On this day in 1975 soprano Magda Olivero made her historical, belated Metropolitan Opera debut as Tosca.
Harold C. Schonberg in The New York Times:
It wasn’t Magda Olivero’s evening, as it turned out. It was an evening that belonged to the opera buffs who have been having an affair with the veteran soprano for decades. “Magda” made her Metropolitan Opera debut last night as Tosca (42 years after her debut in Turin in 1933), but the story was largely in the buffs and their exquisite behavior.
They yelled and screamed when she came on, causing Jan Behr, the conductor, to stop the music and wait until the excitement subsided. They broke into arias with bravos. They moaned orgiastically. At the end there was a 20-minute ovation for the lady. It was one of the longest ovations in recent Metropolitan history.
One would have thought that a combination of Tebaldi and Callas was making her debut. Instead there was a dignified artist of uncertain age who knew how to husband what little voice she had left, and who gave a moving demonstration of how great singers of the past used to portray Tosca.
One could see what a grand style of acting it must have been. It was old-school histrionics at its best. Indeed, it had much more subtlety and point than the much younger James King’s acting. He was the Cavaradossi last night, and when he came to the second act “Vittoria! Vittoria!” he lurched more than anybody since Joseph Jefferson in “The Drunkard.”
Singers of Miss Olivero’s day were taught to convey mood and expression so that the last person in the balcony could know what was going on. The bad artists went about it in silent-movie style. The good ones, like Miss Olivero, moved hands, shoulders, body in one grand, fluid line. It was history come to life last night as the soprano, despite her age, gave us a feminine, fiery, utterly convincing Tosca.
Vocally things were even a little better than one had anticipated. Holding herself back, pacing herself like the experienced artist she is, Miss Olivero got off some amazingly strong high notes. There are, naturally, all kinds of holes in the voice, and there also were occasional pitch troubles. Miss Olivero must necessarily represent the art of singing rather than singing itself.
Her big show-stopper, “Vissi d’arte”? Well, Ingvar Wixell, the Scarpia, forced her to the couch and pushed her shoulders flat against it. She started the aria in that position, flat on her back and mighty uncomfortable it looked. She finished the aria sitting up.
So it was a gallant Tosca that Miss Olivero gave us, and nobody would be so cruel as to apply to it the highest critical standards. It was a nice gesture on the Metropolitan Opera’s part -who says it has no heart? – and it was a sentimental evening that the buffs will describe to children and grandchildren: “So Magda saw the knife on the table and she….”
Mr. Wixell’s Scarpia was impressive. Others play Scarpia as a venomous smoothie. As the hefty Mr. Wixell plays him, Scarpia is a tough, sadistic cop who really enjoys his work. The baritone’s voice is a little rough-sounding, but it is of big size and carries considerable authority. Mr. King sang strongly, though his top notes do not come easily any more, and Richard Best was a splendid Sacristan.
Mr. Behr conducted this “Tosca” for the first time at the Metropolitan. His was a knowledgeable performance, and he worked well with the singers. His pacings and rhythm were steady and accurate, though a little four-square. That meant personality was missing. But all the personality the performance needed came off the stage last night in the person of Magda Olivero.
Birthday anniversaries of composers Alessandro Stradella (1639), Reginald De Koven (1859) and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895), sopranos Felice Huni-Mihaczek (1891) and Maud Cunitz (1911), mezzo-soprano Kerstin Meyer (1928), conductor Sixten Ehrling (1918) and tenor Murray Dickie (1924).
Happy birthday to sometime parterre box scribe Patrick Clement James.