On Veterans Day 2015, the Metropolitan Opera presents—fittingly, though probably not by design—an all-veterans Tosca. Between them, Maria Guleghina, Marcello Giordani, James Morris and John Del Carlo have nearly 150 combined years of service on stage. All four singers have received decorations and demerits, survived battles at home and abroad, secured victories and borne defeats, patched wounds and marched on. One wishes them the best for Wednesday’s performance and their remaining careers.
Here is a look back at just some of what you could have seen, and perhaps did see, on November 11th through the years at the Met.
1887: “A most brilliant array of society” heard Anton Seidl conduct Siegfried, at the time as new an opera as Adès’s The Tempest is to us today. “It is probable that to many minds Siegfried will seem to be Wagner’s best work,” judged an unidentified New York Times reviewer, who quibbled only that “some of the scenes are apparently longer than are necessary.” The singing of Lilli Lehmann as Brünnhilde was predicted to be remembered as a season highlight, and Wanderer Emil Fischer’s “breadth and virility” were commended. In the title role, dashing German Max Alvary was praised for musical virtues, but he may have been physically slender for prevailing Heldentenor notions (“a man of more stalwart proportions would convey a better idea of Siegfried’s power”). Mr. Alvary’s career and life would take sad turns in the decade following, with a debilitating onstage accident, early retirement, poverty, and finally the cancer to which he succumbed in 1898, aged 42.
1912: Planned opening night fare of Les Huguenots was postponed until after Christmas to accommodate the travel difficulties of debuting soprano Frieda Hempel. A revival of Manon Lescaut was hastily prepared, but only the most rigid Meyerbeerian would have been disappointed with the consolations of Enrico Caruso, Antonio Scotti, and new voice, Lucrezia Bori. The Spanish soprano had sung Puccini’s Manon in company performances overseas but was appearing for the first time at the Met proper. “She is young  and can look still younger. If regularity of beauty has been denied her face, it has something better for stage purposes. It is interesting and expressive. She is slender and graceful, and her assurance and ease on the stage are those of the born actress. […] Miss Bori’s Manon has established her without further ado among the most interesting members of the Metropolitan company,” recorded the Evening Globe.
1918: It is unlikely any Met season before or since began with such ebullience as did 1918-19, when Pierre Monteux led Caruso and Louise Homer in Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila. The fates had given the diverse crowd more than great singing and stylish playing to cheer on opening night: that morning, the armistice signing had ended over four years of bloody conflict in the Great War. The flags of several Allied nations were displayed, and those nations’ anthems were played in turn between acts. Max Smith in The American left a moving and beautifully written account of the scene: “With the dove of peace hovering over the world and joy unspeakable throbbing in every heart, the Metropolitan Opera House flung wide its portals last night to the surging turmoil of Broadway and gave entrance to the happiest throng of men and women that had probably ever collected within the expansive curve of the golden horseshoe. […] [G]ladness and good cheer irradiated every face in the huge auditorium, and the spirit that animated all, rising from the slope of the orchestra pit to the steep of the family circle, found vent at the close of the first act in a demonstration of triumphant patriotism that will not soon be forgotten.” A clear fall evening with temperatures in the high 50s provided perfect conditions for a long night of celebration. It was “over over there,” and Americans born near and far, streaming out of the old house at 39th and Broadway and humming the suave Gallic melodies of a living composer, must have felt that only happy times lay ahead.
1926: Conductor Vincenzo Bellezza marked Armistice Day with a complete performance of America’s national anthem before the second act of an opera that ironically quotes same, Madama Butterfly. The audience for Puccini’s blossom-strewn weeper heard Florence Easton, Beniamino Gigli and Antonio Scotti. The heroine’s maid was reviewed with unusual detail and generosity by the Herald Tribune: “If there is or ever has been a better Suzuki than Ina Bourskaya, this reviewer has not been privileged to hear it. […] [I]t is a little masterpiece quite worthy of respectful attention from those who are habitually only star-gazers.”
1950: A busy Saturday for Verdi lovers began with a matinee of Don Carlo (Fritz Stiedry conducting Delia Rigal, Fedora Barbieri, Jussi Björling, Robert Merrill, Cesare Siepi and Jerome Hines) and continued with an evening Traviata (Dorothy Kirsten, Ferruccio Tagliavini and Frank Guarrera; debuting conductor Alberto Erede). Musical America’s James Hinton Jr. coolly regarded the latter: “It was not a really bad performance, by pre-Bing standards, but aside from Dorothy Kirsten’s exceptionally good Violetta, no major increment of it was worthy of the stage of a first-class opera house that charges a $7.50 top.”
1960: Three days following John F. Kennedy’s election to the presidency in a nail-biter of a contest, New Yorkers heard the third Met performance of Verdi’s Nabucco. In the role of Zaccaria, Giorgio Tozzi joined the established cast of Leonie Rysanek, Rosalind Elias, Eugenio Fernandi and Cornell MacNeil under the musical direction of Thomas Schippers. Mr. Tozzi’s singing was described by Jay S. Harrison of the Herald Tribune as warm and elegant but “almost too lovely to reflect the anguish of the character he was portraying.”
