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- Chapters of Opera - 20/70 -

I write more than two decades have elapsed since he became known in New York, and in the interim we have seen the rise, and, also, the considerable fall of such imitators as Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and their superior, Puccini. We are now more able to see than we were twenty-five years ago how much Ponchielli, and all his tribe, owe to Verdi; and also how much ruder and less attentive to real beauty they were. Then we could hear besides his voice, that of Verdi in his music; now we can hear also tones which awaken echoes in Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and Puccini. Of a sometimes mooted Wagnerian influence, there is only so much in this score as is to be found in all scores, German and French, and Italian, since the shackles of instrumental form were cast off. Ponchielli makes a little use of a recurring melodic phrase from La Cieca's "Voce di donna," but he pursues the device even less consistently than Verdi, and in a manner that is older than Meyerbeer. In melody he is wholly Italian, and of Wagner's use of typical phrases "La Gioconda" is as guiltless as Pergolesi's "Serva padrona."

What is admirable to the popular appreciation of to-day is the hot vigor of the drama, and the quick co-operation of music in its climacteric moments. This co-operation is most obvious in the employment of the device of contrast, which dominates the work and seems to have been the feature which has been most effectively seized upon by Ponchielli's pupils. It marks every climax in the opera, and becomes almost tiresome in its reiteration. In the first act the blind woman's prayer is set against a background composed of a gambling chorus and the wild whirl of the furlano, which ends abruptly with organ peals and a pious canticle--an effect repeated since in "Cavalleria Rusticana" and "Tosca." In the second act in the twinkling of an eye, Gioconda is transformed from a murderous devil into a protecting saint; in the third Laura's accents of mortal woe commingle with the sounds of a serenade in the distance, and the disclosure of a supposed murder is made at the climax of a ball; in the fourth the calls of passing gondoliers break in upon Gioconda's soliloquies, which have for their subject suicide, murder, and self-sacrifice. The device is of a coarse tissue, but it is of the opera operatic, and it is now more familiar than it was when first disclosed to the patrons of the Metropolitan Opera House, twenty-five years ago.

If it were necessary one might look for the source of this device of contrast in the literature to which Verdi directed attention when he turned his thoughts to Victor Hugo, and composed "Ernani" and "Rigoletto." Hugo was the prince of those novelists and dramatists who utilized glaring contrasts and unnatural contradictions to give piquancy to their creations and compel sympathy for monsters by uniting monumental wickedness with the most amiable of moral qualities. The story of "La Gioconda" is drawn from "Angelo, Tyrane de Padoue." In transforming this tragedy into an opera the librettist removed the scene from Padua to Venice, changed a wealthy actress into a poor street singer, and made the blind mother, who is barely mentioned in the play, into a prominent and moving character. There can be no question but that Boito ("Tobia Gorria" is but an anagramatic nom de plume of Arrigo Boito) was highly successful in remodeling the tragedy for operatic purposes, but he did not palliate its moral grossness or succeed in inviting our compassionate feelings for anyone entitled to them. The only personages who in this opera escape disaster are a pair of lovers, whose sufferings, as depicted or inferred, cannot be said to have refined the guilt out of their passion. We might infer that once the attachment of Enzo and Laura was pure and lovely, but all that we see of it is flauntingly criminal and doubly wicked. The happiness of Enzo, who to elope with another man's wife cruelly breaks faith with a woman whose love for him is so strong that she gives her life to save his, is hardly a consummation that ought to be set down as justifying so many blotches and blains, pimples and pustules, on the face of human nature. Laura's treachery is to Gioconda as well as to her husband, and has no redeeming trait. In fact, the blind woman is the only character in the opera who has moral health, and she seems to have been brought in only that her sufferings might intensify the bloody character of Barnaba, the spy. Even Gioconda, a character that has latent within it many effective elements, is sacrificed by the librettist to the one end--sensational effect through contrast and contradiction. Nowhere does she illustrate the spirit of blitheness which is put forth by her name, and only once does she allude to it. From the moment of her entrance till her death she is filled with torturing passion and conflicting emotions. Not la Gioconda she, but la Dolorosa--except for the bookmaker's desire for dramatic paradox. Against the desire to sympathize with her is thrust the revelation that her rival is never saved from death at her hands because of any repugnance of hers to murder. She would kill in an instant were it not that her vengefulness is overcome by gratitude to the benefactress of her mother. So it comes that the strongest feeling excited by the heroine, who dies a sacrifice to filial affection and passionate love, is one of simple pity--a feeling that is never absent from tender hearts, no matter how depraved the victim of misfortune.

