[Met Performance] CID:133070

World Premiere, New Production, American Opera

The Island God
Metropolitan Opera House, Fri, February 20, 1942

In English

Gian Carlo Menotti

Pagliacci received three performances this season.
Composed in Italian as Ilo e Zeus, The Island God has never been produced in its original language. Following the Met production, the composer withdrew the title from his catalog and sought to destroy all copies of the score.
The Island God received four performances in one season.

Review 1:

Review of Oscar Thompson in Musical America


Tragic Work by the Composer of "Amelia Goes to the Ball' Has World Premiere in English in One Act, Three Scenes. Has Symbolical Story and Post-Puccini Music - Warren, Varnay, Jobin, Cordon and Carter in Cast-Panizza Conducts

THE ISLAND GOD, Gian-Carlo Menotti's third and latest opera, a one-act work in three scenes, was accorded its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House on the evening of Friday, Feb. 20, in a double bill with Leoncavallo's perennial "Pagliacci." The composer was present to have a part in the show of enthusiasm at the close of the performance, taking curtain calls alone and in company with the conductor, Ettore Panizza, the stage director, Lothar Wallerstein, and the scene designer, Richard Rychtarik. The opera, composed to Mr. Menotti's own Italian text, was sung in English, the translation being by Fleming McLiesh. It consumed in performance just an hour.

Technicalities aside, "The Island God" probably will go into the records as the Metropolitan's eighteenth "American" opera. (There have also been several ballet productions of works by American composers.) Mr. Menotti, who is of Italian birth, is not a citizen. But his studies and his work have been here. "The Island God," like the earlier "Amelia Goes to the Ball," which was presented at the Metropolitan, and the radio opera, "The Old Maid and the Thief." must be considered a domestic product, since it is not an imported one.

"Amelia" and '"The Old Maid" are works in the comedy vein; "The Island God" is a tragedy. Like the other two, the new work is couched in terms of Italian melody, though of broader, weightier line. It is heavily orchestrated, making use of a piano, as one of its most interesting details, to reinforce and vary the pulsatile effects of the percussion instruments. At the premiere, its heavy brass writing and the many surging climaxes of its full ensemble obscured most of the words. Only when the scoring was reduced to virtually nothing but drum taps, as at the first parting of the curtains, when the musical dialogue was little more than ordinary speech, was the text completely understandable. This apparently was not to be charged to the singers, who enunciated with sufficient clearness when the competition was light. Mr. Panizza's besetting sin is his habit of whipping the orchestra up to a brassy fortissimo where an ordinary forte would still permit singers to be heard. "The Island God" is rather definitely a brassy score.

Libretto Is Poetic in Quality

Mr. McLiesh's English text reads well. It is poetic and not too recondite, though the entire work borders on allegory. In performance, there are some unfortunate words. Ilo's "grotesque" is one. Still, no hardship is imposed upon the singers and with a little more caution the few phrases that tempted smiles at the first performance can be sung successfully. There are parts for baritone-Ilo, a fugitive; soprano-Telea, Ilo's wife; tenor-Luca, a fisherman; bass-a Greek god ; and for a second tenor-an off-stage voice. The scene pictures the seacoast of an unnamed island in the Mediterranean, on which stand the ruins of an old temple, and through the mists from the sea, Ilo and Telea stumble into view, exhausted by their flight from the oppressors who have overrun their own country. Ilo finds the ruins of the temple. He invokes the unknown god, who is thus brought back to the living world. The god orders Ilo to rebuild the temple. The two subsequent changes of scene show the work of restoration a little further advanced in each instance; otherwise the setting is the same.

Luca, the fisherman, surprises Telea at the [beginning] of the second scene, while Ilo is away at his work. Luca asks to he permitted to return and bring aid to the destitute pair. When Ilo returns he declares that no help is needed. Telea reproaches him for his lies, imputing them to his pride. Ilo then consents that Luca may return and bring them what he can. In the third scene, Luca and Telea are lovers, apprehensive lest Ilo, who is again at work on the temple, may be watching. Luca has brought grapes and flowers. The idea of the flowers-or at least Telea's way of welcoming them-prompted a few titters at the premiere.

