Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Lawrence Tibbett, 2: All-American Divo

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In our last post we traced the beginnings of Lawrence Tibbett’s remarkable operatic career and, in particular, his towering renditions of many of Verdi’s baritone roles. But it was not the Verdi wing of the repertoire alone that Tibbett expanded under the direction of the Met general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza (he ruled in New York from 1908 to 1935), but also the American wing that Gatti, more than any other general manager before or since, embraced and promoted. Among the more successful American works for which Tibbett helped draw an audience were Deems Taylor’s The King’s Henchman (1929) and Peter Ibbetson (1931).

Then there was the now iconic American role that Tibbett might have sung but, to the disappointment of many, did not. In the mid-1930’s, the Met’s great benefactor and president of the Metropolitan Opera Association, Otto Kahn, had hoped that George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess would have its premiere on 39th Street. Tibbett would certainly have been cast as Porgy. But Gershwin rebuffed the company’s skimpy guarantee of only two performances; he took his opera to Broadway instead. However, Tibbett did get to sing the role of Porgy in the first recording of excerpts that was produced just days after the October 10, 1935 Broadway opening. (Porgy and Bess had its belated Met premiere in 1985).

Here is “I Got Plenty of Nothin’” from that 1935 recording. Tibbett is, as you will hear, a rare artist able to meld the technique required for opera and the folk/Broadway style Gershwin contrived for Porgy’s rollicking introductory number.

Together with frequent concert and radio appearances, it was his movie career that made Tibbett a household name in America. He was recruited by Hollywood at the advent of talking pictures alongside classical and popular vocalists Grace Moore, Fanny Brice, Marilyn Miller, and others. Tibbett went to M-G-M. He was first cast as the lead in The Rogue Song, a role that won him a best-actor Oscar nomination in 1930. He quickly made three more films for the prestigious studio and returned in 1935 for two Twentieth-Century Fox productions. The first of these, the positively reviewed Metropolitan, is one of the few Hollywood movies that mounted fully staged, uncut versions of operatic excerpts.

We have chosen the sequence in which Tibbett sings Figaro’s entrance aria, “Largo al factotum,” during a make-believe rehearsal. His virtuosic rendition demonstrates the individuality of his timbre and of his phrasing, and the brio of his acting. (In his more than six hundred Met performances he never played Rossini’s crafty barber.)

The full measure of Tibbett’s presence and appeal bursts forth in another sequence from Metropolitan. He sings one of his recital favorites, Oley Speaks’s setting of Rudyard Kipling's poem "On the Road to Mandalay.”

Clip of “On the Road to Mandalay”

In the soft start of the repeat, as he elongates the phrase “Come you back to Mandalay,” the baritone’s voice and personality are as irresistible to us as they are to the old musical mentor he is seen addressing.

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