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How Performable Is Verdi at the Met? — Continued

In my last blog, I extolled a 1935 Met La Traviata broadcast as an antidote to the Verdi performances of today, and invited readers to listen to Ettore Panizza conduct the preludes, and to Lawrence Tibbett deliver the goods in “Di Provenza.”
My friend Ettore Volontieri, who trained as a baritone before becoming an inimitable artists’ manager, wrote to remind me that the same January 5 broadcast features an equally memorable act two exchange between Germont and Violetta, with Tibbett and Rosa Ponselle. I refreshed by memory on youtube – and so it does.
But it irks me indescribably that neither the youtube posting nor any of the many posted comments see fit to mention Panizza or his orchestra. This duet would be a far lesser achievement without them. And their contributions seem doubly pertinent in the wake of Leonard Slatkin’s withdrawal from the current Met Traviata.
Reports that Slatkin failed to “support” his singers (I wasn’t there) skirt the heart of the matter. Panizza doesn’t merely support Tibbett and Ponselle – he instructs, he challenges, he ignites them. Obviously, one listens to this astounding performance gripped by Germont and Violetta, by Tibbett and Ponselle. Which is as it should be. But listen again and pay attention to what’s happening in the pit.
As I remarked last week, the 1935 Met possessed a great Italian orchestra. Researching my Classical Music in America, amazed by Panizza’s broadcasts, I visited the Met Archives and discovered that no fewer than 53 of 85 instrumentalists on the permanent 1934-35 roster had incontestably Italian names: Mario, Luigi, Ettore, Arturo, etc. And this Italian orchestra sounds Italian: the taut filaments of tone, the keen timbres, the velocity and precision of the playing make the Met orchestra an eager and knowing participant in the drama onstage. Honed and maintained by a master house conductor, it offers a kind of “support” little known at today’s Met: a binding style.
Among the electrifying attributes of this style, as embodied by a Panizza or Toscanini, is clipped, attenuated phrasings. These players drive to a cadence, or clinch a taut lyric continuum, with a burst of acceleration. Like the string portamentos we also no longer hear, it’s something in their blood.
In the Traviata duet in question, this quality of abruption transforms Violetta’s “non sapete” – her urgent plea for understanding. Panizza drives the orchestra’s stabbing interjections at a faster clip than Ponselle’s song. Where her desperation peaks, he summons an accelerating whirlwind she must ride. Only a soprano made of stone could fail to respond to this musical-dramatic vortex. (Yes, I know the ensemble is imperfect – forget about perfection.)
Who was Panizza? He was born in Buenos Aires and trained in Milan. From 1921 to 1931 he conducted at La Scala, where Toscanini esteemed him (as did Richard Strauss, who arranged for him to conduct Elektra in Vienna). His Met years were 1934 to 1943. Given his extensive European career, which also included Covent Garden, it bears emphasis that he considered the Met’s “as fine at theater orchestra as I have seen in the world.” During the war he returned to Buenos Aires, where he later had occasion to coach and conduct Leonard Warren in Simon Boccanegra and other roles new to him.
At the Met, it was Panizza and his orchestra that stylistically bound the polyglot casts. Tibbett was a sheriff’s son from Bakersfield, California, who discovered music in the local Methodist church. Frederick Jagel, Tibbett’s Alfredo, was Brooklyn-born. Ponselle grew up in Connecticut among Italian immigrants.
Reading contemporaneous reviews of Met performances such as Panizza’s Traviata is a humbling experience. That they upheld the house standard is simply taken for granted. Similarly, to listen to the Met audience respond to the various numbers is to glean an opera public that is appreciative and discerning in equal measure, and that applies the highest expectations. These expectations become a performance factor: listeners influence singers. (Never has the Met audience seemed as clueless as today. But I notice no decline in critical understanding among demonstrative Rangers fans at Madison Square Garden.)
My own Met opera-going dates back to a 1962 Masked Ball led by Nello Santi. I cannot count the number of Verdi conductors I have since encountered in New York (a list unfortunately not including Carlos Kleiber). I have never encountered anything like Ettore Panizza.
To be sure, Panizza and his Italians were not a band for all seasons. Panizza’s 1939 Boris Godunov broadcast (with Ezio Pinza) contains no revelations. How did the same Italian orchestra fare in Wagner? Its bright timbres still sound Italian. Fortunately, the house conductor for the German wing – Artur Bodanzky – was a febrile Wagnerian, poles apart from a Furtwangler or Knappertsbusch. Bodanzky is my favorite Siegfried conductor. In fact, the Met Siegfried broadcast of January 30, 1937 — with Lauritz Melchior, Kirsten Flagstad, and Friedrich Schorr – is the only viable Siegfried I know (who since Melchior can be said to have owned this opera’s treacherous and implausible title role?). To listen to those Italians sing their way toward Brunnhilde’s awakening, then light their powderkeg, is to relearn the expressive possibilities of this epochal symphonic passage. It’s on my website.
That Bodanzky’s successor was Erich Leinsdorf encapsulates in a sentence the decline of Wagner conducting at the Met in the decades to follow – another story for another time.

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