[Met Performance] CID:28690
United States Premiere
Messaline {1} Metropolitan Opera House: 01/22/1902.
 (United States Premiere)
(Debuts: Helen Mapleson, Juliette Roslyn,
Ernesto Giaccone
Review)


Metropolitan Opera House
January 22, 1902
United States Premiere

MESSALINE {1}
De Lara-Silvestre/Morand

Messaline...............Emma Calvé
Hélion..................Albert Alvarez
Harès...................Antonio Scotti
Tyndaris................Marguerite Marilly
Myrtille................Marcel Journet
Gallus..................Maurice Declery
Myrrhon.................Charles Gilibert
Olympias................Marcel Journet
Tsilla..................Juliette Roslyn [Debut]
Leuconöe................Helen Mapleson [Debut]
Loeno...................Roberto Vanni
Oarsman.................Eugène Dufriche
Mime....................Lodovico Viviani
Poet....................Ernesto Giaccone [Debut]
Water Merchant..........Catullo Maestri
Zitherist...............Marie Van Cauteren
Councillor..............Jules Judels

Conductor...............Philippe Flon

Messaline received four performances this season.

Alternate title: Messalina

Review of W. J. Henderson in The New York Times

"MESSALINE" AT THE OPERA

First Performance of De Lara's Work in This Country

The production of a new opera at the Metropolitan Opera House may fairly be described as an "event." To those concerned in the preparations it certainly seems to be, for obstacles which would be regarded as insuperable in any foreign opera house have to be overcome. The schedule of appearances of principal singers is the prime factor in all arrangements. Let it once be fixed that Miss Ternina is to sing on Monday and Saturday nights, Mme. Calvé on Wednesday night, and Saturday afternoon, Monsieur A. on Friday and Signor B. on Thursday in Philadelphia, and the operas must be distributed according to the alternation of the singers. Rehearsals for the production of a novelty must be sandwiched between those needed for the performance of works not previously heard in the course of the season and trips to Philadelphia. The amount of labor performed by the attachés of the stage department of the Metropolitan, by the orchestra, chorus, ballet, and conductors is appalling.

For these reasons those of us who do care to hear a new work once in a while should not be disposed to cavil if it be not all that we crave. We should follow the advice of Sancho Panza to thank the giver and not look the gift horse in the month. We should not irreverently say of Mr. Grau that we asked him for bread and he gave us a stone. These remarks are all prefatory to the statement that last night at the Metropolitan Opera House "Mescaline," lyric drama in four acts, was performed for the first time in America. They also must precede the confession that no matter from what point we may choose to view the new opera, we cannot assume an attitude of rejoicing, but must perforce write with grief, not altogether unmixed with indignation. There are times when to be cruel is to be kind.

The libretto of the new work was written by Armand Slivestre and Eugene Morand. The music is by Isidore de Lara. The opera was first performed at Monte Carlo on Feb. 21, 1899, with Messrs. Tamagno and Bouvet and Mlle. Heglon in the principal parts. It was given in London at Covent Garden on July 13 and 21, 1899, with Messrs. Alvarez and Renaud and Mlle. Heglon. Messrs. Gilibert and Journet were then also in the cast. Of this London cast three members - Alvarez, Gilibert, and Journet - took part in last night's performance, while the title role was in the hands of Mme. Calvé. The general operatic public of this town does not crave novelties. But its interest in the leading singers of Mr. Grau's company makes the occasional exhibition of new roles desirable. To the certainty of arousing public curiosity as to what Mme. Emma Calvé might do in impersonating such a sleek and sensual creature as the infamous first wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius we owe the production of "Messaline."

Rightly to measure the value of such a work we must consider its plan. Has the composer followed the old and flowery paths of Italian opera of the early school and written "set pieces" - duets, trios, quartets, and ensembles - and thereby avoided the knotty problem of expressing the heart of a Messaline in music? Or has he followed the modern style; abandoned set forms, and striven to imitate Verdi's methods as shown in "Otelio"? Or again, has he gone still further away from the old path and tried to be wholly melodramatic? The answer to these questions is that De Lara has endeavored to combine melodrama with lyricism. He has accompanied most of the action of his work with illustrative music, while the characters declaim. In certain situations calling for a purely lyric treatment he has tried to write free melody, not in the set forms, and allied in character to the style of Reyer in Salammbo " with leanings toward that of Puccini as exemplified in "Tosca."

What has the composer been called upon to set forth in his music? The libretto of "Messaline" is calmly audacious, frankly unclean. It is based wholly upon the noise-some passion of a foul-minded, utterly carnal, and debased woman. Around her bestial indulgences this creature tries to draw a veil of roses. She thinly disguises unutterable thoughts in impotent imagery. She sings sentiments like those of Swinburne's indescribable women. Messrs. Armand Slivestre and Eugene Morand have failed pitiably in their attempt to shroud the thoughts of this Messaline in "poetry." Their verses do not conceal their own meaning, and that meaning is not nice.

The Messaline of history was a creature of the lowest order. It is recorded of her that she had an unending series of lovers; that she was wont to leave the palace of the Emperor to descend into the purlieus of Rome and enter into their most abandoned debaucheries; that she finally went through a public ceremony of marriage with one of her base companions, and that the weak and vacillating Claudius was thus at length moved to order her to be put to death. Mr. de Lara's librettists have not shrunk from a plain presentation of this creature.

