Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

First Night and Other Fausts

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As we look forward to the September 22 opening of the Metropolitan’s 2014-15 season, we take a moment to look back on the very first of the Met’s opening nights. The account that follows is drawn from our forthcoming book, Grand Opera: The Story of the Met (University of California Press).
October 22, 1883

The confusion outside the new opera house on opening night, and the commotion within, delayed the prelude to Charles Gounod’s Faust. As one wag put it, no one seemed to mind except "a few ultra musical people in the gallery." On the sidewalk out front, scalpers hawked parquet seats at $12 and $15 each and places in the balcony at $8. Overeager takers apparently failed to notice that as late as 7:30, $5 balcony tickets were still on sale at the box office. "It comes high but we must have it," read the caption under Puck's lampoon of the rush for pricey tickets. Ushers in evening dress escorted patrons to their seats. The three tiers of boxes and the parquet were filled, the balcony nearly sold out. Only the $3-a-pop uppermost section, the "family circle," so renamed to repel roués accustomed to appropriating it for themselves, showed empty seats. When the prelude was over and the curtain rose on the old philosopher's study, the audience finally fell silent.

The lease of the house to theatrical manager Henry E. Abbey came with the board's charge that he assemble a company for the Met's first season. The “Italian” of his "Grand Italian Opera" meant that French and German works would be sung in Italian. That was no surprise. Years later, in evoking an 1870s Faust at the Academy of Music with Christine Nilsson, the Marguerite of the 1883 Met opening, Edith Wharton took a jab at this practice: "An unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences."
Alas, the performance that launched the theatre on 39th Street and Broadway disappointed critics and public. The high point of the evening was the interruption of the garden scene to mark Nilsson's proprietary relationship to the role. Presented with a sash of golden leaves in a velvet case, "first holding the box down so that the audience obtained a view of its contents, she placed it upon the chair in front of the casket, and kneeling repeated the [aria]." But for the Times reviewer, who took note of the soprano's wonted acting and musical expressivity, the "Jewel Song" "was scarcely rendered with the requisite buoyancy and brilliancy." The Faust, Italo Campanini, arguably the world's leading tenor, had been Italy's first Lohengrin, London's first Don José, and New York's first Radamès. That night, his "old-time sweetness" was intermittent and his "old-time manly ring" suffered "the evidences of labor" (Tribune). The reception of the principals might have been more sympathetic had the architects gotten their way in situating the orchestra. Borrowing from Bayreuth, they had sunk the pit below the level of the parquet. But the conductor objected to the near invisibility to which he had been relegated. The pit was raised, putting maestro and orchestra in full view, obstructing the stage picture for many and, of greater import still, undoing the balance of voices and instruments. The orchestra descended to the intended plane two weeks later, and there, with sporadic minor adjustments, it stayed.

(Readers of this post can access the entire first chapter of Grand Opera, devoted to the inaugural season, by going to

Since that fabled and flawed night in fall 1883, there have been many fabulous performances of the opera that lent the Met the sobriquet “Faustspielhaus.” Faust stands eighth in the tally of titles presented by the company. The opera’s enduring popularity is as much a tribute to Gounod’s elegant and tuneful score as it is to the opportunities it has offered singers, beginning with Nilsson and Campanini. The hedonist Faust, the betrayed Marguerite, the nefarious Méphistophélès, and the stalwart Valentin have been favored vehicles for the likes of legendary tenors Jean de Reszke and Jussi Björling,  sopranos Emma Calvé and Nellie Melba, basses Fyodor Chaliapin and Ezio Pinza, baritones Antonio Scotti and Robert Merrill. 

We have chosen as our earliest example a 1910 extract from the Garden scene. Faust is on the verge of seducing the innocent Marguerite. Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar, one of the most potent box-office pairings in Met history, capture both the characters’ expression of eternal love and their barely contained passion.

Valentin was the second role undertaken by Lawrence Tibbett in his debut season, 1923-24; success and renown came to him in 1925, full-fledged stardom in the 1930s. He kept Faust in his repertoire until 1934, the year he recorded “Avant de quitter ces lieux.” In this aria, Valentin, about to go off to war, commends his sister to divine protection. With exemplary style and restraint, Tibbett fills out the broad arc of the melody that conveys the character’s simple faith.

A lyric soprano with coloratura fluency, a great French stylist, Victoria de los Angeles bowed at the Met in 1951 as Marguerite; she sang this role with the company more often than any other and is featured in two commercial recordings of the complete opera. Her warm voice projects all the ebullience of the young woman, dazzled by the chest of bracelets and necklaces she finds in her garden, a gift from the young man who is about to win her heart.

Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov made his sensational Met debut as Méphistophélès in 1965. He sang it only eight times, and more’s the pity. Here he is in a 1979 Lyric Opera of Chicago video of the Devil’s serenade, an ironic take on the love scene Faust and Marguerite have just enacted. Ghiaurov envelops the sardonic mockery in his plush timbre.

In 2011, Jonas Kaufmann assumed the title role in the Met’s latest investiture of Faust. He managed to respect the late-Romanticism of the piece in the face of a production keyed to a horrific, post-Hiroshima atomic nightmare. In Zurich, in 2004, he lovingly addressed Marguerite’s humble dwelling in gracefully shaped. long legato phrases, reaching the climactic high C at mezzo forte which he then diminished to piano. A remarkable feat.

Future posts will focus on the Met program in the upcoming season, beginning with Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, the opening night fare.

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