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From the Archives: Salome at the Met

From the Archives: Madama Butterfly at the Met

From the Archives: Salome at the Met

By Peter Clark

https://www.metopera.org/discover/archives/notes-from-the-archives/from-the-archives-salome-at-the-met/


No opera premiere in Met history has created a scandal to equal the one that greeted Richard Strauss’s Salome on January 22, 1907. Heinrich Conried, the Met’s general manager from 1903 to 1908, was a man of the theater who had a taste for sensation. In his initial Met season, he produced the first performances of Wagner’s Parsifal outside of Bayreuth, in open defiance of the composer’s family and copyright holders. Hoping that Strauss’s new opera mixing biblical figures with sexually infused stage action would create another box office hit, Conried selected the Salome premiere (pictured at the top of this page, with Olive Fremstad in the title role) as his annual benefit performance at elevated prices.

But the reaction went beyond anything that Conried could have foreseen. Terms such as “moral stench,” “degeneracy,” and “operatic offal” filled news accounts of the Salome premiere. Worst of all, the board of the opera house’s owners became involved when the daughter of one of its most powerful members, J.P. Morgan, found the opera offensive. Thus, five days after the premiere, a board resolution sent to Conried advised him that Salome was “objectionable, and detrimental to the best interests of the Metropolitan Opera House.” Some negotiations followed, but, in the end, performances of Salome were banned from the Met. From today’s viewpoint, there is considerable irony and even humor in contemplating the puritanical moral scruples of people now infamous as the legendary Gilded Age’s “robber barons.”

The outrage seemed to have been reinforced by an open dress rehearsal held on the Sunday before the premiere with an audience in attendance who had just left church services and found the opera somewhat less than edifying. And of course the libretto, based on a play by Oscar Wilde—the era’s notorious, openly gay writer—added fuel to the fire, as is evidenced by the eminent critic W.J. Henderson’s description some years later of “a strange story projecting principally the abnormal psychologies of a feminine pervert and a man tormented by perpetual and undefined terrors.”

For the next 27 years, Salome remained in exile from the Met, though it was performed at Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera House in 1909 with soprano Mary Garden, who specialized in playing seductresses. The second Met Salome, in 1934, was a tentative affair under the baton of Artur Bodanzky with Göta Ljungberg in the title role. While the opera’s return was greeted as an important event, the performance lacked a protagonist with sufficient vocal or dramatic gifts to establish the work firmly in the repertory.

After that cautious return, the formula for a successful Salome became clear: a strong personality in the title role with a voice that could slice through the huge orchestra and enough physical allure to avoid ridicule, supported by a dynamic, authoritative conductor. The powerful dramatic soprano Olive Fremstad (pictured above) had been a daring Salome in 1907—perhaps too daring in her fondling the severed head of John the Baptist. In 1938, Australian soprano Marjorie Lawrence achieved success in the part as a relatively lithe, youthful interpreter with a strong, dramatic soprano. Her conductor, Ettore Panizza, surprised those who admired him only for Italian and French repertory with an impressive aptitude for the style. In 1942–43, famed conductor George Szell made his Met debut in Salome, with Belgian soprano Lily Djanel, a noted Carmen, proving an enchanting femme fatale as the Judean princess.

But it was the duel Met debuts of conductor Fritz Reiner and Bulgarian soprano Ljuba Welitsch (pictured above) in 1949 that created the most sensational Salome performances since the 1907 premiere. In this case, the reaction was ecstatic approval. “With Ljuba Welitsch, the new Bulgarian soprano, as one wing of the bellows and conductor Fritz Reiner, of long and esteemed honor, as the other, they pumped blazing life into a work which might almost be said to be making its debut here with them,” wrote noted critic Irving Kolodin. Welitsch’s flaming red hair, “silvery-sounding voice,”  and charismatic persona, together with Reiner’s masterful orchestra, thrilled the audience, who were “still cheering both fifteen minutes after the final curtain.” Welitsch and Reiner repeated their Salome in two more seasons until the soprano’s Met career abruptly ended due to her lack of success in other roles.

Through the 1950s, various notable soprano-conductor duos partnered for Salome, such as Astrid Varnay and Reiner, and Christel Goltz and Inge Borkh with Dimitri Mitropoulos. Throughout all this period and all the way back to the 1930s, Salome was given on a double bill, usually with an Italian opera or with a ballet. Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi most often served as a curtain raiser, but Cavalleria RusticanaLa Serva Padrona, and Menotti’s Amelia Goes to the Ball also shared the bill sometimes, as did several ballets. Strange as this programming seems today, it was not until the 1960s that Salome was considered sufficient in itself to make a full evening’s entertainment.

In 1965, the first new production of Salome since 1934 was directed by Günther Rennert, with sets by Rudolf Heinrich. The performing team was one for the history books. The Met’s reigning Brünnhilde and Isolde, Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson (pictured above), joined the eminent Strauss conductor Karl Böhm for some of the most thrilling performances that Salome has ever received at the Met. Winthrop Sargeant in The New Yorker thought it a “total triumph. I have never heard the role so magnificently sung. What surprised me, though, was that I have seldom seen it so magnificently acted … Karl Böhm, in the orchestra pit, brought out and clarified every detail of the score.”

