In my review of the Met’s recent HD telecast of Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor I mentioned the famous incident at the old Met when Maria Callas lost her high note at the end of the Duet between Lucia and Enrico in the first scene of the opera’s second act. Looking around the web I noticed a lot of confusion as to what actually happened on that Saturday afternoon in 1956. So here is the end of that duet.
You decide what Enzo Soredello the soon to be banished baritone should have done. As you can hear he took his high note which follows hers and held it for as long as he could. After Callas canceled her next appearance as Lucia and a near riot by disappointed fans ensued Sordello was fired by Rudolph Bing (not one of his finest moments among many less than fine ones) and never again appeared at the Met. This incident still appears to haunt him. After he left Callas sang the rest of her scheduled Lucias.
Just for comparison here’s how the end of the duet sounds when things go a little better. This snippet is taken from the first performance of the current production of Lucia at the Met on opening night 2007. Natalie Dessay and Mariusz Kwiecien are the singers. Here again, Kwiecien holds his high note too long. I don’t know whether this practice bothers his prima donnas.
I also came across a review of Nellie Melba’s debut at the Met in 1894. The following was written by WJ Henderson then the New York Times music critic:
If anyone had doubted that Donizetti’s opera, “the Lady or the Flute Player,” commonly known as “Lucia di Lammermoor,” was dead to the world, last night’s audience at the Metropolitan Opera House ought to have removed the doubt. It used to be believed, and it was a fact, that this opera would draw a large audience when a great prima donna’s name was on the bill. It seems now that not even in these circumstances does the music-loving public care to sit through the mellifluous emasculation of a tragedy. It is told that Donizetti’s father gave him an ink eraser and bade him to use it freely. It has been said that had he given his son matches and bid him set fire to a great mass of his music, the world would have been better for it. If, however, the public continues to treat “Lucia” in such a manner as it did last night, dust and oblivion will do what fire did not.
Henderson was a renowned critic at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Today he’s more or less forgotten. Such is the fate of critics who don’t have a real job, as did Berlioz and Shaw the two best music critics I know of. So how did he get Lucia so wrong and why does he read like an erudite nincompoop? Well, to start with tastes change, but not enough to explain Henderson’s supercilious dismissal of one of opera’s greatest works. Another explanation is that intelligence and knowledge do not guarantee good judgment.
At the time Henderson wrote the above, and I suspect for the rest of his life, he was besotted with Wagner. That’s enough to explain almost any error in judgment. His misappraisal of Lucia which has been refuted by more than a century of audience approval again proves Verdi’s dictum that the only critic that counts is the audience. “Look to the box office. The theater was meant to be full,” he advised a young composer who was troubled by bad reviews. Of course, it may take the audience a while to sort things out, but it eventually does. One hundred and seventy four years after its premiere Lucia Di Lammermoor is still going strong. The “dust and oblivion” that Henderson predicted for Donizetti’s opera has instead descended on him.