With Christmas Eve 2016 falling on a Saturday, the Met offers contrasting orchestral splendors at noon and 6 p.m. Early birds will have another opportunity to catch the earnest performances of Susanna Phillips and Eric Owens, and the commanding one of Tamara Mumford, in Robert Lepage‘s Lite-Brite display of Saariaho’s L’amour de loin. A waning crescent will be overhead when the evening crowd files out of Strauss’s Salome, with its evocative moon talk. Patricia Racette‘s negotiation of the title role has been polarizing, but one acknowledges a game professional’s valor in covering several performances of a difficult role when a colleague withdrew.
We draw nearer to the end of a year that has been tumultuous and often upsetting, within and beyond the opera world. It would be fair to say that many of us did not get what we expected or wanted in 2016, and we have said goodbye to many admired figures in the arts. Some had lived long lives full of accomplishments; others were taken too soon.
The uneasy situation surrounding the Met’s music-director position reached a resolution in the spring, and the future holds promise. There was much to cheer, and to be cheered by, on the stage: triumphs of favorites such as Nina Stemme, Elina Garanca, Anna Netrebko and Karita Mattila in new Met roles; acclaimed productions of Les pêcheurs de perles, Elektra and Tristan und Isolde; the long-awaited return of Guillaume Tell.
Even in disappointing new productions and ordinary revivals, we welcomed newcomers. One day when I am long gone, perhaps someone will pick through the archives and marvel that 2016 was the year Metgoers made the acquaintance of Juan Jesús Rodríguez, Andrew Bidlack, Virginie Verrez, Karel Mark Chichon, Artur Rucinski, Eleonora Buratto, René Barbera, Susanna Mälkki. Every one of them, whether in a large assignment or a small one, did something worth noticing, something that made me want to hear more.
Our holiday survey will not, alas, feature Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve, critic Noel Straus, baritone Natale de Carolis, or either Ian or Leah Partridge in a pear tree. But there will be a swan a-swimming. Here is a look back at just some of what you could have seen, and perhaps did see, on December 24th through the years at the Met.
1883: Covering the theater’s first Christmas Eve, a Times reviewer (probably W. J. Henderson) did not mince words: “Rigoletto was represented at the Metropolitan Opera House last evening in presence of an audience which included a great many persons who had evidently never attended an operatic performance before, and by a few persons–those occupying boxes–who, out of consideration for people who care to listen to the singers and band, ought never to attend an operatic performance again.” Principals Marcella Sembrich, Roberto Stagno and Giuseppe Del Puente were credited with singing “tastefully and correctly,” but criticized for “literally walk[ing] through their parts with a genteel placidity.” The reviewer noted that the new company had worked hard to present 14 operas over its first nine weeks. He hoped that the underrehearsed, indifferently acted performances he had often seen would not become the norm.
1903: Parsifal received its first staging anywhere other than the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, to which Wagner had decreed it be exclusive. Risking the enmity of the composer’s widow, who always had plenty to spare, were Milka Ternina, Alois Burgstaller, Anton Van Rooy, Otto Goritz, Robert Blass, Marcel Journet and conductor Alfred Hertz. The Times‘s Richard Aldrich was enthusiastic to the point of hyperbole: “The artistic value of the Parsifal production was of the very highest. It was in many respects equal to anything done at Bayreuth and, in some, much superior. It was without doubt the most perfect production ever made on the American lyric stage. Those who wish to quarrel with the performance on aesthetic, moral or religious grounds have still as much upon which to stand as before. Artistically it was nothing less than triumphant.” Parsifal‘s nearly 300 Met performances have been spread over every decade since. The work failed only to catch on as a yuletide perennial.
1908: Perhaps the adage should be “Some show must go on.” An audience “not large, but of excellent disposition” (the Sun) got the consolation of Geraldine Farrar, Riccardo Martin, Jean Noté and Adamo Didur in an on-the-quick Faust when indisposed leads prevented a planned Christmas Eve Aïda. The singers calling in sick were Emma Eames and Enrico Caruso.