Böhm had been close to Richard Strauss in the 1930s and led the world premieres of two of his late operas. As a direct link to the composer’s style, Böhm became the Met’s conductor of choice for Strauss, also leading Ariadne auf NaxosDer RosenkavalierElektra, and the Met premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten. In the 1970s, Böhm also partnered for Salome with another eminent soprano renowned for her portrayals of Strauss heroines, Leonie Rysanek.

One of conductor James Levine’s early assignments at the Met was Salome with Grace Bumbry (pictured above), who was transitioning from mezzo-soprano heroines into dramatic soprano parts. She was the first American since Olive Fremstad to have the opera mounted specifically for her, and she would be the last until 1996, when Catherine Malfitano sang a series of searing performances under conductor Donald Runnicles.

A new production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff in 1989 gave the opera a decadent atmosphere more akin to that of Wilde’s time than to biblical Judea. The costumes, especially a pink ruffled gown for Salome, excited much comment. Marek Janowski conducted big-voiced Hungarian soprano Eva Marton in the title role, and the musical performance offered some compensation for those who felt bewildered by the visual aspects.

More modernizing yet was Jürgen Flimm’s new production in 2004, designed by Santo Loquasto. Russian conductor Valery Gergiev whipped up the orchestra as the intense performance by Finnish soprano Karita Mattila in the title role (pictured above) recalled memories of Rysanek and even Welitsch. Mattila’s costume, which evoked Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s, was completely discarded   the final scene, producing a rare instance of total nudity on the Met stage. The word “sensation” once again became linked to Salome as it had been so often in the past.

 Peter Clark is the Met’s Director of Archives





From the Archives: Madama Butterfly at the Met

By Peter Clark

https://www.metopera.org/user-information/nightly-met-opera-streams/articles/from-the-archives-madama-butterfly-at-the-met/

Today, Puccini operas are an essential part of the core repertory for opera houses around the world. But at the beginning of the 20th century, Puccini was a contemporary composer churning out pieces for opera houses hungry for new works. Although his Madama Butterfly was poorly received at its 1904 world premiere, he quickly revised the opera, and it began to conquer the operatic world. Three years after the world premiere at La Scala, Puccini was invited to the Metropolitan to oversee its first staging here. Apart from the composer’s presence, the stars of that first Met Madama Butterfly were Geraldine Farrar (pictured above, with Louise Homer as Suzuki) and Enrico Caruso in their first performance together. They would henceforth be the Met’s biggest box office duo. Farrar’s youth and beauty were as much a part of her fame as her voice, and as her fame grew over the next 15 years, she developed a fan-base of mostly young women called “gerryflappers” who imitated her style. On the other hand, Caruso was idolized for his voice, which, especially through his recordings, made him the most beloved singer in the world. Puccini confided in a letter that he was not particularly pleased by either of the stars. Although he was normally highly vulnerable to beautiful women, he wrote cryptically that Farrar “was not what she ought to have been.” And while he admitted Caruso’s voice was “magnificent,” he thought him lazy and unwilling to learn. Nonetheless, when the composer’s La Fanciulla del West had its world premiere at the Met in 1910, Caruso was the lead tenor. Farrar, though, was not invited to sing Minnie.

The year following Madama Butterfly’s Met premiere, the opera was revived with the same lead singers, but this time with masestro Arturo Toscanini (pictured above, with Farrar and General Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza). He, too, took issue with Farrar. At a rehearsal, she told him he should follow her lead, as she was the star. Toscanini’s famous response was: “The stars are all in the heavens, mademoiselle. You are but a plain artist, and you must obey my direction.” An explosion ensued, but Toscanini won out. As time went on, their antagonism turned into something quite different, most likely a torrid love affair that may have been a chief factor in Toscanini’s quitting the Met in 1915.

From 1908 onward, it was a rare Met season in which Madama Butterfly did not appear. The exception, predictably, was during World War II. The 1941 season opened on November 24, and five nights later, Madama Butterfly was given. Then, on December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, killing many Americans and bringing the nation into the war. Madama Butterfly was not offered again at the Met until 1946.

The Met’s leading Butterfly in the 1940s and 50s was Italian soprano Licia Albanese (pictured above), whose 72 appearances as the betrayed geisha were second only to Farrar’s (139) in frequency. Other notable sopranos who have interpreted the part at the Met include Victoria de los Angeles (pictured below), Dorothy Kirsten, Catherine Malfitano, Leontyne Price, Elisabeth Rethberg, Renata Scotto, Antonietta Stella, and Renata Tebaldi.

Given the popularity of Madama Butterfly—to date, there have been 881 Met performances—it is surprising how few new productions there have been. Following the premiere production, a new production in 1922 lasted in the repertory until 1958! That year, the Japanese team of Yoshio Aoyama, director, and Motohiro Nagasaka, designer, created a widely admired production that played for an equally long time, until 1994. Giancarlo Del Monaco’s 1994 production was succeeded by that of Anthony Minghella, which was chosen as the opening night of General Manager Peter Gelb’s first season in 2006.

Peter Clark is the Met’s Director of Archives.

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