Cher Public

The night Chicago died

On this day in 1943 the Metropolitan Opera on tour performed La traviata at the Chicago Civic Opera House. 

Cecil Smith in the Chicago Tribune:

It would require neither a long nor a retentive memory to recall at least half a dozen better “Traviatas” than the dismal charade vouchsafed by the Metropolitan Opera company on the Civic Opera house stage last evening. Like the mediocre “Faust” of two evenings earlier, last night’s “Traviata” strengthened the impression that the Metropolitan’s notable specialties – like the Mozart and Wagner operas and such restudied works as “La Forza del Destino” – are mounted at the expense of the conventional repertory.

Touching tho its music is in its own right, “La Traviata” is essentially a music drama; it action and motivation, tho tinged with mid-19th century sentimentalism, are more believable than the stereotyped machinations of “Il Trovatore,” “La Forza del Destino,” or even “Aida.” Yet dramatic integrity was precisely the quality that was woefully missing from “La Traviata” last night. The unfurling of the story was as unconvincing as the unlikely circumstances of “La Forza del Destino” had been unexpectedly convincing the night before.

On one occasion – on Nov. 29, 1940, to be exact – Helen Jepson gave a characterization of the unlucky Violetta which was human and three dimensional in its dramatic conception, and matched by an equally illuminating and expressive vocalism. This may have been because Jarmila Novotna had enchanted an audience in her debut in the same part a few days earlier. Since that time Miss Jepson has never again seemed to concentrate upon her responsibilities as an actress.

Last night, in addition to an acting performance that lapsed repeatedly into vacuity, Miss Jepson had to grapple with a strangely intractable voice. The sheer act of vocalizing seemed neither an easy nor a dependable matter for her; tones, especially high ones, were often pinched and edgy, and her vocal line generally was blemished and much too frequently off pitch.

Leonard Warren, in his Chicago debut, contributed to the static effect of the performance by substituting conventional gesticulation for communicative acting, and by turning his stalwart young baritone into a strange mush in the attempt to sing with restraint. When he opened up into a superb high A flat, full voice, at the end of the second act, the effect was electric, and one realized what a good Amonasro or Escamillo he probably can be.

James Melton presented a genuinely romantic figure as Alfredo, singing the music with well conceived style, if without quite the proper vocal timbre for it. Cesare Sodero, also making his Chicago debut, conducted disappointingly, seldom revealing the imagination to make the orchestral score anything other than plodding and factual.