[Met Performance] CID:173000

Opening Night {72}, General Manager: Rudolf Bing

Metropolitan Opera House, Mon, October 29, 1956

Debut : Maria Callas

Norma (58)
Vincenzo Bellini | Felice Romani
Maria Callas [Debut]

Mario Del Monaco

Fedora Barbieri

Cesare Siepi

James McCracken

Maria Leone

Fausto Cleva

Dino Yannopoulos

Set Designer
Charles Elson

Norma received six performances this season.
During her first two seasons, Maria Callas was known by her married
name, Maria Meneghini Callas.

Review 1:

Review of Robert J. Landry in Variety

Already warmed by ermine, the ladies in the audience at the Metropolitan Opera's opening night (is) were further comforted by the sure knowledge that they held tickets of admission in greater demand than "My Fair Lady." Priced at $35 and scalped at upward of $200 the implication was clear: grand opera was topping George Bernard Shaw set to polka music.

The Met's opening, ahead of and free from subscription, grossed $75,510 compared with the $62,438 for the 1955 premiere and $45,576 the season before. This upsurge was undoubtedly due to the advance town talk anent the Greek-American soprano, Maria Callas, in the titular role of Bellini's sturdy composition of 1830, "Norma."

And thereby hangs the drama of the opening. Although "Norma" is a soprano-crusher and the newcomer is in rare company, if not always in rare form, in singing the role, the mood of the opening night crowd was, almost perversely, to hand the palms to tenor Mario Del Monaco as the Roman governor and Fedora Barbieri as Norma's fellow nun (if that's the word) in the Druid religious order. Indeed, at the conclusion of Act III Mme. Callas, for all her reputation as a firebrand egoist, was openly deferring at the bows of her colleague, an Italian singer returning to the Met after some years. Very definitely Barbieri was stealing, or coming close to it, the show. Callas, the debuting star, must be given high marks for displaying every appearance of sportsmanship. If she was doing the well known slow operatic backstage burn it did not show to the naked eye. And that may be racked up as not the least of the new soprano's achievements.

For Maria Callas cannot be dismissed by cheering the tenor or bestowing an ovation upon her mezzo-soprano sidekick. Nor by the standees (those audibly opinionated ones) sneering that she had adenoids and a rich husband. Such cracks were plentiful at the Met Monday before the final triumphant Act IV curtain at midnight. They suggest that the Callas publicity buildup had been too successful for the lady's own good and equally that her own "claque" was inferior in vigor to those of Del Monaco and Barbieri. Of course there are not supposed any longer to be "claques" at the Met. Just partisans.

Actually such partisanship and enthusiasm represents more than the unpredictability of an opening night (or of any night). Herein lies the strong meat of audience reaction. Without this caring and dividing of the masses, in or out of evening attire, grand opera would not be grand.

This performance of "Norma" was very grand indeed. There were moments of pressing, of course, by both sopranos, though never, but never, by the magnetic and intensely male Del Monaco. Cesare Siepi was richly baritone as the Chief Druid and Maria Leone and James McCracken exhibited the atmosphere of grandness in bit roles. The chorus had been beautifully rehearsed and mobilized for the great melody and dark menace of the religious grove in pre-Christian France. It is not the fashion of the personality cults which haunt the Met to record generous recognition to the choral work. Suffice that Kurt Adler, Walter Taussig, and Pietro Cimara had the ensemble well in control.

As to the voice of Maria Callas (and beaucoup triumphs lie behind her) it has many varying qualities, mostly good. Outwardly calm and poised, possessed of a perhaps too formidable reputation for self-assurance, her acting was unhesitant if sometimes too technically calculated. That she was expected to blow New York's eyebrows off, that she did not; that two cast members were especially "hot" that night; and that the star was not spontaneously taken to heart surely does not signify flop. On the contrary she had her own considerably personal ovation, delayed until midnight,

Even so it was an exciting night. Launching the 73rd year of that branch of entertainment which never makes a profit. This time the opera was superior as a spectacle to the ladies in the audience. The usual premiere furore prevailed. Sherrys was a snakepit of slithering satin. The number of women wearing badges reading "working press" was absolutely beyond credence. There aren't that many girl reporters, except at Time Inc.

