Don Carlo: Opening night, November 6, 1950

From the review of Cecil Smith in Musical America

Particular interest was naturally attached to the four artists who made their debuts-Miss Rigal, Miss Barbieri, and Mr. Siepi, and Lucine Amara, as the Celestial Voice who sings in the auto-da-fé scene. Miss Rigal came with high recommendations from the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, where she has sung a wide variety of parts, ranging from Leonore in Fidelio; to Violetta in La Traviata. As Elisabetta, she bore herself with queenly dignity, employing plastique of classic serenity and beauty, and at all times evoked the touching quietude of the queen. Her singing was tragic in scope, long-lined in phrasing, and urgent in declamation. Her voice, however, was excessively recalcitrant until the final scene of the opera. In the middle register it repeatedly flew so seriously out of focus that the pitch was obliterated and her lofty intentions were nullified. Her upper voice was not always free, and she sometimes scooped up to high notes. A few minutes before the final curtain-too late to save her performance as a whole-she seemed at last to gain vocal control, and she sang the noble aria 'Tu che la vanità' with a passion and eloquence that fully justified her reputation. If she can straighten out her grave difficulties with production, she will establish herself as an important member of the company, since her abilities as a musician and as an actress are unusual. If she cannot, it may simply become too trying to go through an evening waiting for her to sing well at the end.

Miss Barbieri's first New York performance was less equivocal, although she wasted her first opportunity, the brilliant Veil Song, with mild and partly inaudible peeping. From then on, however, she made a good many of the points of Eboli's exacting music, without establishing herself as a vocalist of the first rank. Her voice, like those of many other Italian mezzo-sopranos, possesses a vehement chest register, which she uses with force and abandon. She vocalizes skillfully across the break into the middle voice, retaining an adequate volume, and when she is lucky she is able to reach a secure B flat. She was not always so lucky, and her singing was prevailingly rough. But she delivered 'O don fatale' with urgency and with some semblance of legato line, although not enough; and she was especially adroit in relating her tone quality to those of the others in the concerted pieces. As an actress she was at ease, volatile and sensible and, even when her singing was not at its best, it was enhanced by her personal dynamism.

Mr. Siepi is still too young to have developed the full impact of his beautiful, smooth bass voice. He has received admirable training in the art of bel canto, and he consistently achieved the best legato of anyone in the cast. His delivery of the soliloquy 'Ella giammai m'amò' was infused with musicality and with an innate feeling for the meaning of words. It fell short of the grand style, however, through Mr. Siepi's lack of vigorous rhythmic accentuation and, also, through the tendency of his tone to lose point and become muffled. He is nonetheless a fine singer, a capable actor, a real artist and a valuable addition to the company.

Miss Amara, confined to the few phrases of the offstage Celestial Voice in the auto-da-fé scene, sang brightly and prettily, and reached the high Bs without the slightest apparent difficulty.

Of the familiar members of the company, Jussi Bjoerling, who is to be a much more active member of the company this year than in past seasons, sang the title role capably. His is not the ideal voice for the music, since a darker and harder timbre would make some of the climactic passages sound less petulant. Yet as his voice opened out during the progress of the opera, after some pinched singing at the outset, he contributed much that was beautiful. He had not fully investigated the stylistic possibilities of the music, however, since a good many blandishing colorations that would have benefited the melodic line did not occur to him. As competent, straight singing by a good tenor, Mr. Bjoerling's Don Carlo was unexceptionable, but there is more in the role than that.

As Rodrigo, Mr. Merrill manifested a stylistic suavity that is new in his work. He bestowed flattering attention on many details of phraseology, and he recognized-for the first time in my experience of hearing him-that the half voice may be a pertinent expressive medium. Perhaps he was a little cautious, and certainly his acting was too dry and categorical to bring to life the warmest and most admirable character in the opera; but the pains he had taken in preparing the music marked the beginning of a new and encouraging phase of his operatic career.

Jerome Hines possesses what must be one of the world's most beautiful voices, but he was entirely miscast as the ninety-year-old Grand Inquisitor. The vitriolic exchange with Philip, in which the Inquisitor demands the life of Rodrigo, the king's most trusted subject, did not develop any dramatic conflict at all, as Mr. Hines intoned one handsome abstract tone after another. Without an instinct for the theatre no bass can make this brief scene come alive as the climax of the opera, which, from any point of view, it is. Mr. Hines might as well have been singing Lothario in Mignon, for all the specific evocation of the situation his performance achieved. His static and essentially non-theatrical gifts would have been much better suited to the assignment of the Friar in the first act, an assignment, let it be said immediately, that was handled with dignity and fine tonal sonority by Mr. Vichegonov.

