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How Performable is Verdi at the Met?

In the opinion of an eminent European conductor of my acquaintance, it was last possible to adequately cast the big Verdi operas in the 1970s.
Nothing in my experience sporadically attending Verdi at the Met contradicts that view. Sampling yesterday’s live broadcast of Aida, I listened to the tenor struggle through “Celeste Aida” and the soprano skim “Ritorna vincitor.” It was enough.
A welcome innovation of Peter Gelb’s Met has been bringing Met broadcast performances of yesteryear into general circulation via Sirius radio. But the broadcasts I encounter there are typically of quite recent vintage. The Verdi broadcasts we need to hear are from the 1930s and 1940s. They put today’s situation into perspective.
To begin with, the Met in those decades possessed a great Italian orchestra. What I mean by “Italian” is that the musicians (check their names, as preserved in the Met Archives) were nearly all Italians, and that the sounds they produced were lean, fleet, and bright. Trumpets and drums were a piercing presence. The strings spun keen filaments of sound. The entire ensemble was a powderkeg.
The house conductor for Verdi was Ettore Panizza, today not even a name. Verdi conductors don’t come any better. To listen to Panizza conduct the La Traviata Preludes in 1935 is to encounter something like Toscanini — the tensile line, the high temperament, the impeccable precision — with a freer command of pulse.
As for the singing, the house baritone for Verdi was Lawrence Tibbett, who unlike famous American Verdi baritones to come (Merrill, Warren, MacNeil, Milnes) was a demonic singing actor. In Rigoletto, partnered by Panizza, his wrenching act two scene with the courtiers trumps Tito Gobbi and Tullio Serafin in the most famous of all studio recordings of this opera. Or listen to Tibbett deliver “Di Provenza il mar,” from La Traviata, on youtube. That’s live from the Met, with Panizza conducting.
The most gripping performance of any Verdi opera I’ve ever encountered is a Feb. 12, 1938, Met Otello, with Tibbett, Giovanni Martinelli, and Elisabeth Rethberg. Panizza’s shaping of the first act love duet, supporting Martinelli’s signature long lines, is supreme; he makes other conductors sound choppy. Where the score explodes, the split-second spontaneity and precision of orchestra and conductor are clairvoyant (a function of shared tradition). Martinelli’s studio recordings in this role are famous, but only in live performance does the veracity of his portrayal (including the death rattle at the close) fully register. This incendiary live recording used to be commercially available in the US on Naxos, but (thanks to EMI’s meddlesome litigation) no longer. You can hear chunks of it (and also Rosa Ponselle and Panizza in Traviata) among the historic recordings on my website. There are some excerpts on youtube, too.
I’m sure that if I frequented the Met I would discover the great Verdi singers of today — but they would be a small minority. In time and culture, we are distant from the conditions that created these operas. And — with Toscanini, Serafin, and Panizza long gone — the Met can no longer connect with its venerable Italian tradition.
The most complete operatic performances nowadays, in my experience, are of Russian operas performed by Valery Gergiev and his Maarinsky soloists, chorus, and orchestra. Thanks to the Soviet time warp, pertinent Russian traditions survive (for the moment). This company continues to produce big singers. Its forays into non-Russian repertoire, predictably unidiomatic, are unpredictable in affect. Still, I don’t doubt that Gergiev and the Maarinsky could manage a potent Aida.


  1. William Lang says:

    I feel very strongly about one of your opinions here. You say that the orchestra handled Verdi better before because they were more Italian, and that Russian Operas are complete because they are being conducted and played by Russians. I just cannot get behind this sentiment that is omnipresent in music. It would be analogous to me saying that I just saw some Jazz music, but it wasn’t as great as it should be because white people were playing, or to see Mitsuoka Uchida playing Mozart, and saying fine, but she’s not European. I feel that this is a lazy argument, and by now it should be a thing of the past. Sadly, wherever I go and whatever I read, I encounter this argument that you have to be something (in this case, italian,) in order to get something (italian music.)

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