[Met Performance] CID:21020
Lohengrin {138} Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: 04/17/1899.

(Review)


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Grand Opera House
April 17, 1899


LOHENGRIN {138}

Lohengrin...............Jean de Reszke
Elsa....................Lillian Nordica
Ortrud..................Ernestine Schumann-Heink
Telramund...............David Bispham
King Heinrich...........Edouard de Reszke
Herald..................Lempriere Pringle

Conductor...............Franz Schalk


Review of Willa Cather in the Courier (Pittsburgh)

The Pittsburgh Grand Opera season, the last engagement of the Metropolitan Opera Company before it disbanded and severally parted for Europe, was something long to be remembered. It was the closing of the most glorious opera season America has ever seen, and this dirty, gloomy city arrayed itself in dress coats and imported toilettes and just got up and did itself proud in honor of the event. Pittsburgh is noted for taking itself seriously, and it is frantically busy seven days out of the week the whole year round, but when it decides to take a holiday, it does it with a vengeance, as the great financial success of the opera season proved to Mr. Maurice Grau, to whose stony heart only dollars speaků

Certainly all the living talent of the world could not furnish a better cast. It was Jean de Reszke's sole appearance and it took much tact and more gold to woo that haughty tenor so far from the coast. As for the performance, no company can uniformly give performances of such merit; it was one of those fortunate things that happen only occasionally. Madame Nordica told me in the afternoon when she was running over the score at her hotel that she had a premonition that the night would be a triumphant one. Perhaps she thought so because she found herself in unusually good voice, but she was not mistaken. It was not the first time I had had the pleasure of hearing her Elsa, but it was the first time I ever heard her sing it so well. She is less attractive physically this season than I have ever seen her, for she happens to be unpardonably stout. She has the most mercurial avoirdupois 1 know of, one winter she is almost slender, the next, she is like a matronly dowager. As G. Bernard Shaw says, "You never can tell." But after all she is a mere sylph beside Schumann-Heink. I never saw her give herself out to her audience as she did that night. She is becoming a proficient actress, that determined woman from Maine with the strong chin and big, firm hands, like a man's. It is difficult for her to act, but her whole life has been one long, laborious vanquishing of difficulties. Her very entrance in the first act gives you confidence in her. This is no timid, simpering Elsa. She conies in regally, confident, fearlessly, unstained by that serene hope in a mystic deliverance. When the herald calls for her defender, she awaits him with perfect assurance. Not until the call has been given the third time does she begin to doubt, and even then, when she rises from her knees at the close of her prayer, her face is shining with the fullness of her faith. And then he came, the great Jean, the deliverer, the greatest tenor and one of the greatest actors of his time. He was past fifty when I heard him in Chicago four years ago, yet he stood there in the swan-boat the radiant incarnation of youth and chivalry, the dream-knight of all dreams. And his entrance does what the entrance of a great artist always does; it imparted convincing reality to everything and completed the illusion of the theatre. The swan which drew this splendid figure in silver armour was a real swan, the painted river flowed along like any other river, there was a wind playing in the rushes, and there was a real Mount Monsalvat somewhere in the world, for this man could only have come from that place "which is bright forever." At the first note of the song to the swan, one felt that it was Jean indeed, and at the close of his long and arduous season his voice was fresh, unworn, exquisitely flexible, and his manner of using it is as wonderful as ever, when all is said, it is in his vocalization that De Reszke is unparalleled. Had he next to no voice at all, like the superb Maurel who can sing with a completely worn-out organ, he would still be a consummate artist. His voice is indeed a thing of beauty, but his method of using it is a joy forever. It is the method that makes the artist. The organ itself is purely accidental, and like most of the gifts of God is frequently ill-bestowed, but the use of [it]---ah, that is where the cerebral tissue comes in, and energy and taste and ambition and superhuman industry and all that makes a man. Here is a baritone who has made himself the prince of tenors, who arranges every phrase as a painter lays on his colors, who produces every tone in his brain as well as in his throat, who makes tone but the garment of the mind as flesh is the garment of the soul, who makes of his voice an instrument under perfect control and plays upon it what he wills. The mechanical perfection of the registration, the breathing and placing, they are the achievements of a lifetime of endeavor and are the joy of all young artists. But of the emotional resources of this voice, of its perfect adaption to every shade and degree of every passion, of its freshness and sweetness and bloom, its poetic quality blended with robust virility, what shall be said? The language has been beggared of adjectives to describe it, yet none of them reach it. Someone has called his singing of the Swan song "the milk and honey of music." Certainly he is the only tenor we have today whose tenderness is wholly without effeminacy, or whose voice can rise clear, melodious and true, to the full measure of tragedy, and then there is, undeniably, a deep sentimental quality, that baffling minor tinge that is in the acting of Modjeska and the music of Chopin. Perhaps it is only the cry of unhappy Poland, for which we have no name, a sort of echo that Polish mothers sang.