But opera in the estate illustrated by "La Gioconda" scarcely justifies even an elementary moral disquisition. Moreover, what Ponchielli provoked is so much worse than what he himself did that his condemnation can go no further than purgatorial fires. It is in the operas of his pupils and would-be imitators, like Giordano, Tasca, and others, that filth and blood are supposed to fructify the music which rasps the nerves, even as the dramas revolt the moral stomach. In view of the products of the period in which began operatic veritism, so-called, "La Gioconda" seems almost washed in innocency, and if its music is at times highly spiced, it is at least frankly and simply melodious. Naturally he has followed his librettist in aiming at contrast, at higgledy-piggledy finales, at garish orchestration, at strenuous declamation in the dialogue not cast in melodic forms and at abrupt changes. But he has plenty, if not profound melodiousness. La Cieca's air, Enzo's romance, Laura's "Stella del Marinar," Barnaba's barcarole, and the ballet music have lived on in our concert rooms from that day to this.

"La Gioconda" was the last opera brought forward in the winter season, which ended on December 22d, leaving two out of thirty promised subscription performances to be supplied on the return of Mr. Abbey's forces from Boston, whither they went for the holidays. When he came back in a fortnight he gave "Carmen," on January 9th, with Trebelli, Campanini, and Del Puente (who had been in the cast of the original London production); repeated it on January 11th, and "La Gioconda" on January 12th.

On March 10th a spring season began, which lasted till April 12th. It added four operas to the list. Ambroise Thomas's "Hamlet" (March 10), Flotow's "Martha" (March 14th), Meyerbeer's "Huguenots" (March 19th), and "Le Prophète" (March 21st). The last, which had first been heard in New York at the Astor Place Opera House four years after its original production in Paris, on April 16, 1849, had been absent from the current operatic list so long that it was to all intents and purposes a novelty to Mr. Abbey's patrons. The last week of the season brought two disappointments: Mmes. Nilsson and Sembrich both fell ill, the indisposition of the latter (or something else) causing the abandonment of Gounod's "Roméo et Juliette," an opera that was new to New Yorkers, and was promptly brought out by Colonel Mapleson with Mme. Patti in his spring season at the Academy of Music.

As has already been set forth, Mr. Abbey made a monumental financial fiasco; but his was a heroic effort to galvanize Italian opera, which seemed moribund, into vitality. He showed an honest desire to keep all his promises to the public made when he asked support for his enterprise, and all in all, his administration was signalized by virtues too frequently absent in the doings of operatic managers. His stage sets were uniformly handsome, and some of them showed greater sumptuousness than the people had seen for many years; his orchestra, though faulty in composition as well as execution, did some admirable work under Signor Vianesi; his chorus was prompt, vigorous, and tuneful; his ensembles were carefully and intelligently composed, and his selection of operas was judicious from a managerial point of view. He gave to New York the strongest combination of women singers that the city had ever known; nor has it been equaled in any one season since. The financial failure of the enterprise caused no surprise among intelligent and impartial observers. One needed not to be prophetically gifted to foretell twenty-five years ago that New York could not support two such costly establishments as the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera House. The world of fashion, which in the nature of things is the supporter of Italian opera, and has been ever since the art form was invented, was divided in its allegiance, and divided, moreover, in a manner which made an interchange of courtesies all but impossible. This threw the burden of maintaining the rival houses upon two limited groups of persons, and the loss was mutual.

In Mr. Abbey's prospectus he promised to produce twenty-four operas, which he named; he kept his promise as to all but five, these being "Lucrezia Borgia," "Linda di Chamouni," "Fra Diavolo," "Otello," and "Le Nozze di Figaro." "Roméo et Juliette," which he attempted to give, but failed at the last, was not in the original list. Besides these performances, he gave fifty-eight outside of New York in visits to Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Washington, and Baltimore. The local record may be tabulated as follows:

Opera First performance Times given

"Faust" .................... October 22 ............ 6 "Lucia di Lammermoor" ...... October 24 ............ 3 "Il Trovatore" ............. October 26 ............ 3 "I Puritani" ............... October 29 ............ 1 "Mignon" ................... October 31 ............ 4 "La Traviata" .............. November 5 ............ 4 "Lohengrin" ................ November 7 ............ 6 "La Sonnambula" ............ November 14 ........... 2 "Rigoletto" ................ November 16 ........... 2 "Robert le Diable" ......... November 19 ........... 3 "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" .. November 23 ........... 3 "Don Giovanni" ............. November 28 ........... 5 "Mefistofele" .............. December 5 ............ 2 "La Gioconda" .............. December 20 ........... 4 "Carmen" ................... January 9 ............. 5 "Hamlet" ................... March 10 .............. 1 "Martha" ................... March 14 .............. 3 "Les Huguenots" ............ March 19 .............. 2 "Le Prophète" .............. March 21 .............. 1

There was one performance with a mixed program.



Colonel Mapleson and the stockholders of the Academy of Music and their friends were little disposed to yield to the new order of things without a struggle. The Academy was refurnished and a season of Italian opera begun on the same night on which Mr. Abbey opened his doors. Colonel Mapleson's company comprised Mmes. Patti, Gerster, Pappenheim, Pattini, and Josephine Yorke, and Signori Falletti, Nicolini, Perugini, Cherubini, Vicini, Lombardini, and Caracciolo. The performances were like those that had been the rule for years, except for the brilliancy which Mme. Patti lent to those in which she took part. But not even she

Chapters of Opera - 20/70

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