Among those in smaller roles, Anne Bollinger sang delightfully as the page Tebaldo, and her clear voice was more audible than Miss Rigal's clouded tones in the big ensemble of the auto-da-fé scene. Paul Franke and Emery Darcy acquitted themselves well in brief passages. Tilda Morse, of the ballet, mimed exquisitely the grief of the Countess of Aremberg when Philip II in anger because Elisabetta has been left unaccompanied, sends her away from the court.

Audibly as well as visually the chorus was in shipshape condition. Its entrances were secure, its note-values were exact, and its tone was balanced and luminous. Even the mute extras in the auto-da-fé scene contributed strength rather than amusement. This year the management selected in advance of the season a permanent group of supernumeraries, and for the first time in history had them attend two special rehearsals in addition to the dress rehearsal. As a result, the extras became genuine members of the company rather than casual stragglers brought in off the street.

If any general criticism could be leveled at the opening-night performance, it is that it seemed a little overcareful at times. In repetitions, the principals will probably feel entitled to greater spontaneity. In striving for perfection of detail, they sacrificed some of the bravado Verdi's plain-speaking music needs in order to make its most telling effect. But what an unwonted criticism this is! When, in the memory of the oldest patron, has there ever been reason to charge that a Metropolitan performance was over-rehearsed?

Review of Max de Schauensee in the
Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.


The Metropolitan Opera Association opened its 66th season here last night with a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's gloomy and seldom-heard Don Carlo This marked the debut of the company's new general-manager, Rudolf Bing.

A sold-out opera house, with crowds of standees, greeted Mr. Bing's maiden effort in such a manner that there could be little doubt as to the success of his undertaking.

It is significant that the new manager's three immediate predecessors also initiated their careers at the Metropolitan with Verdi operas: Henirich Conried with Rigoletto in 1903; Giulio Gatti-Casazza with Aida in 1908, and Edward Johnson with La Traviata in 1935.

Don Carlo had not been heard at the Metropolitan since December 13, 1922. To many of last night's audience the opera was a complete novelty.

Composed by Verdi on commission for the Paris Opera, where it was first presented on March 11, 1867. the work is set to a libretto by Mery and Du Locle, loosely based on Schiller's celebrated drama. Verdi drastically revised the score in 1884. It was this version that was presented last night.

Not only did Mr. Bing make his momentuous bow to a Metropolitan audience on this occasion, but so did Margaret Webster, well-known Broadway stage-director, Rolf Gerard, scenic and costume designer, and four principal members of the cast.

The performance was carefully and knowingly staged, carrying on the traditional grand manner properly associated with a great opera house. Miss Webster's direction was ever intelligent and fluid, and, surprisingly enough, devoid of the departures and innovations one might have been led to believe. Incidentally Miss Webster becomes the first woman stage-director in the history of the company.

The sets were spacious, atmospheric, and lofty to a degree - 32 feet on an average, which is tops for a Metropolitan production. The icy gloom and eeriness of 16th century Spain under the heel of a degenerate royalty and the terrifying power of the Inquisition were powerfully suggested by Mr. Gerard.

Two of the newcomers in Mr. Bing's mettlesome cast scored solid successes: Cesare Siepi, young Italian basso still in his mid-twenties, who undertook the commanding role of Philip II, and Fedora Barbieri, robust Italian mezzo-soprano who appeared as the temperamental Princess Eboli.

Mr. Siepi radiates an ease and dignity astounding in one so young. His voice is of ample volume, with a pleasing if not outstanding quality of tone. That he sings his Verdi with instinctive style was evident with his voicing of the great monologue, "Ella giammai m'amo" which drew rounds of applause.

Signora Barbieri displayed any amount of temperament and a voice which was bright, aggressive and powerful, if not as even or well-conducted as one might wish. But there was little doubt the impact of her songs, as the audience responded to her vibrant projection of the opera's most celebrated aria, "O Don Fatale."

Another important debutante was the Argentine soprano, Delia Rigal, who assumed the royal trappings of Elisabetta di Valois. Mme. Rigal's voice is large, darkly colored, and blowsy in character. The tone is not nearly enough concentrated and the vocal line could be steadier. Nevertheless, this singer has a presence, and a genuine gift for gesture and posture, and, while hardly a successor to Rosa Ponselle or Zinka Milanov, she may prove an interesting and useful artist, judged from the prospectus of varied and repeated performances.

The fourth newcomer was the Connecticut soprano, Lucine Amara, whose tones did not seem sufficiently ethereal for a "celestial voice."