We see her in her palace,. in the first act, exercising her baleful charms upon Hares, a poet who has made a ballad celebrating her infamy and whom she speedily brings to her feet. We see her in the second act in the Suburra, the slums of Rome, at an all-night tavern, in the midst of the orgies of the feast of Bacchus, and again she is engaged In seeking her accustomed prey. Here she is rescued from unwelcome pursuers by Helion, the gladiator, the brother of Hares, and is carried off by him to a private palace of her own on the banks of the Tiber. In Act III. in this palace there is a love scene which may best be left to the imagination. The polite audience which sat through it last night could not plead the operagoer's usual ignorance of the plot and dialogue. There was no mistaking the meaning of this scene, especially with such an actress as Mme. Calvé in the leading role. Hares, who has learned what it is to be a victim of this vile Empress, comes to save his brother. Helion is concealed in the Empress's bedchamber, while Hares is thrown out of a window into the Tiber by the trusty slaves.

He is rescued, however, in the next scene, and in the last act he again tries to prevent the ruin of his brother by going to the Empress's box at the circus to kill her. But Helion comes to the rescue, and, before discovering who is the intruder, slays him. Then, for the first time, the gladiator learns that the creature he carried off from the tavern is the infamous Messaline, whom he had vowed to slay if he could ever reach her. She challenges him to slay her now after she has filled his veins with insidious passion. He, despairing, hurls himself to the lions in the amphitheatre, while the dead hands of Hares still clutch the robe of the now terrified Messaline. And that is the end of this pretty tale. Two brothers slain to make a royal courtesan's holiday!

As a dramatic creation this work must be placed in the same category as the play of "Carmen," as cheerfully enacted by Miss Nethersole, or of "Sappho." as performed by the same Calvé of the theatre. But in the brazen display of impure passion it outdoes both. The music is what might be expected. It is totally lacking in inspiration and utterly devoid of poetic atmosphere. It is feeble in thematic invention, bald in its want of characterization, and picturesque only in the employment of a few orchestral devices. Perhaps the smartest piece of orchestration is the use of a xylophone to imitate the rattling of dice by some gamblers in the tavern.

The climaxes of the musical plan are reached, of course, in the utterance of Messaline's passion and the responsive throbs of her two victims. Nothing great can come out of the attempt to set mere animalism to music. Nothing even vigorous comes out of it in "Messaline." We get only ascending melodic successions and crescendi. The best music in the opera is that heard at the [start] of the scene in the tavern, where the composer has been successfully bacchanalian. Hares's ballad in the first act is fair. More it is impossible to say about this music. It does not touch one when he hears it; it does not inspire one when he recalls it.

Of the performance hearty praise can be written, though it must be said that the production would have benefited by a few more rehearsals. Still there were new and good scenery, earnest and general endeavor, picturesque stage groupings, efficient orchestral playing, sound conducting, and passionate acting and singing by the leading artists. To these and to these alone must be attributed the applause of the evening. Mme. Calvé was the "star" of the occasion, but Messrs. Alvarez and Scotti were also brilliant luminaries.

It is hardly necessary at this stage of operatic history in New York to tell any reader of the newspapers that Mme. Calvé has a fatal talent for the simulation of seductive fascinations. Those who have seen her Carmen - and who has not? - know that she understands to the letter the nature of that class of women which preys upon weakness and folly of men, which raises self-gratification to the first position, and which sends its discarded victims to ruin or death without compunction. Why actresses or opera singers should elect to make a study of the Vampyre no one can tell. It is certainly not necessary. The stage can exist without the depraved woman, and good plays and good operas can be written and acted without celebrating her.

But if we must see the dead Messaline resurrected and in the flesh, let us confess at once that she lived last night and shed her baleful influence across the footlights of the Metropolitan. Mme. Calvé acted and sang the role with consummate dramatic art. The more's the pity. Her appearance was seductive and her costumes in accord with the character. As a representative of a historic voluptuary she was successful.

The music lies mostly in the best part of her voice. There are few demands for very high tones. Consequently Mme. Calvé was able to sing with that remarkable command of color and subtlety of expression which are in her art more potent elements than mere technical skill. Mme. Calvé is beyond question a gifted and accomplished actress, but even now, when the early smoothness and lusciousness of her tones have been obscured by roughness and acidity, she still does much of her acting with her voice. She acts with it by tint and nuance as Sarah Bernhardt does, and she accomplishes substantial results. In "Messaline "the results are sometimes deplorable.

The aid lent by Messrs. Scotti and Alvarez was most efficient. The latter was a splendid figure, and filled his impersonation with the unbridled passion which might have been expected of a gladiator. Mr. Scotti was a sufficiently doleful Hares and sang admirably. Mr. Gilibert's Myrrhon was delightful in its humor and its delicate vocal treatment. Mr. Flon conducted the performance with zeal. The orchestra and the chorus were efficient. On the whole the production was decidedly creditable to the house, and there was no question of Mme. Calvé's personal triumph with the audience.



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