characterize for the most part modern opera, falsely so called.” More to De Koven’s liking was this night’s opera, a Rigoletto with Giuseppe de Luca’s “subtle and sarcastic” jester. “[O]h, in these lack luster musical times, for the melodic genius of a Verdi,” pleaded the critic (himself a composer, whose The Canterbury Pilgrims had received seven Met performances) less than a year before his sudden death.

1923: “The Metropolitan Opera House gave shelter last evening to a new opera from Italy,” wrote Richard Aldrich of the premiere of Vittadini’s now-little-known Anima Allegra. “Gayety is its theme, and its lesson is that life perceptibly brightens if you are visited by a sufficiently lively niece.” Perhaps the opera caught the spirit of its time; another review indicates it went over well with the “Monday nighters” of New York society. But after ten performances in 1923-24, Anima Allegra vanished from the Met’s repertory. Lucrezia Bori and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi headed its deluxe Met premiere cast.

1924: Hungarian bass-baritone Friedrich Schorr made an acclaimed debut, singing Wolfram in Tannhäuser. The cast was otherwise notable for Maria Jeritza’s Elisabeth. In one of several raves, the Tribune’s reviewer wrote of this new Wolfram’s “delicacy of coloring, refinement and warmth of tone too seldom met in Wagnerian performances.” Schorr would distinguish Met performances of Wagner, Strauss, Mozart and Beethoven through 1943.

1936: There would be no whispering of sweet nothings on the stage at 39th and Broadway, with the legendary Tristan and Isolde of Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad providing romantic passion on the grandest scale. Veteran Wagnerian Artur Bodanzky conducted.

1941: Flagstad, who within weeks would begin her decade-long exile from the Met, performed another signature role, Leonore in Fidelio. Belgian great René Maison was her Florestan, and a strong supporting cast included the Rocco of Alexander Kipnis. But the excitement in the press was over a thrilling debut by conductor Bruno Walter, who played the Leonore No. 3 Overture before the opera’s final scene. Per the World Telegram, “Thrice familiar as that work is, this performance wrought the audience to such a pitch of enthusiasm that one trembled for the safety of the august house.”

1945: Conductor Emil Cooper’s performances of Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande in this era were greatly admired (Virgil Thomson: “[The music] becomes iridescent, and incandescent; it shimmers; it glows; it is warm. Never has that work sounded to me so little vague or distant or tenuous. This is the way it still sounded thirty years ago, and Mr. Cooper has returned to the correct tradition”). On this date, the maestro led an interesting international cast, with the great French baritone Martial Singher (a Pelléas praised for exemplary style) joined by Jarmila Novotna, Margaret Harshaw, Lawrence Tibbett and Nicola Moscona.

1953: “I thought it was an outstanding performance of the opera, much better than others I have seen elsewhere, but I must admit I absolutely hated the work, both the words and the music.” So went the candor of GM Rudolf Bing in 5000 Nights at the Opera, on Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. The U.S. premiere was a matinee in the presence of the composer. Thomson in the Herald Tribune agreed about the performance, though not about the work: “The impeccable Fritz Reiner, who conducted, and the composer, who knew what he wanted […] have given us a musico-dramatic production as nearly definitive as any I have heard in my lifetime. […] The opera itself has a striking beauty, a delicate beauty, a vivid style and, I suspect, a subtle, hidden strength all its own.” The four longest roles were sung by Hilde Gueden (the composer’s first choice, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, being politically unacceptable to the Met in 1953), Blanche Thebom, Eugene Conley and Mack Harrell. Stravinsky’s opera would endure, but in the short term, an evening Tosca with Dorothy Kirsten and Jan Peerce delivered the skittish to safer ground.

1962: “There was a spirit of nostalgia […]” began Martin Bernheimer’s review of a Forza del destino. Zinka Milanov, Kurt Baum and Salvatore Baccaloni (Leonora, Alvaro and Melitone, respectively) were noted to have sung their roles in a Met Forza production 19 years earlier. They were joined in 1962 by Robert Merrill and, as old Padre Guardiano, new kid Bonaldo Giaiotti. Bernheimer wrote of Milanov, “It would be useless to pretend that the soprano sounded last night as she had when this production was created for her ten years ago. But there were moments that recalled a great artist in her best days, and for these we are grateful.”

1975: A curious double bill of Bluebeard’s Castle and Gianni Schicchi featured Shirley Verrett and David Ward as the unraveling couple of the first opera, Ezio Flagello and Judith Blegen as the father and daughter of the second. Forty years later, in the Live in HD era, Bluebeard would be scheduled for Valentine’s Day again, its counterpart on that occasion being Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta.

