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.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Lawrence Tibbett: Becoming an (American) Divo

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Unlike Rosa Ponselle’s beginnings in opera (see Rosa Ponselle: Becoming an (American) Diva, 10/5/17), baritone Lawrence Tibbett’s operatic career began inauspiciously. His knees shaking during the whole of his 1923 Met audition, as he recounted it, he cracked on the high note. He was dismissed by the general manager with a curt “thank you.” Three weeks went by before Giulio Gatti-Casazza agreed to a second hearing. A far less agitated Tibbett sang the “Credo” from Otello. This time, Gatti was impressed enough to hire the twenty-seven-year-old Californian who had never sung in opera, not in New York, not anywhere. Tibbett was expected to master twenty-seven roles in his debut season, mostly comprimario and secondary parts, two leads, and one role for bass. In the next year or so, he was little noticed by public or press.
Tibbett got his big break in his second season. Gatti cast him as Ford, the second baritone role in Verdi’s Falstaff. But rehearsals went poorly for the inexperienced singer, who was challenged by a weak musical memory and a difficult score. The formidable, almost all-Italian cast included Antonio Scotti as Falstaff. In fact, the revival had been staged expressly for Scotti’s twenty-fifth anniversary with the company. During rehearsal, annoyed that Tibbett’s on-the-job training was slowing things down, the Italian baritone and his veteran Italian colleagues engaged in mocking exchanges over the novice’s histrionic and vocal difficulties. Although he had never set foot in Italy and did not know Italian, Tibbett got the drift. He was furious. Then came the night of the first performance, January 2, 1925. Tibbett sang the bitter aria that concludes the first scene of the second act with an extra dose of passion. During the ovation that followed, the principals took their bows. Then Scotti came out alone. But the audience kept up the clapping, stamping, whistling, and, finally, to make its will perfectly clear, began shouting, “Tibbett, Tibbett.” Meanwhile, assuming the tribute was for Scotti, Tibbett had repaired to his dressing room two floors above. The conductor did his best to carry on with the performance, but the audience, presuming that Tibbett had somehow been denied a solo bow, would not let up. Gatti acceded to the public reluctantly; attention had shifted from the honoree of the evening to the humble newcomer: “An American audience had decided that one of its own nationality should be properly recognized for his talent” (Times). The sixteen-and-a-half-minute demonstration subsided at last and the curtain rose on the next scene. From then on, Tibbett was given increasingly important assignments and with his assumption of the title role in the Met’s first Simon Boccanegra in 1932, he was uncontested as the company’s leading baritone in the Italian and French repertoires. He sang the last of his 603 Met performances on March 24, 1950. Tibbett was the first and remains, arguably the greatest, of a line of extrordinary American baritones: John Charles Thomas, Leonard Warren, Cornell MacNeil, Sherrill Milnes, and most recently Thomas Hampson.  
Tibbett’s successful audition aria, the “Credo” from Otello, forecast the return of Verdi’s opera to the Met repertoire in 1937 after a long and puzzling hiatus of twenty-five seasons. The revival came at the peak of Tibbett’s career, his voice refulgent, his charisma compelling, his dramatic and musical acumen at their sharpest. Here is Tibbett in a 1939 recording. He captures Iago’s complex praise of evil in the elasticity of his phrasing and dynamic range.
In the course of his Met career, Tibbett sang more than thirty leading roles, eight of which were in operas by Verdi. Missing was that of  Renato in Un Ballo in maschera, a title that reentered the repertoire only in 1940, by which time the baritone had undergone a serious vocal crisis and had reduced his appearances on 39th Street. Here is his rendition of Renato’s third act aria, “Eri tu.” The character expresses both his anger towards the man he believes to be his wife’s lover and his tenderness towards the woman he has lost. Tibbett employs his high pianissimo to especially touching effect.
The test role for all Verdi baritones is, of course, Rigoletto. Tibbett performed it thirty-two times with the company. In this excerpt, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” he thunders the jester’s rage at the courtiers who have abducted his daughter; then, in heartrending supplication, he throws himself on their mercy.
Our next post will feature Tibbett in a wing of the repertoire that he made distinctly his own—American opera.