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Advertisement for Verdi’s Aida with the Metropolitan Opera and the (uncredited) Chicago Orchestra on December 10, 1891 (image courtesy of the Newberry Library)

Less than a month after its inaugural concerts in October 1891, the Chicago Orchestra was in the pit at the Auditorium Theatre for performances with the Metropolitan Opera Company (under the auspices of Abbey, Schoeffel, and Grau).

The singers who appeared were among the most famous of the day, including sopranos Emma Albani, Lilli Lehmann, and Marie Van Zandt and mezzo-sopranos Sofia Scalchi and Giulia Ravogli. During the residency, other prominent singers made their U.S. debuts, including soprano Emma Eames; tenor Jean de Reszke; baritones Edoardo Camera, Antonio Magini-Coletti, and Jean Martapoura; and basses Édouard de Reszke and Jules Vinche. Conducting duties were shared by Auguste Vianesi and Louis Saar, the Orchestra’s first guest conductors.

Opening with Wagner’s Lohengrin on November 9, the residency continued through December 12 and included a staggering number of operas: Bellini’s Norma and La sonnambula; Flotow’s Martha; Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice; Gounod’s Faust and Romeo and Juliet; Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana; Meyerbeer’s Dinorah and Les Huguenots; Mozart’s Don Giovanni; Thomas’s Mignon; as well as Verdi’s Rigoletto and act 1 of La traviata.

The residency also included a single performance of Verdi’s Aida on December 10 with Lehmann in the title role, de Reszke as Radamès, Ravogli as Amneris, Magini-Coletti as Amonasro, Enrico Serbolini as Ramfis, Lodovico Viviani as the King, and M. Grossi as the Messenger. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus was prepared by its director, Carlo Corsi, and Louis Saar conducted.

Lilli Lehmann

“Jean de Reszke and Lilli Lehmann bade farewell to Chicago last evening by appearing together in Verdi’s Aida,” wrote the reviewer in the Chicago Tribune. “It was a performance which for superb solo work, excellence of ensemble, and splendor of scenic and spectacular effects has not been equaled in this city—a performance which marked the highest point on the standard of excellence yet reached by the Abbey-Grau company.”

German soprano Lilli Lehmann—under the guidance of Richard Wagner—created the roles of Woglinde (in Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung), Helmwige, and the Forest Bird in the first Ring cycle during the inaugural Bayreuth Festival in 1876. She made her American debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Carmen on November 25, 1885; five days later, she sang Brünnhilde in Die Walküre and the following year Isolde in the American premiere of Tristan and Isolde. Lehmann regularly performed at the Salzburg Festival—also serving as its artistic director—and her operatic repertoire ultimately included 170 roles in 114 operas. A notable teacher, her students included Geraldine Farrar and Olive Fremstad.

“Mme. Lehmann found in Aida a role which permitted a display of her splendid histrionic gifts, and the music to which was more nearly suited to her vocal powers than has been any she has sung this engagement,” continued the Chicago Tribune reviewer. “Her success was, therefore assured and splendidly she achieved it. Her acting of the slave princess was forceful, intense, at all times free from all exaggeration or extravagance. As for her vocal work, it commands unqualified and almost unlimited praise. The ‘Ritorna vincitor’ was given with marvelous appreciation of its sad, troubled character, and the ‘Numi, pietà’ was beautiful in the purity and simplicity of its interpretation. In the long duet with Amneris in act 2, Mme. Lehmann’s singing and acting possessed great power, and in the climax at the end of the act, her voice stood out with telling effect. It was in the third act that the finest vocal work was done. Anything more satisfactory than her singing of the ‘O patria mia’ and the heavy dramatic music which follows cannot be imagined. The ‘Vedi? . . . di morte l’angelo,’ in the last scene of the opera, was exquisite in its delicacy and poetry.”

Jean de Reszke

Born in Poland, Jean de Reszke began his career as a baritone in 1874, debuting in Venice as Alfonso in Donizetti’s La favorita. By 1879, he had made the switch to tenor when he sang the title role in Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable in Madrid. De Reszke was soon a regular at the Paris Opera and at London’s Covent Garden, performing the major French, Wagner, and Verdi roles; the title role in Massenet’s Le Cid—premiered in Paris in 1885—was written for him. His American debut was the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera’s residency with the Chicago Orchestra in the title role of Wagner’s Lohengrin on November 9, 1891. After his debut the following month with the company in New York—as Gounod’s Romeo on December 14—he was a regular with the Metropolitan until his retirement from the stage in 1904, settling in Poland to breed racehorses and Paris to teach singing. His students included Bidu Sayão and Maggie Teyte.

