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In the early part of its history, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was in the pit for an astonishing number of opera performances, first with singers from the Metropolitan Opera on tour at the Auditorium Theatre (from 1891 through 1899) and again with Ravinia Park Opera in Highland Park (from 1912 until 1931). This included fifty performances of Pietro Mascagni‘s Cavalleria rusticana featuring some of the greatest singers of the era in the role of Santuzza.

Jane Abercrombie

Wisconsin native Jane Abercrombie (1878–1961, three performances in 1912) was a member of the Lyceum and Aborn opera companies and the prima donna of the first season of Ravinia Park Opera. Over the course of a month in the summer of 1912, she sang the leading soprano roles in multiple performances of La bohème, Cavalleria rusticana, Les contes d’Hoffman, Faust, Lucia di Lammermoor, Madama Butterfly, Martha, Rigoletto, Thaïs, Tosca, and La traviata.

Marguerite Bériza

Marguerite Bériza (1880–1970, four performances between 1916 and 1917) trained at the Paris Conservatory and made her professional debut at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1900 as a mezzo-soprano, performing mostly comprimario roles. She created the role of Geoffroy in the world premiere of Rabaud’s La fille de Roland in 1904, and two years later, she was Kate Pinkerton in the French premiere of Madama Butterfly; she also sang the role of Suzuki in later performances. In 1910, Bériza created the role of Pénélope in the world premiere of Terrasse’s Le mariage de Télémaque. By 1912, she was performing soprano roles, and she made her U.S. debut with the Boston Opera Company in 1914 as Musetta (with Maggie Teyte as Mimì) in La bohème. In 1915, Bériza made her Broadway debut in Atteridge’s Maid in America and her Chicago Grand Opera Company debut, singing the title role in Février’s Monna Vanna. 

Emma Calvé

French soprano Emma Calvé (1858–1942, five performances between 1894 and 1899) was a student of Mathilde Marchesi and made her debut as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels in 1881. Following debuts at the Opéra-Comique in Paris and La Scala in Milan, she was selected by Mascagni to create the role of Suzel in the composer’s L’amico Fritz on October 31, 1891, at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. Calvé first performed at Covent Garden the following year before making her debut with the Metropolitan Opera on November 29, 1893, as Santuzza. “Calvé is a dramatic soprano of the first rank. It is long since New York opera goers have had the pleasure of seeing and hearing an artist of such splendid emotional force,” wrote William James Henderson in The New York Times. “She is at all times eloquent and powerfully influenced; and she knows how to put emotional meaning into her singing, never hesitating to sacrifice mere sensuous beauty of tone to true dramatic significance. Her success was immediate, pronounced, and thoroughly deserved.” She was later hailed for her interpretation of Bizet’s Carmen and performed the role over 150 times with the Metropolitan.

Emma Eames

American soprano Emma Eames (1865–1952, one performance in 1891) studied with Clara Munger in Boston and Mathilde Marchesi in Paris before making her professional debut on March 13, 1889, in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at the Palais Garnier. Eames made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera on tour in Chicago on November 9, 1891, as Elsa in Lohengrin; her performance of Santuzza with the Met on December 4 also marked the company’s first performance of the opera. She also regularly performed at Covent Garden, in Madrid, and with the Monte Carlo Opera in Monaco. Eames was noted for her interpretations of the leading soprano roles in Aida, Un ballo in maschera, Cavalleria rusticana, Don Giovanni, Faust, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Le nozze di Figaro, Otello, Tosca, Il trovatore, Die Walküre, Werther, and Die Zauberflöte.

Florence Easton

A student of Agnes Larkcom at London’s Royal Academy of Music and Elliott Haslam in Paris, English soprano Florence Easton (1882–1955, five performances between 1919 and 1924) made her professional debut as the Shepherd in Tannhäuser with the Moody-Manners company in Newcastle upon Tyne, and she later was a member of the Berlin Royal and Hamburg opera companies. She made her U.S. debut with the Chicago Grand Opera Company in 1915 as Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Siegfried; of her performance, Eric DeLamarter in the Chicago Tribune wrote, “with the superb tone, the enunciation, and the style . . . Fresh and most satisfying as to timbre in the scene of the awakening, the voice fell on the ear like a benediction after the three-hour fusillade of declamation,” With the Metropolitan Opera, Easton made her debut as Santuzza on December 7, 1917, and she was chosen by Puccini to create the role of Lauretta—who sings “O mio babbino caro”—in his Gianni Schicchi on December 14, 1918, also at the Metropolitan.

