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- Chapters of Opera - 30/70 -

"My dear Robinson, this scene is not all yours--Tristan has also something to say here; but how am I to make my share of the dramatic effect if you are always going to run down to the audience and sing at it? After a while there will be nothing left for me to do but to get up and hurl my boots into the audience room. And I'm a very sick man. Now, there's a good fellow, come over here to the couch; stay by me and nurse me, and you'll see there's something in my part, too."

Niemann's first American appearance was on November 10th in "Die Walküre." From the criticism of his performance, which I wrote for The Tribune on that occasion, I reprint the following extract as the best summing up which I am able to make of the great dramatic singer's art:

The creation of a Wagnerian musical drama created also the need of Wagnerian singers. Those who go to see and hear Herr Niemann must go to see and hear him as the representative of the character that he enacts. It is only thus that they can do justice to themselves, to him, and to the art-work in which he appears. A drama can only be vitalized through representation, and the first claim to admiration which Herr Niemann puts forth is based on the intensely vivid and harmonious picture of the Volsung which he brings on the stage. There is scarcely one of the theatrical conventions which the public have been accustomed to accept that he employs. He takes possession of the stage like an elemental force. Wagner's dramas have excited the fancy of painters more than any dramatic works of the century, because Wagner was in a lofty sense a scenic artist. Niemann's genius, for less it can scarcely be called, utilizes this picturesque element to the full. His attitudes and gestures all seem parts of Wagner's creation. They are not only instinct with life, but instinct with the sublimated life of the hero of the drama. When he staggers into Hunding's hut and falls upon the bearskin beside the hearth a thrill passes through the observer. Part of his story is already told, and it is repeated with electrifying eloquence in the few words that he utters when his limbs refuse their office. The voice is as weary as the exhausted body. In the picturesque side of his impersonation he is aided by the physical gifts with which nature has generously endowed him. The figure is colossal; the head, like "the front of Jove himself"; the eyes large and full of luminous light, that seems to dart through the tangled and matted hair that conceals the greater portion of his face. The fate for which he has been marked out has set its seal in the heroic melancholy which is never absent even in his finest frenzies, but in the glare of those eyes there is something that speaks unfalteringly of the godlike element within him. This element asserts itself with magnificent force in the scene where Siegmund draws the sword from its gigantic sheath, and again when he calmly listens to the proclamation of his coming death, and declines the services of the messenger of Wotan who is sent to conduct him to Walhalla.

There are aspects in which, even from a literary point of view, Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" seems to be the most Teutonic of the several German versions of the old legend which is its basis. It is a primitive Teutonism, however, without historical alloy; such a Teutonism as we can construct by letting the imagination work back from the most forceful qualities of the historical German to those which representatives of the same race may have had in a prehistoric age. The period of Wagner's tetralogy, it must be remembered, is purely mythical. The ruggedness of the type which we obtain by such a process is the strong charactertistic of Herr Niemann's treatment of Wagner's musical and literary text. It is, like the drama itself, an exposition of the German esthetic ideal: strength before beauty. It puts truthful declamation before beautiful tone production in his singing and lifts dramatic color above what is generally considered essential musical color. That from this a new beauty results all those can testify who hear Herr Niemann sing the love song in the first act of "Die Walküre," which had previously in America been presented only as a lyrical effusion and given with more or less sweetness and sentimentality. Herr Niemann was the first representative of the character who made this passage an eager, vital, and personal expression of a mood so ecstatic that it resorts to symbolism, as if there was no other language for it. The charm with which he invests the poetry of this song (for this is poetry) can only be appreciated by one who is on intimate terms with the German language, but the dramatic effect attained by his use of tone color and his marvelous distinctness of enunciation all can feel.

The defects in Herr Niemann's singing, the result of the long and hard wear to which his voice has been subjected in a career of thirty-five years' duration, are so obvious that I need not discuss them. To do so would be as idle as to attempt to deny their presence. He must be heard as a singing actor, as a dramatic interpreter, not as a mere singer.

Niemann said farewell to the New York public at a notable performance of "Tristan und Isolde," the last of the season, on February 7, 1887. I doubt if the history of opera in New York discloses anything like a parallel to the occasion. Out of doors the night was distressingly dismal. A cold rain fell intermittently; the streets were deep with slush, and the soft ice made walking on the pavements uncomfortable, and even dangerous. But these things were not permitted to interfere with the determination of the lovers of the German lyric drama to bear testimony to their admiration for the artist who had done so much for their pleasure. The house was crowded in every part. Every seat had been sold days before. Many of the tickets had been bought by speculators, who, in spite of the untoward weather, reaped a rich harvest. During the day the prices obtained varied from ten dollars to fifteen dollars for the orchestra stalls (regular price, four dollars), and at night seats in the topmost gallery fetched as much as three dollars, which was six times the regular tariff. There were delegations in the audience from Boston, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. The enthusiasm after each act was of the kind that recalled familiar stories of popular outbursts in impressionable Italy. Herr Niemann husbanded his vocal resources in the first act, but after that both he and Fräulein Lehmann threw themselves into the work with utter abandon, such abandon, indeed, as made some of the prima donna's friends tremble for her voice. After two recalls had followed the second fall of the curtain a third round was swelled by a fanfare from the orchestra. To acknowledge this round Herr Niemann came forward alone, and was greeted with cheers, while a laurel wreath, bearing on one of its ribbons the significant line from "Tannhäuser," "O, kehr zurück, du kühner Sänger," was handed up to him. The third act wrought the enthusiasm to a climax. After the curtain had been raised over and over again, Herr Niemann came forward and said, in German: "I regret exceedingly that I am not able to tell you in your own language how sincerely I appreciate your kindness toward me. I thank you heartily, and would like to say 'Auf wiedersehn.'" His place for the rest of the season was filled by Herr Anton Schott.