Will this be Rudolf Bing's "lucky seventh" at the Met? The heavy artillery brought into position opening night was telling and the presence-leaving aside the question of performance-of Maria Callas was surely the stuff of which word-of-mouth and ticket demand are generated.

Review 2:

Review of Irving Kolodin in The Saturday

A new chapter in New York's operatic experience was ushered in with the debut of Maria Meneghini Callas at the Metropolitan's opening performance of "Norma." How long it lasts depends on the whims of a lady notably capricious. How good it will be is apt to be an opera-by-opera affair, but it is guaranteed in any circumstances not to be dull. Together with Fedora Barbieri as Adalgisa, Mario del Monaco as Pollione, and Cesare Siepi as Oroveso, this was a "Norma" to charge the air with an electricity generated in the auditorium, not in the subbasement of the theatre.

For those who have heard Miss Callas elsewhere (as well as on innumerable records) there was a basic curiosity about the marriage of the voice and the house: would they be compatible, or would there be need for a period of trial wedding? A dress rehearsal on the Saturday before left no doubt in this respect: the voice, though not a huge or weighty one, is so well-supported and floated that it is audible at all times, most particularly in the piano and pianissimo effects which Miss Callas delights in giving us. So far as "Norma" is concerned, the singer refuses to force it for volume's sake alone, and it comes clearly to the ear even when she is ringing out a top D at the end of the trio with Adalgisa and Pollione.

The kind of voice, basically, requires some consideration. It is what every great artist's means of communication becomes: an extension of her own personality. That personality is dynamic, highly charged, tigerish, and utterly under discipline. So, too, the voice is dynamically dramatic, produced as though it might be torn from the singer's insides, and presided over with an almost visible concern for every word and note she sings. Nothing is thoughtless, left to chance, or without total purpose.

Factually, Miss Callas cannot afford to perform otherwise, for were she dependent on the pure physical beauty of the sound she produces she would be sung out of sight by many people presently inconspicuous. There are those who say that in the days preceding the famous diet of 1954 there were a texture and ring to the sound that it doesn't have today. It could be so, or it could be merely a self-advertising justification for singers who refuse to diet.

In any case, what Miss Callas has to work with is an organ made in the image of a sound in her ear which demands that it be flexible, far ranging, responsive to a wide variety of inflections and intensities. It is a common analogy to compare voices with instruments-the flute for coloratura; the trumpet for such a braying tenor the Tamagno; the French horn for the rich beauty and creamy smoothness of a Flagstad. In this orchestral gamut, Miss Callas strikes me as possessed of the clarinet timbre, with the same kind of reedy fullness (and a trace of its vibrato), brilliant on top, misty at the bottom, and with the glossy agility of the black woodwind. And she works on it like a woodwind player fingering invisible keys.

With or without consideration for the tensions that must have accompanied her first appearance in a theatre to which she has aspired for a full ten years, her composure in the opening "Casta Diva" was impressive. The sound was edgy and a little shrill in the first ascension, but the artistic purpose was deeper, even more communicative than in Chicago two years ago.

There have been greater performances of this showpiece for the simple reason that the bloom and freshness to give rolling ear appeal to its lovely melodic line is not in strongest supply with Callas. But in most of those instances, a beautiful performance of "Casta Diva" was the beginning and end of the singer's suitability to "Norma." With Callas it is emphatically only the beginning, expressive of one aspect (if an important one) of the character she is creating.

Here, of course, is the essence of what this artist is all about. Her fellow singers, all able ones, were giving performances of various degrees of vocal quality. She was creating a character as emphatically her own as Flagstad's Alceste, or Lehmann's Marschallin, or in another dimension Markova's Giselle. It was something seen whole and consecutive from beginning to end. Reserved in its early aspects, infuriated in those that followed, and finally resigned to the self-sacrifice she must make to regain the esteem she has forfeited with her ill-starred love for Pollione, it finds a vocal tone to match the dramatic need in each mood. This is more than fine singing: it is dramatic portraiture of which the operatic stage has all too little.

As the foregoing may suggest, there was not quite enough of it even on the same stage she was occupying to make for a consistent or wholly satisfying "Norma," supercharged as it was from time to time. Barbieri alone was a different singer from Barbieri with Callas, as were Barbieri and del Monaco when circumstances required them to perform with or without Norma. Consequently, the moments in which an exquisite sense of detail prevailed were rudely succeeded by those in which the loudest top note (for the tenor) or the deepest chest tone (for the mezzo) took precedence over all.

