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Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
The broadcast of Verdi's Otello on 12th February,1938, documents the interwar Metropolitan Opera at itspeak.
Giovanni Martinelli (1885-1969) began his Metcareer under Arturo Toscanini in 1913. Over 32seasons, he graduated from Rodolfo and Faust toheavier r?â??les. In 1936, at the age of 51, he tackledOtello, which he had studied or discussed with thelibrettist, Arrigo Boito, with Victor Maurel, who createdIago, and with Toscanini, who played in the premi?â?¿reunder Verdi's supervision. More than cappingMartinelli's career, Otello became his signature legacy.
The 1938 broadcast documents a complete portrayal, aslover, as madman, as penitent murderer, eachcomponent of which authenticates the impact of theothers. So realistic is Martinelli's choked anddebilitated projection of grief at the opera's close thathis ability actually to sing \Desdemona!" is nothingshort of miraculous.
One priority of Edward Johnson's regime as theMet's general manager (1935-50), amid much pennypinchingand belt-tightening, was Americanizing thevocal roster. Events conspired to make this not onlypossible, but necessary. Lower fees cost him some ofhis high-priced foreign talent, most notably BeniaminoGigli. World War II curtailed transatlantictransportation, and the Met's Depression deficitspressured the house to be less aloof, elitist, and tied toEurope. Never before had the Met seen so much nativetalent.
Lawrence Tibbett (1896-1960), Martinelli's usualMet partner as Iago, was a sheriff's son fromBakersfield, California, who discovered music in thelocal Methodist church. Tibbett is the first and mostcomplete in a line of distinguished American Verdibaritones. Unlike Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill,Sherrill Milnes, or Cornell MacNeill, he was aconsummate singing actor (he once appeared in KingLear on Broadway). His later career was clouded byalcoholism. Here, in 1938, his swarthy baritone isprodigious in scale and yet remarkably pliable, asimpressive for its insinuating mezza voce phrases as forthe drinking-song.
The German soprano Elisabeth Rethberg (1894-1976), a Met mainstay beginning in 1922 in bothGerman and Italian r?â??les, was greatly admired for herpurity of legato and tone. Her Desdemona, if cooler thanher partners' performances, is both opulent and strong.
No studio recordings of these three famous Verdiansconvey the high voltage of this live stage performance,not least because (the broadcast's least anticipatedrevelation) of the incandescence of the Met orchestraand its conductor.
By the time James Levine took over in the 1970s, itwas a pardonable assumption that singers at the Met hadalways suffered indifferent, dull, or inept support, butAnton Seidl, Gustav Mahler, and Toscanini, anastonishing phalanx of chief conductors at the Metbefore World War I, could not have tolerated the sorryplaying I remember hearing in the 1960s and 1970s.
The orchestra Arthur Bodanzky is heard conducting inGerman opera in the broadcasts of the 1930s lacks theglow of a great Wagner band, but the playing iswonderfully firm and fiery. In Verdi, the same group isan Italian powderkeg. And why not? The membershipwas overwhelmingly Italian, including a few, such asthe principal oboist Giacomo Del Campo, who hadplayed under Toscanini in the Met pit. With Toscanini'sdeparture, the Met's Italian wing was entrusted tosuperior leaders: first Tullio Serafin, then EttorePanizza. The latter (today not even a name), was bornin Buenos Aires and trained in Milan. From 1921 to1931 he conducted at La Scala, where Toscaniniesteemed him, as did Richard Strauss, who arranged forhim to conduct Elektra in Vienna. His Met years were1934 to 1943. Given his extensive European career,which also included Covent Garden, it bears emphasisthat he considered the Met's "as fine a theater orchestraas I have seen in the world". He was greeted byMartinelli as an old friend and colleague.
In the Met's 1938 Otello, it is Panizza whostylistically binds the polyglot cast. Compared toToscanini, he favours a broader play of tempo, but thevelocity and precision, the taut filaments of tone, thekeen timbres, the clipped, attenuated phrasings are allToscanini trademarks. Like Toscanini, Panizza will boltsuddenly to the end of a scorching musical sentence;like Toscanini's, his musicians are lightningrespondents. And Panizza is a master of controlling theshow while show-casing his cast; calibratingMartinelli's titanic climaxes and magisterial breadth ofphrase, he achieves a unity. Encountering this mementoof times past is a humbling experience.
Adapted from Classical Music in America:
A History of Its Rise and Fall
by Joseph Horowitz