As the pair sits down together to mend the fisherman's net, Luca tells Telea he will teach her a game. It is a game of words, Telea repeating after Luca whatever he says. The words thus repeated tell the story of what is to come-the flight of the lovers together. They are swept into each other's arms. Ilo comes upon them with his sledge hammer and attacks Luca, who cries out "The fish net-Telea-the net !" She throws the net over Ilo and helps Luca bind him in the folds. Ilo calls on the god, the sky darkens, the sea is lashed into fury, but Luca and Telea flee together. When Ilo extricates himself he has abandoned his god, as he feels the god has abandoned him. He now discovers that the god is afraid of him. In vain the god pleads and threatens Ilo with destruction. Ilo knows that if he dies the god dies too. He smashes the altar and the god destroys him. Then the god, who only lived because of Ilo's faith, sinks back into oblivion.

In performance this is acceptable "theatre", though on the static side. The characters are none too well defined, save that Telea is perpetually forlorn. The symbolism of the god and his fate may be variously construed. At any rate it is more effective as a literary conception than something of opera, particularly since the words are not readily caught. The idea of the "game" of repeated words is a good one and on it is erected a passionate love duet that is one of the most effective episodes of the score. Dramatically, the use of the net to trap and render helpless the infuriated Ilo is another fortunate stroke. Otherwise the action is pretty much something of the entrances and exits of Ilo and Luca, with Telea almost continuously on the scene and the god appearing only when Ilo evokes him at the close of the first and final scenes.

Music of Post-Puccini Type

The music is mostly in a post-Puccini arioso style. The opera begins with some bold proclamations in the brass. Thereafter there are times when the brass writing overwhelms the vocal line, but the conducting may have been responsible for some of the excess of brass tone at the premiere. The three scenes of the opera's single act are connected by interludes in which the brass is not spared. These interludes are readily identified with the labors of Ilo in restoring the temple.

The musical dialogue which introduces the refugees at the first parting of the curtains is mostly plain speech, but there are lyric expansions for each of the characters as the opera proceeds the first of these being Ilo's invocation of the god. As befits a lover, the music of Luca has more of tenderness than that of Ilo, the worker. Offstage are heard some melodious snatches of a folk character, which presumably are original, however, with the composer of "The Island God."

Restored to the living by Ilo's supplication, the god waxes lyrical over the ruin he sees about him. Where is the gold of the worshippers, where the blood of the sacrifice? Why does he not hear the canticle of the hierophants, the undulant rhythms of the dancers? The woodwinds attend to the undulations and there is some nice writing here. It is Telea, however, who has the one really poignant solo of the score, ending with the cry, "O spare Ilo!" The duet of the "game" is good opera. Luca sings and Telea echoes: "The ocean-the silence-the island-the seashell - the danger - the longing - the hunger-the stranger-the lover", and so on, in surging, glowing melodic phrases that build to a very effective climax. This is music not unlike that of Puccini in "Turandot," but it is not reminiscent. As Luca and Telea seek safety in flight and the sky darkens and the sea plunges, the music too is stormy in a scenic way. The dialogue of the final scene between Ilo and the god is well set - as is, indeed, the dialogue throughout the opera-but it cannot be said that this scene carries its full measure of conviction.

The singers contributed about equally to the vocal and stage interest of the performance. Astrid Varnay's sense of routine enabled her to make a plausible figure of the distraught Telea. She sang some really beautifully phrases, though the voice took on an edge in her effort to express agitation. Mr. Warren, whose voice undoubtedly is one of the weightiest and most resonant now at the Metropolitan, had plenty of competition from the orchestra; but he projected above it several high tones of unusual body and vitality. Mr. Cordon was impressive to look upon as the God and he sang well, but the part was written for a deeper voice. Mr. Jobin was likable and melodious as Luca and Mr. Carter's tones were honey sweet, behind the scenes. The stage direction was expert and imaginative; and Mr. Rychtarik's set, particularly when the mists were swirling about it at the [beginning] of the opera, was picturesque and atmospheric.

The "Pagliacci" performance which preceded the premiere of "The Island God" calls for no detailed comment. Perhaps mention should be made of the handsprings which Mr. Thomas turned by way of whetting interest for the play within the play. Though there were some altered groupings to show that the work had been in a measure restudied, the Leoncavallo thriller went its familiar way. This was Miss Albanese's first appearance at the house as Nedda; the others were old stagers in their roles. All sang at something like their best and Mr. Pelletier conducted effectively.

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