Familiar names in last night's cast were Jussi Bjoerling as Don Carlo with a voice and feeling much too lyric for a role which was once sung by the iron-lunged Tamagno, and Robert Merrill, whose solid tones and forthright style may ultimately learn to cope with the nuances inherent in Don Rodrigo's lovely music. Neither Mr. Bjoerling nor Mr. Merrill were more than mere stage puppets as far as characterizations went.

Jerome Hines hardly exhausted the possibilities in the macabre role of the Grand Inquisitor, but his performance carried strong promise.

Fritz Stiedry was a tower of strength as the conductor of the well-rehearsed performance. It can honestly be said that Mr. Bing came through the ordeal of his baptism of fire with flying colors.

Review of Virgil Thomson in the Herald Tribune


Verdi's Don Carlo, not given here since 1923, opened the Metropolitan Opera season last night in sombre splendor. A subject from Spanish history by way of Schiller, a German Romantic, composed in the French taste for the Paris Opera by an Italian, this ever so grand grand opera is perfectly suited to the space and paraphernalia possibilities of New York's historic music theater. It is also a fine vehicle for musical display, and last night's performance was not wanting in grandeurs from the auditory wing.

Its most striking distinction, however, was its visual mounting, Not in many years has so distinguished an investiture of scenery and costumes been designed and executed from scratch for any local production of opera. These were the work, and design, of Rolf Gerard. The stage movements, also distinguished and expressive, had been composed by Margaret Webster. Had not the musical production been excellent, such staging would have shown it up. Had not the staging, however, not been worthy of the musical production, the evening would have seemed unworthy of the history of the house. Billy Rose was right all the time. Attention to the visual aspect has long been the Met's most pressing need. With this put in order, the musical powers of the company are shown off to advantage. Let us be thankful.

The musical direction of Don Carlo by Fritz Stiedry as both suave and vigorous. The vocal execution of chorus and principals was worthy and often beautiful. Among those familiar to us, Jerome Hines as the Grand Inquisitor, was perhaps the most impressive vocally and certainly the most striking from visual and dramatic points of view. Jussi Bjoerling in the title role, sang agreeably. Robert Merrill, as Rodrigo, was in every way elegant. Lubomir Vichegonov, as the Friar, was no less fine in statuesque bass singing.

The three newcomers, though they showed less assurance about the acoustics of the house, all did good work. Fedora Barbieri, as the Princess Eboli, exposed a ringing contralto voice and an acquaintance with the bravura style that should be of sound service to the company. Delia Rigal, who sang the Queen of Spain, showed also a fine vocal organ and a handsome stage presence. Her dramatic soprano voice, dark of hue, rang out securely in the tuttis. Elsewhere she seemed to be a trembler and not entirely in control of her powers.

Cesare Siepi, who sang Phillip II, is clearly a fine musician and an artist. His fine bass voice, moreover, is both vibrant and warm. If it has any unattractive quality this might lie in a tendency toward over-richness commonly described by the word mealy. Perhaps getting used to the house will aid its focus. It is a beautiful voice and seems to be thoroughly schooled. Mr. Siepi's dramatic performance last night was no less distinguished than his vocal work. He and Miss Barbieri promise handsomely. I could not be so sure about Miss. Rigal

Review of Irving Kolodin in the Hartford Times

Among the newcomers the best voice belongs to Siepi, still in his twenties. He sang a King Philip of remarkable variety and poise. The strongest personality belongs to Miss Barbieri, who seemed something of a young Matzenauer in the fervor of her "O Don Fatale." The most refined art belongs to Miss Rigal, a truly regal figure of a queen, who phrased some lyric lines with subtle art, and left other points distinctly ragged through too much vibrato and uneven production.

Of the others, one may say that the names were familiar, but the results were rather new. Robert Merrill has done nothing previously of so much quality as his Marquis De Posa. Jerome Hines was an impressive figure and a potent voice as the Inquisitor, and Jussi Bjoerling atoned with splendid sound for what was lacking, dramatically, in his square figure. At that, Miss Webster passed a small miracle in shaping him to a reasonable relation the others.

Jussi Björling in the title role.
Photograph by Sedge LeBlang.

Delia Rigal as Elizabeth of Valois.
Photograph by Sedge LeBlang.

Jussi Björling and Delia Rigal
in a scene from Don Carlo.
Photograph by Sedge LeBlang.

Robert Merrill as Rodrigo.
Photograph by Sedge LeBlang.

Fedora Barbieri as Princess Eboli.
Photograph by Sedge LeBlang.

Cesare Siepi as King Philip II.
Photograph by Sedge LeBlang.