“Jean de Reszke’s triumph as Radamès was a triumph of voice and vocal art. Not that the dramatic side of the character was not developed. It was developed with the same consummate skill which has made his dramatic treatment of every role in which he has seen truly remarkable. But Radamès makes far greater demand upon a tenor’s vocal powers than upon his histrionic. Much of the music is purely lyrical in character, while other portions are strongly dramatic. A singer to do it justice must, therefore, combine the qualities of a tenore de grazia and a tenore robusto—a combination but rarely found. Jean de Reszke is such, however, and his singing of the music of Radamès is not alone satisfactory but an artistic treat of the highest kind. The famed ‘Celeste Aida’ was sung with a smoothness, clearness, and tonal beauty which were the perfection of pure vocal art, while the impassioned music of the third act was delivered with a vigor and intensity and a display of thrilling high notes which showed how dramatic singing may become and yet never cease to be singing nor degenerate into shouting.”

Portions of this article previously appeared here.

Riccardo Muti leads soloists Krassimira Stoyanova, Anita Rachvelishvili, Francesco Meli, Kiril Manolov, Ildar Abdrazakov, Eric Owens, Issachah Savage, Kimberly Gunderson, and Tasha Koontz, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (prepared by Duain Wolfe) in Verdi’s Aida on June 21, 23, and 25, 2019.

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In the spring of 1976, the major American political parties had not yet hosted their conventions to nominate candidates for president. But on May 11—the day after the first of three concerts at Carnegie Hall by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Sir Georg SoltiDonal Henahan of The New York Times had a suggestion:

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“Solti’s Chicagoans Stimulate a Yen to Yell”

It is pretty well agreed now, among decibel collectors, that the audiences at Chicago Symphony concerts make more noise than anybody. If you happen to pass Carnegie Hall tomorrow or Friday night and notice that sturdy old monument rocking slightly on its foundations, do not worry: It is only the Chicago orchestra’s fans going happily mad over a performance conducted by Sir Georg Solti. (Don’t run out to buy tickets, by the way; Chicago Symphony concerts are invariably sold out as soon as they are announced.)

The sheer fervor, somewhat resembling religious fanaticism, that characterizes the New York ovations for Chicago/Solti, is a phenomenon worth some sociologist’s study. Of course, the Chicago Symphony is one of the world’s great orchestras, and Sir Georg is undeniably one of the world’s most exciting conductors. The cheering is, therefore, aimed at real quality.

But the Dionysian frenzy that many observers have commented upon goes beyond ordinary enthusiasm into the category of the demonstration. Chicago players and Sir Georg himself have confessed that the intensity of these ovations in New York takes them aback. Thoughtful musicians cross their fingers, in fact. They have seen reputations rise and fall, for what seems too little reason either way, and know how capricious and irrational audiences can be.

The Chicago/Solti phenomenon has been compared to the cult that grew up around Toscanini and his NBC Symphony a generation ago, to the Stokowski fan clubs of his Philadelphia Orchestra years and to the von Karajan mystique in some sectors of the musical world today. Unsophisticated music listeners, with the help of judicious publicity agents, love to fasten upon an idol, to proclaim this or that artist “the greatest” and fall prostrate at mention of the holy name. Other and wiser folk simply like to cheer what they regard as the best. Cheering is an emotional purgative, a primal scream that often seems to do the screamer more good than the

The New York Times, May 11, 1976

The New York Times, May 11, 1976

Beyond the obvious fact of its lofty quality, there are several arguable rationalizations for the kind of hysteria regularly generated by the Chicago under Sir Georg. When the orchestra made its first Carnegie Hall appearances under him six years ago, many knowledgeable New Yorkers were simply flattened by what they heard. The Chicago Symphony—unlike the Cleveland under Szell, the Boston under Leinsdorf, the Philadelphia under Ormandy—had not been a regular visitor.

