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The advance notice for the November 9, 1891, performance of Lohengrin included the names of producers, principal singers, conductor, and stage manager, but not the accompanying orchestra.

Following the third subscription week of its first season, the Chicago Orchestra (as we were then known) was in the pit of the Auditorium Theatre for performances by the Metropolitan Opera Company from November 9 until December 12, 1891, including three run-out performances at the Amphitheatre Auditorium in Louisville, Kentucky on December 7 and 8.

The first opera given was Wagner’s Lohengrin—sung in Italian—led by Auguste Vianesi, the Orchestra’s first guest conductor. That performance featured no less than five singers making their U.S. debuts: soprano Emma Eames, mezzo-soprano Giulia Ravogli, baritone Antonio Magini- Coletti, and tenor and bass brothers Jean and Édouard de Reszke.

On November 10, 1891, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that even though several patrons were late in arriving due to “the fact that carriages approached in single file and the process of unloading was rather slow . . . [they] failed to dismay Sig. Vianesi, who began his calisthenic exercise with the baton promptly at eight. Eighty-five musicians of the Chicago Orchestra played the graceful Lohengrin prelude in a style which in the show-bill style was ‘alone worth the price of admission.’”

Wood engraved print by Fred Pegram of Jean and Edouard de Reszke—as Lohengrin and Heinrich—from The Illustrated London News in 1891

In the title role, Jean de Reszke “has the dignity and aplomb of an artist to the manner born and the glittering armor of the Knight of the Grail becomes him well. . . . [He] is an artist to the tips of his mailed boots and gloves. He has immense personal magnetism, and when he casually conveyed to Elsa the information, ‘Io t’amo,’ there was a responsive thrill under many a pretty corsage bouquet.”

On November 14, The New York Times reported from Chicago. “It was though reason for not a little regret both in New York and this city when it was announced that the management of the Metropolitan Opera House, which in a measure seems to control the operatic destiny of the country, had decided to discontinue German opera this year and to substitute therefore Italian opera. By selecting Lohengrin as the opera with which to open the present season, Messrs. Abbey and Grau made a praiseworthy compromise. All fears that the season would be composed of a series of repetitious of hackneyed Italian operas were thus allayed. It is too early to pass any judgment, but, according to the indications to be found in this week’s performances, it is almost safe to assume that in many respects this year will witness some of the most brilliant performances of grand opera ever given in this country.”

Regarding Édouard de Reszke as Heinrich, the Times continued, that he was “endowed with a voice which for power and quality, richness and warmth, range and volume, has seldom been equaled. He displayed the highest art in the use of it. His acting also was artistic, and dignified, and his impersonation was in every respect a regal one.” As Ortrud, Giulia Ravogli, “displayed histrionic ability of an exceptionally high order and a mezzo-soprano voice of extensive compass and considerable power.”

Additional singers who appeared during the residency were among the most famous of the day, including sopranos Emma Albani, Lilli Lehmann, and Marie Van Zandt; mezzo-soprano Sofia Scalchi; tenor Fernando Valero; baritones Edoardo Camera and Jean Martapoura; and bass Jules Vinché. A staggering number of operas were performed, including 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; and Verdi’s Aida, Otello, and Rigoletto.

The final offering of the residency on December 12 was a fourth performance of Lohengrin, and changes in the cast included Valero in the title role, Albani as Elsa, and Vinché as Heinrich; Louis Saar conducted. Two days later on December 14, the company was back in New York for the Metropolitan Opera’s season opening: Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet featuring Eames and the de Reske brothers with Vianesi on the podium.

After two run-out performances on December 15 (at the Odeon in Cincinnati) and 16 (in Indianapolis), founder and first music director Theodore Thomas and his Chicago Orchestra resumed the regular season with the fourth subscription week at the Auditorium on December 18.

An abbreviated version of this article appears in the program book for the December 14, 15, 16, and 19, 2017, CSO concerts led by Jaap van Zweden. Special thanks to our colleagues at the Metropolitan Opera and their performance history database.

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This week Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s First Symphony, almost exactly one hundred years since Frederick Stock first conducted it in Chicago.

Program page for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's first performances of Mahler's First Symphony

Program page for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first performances of Mahler’s First Symphony

That first performance of the symphony (sandwiched between Handel’s Concerto grosso, op. 6, no. 2 and Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Josef Hofmann) on November 6, 1914, left Ronald Webster of the Chicago Daily Tribune a bit puzzled: “The Mahler symphony is less important but more interesting to talk about because it is strictly earthy. There is a suggestion in the program notes that Mahler was not wholly serious in this symphony. It was obvious yesterday that he was not serious at all. Even the finale is not serious, though it is tiresome, being too long. But it is the quality of the humor which is likely to cause people to turn up their noses. The humor is a little coarse, definitely ironical, of a barnyard kind and healthy. Mahler is himself partly to blame for such ideas about him. Definite conceptions such as his (though he may not have been serious about them either) are death to all mystic attitude toward this work. . . . He suggests that the first movement is nature’s awakening at early morning. One suspects that Mahler included in nature the cows and chickens as well as the cuckoo and the dewy grass.” The complete review is here.

Despite that critic’s early apprehensions, the symphony soon became a staple in the Orchestra’s repertoire and has been led—at Orchestra Hall, the Ravinia Festival, and on tour—by a vast array of conductors, including: Roberto Abbado, Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, James Conlon, Christoph von Dohnányi, Gustavo Dudamel, Christoph Eschenbach, Adam Fischer, Carlo Maria Giulini, Bernard Haitink, Irwin Hoffman, Paul Kletzki, Kirill Kondrashin, Rafael Kubelík, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Igor Markevitch, Henry Mazer, Eugene Ormandy, Seiji Ozawa, George Schick, Leonard Slatkin, Sir Georg Solti, William Steinberg, Klaus Tennstedt, Michael Tilson Thomas, Edo de Waart, Bruno Walter, and Jaap van Zweden.

And the Orchestra has recorded the work six times, as follows:

Giulini 1971Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor
Recorded by Angel at Medinah Temple in March 1971
Christopher Bishop, producer
Carson Taylor, engineer
Giulini’s recording won the 1971 Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance—Orchestra from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Abbado 1981Claudio Abbado, conductor
Recorded by Deutsche Grammophon at Orchestra Hall in February 1981
Rainer Brock, producer
Karl-August Naegler, engineer

Solti 1983Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Recorded by London at Orchestra Hall in October 1983
James Mallinson, producer
James Lock, engineer

Tennstedt 1990Klaus Tennstedt, conductor
Recorded by EMI at Orchestra Hall in May and June 1990
John Fraser, producer
Michael Sheady, engineer

Boulez 1998Pierre Boulez, conductor
Recorded by Deutsche Grammophon at Orchestra Hall in May 1998
Karl-August Naegler, producer
Rainer Maillard and Reinhard Lagemann, engineers

Haitink 2008Bernard Haitink, conductor
Recorded by CSO Resound at Orchestra Hall in May 2008
James Mallinson, producer
Christopher Willis, engineer

For more information on Muti’s performances of Mahler’s First this week, please visit the CSO’s website.

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The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

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