Lois Ewell

Lois Ewell (1885–?, two performances in 1913) was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Before turning her sights to opera, she enjoyed a successful career on Broadway, performing leading roles in Victor Herbert’s Dream City and The Magic Night (a burlesque of Wagner’s Lohengrin), George M. Cohan’s Forty-five Minutes from Broadway, and Lehár’s The Merry Widow. In addition to Santuzza during her single summer with Ravinia Park Opera, Ewell also performed the lead soprano roles in Aida, Lohengrin, Madama Butterfly, Pagliacci, Thaïs (she “does this sort of part very well, according to the Chicago Tribune. “She has abundant temperament for the plentiful theatrical trickery of the part.”), and Il trovatore. She later was a company member with the Century Opera Company in New York, where she performed the title roles in Aida and Tosca.

Bettina Freeman

Bettina Freeman (1889–?, four performances in 1915) was born and raised in Boston, and she made her professional debut as Siébel in Gounod’s Faust with the Boston Opera Company. After moving to New York, she joined the Quinlan Opera Company and later the San Carlo Opera Company. At Ravinia Park in 1915, she also sang the title roles in Aida, Madama Butterfly, Thaïs, Tosca, and Il trovatore. Regarding her performance as Tosca that summer, Musical America reported, “Miss Freeman’s singing of the aria, ‘Vissi d’arte,” and in the duet of the last act was highly artistic. The aria, which called forth outbursts of applause, was delivered with dramatic fervor and style.”

Alice Gentle

Alice Gentle (1885–1958, six performances between 1919 and 1926) began her career performing in the chorus at Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera Company beginning in 1908. She frequently said that, “Mr. Hammerstein ‘discovered’ her and was ‘both my artistic father and my mascot'” (according to her New York Times obituary), and he began casting her in secondary roles during her second season with the company.  At the Metropolitan, she made several appearances during the 1918-19 season, most notably as Frugola in the world premiere of Puccini’s Il tabarro. Later a film actress, Gentle appeared in The Song of the Flame, Golden Dawn, and A Scene from Carmen.

Claudia Muzio

Italian soprano Claudia Muzio (1889–1936, three performances in 1918) studied in Turin with Annetta Casaloni and in Milan with Elettra Callery-Viviani. She made her professional debut in Manon on January 15, 1910, in Arezzo, and debuts at La Scala, the Paris Opera, and Covent Garden quickly followed. Muzio first sang in the United States at the Metropolitan Opera on December 4, 1916, in Tosca, alongside Enrico Caruso as Cavaradossi. During her one summer with the Ravinia Park Opera, she also performed the lead soprano roles in Aida, L’amore dei tre re, La bohème, Faust, Madama Butterfly, Manon, Pagliacci, Il segreto di Susanna, Tosca, and Il trovatore. On October 15, 1932, she performed the title role in Tosca to inaugurate San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House (the first act was broadcast and can be heard here).

Frances Peralta (left) and Florence Easton

Born in England, Frances Peralta (1883–1933, one performance each in 1921 and 1922) and her family moved to California when she was a child. She received her early training in San Francisco and later performed with the Boston and Saint Louis opera companies, in New York’s Globe Theatre, and with the Chicago Opera Association.  Peralta made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera on December 25, 1920, as Elena in Mefistofele and over the next ten years, she was a regular company member, performing the leading soprano roles in Aida, Andrea Chénier, Cavalleria rusticana, Così fan tutte, Don Carlo, La forza del destino, La gioconda, Guillaume Tell, Tannhäuser, Tosca, and Il trovatore, among others.

Rosa Raisa

Rosa Raisa (1893–1963, two performances in 1925) was born in Poland and in order to escape anti-Semitic persecution, she fled to Naples at the age of fourteen. There she studied at the Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella with Barbara Marchisio and made her debut in Verdi’s Oberto in Parma on September 6, 1913. Marchisio soon introduced her to Cleofonte Campanini, conductor of the Chicago Grand Opera Company, and he engaged her to make her debut as Aida in Chicago on November 29, 1913. She enjoyed continued success in Rome, London, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, São Paulo, and Milan, where she created the title role in Puccini’s Turandot under Arturo Toscanini’s baton at La Scala on April 25, 1926. She sang the title role in Aida for the opening of the Civic Opera House in Chicago on November 4, 1929. In 1959, Raisa sat down with Studs Terkel, reflecting on her career and successes in Chicago; the interview can be heard here.

Elisabeth Rethberg

German-American soprano Elisabeth Rethberg (1894–1976, twelve performances between 1927 and 1931) studied at the Dresden Conservatory and made her professional debut as Arsena in Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Der Zigeunerbaron at the Dresden Court Opera in 1915. She made her U.S. debut at the Metropolitan Opera on November 22, 1922, in the title role in Verdi’s Aida. In The New York Times, Richard Aldrich praised “her high, clear, liquid tones of a singular brightness floating above Verdi’s orchestration with unforced ease.” Rethberg’s association with the company continued for twenty years, and she was featured on four Met opening nights. In 1928, Richard Strauss invited Rethberg to create the title role in his Die ägyptische Helena in Dresden.

