The Chicago Lyric -- the last 50 years...
The 1956 season...
It seemed that the new company's brilliance with Callas, Bjorling, De
Stefano and others had effectively anaesthetized the capacity of the
Chicago audience for criticism. Criticism of the young company's
achievements, that is. With that frame of mind, they eagerly awaited the
company's 1956 five-week line-up, minus Maria Callas. On the other hand,
Renata Tebaldi, now much admired, would be back in three roles -- Tosca,
Leonora in "Forza," and Mimi in "La Boheme."
At the close of its first two seasons, the Chicago Lyric Company had shown
its audiences that not only did it have a new company, but one capable of
putting on opera in the grand manner--and not a company of borrowed Met
singers. Instead, they were borrowed from LaScala. This did not please
AGMA (The American Guild of Musical Artists) --the union of soloists,
chorus and dancers. They had voiced their concern over the lack of
American artists on the roster. In part, that accounted for those
strange triple bills in the second season, and even the first season
Vittorio Giannini's "The Taming of the Shrew," with its all-American
cast. The work had received its world premiere on NBC-TV, but the Chicago
outing was its first staged, American premiere.
The first performance of "Shrew" was poorly attended. The second fared
better. Even the press notices were upbeat--praised by no less than
visiting NY Times music critic, Olin Downes. He claimed the work superior
to Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress." Ultimately, time would prove him
wrong in that assessment.
One critic took a mocking tone with regard to the Giannini opus -- saying
it was hard for audiences to keep track of the many names in the
cast...names that had endings like...
--entio and even
by the time the audience was able to gulp all that down--the final curtain
had to descend, leaving the two lead characters (Katarina and Petruccio)
more or less undefined and stranded in terms of getting to know them. But
-- the piece was taken from Shakespeare. Many spectators were too
intimidated to complain, it was said -- or did not wish to appear boorish
or gauche. The best all-around notices went to bass-baritone Donald Gramm
(Hortensio). The sets were pilfered from old Civic Opera productions as
diverse as "Mignon," "Romeo et Juliette," "Il Travatore," "Boris Godunov,"
and "Lorenzaccio" from as far back as the 1930/31 season.
Except for "Carmen," and "Faust," the new company had more or less skirted
the French wing -- the calling card of the old Chicago Opera, where it was
considered the "home" of French opera in America.
Equally missing was the German wing which was no where to be found in the
first two seasons of the Lyric company. That changed when the 1956 season
offered Birgit Nilsson following her US debut for the San Francisco
Opera. She would sing Brunnhilde in "Walkure." Buried deep in the cast of
"Walkure"was Ardis Kranick, like Carol Fox, a one-time aspiring singer who
would make her Chicago Opera debut. Kranick would sing Rossweise and years
later she would succeed Carol Fox as the general manager of the company.
Inge Borkh was signed on for her Salome, her signature role at the
time. "Walkure," "Salome," and "Don Giovanni" would be under the baton of
Georg Solti, then not well-known. Also, Richard Tucker would make his
company debut as Don Alvaro in "Forza."
The company's 1956 line-up listed the return of soprano Anita
Cerqueti. Unfortunately, she canceled. With Maestro Rescigno gone off to
Dallas, there was a void -- the lack of a resident production staff and
artistic director. Carol Fox summoned Emerson Buckley from the NY City
Opera to act as "musical administrator," until things got sorted
out. However, with the upcoming performances of "Il Trovatore" under the
baton of Maestro Bruno Bartoletti, Carol Fox may have scouted in Maestro
Bartoletti the person she was looking for. While some thought him a
mediocrity, he did manage to garner favorable notices that season. Also,
it could be that he was perceived as someone pliable, someone who would
work with Ms. Fox without attempting to usurp her position within the
company. And... he was "available." Otherwise, the conducting roster
didn't look all that bad. In addition to Solti, Dimitri Mitropoulos would
conduct the opening night's performance of Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West."
With works like "Fanciulla" and "Chenier," the company began its third
season, Both of these works required a considerable number of comprimario
performers--whose ranks were filled with aspiring American singers -- AGMA,
would be placated.
Of the opening night, Claudia Cassidy, of the Tribune wrote of Eleanor
Steber's Minnie, "if she ever sang better, I was not there to hear her,"
while Maria Del Monaco was described as "a power hitter who knocked his
high notes right out of the park." Tito Gobbi was, "a Mephistophelean
sheriff more Scarpia than 'Gunsmoke'." Cassidy described the poker scene
in "Fanciulla," as a "twist on Tosca, where the man does the cheating."
Next cane two performances of "Chenier," again with Del Monaco, Steber and
Gobbi. Speaking of the three principals. Cassidy recalled, "it was a
wonderful thing to hear those three sing...to hear the audience's tidal
wave of response. If they ever thought we didn't like opera in this town,
there was just one reason. It wasn't good enough." Del Monaco's singing
of the "Improvviso," was singing that you might not match in a lifetime of
opera," Cassidy said.