1920: Now suffering from a much more serious illness, Caruso appeared as scheduled for what would be his final public performance, Eléazar to the Rachel of Florence Easton in La Juive. During this difficult month, the tenor also had sung Met performances of Samson, Canio, Don Alvaro and a single act of Nemorino. When he died the following summer, 48 years old, with a Met tally of 863 appearances, 36 roles, and 17 opening nights, the world mourned both a global celebrity and a great artist. Caruso once had been quoted as saying, “I would like to die at the height of my fame, some night when I had just sung Pagliacci, perhaps. But I suppose that cannot be. You may be sure that I will not hang around opera houses with the vestiges of a voice, like so many unfortunate musicians.” On another occasion, in 1916, he had told the New York Friars Club, “I promise you that when I go to heaven I shall sing forever.”
1925: A Tribune reviewer was pleased to report that Tullio Serafin‘s conducting of La Gioconda disclosed full recovery from a recent road accident. Another sparse Christmas Eve crowd heard Rosa Ponselle “singing with a brilliance and power which she has hardly equaled this year,” and rewarded Beniamino Gigli with “rapturous thunder” for Enzo’s second-act aria.
1928: A mischievous unsigned Telegraph review gives a sense of the high spirits and unfocused air of a Lohengrin on the last Christmas Eve before the Great Depression. “The audience at the Metropolitan last night must have been very late hanging their own stockings for they stayed to the end of the late last scene and acted as though there was nothing about this evening different to any other. Various attendants of the staff, however, […] left the building, carrying various kinds of bundles. Backstage, the singers and musicians had a celebration […] The chorus was absolutely impossible from the point of view of good performing, but in the right mood for the evening. A little bird said that gifts had been passed around by quite a number of the stars and principals and that they had been opened before or during the performance.” Translation: Prohibition was being flouted. The cast included Easton, Margarete Matzenauer, Rudolf Laubenthal and Gustav Schützendorf, but only conductor Artur Bodanzky was said to have been “completely the disciple of true art.”
1936: “The singer is neither a Bori nor a Tetrazzini,” wrote Olin Downes in the Times, getting the obligatory comparisons out of the way, “but if all rôles at the Metropolitan were taken as competently and intelligently as her Violetta of last night we would have an extremely high level of performance there.” The Violetta in question was alluring Belgian coloratura Vina Bovy, 36 but with nearly 20 years on the stages of Europe. She made her house debut with support from Nino Martini, Lawrence Tibbett and Maestro Ettore Panizza. Mme. Bovy’s brief Met tenure would consist of 16 appearances over two seasons.
1955: The 80-year-old conductor Pierre Monteux‘s Indian summer at the Met included a fondly recalled Les contes d’Hoffmann, heard in a famous radio broadcast earlier in the season. On Christmas Eve, Richard Tucker remained the titular poet, and Martial Singher continued to give lessons in style and dash as the villains. The love interests, two of them new to the production, were Laurel Hurley, Jarmila Novotna and Lucine Amara. Future headliner James McCracken, 29, sang the small role of Nathanael as if determined to prove his readiness for Tannhäuser or Otello that season.
1957: Ms. Racette was not the first star soprano induced to change her Christmas Eve plans for the Met’s sake. Opera News recorded the following: “Victoria de los Angeles was honored with a backstage Christmas party by Rudolf Bing prior to her appearance as Violetta on December 24, 1957. The soprano had foregone her expected holiday at home in Barcelona with her family in order to accept extra performances at the Metropolitan, at Mr. Bing’s request. Among the guests were the Vienna Choir Boys, who serenaded the assembly with traditional hymns and carols.” Fausto Cleva conducted (the Traviata, not the hymns and carols); Daniele Barioni and Robert Merrill were the younger and elder Germonts.
1960: The Tribune‘s Martin Bernheimer carefully appraised a house favorite in Bohème: “[Renata] Tebaldi was in relatively good voice, and there is no question that she pleased her many admirers. The tender Puccini heroine suits her temperament, and the quieter moments such as the Act Three farewell were exquisite. Although her histrionic technique is of the stand-and-smile variety, and although she is not exactly frail either in voice or in appearance, Miss Tebaldi was a touching and dignified Mimi. The soprano has been having some trouble with top tones lately. Most of Mimi lies comfortably for her, but the role does pose a problem or two. The exposed High C at the end of Act One, for instance, was avoided by a downward transposition of a half-tone, and–even at that–Miss Tebaldi attacked it from below.” Hurley, Eugenio Fernandi and Clifford Harvuot were the other young lovers in Thomas Schippers‘s cast.