Ivy Scott

Ivy Scott (1886–1947, one performance in 1914) was born in Java and made her stage debut at the age of five in Sydney Australia. She came to the U.S. in 1910 and appeared at Ravinia Park in the lead soprano roles in Aida, Madama Butterfly, and Il trovatore. On the radio, Scott was the original Mrs. Hudson in NBC’s Sherlock Holmes series, performed on The Goldbergs, and also hosted her own radio show. On Broadway, she appeared regularly between 1932 and 1946, in Music in the Air, Revenge with Music, Three Waltzes, Too Many Girls, Liberty Jones, Sunny River, and Song of Norway. 

On February 6, 7, and 8, 2020, Anita Rachvelishvili sings the role of Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Riccardo Muti conducts. An abbreviated version of this article also appears in the program book for these performances.

Cover of one of four World’s Columbian Exposition pop-up books

On April 28, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed an act of Congress awarding Chicago the honor of hosting a world’s fair—the World’s Columbian Exposition—to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. Architects Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root were charged with oversight of the design and construction, but following Root’s unexpected death in January 1891, Burnham became the sole director of works. He engaged several other architects—including Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles Follen McKim, and Louis Sullivan—to design a classical revival–themed city with grand boulevards, elaborate building façades, and lush gardens. Beaux Arts design concepts—based on symmetry, balance, and grace—were employed, and the 200 new, but intentionally temporary, buildings were mostly covered in plaster of Paris and painted a chalky white, giving the fairgrounds its nickname, the “White City.”

Chicago World’s Fair 1893 by Harley Dewitt Nichols (1859–1939)

The fairgrounds stretched over nearly 700 acres in Jackson Park and officially opened to the public on May 1, 1893—125 years ago. Over the next six months, nearly fifty countries would exhibit and close to twenty-eight million people would visit. Juicy Fruit chewing gum, Cream of Wheat, Quaker Oats, Shredded Wheat, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, and the Ferris Wheel were introduced, along with the first U.S. Post Office–issued picture postcards and commemorative stamps and U.S. Mint–issued commemorative quarter and half-dollar coins. Following its blue ribbon–win as “America’s Best” at the exposition, the Pabst Brewing Company officially changed the name of its signature beer.

One visitor was poet and author Katharine Lee Bates, who would later include “Thine alabaster cities gleam” in her poem America the Beautiful. Herman Webster Mudgett (a.k.a. Dr. Henry Howard Holmes) traveled to the fair with two of his eventual victims (later described by Erik Larson in his book The Devil in the White City). And natives bragging about the fair likely contributed to the popularity of Chicago’s nickname as the “Windy City.”

Theodore Thomas

Soon after Theodore Thomas agreed to lead the new Chicago Orchestra, the exposition’s executive committee (many of whom were the same men who were helping to finance his new orchestra) offered him the job of director of music for the fair. Inspired by Burnham’s imagination and drive—not to mention that the committee was prepared to spend nearly one million dollars on music and two performance halls—Thomas accepted shortly after his new orchestra’s inaugural concerts on October 16 and 17, 1891, in the Auditorium Theatre.

Thomas laid out an extensive plan for all types of concerts and issued a proclamation in the spring of 1892 setting forth many lofty goals, among them “the hearty support of American musicians, amateurs, and societies, for participation on great festival occasions of popular music, and for the interpretation of the most advanced composition, American and foreign.” He made his new orchestra the foundation of the resident ensemble, the Exposition Orchestra, augmented to over one hundred players, and he invited the most important musicians in the world to participate: Johannes Brahms, Antonín Dvořák, Joseph Joachim, Piotr Tchaikovsky, Jules Massenet, Camille Saint-Saëns, Giuseppe Verdi, Pietro Mascagni, Charles Gounod, Anton Rubinstein, and Hans Richter, among others.

Music Hall, designed by Charles Atwood

Two music buildings were constructed for a combined cost of $230,000. Music Hall, designed by Charles Atwood, had two performance spaces, seating 600 and 2,000. Festival Hall, designed by Francis M. Whitehouse, had a stage that was reportedly larger than the entire Metropolitan Opera House and seated 4,000 with standing room for more than 2,000.

The inaugural ceremony on October 21, 1892, was given in Festival Hall and included 5,500 singers in the chorus, an orchestra of 200, two large military bands, and two drum corps of fifty players each. In order to for everyone to see, Thomas used a large white handkerchief to conduct, rather than a baton. The event opened with the American composer John Knowles Paine’s Columbus March and Hymn, and continued with Carl Koelling’s World’s Columbian Exposition Waltz and George Whitefield Chadwick‘s Ode for the Opening of the World’s Fair held at Chicago 1892 (set to a poem by Harriet Monroe).