Most particularly, the performance lacked an integrating dramatic design, though the staging by Dino Yannopoulos cared efficiently for the fundamental goings and comings, especially where the choral movements were concerned. However, the sharp, economic gestures of Callas came from another atelier than the one in which Barbieri learned her round sweeping movements, not to mention the air-cutting lunges and pokes of del Monaco. In fairness to this richly endowed tenor, it may be said that he is using his powerful resources with more discrimination than in some past times, and the latter phases of the performance, in particular, were expressively managed. But it was all too evident that the applause of the bravo shouters was more music to his ears than that composed by Bellini, his delight in the well-tailored negligee he utilized for the scene with Adalgisa and Norma a travesty on the uniform that the moment required.

Perhaps the sharpest commentary on the kind of "Norma" this was lies in the circumstance that mention of its conductor, Fausto Cleva, can be conservatively reserved for this terminal position. He rose to the occasion with a forceful playing of the overture (after a rousing rendition of the well-sounding new arrangement by Max Rudolf of "The Star Spangled Banner"), then mostly retired from the heated competition onstage. The lack of overall musical design has been indicated previously. Its particulars involve considerable discipline when Kurt Adler's excellent chorus was performing, but a status as accompaniment when the various stars were in ascendance. Not only Bellini but Callas merited more to work against than the pliant, compliant Cleva.

Review 3:


Mme. Callas Effective AT Met Opening

Unprecedented was the opening of the Metropolitan Opera last night, predicated on the debut of

Maria Meneghini Callas. Never in 71 years of Opera at the Met had Bellini's "Norma" opened a season. Never before had a first-night gross reached $75,510.

Unprecedented was Mme. Callas's debut. No singer on an opening night had ever had such a buildup before her first appearance at the Met. Certainly no American singer has had a more momentous home coming, for to come to the Met was to return in glory to her native city. It is small wonder that expectancy ran high and that this opening-night audience, of all audiences, showed unusual interest.

Especially considering the opera was "Norma."

That no other singer has had quite the stage personality Mme. Callas revealed last night is the news of her debut. Of her voice more may be said after the rigors of a debut at the Met in such a role as Norma are behind her. Hers is not apparently a big voice, but with exceptional range. It has remarkable flexibility to achieve just what she strives to attain - the communication of emotion vocally in terms of the role she is acting.

The naturalness with which she moves across the stage, the ease with which she sings, the beauty of voice she can summon when she wishes, give her stature. She did not sound like a completely polished artist last night, but one whose steady growth can become a fascinating experience. Moments of dynamic and tonal beauty alternated with moments of dullness and even shrillness.

Making "Casta Diva" part of a role instead of the soprano's aria gave some indication of the nature of the performance. As the opera unfolded she asserted herself more passionately, especially in the duets of the acts that followed. Her final scene found her fully blending her singing - acting performance. Therein lies her strength and her individuality.

Incidentally Mme. Callas's entrance was adroitly staged, curtailing any prolonged applause. In contrast Mario Del Monaco's reappearance on the Metropolitan stage almost stopped the show and Fedora Barbieri's return was again occasion for prolonged applause.

Some Oversinging

As Pollione, Del Monaco was more himself and oversinging unnecessarily. He may have forgotten that the role and not the tenor come first at the Met. As Adalgisa, Miss Barbieri sang warmly, fully, and wobbly. Indeed, there was more unfocused singing last night than was welcome. Both reminded the listener that "Norma" is historically a singers' opera.

The remainder of the cast, inducting Cesare Siepi as Oroveso, fulfilled their roles acceptably.

Fausto Cleva did as much in the pit. After an admirable presentation of the overture, he allowed both the singers and the tempos considerable freedom.

The staging of Dino Yannopoulos had its moments of pageantry, otherwise it rated no special mention. The costuming raised numerous questions of appropriateness. Charles Elson's sets were pictorially satisfying.

One of the highlights of the performance was the chorus, for which Kurt Adler should be given due credit. Something should be said for the mellifluous score Bellini wrote 125 years ago, which in its purity and elegance contributes a unique work to the repertory.

Photograph of Maria Callas and Fedora Barbieri rehearsing Norma.

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