1980: A musically generous five-act Don Carlo, one of several collaborations between the Bliss-era directors of production (John Dexter) and music (James Levine), had its first revival. Renata Scotto and Sherrill Milnes reprised their Elisabetta and Rodrigo from the previous season’s premiere. The 1980 cast, completed by Tatiana Troyanos, Vasile Moldoveanu, Paul Plishka and Jerome Hines, was set for a telecast one week later. On the 14th, Robert Jacobson of Opera News singled out Troyanos for special commendation: “A treasurable Eboli […] mixing a brilliant top voice with focused low notes […] she imbued ‘O don fatale’ with mad-scene intensity of dramatic ferocity and communication.”

1984: The Met’s first Handel opera, Rinaldo, continued with bass divo Samuel Ramey as Argante. This seventh performance featured two house debuts. Donal Henahan wrote of Ewa Podles (Rinaldo), “Although she fell considerably short of scoring a total triumph, Miss Podle? proved herself a singer of real vocal quality whose smallish but flexible voice should suit her for many other roles in the coloratura mezzo repertory.” About Carol Vaness (Armida), who proved more prominent in the house’s plans over the next 20 years, Henahan was prescient: “Miss Vaness pushes her voice rather hard at times, which might be cause for concern somewhere down the road, but at the moment she is a brilliant young singer who could be useful to the Met in a wide variety of parts.”

1990: Falcon flying closer to the ground. The penultimate role of Verrett’s 22-year Met career, which would conclude later in the season, was a familiar one: Saint-Saëns’s Dalila. An old colleague, Plácido Domingo, was her onstage lover and nemesis, and Charles Dutoit, in one of his few Met assignments, conducted. Henahan’s Times review hailed the veteran mezzo/soprano as an interpreter of “considerable sensitivity as well as visual allure.”

1994: The run of La fille du régiment that began on this night is better remembered for sensational events leading up than for the production’s musical and theatrical qualities. Soprano Harolyn Blackwell had assumed the central role of Marie following the general manager’s much-publicized firing of Kathleen Battle. “To judge by the flaccid activities onstage, the Battle uproar resulted in serious underrehearsal,” sniffed Barrymore Laurence Scherer in Opera News, although he did credit Blackwell with “courage under fire.” And then there was the Duchesse de Krakentorp: Bea Arthur, in a star cameo, was accused of “disgraceful shtick.”

2002: The company’s first performance of Prokofiev’s epic War and Peace created conditions for many debuts, and 19 are recorded in the cast alone. Among these, mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk, bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin and bass Mikhail Petrenko all went on to major international careers, but most significant to the Met’s future was 30-year-old Anna Netrebko as Tolstoy’s heroine. Alex Ross described the ascending star as “a young lyric soprano with a pearly, gleaming tone, who projected her voice effortlessly into the house. She embodied the role of Natasha so sparklingly that it was impossible to imagine anyone else singing it.” Familiar faces in the crowd included Ramey, Elena Obraztsova, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and conductor Valery Gergiev.

2004: Tenor Sergej Larin completed a series of performances of a role he had sung often and recorded commercially, the impostor Grigory in Boris Godunov. Sharing the stage with him were the Boris of James Morris, the Rangoni of Sergei Leiferkus and the Varlaam of Plishka; Semyon Bychkov led the orchestra. Sadly, the February 14th performance would be Larin’s last at the Met. He would die in 2008, aged 51.

2007: No stone was left unturned when Czech eminence Jirí Belohlávek led temperament-rich divas Karita Mattila and Anja Silja in Olivier Tambosi’s geological production of Jenufa. Jay Hunter Morris, later the eleventh-hour Siegfried in a costly new Ring, made a quiet Met debut as fickle golden boy Steva.

I dedicate this entry to the Met’s archivist of 34 years, Robert Tuggle, who passed away in late January. Without his work, this and similar pieces on Parterre would have been more difficult to compile, less interesting to read, or both. The monk Pimen in Mussorgsky’s opera sings of the value of those who record and document. Such as Mr. Tuggle are examples in our midst. May his successor be a worthy one!

Photo credits: Ken Howard (Manon Lescaut), Segde Leblang (Rake’s Progress), James Heffernan (Troyanos), Winnie Klotz (Rinaldo, Netrebko), Ira Nowinski (Verrett as Dalila), Beatriz Schiller (Jenufa)