George Whitefield Chadwick’s Ode for the Opening of the World’s Fair held at Chicago 1892 (Theodore Thomas collection)

Carl Koelling’s World’s Columbian Exposition Waltz (piano reduction, Theodore Thomas collection)

As excitement mounted for the official opening of the fair, nearly one hundred piano manufacturers began to vie for the opportunity to exhibit. Some exposition officials began to take sides with different manufacturers, and Thomas attempted to steer clear of the growing controversy. East-coast builders, most notably Steinway, felt the planners were giving unfair advantage to Midwest piano manufacturers, and, as a result withdrew their participation. It was decided that only pianos made by exhibiting companies could be used at the fair. The press had a field day, criticizing both Thomas and the exposition planners, accusing all of conspiring for personal advantage.

Ignace Paderewski

The Exposition’s inaugural concert was scheduled for May 2, 1893, and Thomas’s first choice for soloist was the famous Polish pianist Ignace Paderewski. He had performed with the Chicago Orchestra and had even offered to waive his usual $5,000 per concert fee. He would perform his Piano Concerto in A minor for the first concert and Schumann’s concerto for the second; Theodore Thomas would conduct the Exposition Orchestra (the Chicago Orchestra expanded to 114 players).

Paderewski was unofficially an exclusive Steinway artist and if he was going to perform, it had to be on a Steinway. With Burnham’s help—and unbeknownst to Thomas—workers were able to sneak Paderewski’s Steinway concert grand into Music Hall the night before the first concert.

May 2, 1893

“Those who sat beneath the potent spell [Paderewski’s] mighty genius weaves could but acknowledge his unrivaled greatness and congratulate the exposition upon having secured him for the assisting artist at the inaugural concert,” reported the Chicago Tribune, praising the “surpassing beauty and matchless artistic greatness” of his performance.

By the time the committee discovered Paderewski’s use of a Steinway, it was too late to react. Thomas was falsely accused of conspiring against the committee, and despite the musical success of the concert, again, he was roasted in the press and public debate and criticism increased.

Theodore Thomas’s Exposition ticket book

Other problems included the cavernous acoustics in the Music Hall, Chicago’s May weather was bitter cold and the halls were not heated, and ticket sales for concerts were significantly less than anticipated. Thomas had difficulty hiding his disappointment, which only added to the mounting criticism against him.

Stubs from Thomas’s ticket book

After having conducted nearly seventy concerts in little more than three months, distraught over poor attendance, and mired in controversy, Thomas resigned as musical director in early August. His ticket book for the fair confirms his attendance; the last admission stub removed is for August 11, and at noon that day in Festival Hall, he led his Exposition Orchestra in one last concert.

August 12, 1893

Of all of the musicians Thomas invited to participate in the fair, only one actually made the journey to Chicago—Antonín Dvořák. August 12—the day after Thomas’s last concert—was designated as Bohemian Day, and according to the Chicago Tribune, “Bohemia ruled the World’s Columbian Exposition yesterday. It was the special date set apart for that nationality, and its citizens invaded the White City at every entrance by the thousands.”

Nearly 8,000 people packed into the fair’s Festival Hall to hear the Exposition Orchestra under the batons of Vojtěch I. Hlaváč, professor of music at the Imperial University in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and Dvořák, then the director of New York’s National Conservatory of Music in America.

August 12, 1893

The Tribune reviewer continued. “As Dvořák walked out upon the stage a storm of applause greeted him. For nearly two minutes the old composer [age fifty-one!] stood beside the music rack, baton in hand, bowing his acknowledgements. The players dropped their instruments to join in the welcome. Symphony no. 4 in G major [now known as no. 8], considered a severe test of technical writing as well as playing, was interpreted brilliantly. The Orchestra caught the spirit and magnetism of the distinguished leader. The audience sat as if spell-bound. Tremendous outbursts of applause were given.” On the second half of the program, Dvořák conducted selections from his Slavonic Dances and closed the program with his overture My Country.

For the next several weeks, the concerts given were primarily organ recitals. Concertmaster Max Bendix would lead the Exposition Orchestra in most of the remaining scheduled symphonic concerts, and the repertoire was modified to feature lighter, more popular works.

Thomas never completely recovered from the disappointment of the fair, and in his 1904 autobiography, he made no mention of the exposition whatsoever. In Memoirs of Theodore Thomas, completed in 1911 by his widow Rose Fay, she described one silver lining: during the fair, the “the daily concerts and rehearsals of the Orchestra had brought it up to the very highest point of artistic proficiency, and given it an enormous repertoire of music, so that Thomas felt he now had an almost perfect instrument for the concerts of the coming winter . . . This was a great relief to his mind.”

The Chicago Orchestra’s third season began the day after Thanksgiving on November 24 and 25, 1893, at the Auditorium Theatre.

Portions of this article previously appeared here and here, and an abbreviated version will appear in the CSO’s May 2018 program book.

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