When the swan had gone and Lohengrin turned to Elsa there seemed nothing abrupt or hasty about his wooing. It was the day of the Arthurian legends come back again, when the knight came with his nobility stamped upon his face, and the maiden's helplessness was her strength. And this Elsa and this Lohengrin have sung that duet so often that their very voices seem to woo each other. When De Reszke sings "On the king of kings I call," he looks King Arthur indeed, and one can well believe that in the days of knighthood there was a Grail indeed.

It is that wonderful artist Mme. Schumann-Heink who dominates the second act. Bispham's Frederick is wonderfully dramatic, but this Ortrud was like none ever seen before. This Schumann-Heink, with her peasant face and her absurd clumpy little figure and short arms simply has unlimited power. She sings down everything before her. She makes you forget that she is not beautiful, and Heavens! what a triumph a woman achieves when she does that. Her scornful taunts at her lover's cowardice and weakness, her impassioned appeal to Elsa, her insatiable hatred, her crafty poisoning of that guileless maiden's mind, are all very triumphs of art. She so completely subordinates Nordica in that act that there can be no question that, within her limitations, she is the greater artist of the two. The second act was not, on this occasion, Nordica's best. In her solo "Ye wandering breeze" on the balcony, one noticed that old inflexibility, that hardness of tone that in her younger days used so often to detract from the effectiveness of her singing.

The third act, when Dc Reszke sings Lohengrin, is something never to be forgotten. The music of that nuptial duet is probably the most poetic Wagner ever wrote, and certainly the man who sang it has a poet's soul shut up in his throat. When he led Elsa to the window, I assure you he brought the stillness and beauty of the summer night into the hot air of the playhouse. I wish that every analytical student of literature, every misguided person who counts the false rhymes in Spenser and exultantly tears Browning's figures to pieces, or kills a flower to find its name, could have heard him sing that tender remonstrance:

Dost thou breathe the incense of the flowers,
Bearing a tide of deep, mysterious joy?
And would'st know whence this rapture showers?
Ask not, O love, lest thou the charm destroy!

It was like some divine, compassionate wisdom pleading with the narrow vision and petty pride of fretful pedantry. But poor, dull Elsa was a German lady of a philosophical bent of mind and she wanted a name for everything and could not believe in a joy which she could not analyze. So gently he entreated her, so fair the moonlight was, so sweet the night, so lovely all the world, yet poor practical Elsa could only cry "The name, give me the name!" Well, she got it, and so do the people who construct systems for measuring the value of poetry, but at what a cost! They get the name, and perhaps acquire vast erudition, but they lose the knight, and Mount Monsalvat, and the bright temple of the Grail and all the rest of it. I have heard a good many arguments against the methods of the people who count the poetic words in Tennyson, but I never heard one so powerful or so beautiful as that which Jean de Reszke sang that night.

I was talking with Mme. Nordica about Elsa's particular variety of stupidity after the performance, when she was getting from the airy draperies affected in Brabant into a Paris street dress. "Yes," she said, "that is in all Wagner, that too much analysis destroys; that, and the opportunity of the moment. For the gods there is Walhalla and forever and a day, but for mortals there is only the moment, and that is dying even while it is being born."



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