1961: The conflicting advice given to fragile Antonia may have had new resonance for Anna Moffo, who opted to sing through laryngitis and made a successful evening of the four love interests in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann. Going the distance with her were Nicolai Gedda as the self-destructive poet and George London as his nemeses.
1964: The Franco Zeffirelli Falstaff, acclaimed on its initial run the previous winter, was back with Welsh baritone Geraint Evans, celebrated in a role he already had sung for seven years and recently had recorded. “Evans’ baritone […] falls graciously on the ear at all times[,] is always squarely on pitch, and blends music and words as though in the act of creation itself,” marveled William Bender in the Herald Tribune. Gabriella Tucci, Judith Raskin, Mildred Miller, Regina Resnik, Luigi Alva and Mario Sereni endeavored to poke the fat knight into rectitude.
1966: Not so acclaimed was Zeffirelli’s Met follow-up, the elaborate world-premiere production of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. Time was running short to catch Leontyne Price, Justino Diaz and the rest of Maestro Schippers’s huge cast in the spectacle that had opened the new Lincoln Center house. It was the fifth of eight performances for an opera that has not yet returned to the theater.
1978: “The role of the Duke of Mantua was sung with unrelenting brio by Neil Shicoff, an up-and-coming American tenor who, with some refinement, will definitely take his place among the more important singers of today,” wrote one William Bassell, presciently, in The Kingman. This Rigoletto was an early outing for a singer whose Met stardom would stretch into the 21st century. Italian specialist Giuseppe Patanè oversaw a cast that included Gail Robinson, Isola Jones, Ingvar Wixell and Jerome Hines, in John Dexter’s production. Afternoon patrons had heard Gedda, Teresa Stratas, Jon Vickers and Martti Talvela in another recent Dexter production, Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, with James Levine leading the orchestra.
1983: Gedda concluded a Met career of 26 years and 28 roles with a final Traviata opposite Kiri Te Kanawa and Cornell MacNeil. Donal Henahan’s Times review of an earlier performance in the run suggests the 58-year-old tenor finished with something left in the tank: “The veteran Mr. Gedda, who is making particularly big and handsome sounds these days, made a brash and stalwart Alfredo for this fragile Violetta.”
1988: Three of four principals in a revival of the unloved Peter Hall Carmen, conducted by Plácido Domingo, were debuting artists. Best received and remembered was Michigan-born Cheryl Studer as Micaëla. Henahan’s notice, though favorable, hinted at questions of repertoire suitability that would come up again and again as this gifted singer essayed a wide range of material on the world’s stages and in studios: “[T]hough quite miscast, [Studer] earned the night’s only real ovation. Hers is a bright, rather steely soprano that spears the notes rather than melding them into legato patterns. Why she made her debut in a French role is one of those Met enigmas, but she is clearly a singer of some quality.” The Met career of Studer’s gypsy rival, Alicia Nafé, would consist of two more Carmens. Jean-Philippe Lafont (Escamillo) fared slightly better.
1993: Dvorák’s Rusalka, described elsewhere by your chronicler as an “irresistible blend of bohemian tunefulness and assured Wagnerian technique,” had its first Met performance. Otto Schenk’s production with sets by Günther Schneider-Siemssen (“a veritable paean to romanticism,” per John W. Freeman of Opera News) would settle in for a stay of over 20 years, as would the Jezibaba of Dolora Zajick. The water sprite was sung by her leading active exponent, Slovakia’s Gabriela Benacková. Other principal roles were taken by Janis Martin, Neil Rosenshein and Sergei Koptchak.
1995: Elijah Moshinsky’s moody staging of Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya Dama continued its premiere run. These performances are notable in retrospect for showcasing one house favorite in her last Met role (Rysanek’s Countess) and another in his first (Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Yeletsky). Karita Mattila and Ben Heppner were the ill-fated lovers, and Valery Gergiev, having debuted the previous year with Otello, led his first of many Russian operas at the Met.
2005: The 2005-06 performances of Jonathan Miller’s Le nozze di Figaro featured several debuts, including conductor Mark Wigglesworth, bass Maurizio Muraro, soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer and (later in the season) mezzo Alice Coote. None was more auspicious than that of first-cast Cherubino Joyce DiDonato, who on Veterans Day was four dates into her engagement. Jeremy Eichler in the Times made note of “a strong Metropolitan debut,” DiDonato’s page being “hopelessly entranced by all things feminine yet sincere and moving.” Today, 10 Novembers on, there is no more beloved Met headliner than the genial Yankee diva.
Photos: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago (Morris), Metropolitan Opera Archives (Siegfried, Caruso), Sedge LeBlang (Rigal), Louis Mélançon (Moffo), Winnie Klotz (Benacková), Marty Sohl (DiDonato).