Fritz Reiner, who built the orchestra to its current level in the late 1950s, hated touring. He refused to do the kind of barnstorming to high prestige places that would have made the Chicago Symphony’s greatness apparent to more than the blessed few who heard it regularly in its own Orchestra Hall during Dr. Reiner’s ten‐year regime.

The fact, which Sir Georg readily admits, is that the Chicago Symphony as it stands (or sits) is largely the product of the Reiner years. The Solti genius has consisted in making splendid use of a ready‐made instrument. Not the least amazing thing about the Chicago’s current status as a symbol of excellence is that of all major American orchestras it is the oldest: Most of the players date back to the Reiner years before.

Another possible factor in the Chicago’s popularity is the high percentage of opera fans who frequent these concerts. One of Sir Georg’s first smash successes at Carnegie came in 1971 with a concert performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, and he subsequently offered four other operatic attractions. His sixth, on Friday night, will be The Flying Dutchman.

Sir Georg, you remember, had been artistic director of London’s Covent Garden opera house, and his renown as an opera conductor fattened considerably when he completed the first Ring cycle ever produced on commercially available recordings, for London Records. And, since opera enthusiasts on the whole are famous—or notorious, as you wish—for treating their heroes and heroines to hysterical ovations, Chicago/Solti has not suffered from being attractive to the opera set.

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Another and probably more disputable conjecture: there existed in New York at the time of the Chicago/Solti arrival on the scene, a considerable number of people who yearned to hear concerts led by an unashamedly passionate “maestro,” preferably someone cast in the Toscanini mold. To some extent, Leonard Bernstein in his early years with the Philharmonic fulfilled the needs of this sizable and vocal constituency.

But when Pierre Boulez took charge of the Philharmonic these New Yorkers missed their former feeling of audience participation. They came to regard themselves as disenfranchised musical citizens. Mr. Boulez seemed to them more acoustical scientist than performer, and his analytical talents and objective approach to music were largely unappreciated. For this emotional breed of listener, the coming of Chicago/Solti offered a chance not merely to applaud but also—almost in the political sense of the word—to demonstrate. It was as if they were sending a message.

The yen to yell can come to be as important to certain audiences as the music itself. Opera fans, in particular, seem to regard their demonstrations of affection and approbation as part of the performance, and that can be obnoxious when carried too far. But any continuing audience, such as the one attracted by the Chicago/Solti concerts, is also acting out a communal claim to eliteness. It is proclaiming its own superior taste and knowledge, as well as showing the performers how much they are appreciated: We happy few who know what’s what, we proud melomaniacs, we who make (and can easily break) heroes, salute.

In any event, the Chicago Solti ovations are likely to go down among the legends of New York’s cultural life. And perhaps the explanation is simpler than suggested here. When the inevitable ranting and raving is heard at Carnegie Hall, it may merely be one sector of the musical electorate voting for its concept of what orchestral concerts should be. The Chicago Symphony for President, as it were. Well, we could do worse.

The 1976 U.S. presidential election was held on November 2, 1976. Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, the Democratic party candidate, ran against and defeated incumbent president Gerald Ford, the Republican candidate.

Lucia-Popp

On November 12, 2014, we celebrate the seventy-fifth birthday of the extraordinary Slovak soprano Lucia Popp, a favorite soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra between 1970 and 1984.

According to Sir Georg Solti, one of her frequent collaborators in Chicago and at Covent Garden, “To my mind, there will never be a Sophie (in Der Rosenkavalier) or a Susanna (in The Marriage of Figaro) to equal hers.” Popp’s career was tragically cut short and she succumbed to brain cancer in 1993, only days after her fifty-fourth birthday.

Popp appeared and recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a number of notable occasions. Her complete performance history and discography is listed below:

March 12, 14 & 16, 1970, at Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Fidelio, Op. 72
Georg Solti, conductor
Anja Silja, soprano
Lucia Popp, soprano
Jess Thomas, tenor
Frank Porretta, tenor
Herbert Fliether, baritone
Kurt Boehme, bass
Thomas Paul, bass
William Wahman, tenor
Gary Kendall, bass-baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, chorus director

