ITALIAN Opera once more ! At least, so the handbills and street-posters persist in styling it; although the Italian element in its composition stands rather in the background, the best of the singers being German, American, and French, and the best of the operas being the work of German and French composers. The singing, however, is done in the Italian language (with a pleasing variety of accents), which fact may give some coloring of appropriateness to the name, which otherwise does not mean much. The powers that rule over such things seem to have settled it that a few weeks of Italian Opera are what no well-regulated “season” can do without; and we have accordingly annual visits from that great musico-dramatic nondescript, variously diluted as circumstances may command, this time with great “ attractions ” of the “star" sort, other attractions not easily discoverable, if indeed they actually exist. In fact, but for the presence of two or three of the bright, particular stars, it were perhaps better not to speak of the company and performances at all, lest, like Hamlet, we “ fall a cursing ” ; and railing at the inevitable can only result in waste of breath and temper. Suffice it to say that Madame Lucca and Miss Kellogg have found very much the same supporting power in the “company” that an acrobat finds in the pile of chairs on the top of which he is balancing himself. The chairs, to be sure, serve to keep him up in the air, but it is the acrobat himself that keeps the pile from falling to the ground and bringing him down with it. Of Madame Lucca herself it is hard to speak in moderate terms ; so thoroughly human an actress we have rarely seen. There seems to be a general, perhaps inevitable, desire to compare her with Miss Nilsson, and, in spite of the proverbial quality of all comparisons, we think that a comparative study of the two artists would not be wholly unprofitable. There are many points of resemblance between them. Both are essentially lyric actresses, rather than singers pure and simple, having the same power of realizing the highest dramatic conception of both poet and composer, and seeming able to draw inspiration from an abstract idea, a grandly pregnant situation, even when poet and composer have shown themselves incapable of worthily developing such situation or idea, and, in fine, both showing the same tendency to break through all worn-out conventionalities and stage traditions. In other words, both are thoroughly original artists. But here their resemblance comes to an end. They are as widely different in individuality, and in their conceptions of the same or similar situations and characters, as they are in personal appearance and timbre of voice. There always seemed to us to be something of another world about Nilsson, something preterhuman, at times almost uncanny ; she seemed to breathe a different atmosphere from those who surrounded her, to bring with her a breath as from Valhalla, unsafe for mortals to come in contact with; there was an element of fierceness in her passion not quite human nor yet entirely godlike, a mixture of the Northern Valkyria and the tigress. In the love-scene in Faust, for instance, we could not help thinking (mutatis mutandis) of Jupiter and Semele, and half expected to see Faust shrivel up and fall at her feet a heap of ashes.
Lucca, on the other hand, is transcendently human, with all the intense human and womanly qualities. She and Nilsson are to each other as Beethoven’s Leonora1 and Wagner’s Brünnhilde.2 The purely musical element is perhaps more preponderant in Lucca than in Nilsson, and her acting is often apparently quite as dependent upon the music as upon the situation : witness the way in which her whole being floats on the melody Tu l’ as dit in the fourth act of the Huguenots, the melody seeming to catch her up from the couch upon which she has fallen in despair, and to waft her as on a cloud into Raoul’s arms, forgetful of all save her love. Lucca’s acting in this scene may well be considered her finest effort, finer perhaps as an artistic whole than anything that we have seen from Nilsson, or indeed any other lyric actress ; but then it must be borne in mind that the scene itself is one of peculiar dramatic possibilities, one in which a really great actress finds more scope for all her powers than any other in the whole range of operas such as have been presented to our public, with perhaps the single exception of the prison-scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio,—a situation of extreme difficulty withal, in which the heroine, Valentine, is torn by many conflicting emotions, so that it might well be the despair of any but a transcendent artist. The music also is perhaps the finest in all of Meyerbeer’s writings, — one of the very few grand moments in which the habitually too self-conscious composer was thoroughly inspired by the situation, to the forgetting of himself and all ignoble, claptrap effect. Here, if anywhere, Meyerbeer has been naturally and spontaneously great. Even Richard Wagner, who has seen through all Meyerbeer’s charlatanries as have few beside him, and who has ever been Meyerbeer’s severest critic, says of this scene : “ We observe .... that, despite the composer’s (Meyerbeer’s) most distinct incapacity to give us from his own musical faculty the slightest evidence of artistic vitality, he raises himself, nevertheless, to the highest and most incontestable artistic power in certain passages of his opera music. These passages are the offspring of a genuine inspiration, and if we examine more closely, we shall perceive whence this inspiration has sprung, — clearly from the poetic nature of the situation itself. Wherever the poet has forgotten his trammelling consideration for the musician,3 wherever he has involuntarily stumbled upon a situation in which he could inhale and exhale a free, exhilarating breath of actual human life, he directly imparts it to the musician as an inspiring afflatus; and the composer who, even by exhausting all the wealth of his musical predecessors, could not give us a single proof of real creative power, all at once is capable of the richest, noblest, and most soul-stirring musical expression. I refer especially to separate passages in the wellknown, heart-breaking love-scene in the fourth act of the Huguenots, and emphatically to the invention of the wonderfully affecting melody in Gb major, — a melody which, springing as it does, like a fragrant blossom, from a situation that seizes upon all the fibres of the human heart with a rapturous pain, leaves only very little, and surely only that which is most perfect in musical composition, to be brought into comparison with it.” 4 Another scene in which Lucca showed her great power of expressing intense suppressed emotion by the simplest and most natural means, and that was in the third act, where Valentine and the Duc de Nevers take leave of the Queen after their wedding. Her utter despair at being forever cut off from Raoul was terribly expressed in every feature and gesture, in