Although Inge Bork's Salome was much appreciated, it was Georg Solti's
conducting that galvanized the Chicago audience. Making his Chicago Lyric
debut in the role of Narraboth, was American tenor, John Alexander.
"Walkure" also under the baton of Solti, with the debut of Birgit
Nilsson. Cassidy noted that it was "a soprano beautiful throughout its
range, and that range takes the 'Battle Cry' in full stride. Tenor Ludwig
Suthaus was Hunding -- "as good a heldentenor as I know just now,"Cassidy
recalled. Paul Schoeffler was an imposing Wotan.
With "Il Trovatore, " things seemed to go awry, in spite of the presence in
the cast of Bjorling and Bastianini. Herva Nelli replaced the announced
Anita Cerquetti. She sang, "not so much badly, but not with everyone
else," Cassidy remembered. Claramae Turner, as Azucena, "ignited applause,
but never passion."
Bruno Bartoletti received high marks for his conducting of "Trovatore" and
"Traviata." On this occasion, Eleanor Steber was faulted for her Violetta,
while Cassidy found Bastianini disappointing as Germont Pere and Leopold
Simoneau's Mozartean tenor too light for Alfredo.
Mozart's "Don Giovanni," the Lyric's original "calling card" returned to
the repertory with Nicolai Rossi-Lemeni repeating his Don along with
Eleanor Steber's Donna Anna and Leopold Simoneau's Don Ottavio. Simoneau
still had the Mozartean style to "spin into infinity," Cassidy noted. But
this time, Rossi-Lemeni's Don did not quite click, while "Steber dazzled
with her 'Non mi dir', coloratura and all." Inexplicably, Georg Solti
insisted conducting while bathed in a glaring spotlight. Cassidy noted, "I
never saw that before and I hope never to see it again."
As for the next work, "Tosca," Renata Tebaldi appeared (according to
Cassidy) "pounds thinner, radiantly beautiful, and in voice so opulent it
was both sumptuous and dangerous, she set the wonderful old thriller
blazing in one of the Lyric's finest productions, with Jussi Bjoerling
singing magnificently as Cavaradossi. Tito Gobbi was back as the best
Scarpia on the operatic market."
The clamoring for the Chicago audiences for tickets for the next work in
the brief fall line-up, Verdi's "La Forza del Destino," was such that
hundreds of people besieged the boxoffice trying to get tickets for a cast
that included Renata Tebaldi, Richard Tucker (in debut), Ettore Bastianini,
Giulietta Simionato and Nicolai Rossi-Lemeni. "Forza" had been a great
favorite in the Chicago Opera Days of Raisa and Muzio. Tebaldi rose to new
heights (according to Cassidy) in her "Madra, pietosa Vergine," with some
of her most sumptuous singing imaginable. Cassidy also hailed Simionatao
as the best Preziosilla in opera today. "She is a charmer on stage, with a
voice as rich as a cello, but as gay with fioriture as the
flute." "Richard Tucker strode the stage in his best voice."
Solti also received ample praise from Ms. Cassidy, "a wealth of credit goes
to Mr. Solti, who was both ardent and exact in the pit. He got what he
wanted in the pit and on the stage, and what he wanted was the voice of
Verdi." (Cassidy was known for making comments that sounded pithy, and even
amusing--but often meaningless).
The final offerings of that season, a revival of "Il Barbiere" with
Simionato and Gobbi, plus a "Boheme" with Tebaldi--both misfired. Bjorling
canceled his Rodolfo due to illness and was replaced by Met tenor, Barry
Morrell, who did the best he could under the circumstances. But something
undefinable jinxed the "Barbiere" with, as Cassidy defined it, "too many
clowns, without a straight man," implying that when you set out to be
funny, more often than not, it doesn't work.
But even with these two disappointments at the end of the season, it did
not dampen the enormous enthusiasm of the Chicago audiences for their new
company. This bond proved to be ever more pronounced as the years
passed. As an example, in 1967 when a long strike caused the entire Lyric
season to be canceled, one that was to feature the debut of the firey
Australian soprano, Marie Collier as Tosca. During that fall, another
company appeared in Chicago briefly, the newly formed and ill-fated
American National Opera Company under the direction of the indefatigable
Sarah Caldwell. She brought along her production of "Tosca" also featuring
Ms. Collier, but the Chicago audience response to the visiting company was
tepid-- such was the fidelity of Chicagoans for their very own company.
Still, the long-term survival of the Lyric Opera of Chicago was anything
but a "given." When the company reached its silver anniversary in 1979,
its finances were so dire that it nearly closed its doors but managed to
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