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8.111018-19 - VERDI: Otello (Martinelli, Rethberg, Panizza)(1938)

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

The broadcast of Verdi’s Otello on 12th February, 1938, documents the interwar Metropolitan Opera at its peak.

Giovanni Martinelli (1885-1969) began his Met career under Arturo Toscanini in 1913. Over 32 seasons, he graduated from Rodolfo and Faust to heavier rôles. In 1936, at the age of 51, he tackled Otello, which he had studied or discussed with the librettist, Arrigo Boito, with Victor Maurel, who created Iago, and with Toscanini, who played in the première under Verdi’s supervision. More than capping Martinelli’s career, Otello became his signature legacy. The 1938 broadcast documents a complete portrayal, as lover, as madman, as penitent murderer, each component of which authenticates the impact of the others. So realistic is Martinelli’s choked and debilitated projection of grief at the opera’s close that his ability actually to sing “Desdemona!” is nothing short of miraculous.

One priority of Edward Johnson’s regime as the Met’s general manager (1935-50), amid much pennypinching and belt-tightening, was Americanizing the vocal roster. Events conspired to make this not only possible, but necessary. Lower fees cost him some of his high-priced foreign talent, most notably Beniamino Gigli. World War II curtailed transatlantic transportation, and the Met’s Depression deficits pressured the house to be less aloof, elitist, and tied to Europe. Never before had the Met seen so much native talent.

Lawrence Tibbett (1896-1960), Martinelli’s usual Met partner as Iago, was a sheriff’s son from Bakersfield, California, who discovered music in the local Methodist church. Tibbett is the first and most complete in a line of distinguished American Verdi baritones. Unlike Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Sherrill Milnes, or Cornell MacNeill, he was a consummate singing actor (he once appeared in King Lear on Broadway). His later career was clouded by alcoholism. Here, in 1938, his swarthy baritone is prodigious in scale and yet remarkably pliable, as impressive for its insinuating mezza voce phrases as for the drinking-song.

The German soprano Elisabeth Rethberg (1894- 1976), a Met mainstay beginning in 1922 in both German and Italian rôles, was greatly admired for her purity of legato and tone. Her Desdemona, if cooler than her partners’ performances, is both opulent and strong. No studio recordings of these three famous Verdians convey the high voltage of this live stage performance, not least because (the broadcast’s least anticipated revelation) of the incandescence of the Met orchestra and its conductor.

By the time James Levine took over in the 1970s, it was a pardonable assumption that singers at the Met had always suffered indifferent, dull, or inept support, but Anton Seidl, Gustav Mahler, and Toscanini, an astonishing phalanx of chief conductors at the Met before World War I, could not have tolerated the sorry playing I remember hearing in the 1960s and 1970s. The orchestra Arthur Bodanzky is heard conducting in German opera in the broadcasts of the 1930s lacks the glow of a great Wagner band, but the playing is wonderfully firm and fiery. In Verdi, the same group is an Italian powderkeg. And why not? The membership was overwhelmingly Italian, including a few, such as the principal oboist Giacomo Del Campo, who had played under Toscanini in the Met pit. With Toscanini’s departure, the Met’s Italian wing was entrusted to superior leaders: first Tullio Serafin, then Ettore Panizza. The latter (today not even a name), was born in Buenos Aires and trained in Milan. From 1921 to 1931 he conducted at La Scala, where Toscanini esteemed him, as did Richard Strauss, who arranged for him to conduct Elektra in Vienna. His Met years were 1934 to 1943. Given his extensive European career, which also included Covent Garden, it bears emphasis that he considered the Met’s “as fine a theater orchestra as I have seen in the world”. He was greeted by Martinelli as an old friend and colleague.

In the Met’s 1938 Otello, it is Panizza who stylistically binds the polyglot cast. Compared to Toscanini, he favours a broader play of tempo, but the velocity and precision, the taut filaments of tone, the keen timbres, the clipped, attenuated phrasings are all Toscanini trademarks. Like Toscanini, Panizza will bolt suddenly to the end of a scorching musical sentence; like Toscanini’s, his musicians are lightning respondents. And Panizza is a master of controlling the show while show-casing his cast; calibrating Martinelli’s titanic climaxes and magisterial breadth of phrase, he achieves a unity. Encountering this memento of times past is a humbling experience.

Adapted from Classical Music in America:
A History of Its Rise and Fall
by Joseph Horowitz
(Norton, 2005)

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