I have referred to the "Fidelio" incident of the season, which may now be told, since Herr Niemann also figured in it. To Beethoven "Fidelio" was a child of sorrow; that fact is known to every student of musical history. On its first production it failed dismally. With his heart strings torn, the composer yielded to the arguments and prayers of his friends and revised the opera. In the new form it was revived, and made a better impression; but now Beethoven quarreled with his manager, and withdrew his opera from the Vienna theater. He offered it in Berlin, and it was rejected. For seven years it slept. Then it was taken in hand again by the composer, and adapted to a revised text. Some of the music elided at the first revision was restored. By this time four overtures had been written for it. Again it was brought forward; and this time the Viennese awoke to an appreciation of its splendor. Since 1814 its name has been almost the ineffable word for the serious musician. But sorrow and disaster have followed upon innumerable efforts to habilitate it in the opera houses of the world. We have seen that Dr. Damrosch made haste to produce it at the Metropolitan Opera House, but the financial results were so direful that two years later it was only upon the urgent entreaty of a few friends who stood close to him that Mr. Stanton consented to include it in the repertory for 1886-87.

"But," said the director to his petitioners, "if I give it once I must give it twice, for I have two Leonores in my company, and there must be no quarrel."

So he gave the opera on Friday, January 14th, with Fraulein Brandt as the heroine, and on Wednesday, January 19th, with Fräulein Lehmann--Niemann being the Florestan on both occasions. The enthusiasm was boundless, though the silly laugh of a woman in one of the boxes at the first performance so disconcerted Fräulein Brandt at the beginning of the duet in the dungeon scene that she broke down in tears, and Mr. Seidl had to stop the orchestra till she could sufficiently recover her composure to begin over again. Now, the popular interest was so great that Mr. Stanton gave an extra performance, with Fräulein Lehmann, and when the record of the season was made up, lo! Beethoven's opera led all the rest in average receipts and attendance. In Berlin, Dr. Ehrlich preached a sermon to the people of Germany with the incident as a text.

As a novelty "Tristan und Isolde" had been preceded on November 19th by Brüll's pretty little opera, "Das goldene Kreutz," and the ballet, "Vienna Waltzes." It was succeeded on January 3d by Goldmark's "Merlin," conducted by Walter Damrosch, with the parts distributed as follows: Artus, Robinson; Modrid, Kemlitz; Gawein, Heinrich; Lancelot, Basch; Merlin, Alvary; Viviane, Lehmann; Bedwyr, Von Milde; Glendower, Sieglitz; Morgana, Brandt; Dämon, Fischer. Much interest centered in the opera because of its newness (it had received its first production in Vienna less than two months before), and the great success achieved by its predecessor, "The Queen of Sheba;" but it failed of popular approval, eight operas preceding it in popularity, as evidenced by the attendance, and but one of them--"Tristan"--a novelty.



In this chapter I purpose to tell the story of a period of three years, from 1887 to 1890, and in order to cover the ground I shall leave out what appertains to the repetition of works incorporated in the repertory of the Metropolitan Opera House during the preceding three seasons.

The period was an eventful one and marked the high-water of achievement and also of popularity of the German régime, but also the beginning of the dissatisfaction of the boxholders, which resulted two years later in a return to the Italian form. It witnessed the introduction of the "Ring of the Nibelung" in its integrity and illustrated in a surprising manner the superior attractiveness of Wagner's dramas to the rest of the operatic list. Outside of the Nibelung dramas it brought two absolute novelties to the knowledge of the public and revived several old operas of large historical and artistic significance, which had either never been heard at all in New York, or heard so long ago that all memory of them had faded from the public mind. It saw the light of competition flicker out completely at the Academy of Music, and after a year of darkness it beheld the dawn of Italian rivalry in what had become the home of German art.

Twenty operas were brought forward in the first three years of the German régime. They were "Tannhäuser," "Fidelio," "Les Huguenots," "Der Freischütz," "William Tell," "Lohengrin," "Don Giovanni," "The Prophet," "Masaniello," "Rigoletto," "La Juive," "Die Walküre,"

Chapters of Opera - 30/70

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