August 30, 31 & September 1, 1971, at Sofiensaal in Vienna (recording sessions only, no public performances)
MAHLER Symphony No. 8 in E-flat Major
Georg Solti, conductor
Heather Harper, soprano
Lucia Popp, soprano
Arleen Augér, soprano
Yvonne Minton, mezzo-soprano
Helen Watts, contralto
René Kollo, tenor
John Shirley-Quirk, bass-baritone
Martti Talvela, bass
Chorus of the Vienna State Opera
Norbert Balatsch, chorus master
Singverein Chorus
Helmut Froschauer, chorus master
Vienna Boys’ Choir
David Harvey produced the recording, and Gordon Parry and Kenneth Wilkinson were the engineers for London Records. The recording won the 1972 Grammy Award for Album of the Year—Classical, Best Choral Performance—Classical (other than opera), and Best Engineered Recording—Classical from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

May 5, 6 & 7, 1977, at Orchestra Hall
May 13, 1977, at Carnegie Hall
BEETHOVEN Missa solemnis in D Major, Op. 123
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Victor Aitay, violin
Lucia Popp, soprano
Yvonne Minton, mezzo-soprano
Mallory Walker, tenor
Gwynne Howell, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Following the Carnegie Hall performance, the work was recorded for London Records with multiple sessions in Chicago’s Medinah Temple. Ray Minshull was the producer and Kenneth Wilkinson, John Dunkerley, and Michael Mailes were the engineers. The recording won the 1978 Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance, Classical (other than opera) from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Lucia Popp in Strauss's Four Last Songs at Orchestra Hall in October 1977. Sir Georg Solti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Lucia Popp in Strauss’s Four Last Songs at Orchestra Hall in October 1977. Sir Georg Solti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

October 17 & 19, 1977, at Orchestra Hall
STRAUSS Four Last Songs
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Lucia Popp, soprano
These performances originally were recorded by Unitel for television broadcast and recently were commercially released on the four-DVD set Sir Georg Solti: The Maestro.

October 27 & 28, 1977, at Orchestra Hall
October 31, 1977, at Carnegie Hall
MAHLER Symphony No. 8 in E-flat Major
Sir Georg Solti, conductor (October 27 & 28)
Margaret Hillis, conductor (October 31)
Christiane Eda-Pierre, soprano
Lucia Popp, soprano
Barbara Hendricks, soprano
Jan DeGaetani, mezzo-soprano
Helen Watts, contralto
Kenneth Riegel, tenor
William Walker, baritone
Donald Gramm, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus
Doreen Rao, director

November 1 & 2, 1977, at Carnegie Hall
STRAUSS Four Last Songs
Henry Mazer, conductor (November 1)
Sir Georg Solti, conductor (November 2)
Lucia Popp, soprano

December 13, 14, 15 & 16, 1978, at Orchestra Hall
MOZART Mass in C Minor, K. 427
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Lucia Popp, soprano
Maria Venuti, soprano
Daniel Nelson, tenor
Samuel Jones, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

March 13, 14, & 15, 1980, at Orchestra Hall
MOZART Mass in C Major, K. 317 (Coronation)
Rafael Kubelík, conductor
Lucia Popp, soprano
Mira Zakai, mezzo-soprano
Alexander Oliver, tenor
Malcolm King, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Originally recorded by WFMT for radio broadcast, this was released on the CSO’s From the Archives, vol. 13 (Chicago Symphony Chorus: A Fortieth Anniversary Celebration).

October 21, 22, 23 & 24, 1981, at Orchestra Hall
MOZART Nehmt meinen Dank, K. 383
MOZART Ah, lo previdi, K. 272
Leonard Slatkin, conductor
Lucia Popp, soprano

December 7, 1981, at Orchestra Hall (special concert dedicating the newly installed Möller pipe organ)
HAYDN Benedictus from Missa brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo, Hob. XXII, No. 7
HANDEL “But oh! what art can teach” and “Orpheus could lead the savage race” from Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day
Leonard Slatkin, conductor
Lucia Popp, soprano
Frederick Swann, organ

March 15, 16 & 17, 1984, at Orchestra Hall
March 19, 1984, at Uihlein Hall, Performing Arts Center in Milwaukee
MAHLER Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Giuseppe Sinopoli, conductor
Lucia Popp, soprano
Walton Grönroos, baritone

A marvelous tribute to Lucia Popp by Louise T. Guinther appears in the November 2014 issue of Opera News.

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Theodore Thomas

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