spite of her ladylike repose of bearing, and determination not to “make a scene ” at parting. The way in which she kissed the Queen’s hand was as intense a dramatic expression of emotion as if she had torn her hair and swooned about the stage as is usual with prime donne in similar straits, and can be ranked with the piercing, volume-speaking look that Nilsson gave her brother, Enrico, in Lucia, where he proposes her marriage with Arturo, to which glance the brother might well answer in dismay, “ Mi guardi e taci ? ” Lucca’s Leonora in Donizetti’s Favorita may well be compared with Nilsson’s Lucia as a creation of something out of nothing, — only that La Favorita as an opera is even a feebler effort than Lucia di Lammermoor; an opera of which Robert Schumann wrote in his note-book : “ Went to hear Donizetti’s Favorita. Could only sit through two acts. Puppet-show music ! ” Puppet-show music, forsooth ! Would that it were nothing but that! We wish that our public and all publics had more opportunities of hearing artists like Madame Lucca or Miss Nilsson sing in such operas, that they might be firmly impressed with the weakness, the worse than triviality, the utter artistic vulgarity of the music. Great melodic power Donizetti certainly has; there is even a certain quasi-dramatic quality of a rather vague sort in his melodies ; while casually glancing over the piano scores of some of his operas, we can understand the enthusiasm of his admirers, whose war-cry is ever “ divine melody,” “ easy, natural, musical expression,” and heaven knows what not else of similar purport. But when we see and hear his operas on the stage, we are lost in amazement that reasonably cultivated human creatures can swallow such doses, and even find them palatable. His melody is good enough, yes, often much too good for the use he makes of it; divine, if you will. But such slipshod working-out of fine themes, such bungling futilities in the accompaniments, such orchestration, “ worthy of a tap-room” as Berlioz says, oscillating between the extremes of childish impotence and blatant coarseness! Far from being the “ glorification of Melody,” the “ apotheosis of Melody ” as we often hear these operas called, they are for the most part the vilification of Melody, the insulting and degrading of Melody and dragging her through the mire ! Ordinary singers may make these things only mildly offensive, but with artists like Lucca or Nilsson the discrepancy between what might be and what is becomes intolerably exasperating. Lucca’s Margherita in Faust differs from Nilsson’s impersonation as the two women differ from one another. It is impossible to say which of the two artists was more passionate, tender, or intense ; but Lucca’s was the passion and intensity of the country girl, Nilsson’s that of the tiger-demigoddess. We are aware that there is some discrepancy between this and what we wrote about Miss Nilsson last year,5 but we take the feminine liberty of letting experience modify our opinions. In Mignon, Lucca was less demonstratively effective than Nilsson, though we are not sure that her conception of the part is not an artistically higher one.
Miss Kellogg comes back to us as complete an artist as ever, the pure, penetrating quality of her voice seeming even more beautiful, if possible, than in past seasons. As a singer, as far as purity of style and method, and fine, sympathetic, musical expression go to make one, we should rank her even above Madame Lucca or Miss Nilsson. Her singing is, in fact, almost absolutely faultless. She is, moreover, an intelligent, conscientious, and painstaking actress, and a little more of fire, passion, and intrinsic dramatic force would place her in the very highest rank upon the lyric stage.
— We have before us the proof-sheets of a new song by Mr. Francis Boott, set to Praed’s words, “ Father, father, I confess.” 6 In every respect it is one of the composer’s happiest efforts ; exceedingly pretty in melody and beautifully harmonized. The music gracefully expresses at once the childlike earnestness of sentiment of the young girl’s first love and her half-coquettish way of acknowledging it to her ghostly adviser. The accompaniment is thinly and unsatisfactorily put upon the piano-forte ; but any
pianist, worthy of the name, to whom the task of accompanying the song may fall, will find no trouble in supplying all deficiencies of this sort, though we would caution all ambitious musical fledglings against attempting such “ filling out,” lest they mar the simple perfection of the harmony.
— Now that a more or less complete musical education has become almost a necessity with most of us, it gives us great pleasure to notice an institution established in Boston last September by the Mendelsshon Quintette Club, under the title of the National College of Music. This college has some peculiar excellences in its organization which appeal directly to our musical sympathies. There has of late years been no want of good musical instruction both in and out of our various conservatories, music-schools, etc., but there has been felt a want of some organization which could be looked to as a standard in the various branches of technical musical education. This want the college in question may to a certain degree claim to supply. The teachers in each department look to some one definite head for guidance in the management of their various classes. The head teacher in each department has been brought up in the same school of playing or singing as the other teachers under his direction, many of whom have for some years been his own pupils and coworkers, so that a pupil may begin at the lowest grade in any department and successively pass on to higher and higher grades, without being forced to adopt a new system at each successive step. The piano-forte department is under the immediate supervision of Mr. B. J. Lang of Boston, who may fairly claim to have founded a school of piano-forte playing here. The vocal department is superintended by Signor Vincenzo Cirillo, of Naples, who has already made a marked success as a teacher, and of whom we can, from our personal knowledge, speak in the highest terms both as a musician and a thorough expert in his own department. The department of stringed instruments is under the direction of the members of the Quintette Club themselves. They are well enough known throughout the country to let their merit speak for itself, and their individual excellences as artists and their long association together point to their being able to found a school of stringed instruments in which there shall be no essential discrepancies of style or method.
- In Fidelio.↩
- In Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Die Götterdämmerung.↩
- Meyerbeer was noted for forcing his librettist, Scribe, to conform entirely to his requirements for stage-effect in all his operas.↩
- Richard Wagner, Oper und Drama, p. 92. Leipzig, 1869.↩
- Atlantic for January, 1872.↩
- The Confession. Song. Words by PRAED. Music by F. BOOTT. Boston : Oliver Ditson & Co.↩