1976: Beverly Sills starred in her first Met Lucia di Lammermoor. Newsday‘s Peter Goodman was generous toward the shrewd soprano from Crown Heights: “Sills is an excellent actress with a voice that does much more than make music. She acts with that voice, conveying wide swings of emotion within a brief musical moment. And the singing is marvelous just for itself.” Goodman saw a bright future for the debuting Enrico, Ryan Edwards, “a tall young baritone from Texas [with] a very fine voice, dark and strong, and a powerful and intelligent stage presence.” John Alexander and John Macurdy completed the principal quartet.
1977: The annals are littered with the names of special artists who for whatever reasons, their own decisions or others’, had negligible Met careers. Christmas Eve 1977 began with a Bohème starring ladies who settled in and made the house a home: Renata Scotto and Leona Mitchell racked up more than 500 performances between them. But the evening show was one of just four opportunities to hear Maria Chiara in her only Met role, Violetta, opposite Alexander and Louis Quilico. A week later, the last of these Traviatas received a New Year’s Eve broadcast. Chiara’s only subsequent Met connection would be through the illusion of cinema: in Woody Allen‘s 1986 film Hannah and Her Sisters, she is seen and heard as the Puccini Manon in the opera date of the Sam Waterston and Dianne Wiest characters. The footage was from Teatro Regio Torino.
1979: The 1967 Nathaniel Merrill/Robert O’Hearn Hänsel und Gretel framed the debut of a soprano who would return over 23 years in music from Beethoven to Berg to Bolcom. Per Newsday, “Catherine Malfitano, long a mainstay soprano at City Opera, made a most successful debut as Gretel–her sweet-shaded soprano carried beautifully in the large house, and she was cute as a button in every movement.” Tatiana Troyanos, singing her first Met Hänsel, was the debutante’s partner.
1993: A Franco Zeffirelli Bohème conducted by Carlo Rizzi, starring Veronica Villarroel, Gwynne Geyer, Fernando de la Mora and Dwayne Croft, sounds like business as usual for this era, but there was an unexpected development. A note on the performance’s page in the archive reads: “As the houselights were dimming, a gentleman from the audience climbed onto the stage apron and proposed marriage to his seated companion; she accepted. The man wished the audience a merry Christmas, and climbed down. No delay occurred.” We wish them a happy 23rd anniversary of the engagement, and hope things worked out well enough for the wish to be tactful.
1998: A Danish baritone and an American conductor made a joint house debut in the Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen Fledermaus. Per the Times‘s Allan Kozinn, Bo Skovhus “proved a charismatic actor and sang with both power and playfulness,” while Patrick Summers led “a sparkling, gracefully paced performance that had both the warmth and rhythmic fluidity that the style demands.” Whirling along with them through the froth were Carol Vaness, Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz, Jochen Kowalski and Michael Schade.
2007: A Russian conductor of pedigree, 27-year-old Vladimir Jurowski, had first appeared on this date in 1999 (Rigoletto). He made another Christmas Eve appearance eight years later, conducting a Hänsel und Gretel newly acquired by the Met but seen in Cardiff and Chicago in the preceding nine years. F. Paul Driscoll‘s review captured the qualities of a love-or-hate proposition typical of new productions in the Peter Gelb era: “[Richard] Jones‘s staging is a sweet-and-sour Hänsel, sharp-edged and short on sugar. […] [It] embraces Hänsel und Gretel as an opera suitable for adults.” Driscoll had mixed feelings about the cast (Christine Schäfer, Alice Coote, Rosalind Plowright, Alan Held and Philip Langridge) but only high marks for the maestro: “Jurowski’s first-class command of the Met’s orchestral forces gave full, uninhibited play to the score’s rhythmic variety and Wagnerian depth of color.”