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22 November 2013
“The magnificent Vestvali – whose charms some years ago ‘were wont to set the table in a roar’ – no; that quotation don’t fit in here; - whose charms once set our young bloods wild with ecstasy – is to give us a season of English opera at the Winter Garden. Think of that now. We learn that she has taken the house for four weeks, commencing on Monday, the 11th of May.”
“Vesvali [sic] commences her season of English opera at the Winter Garden playing Gluck’s ‘Orpheus,’ a work not strictly English—but as English as a good many plays. . . . Vesvali [sic] will, we are sure, be a worthy representative of the hero, and not only charm the multitude but soften the critics. For the rest we learn that new scenery and dresses have been prepared, and we know that Mr. Anschutz is devoting much time and attention to the rehearsals. So ‘Orphee’ let it be, only we are sorry it is not ‘Orphee and Eufer’[sic].”COMMENT: What does that last line mean? We know it’s going to be in English, but aside from that, is this ‘Orpheus’ a different opera entirely from ‘Orpheus and Eurydice,’ or is this some sort of topical joke? The last line must be a play on words.
“Vestvali will inaugurate a season of English opera . . . when will be presented for the first time in America Gluck’s celebrated spectacular opera, ‘Orpheus, or the Trials of Love.’ [T]he house has been newly decorated and lighted [and] a grand corps de ballet has been provided, and that the orchestra will be under the direction of Carl Anschutz – which is a guarantee for its efficiency.”
“‘New Eras’ seem to be the order of the day, not only in warfare and politics, but in every other development of civilization. This past winter has seen the successful establishment of German Opera in America, which as an ‘institution’ has been in abeyance as long as was the Italian Opera, now so firmly fixed. No systematic and thoroughgoing attempt has heretofore been made to place English Opera upon a plane with habitually recognized public amusements. We have had charming but brief glimpses at its beauties through the skillful instrumentality of Miss Pyne, Miss Richings and Miss Adelaide Phillips, but nothing permanent has resulted. At last the same hand which so handsomely guided the German Opera to public favor, has taken hold English Opera. When we know that Mr. Carl Anschutz is to be the conductor of the musical elements of the new enterprise, we have at the outset assurance of experience, fidelity and rare skill in the most important position, though perhaps the chief attraction of the whole affair will be the welcome reappearance of Madame Felicita Vestvali, to whom we are indebted for the enterprise itself. This lady’s reputation for beauty of person and of voice needs no trumpeting. We are glad to see that the first attempt is to be made with Gluck’s celebrated ‘Orphée,’ a lyric, comic opera, with which all Europe, and especially all Paris, has been simply wild. The incidents, based on a burlesque rendering of the classic story of the luckless Orpheus hunting after his abducted wife, Eurydice, in the infernal realm of Pluto, are side-splitting if not heart-rending, and the music brilliant and fascinating beyond words. Madame Vestvali, who seems to be at once commercially and musically and par excellence the prima donna, appears as Orpheus.”
Comment: The writer seems to be confusing Gluck’s reform opera, which was revived in Berlioz’s edition with Offenbach’s comic opera Orphée aux Enfers.
“The world of art is not always faithless to its first loves. They who wield the palette and brush have recently gone back to the examples of medieval times in their search for simplicity and truth. Whether the pre-Raphaelites have succeeded is a question which we do not propose to discuss. In robbing the ancients we are governed more by who we can quickly lay our hands on than by what is most valuable. Following the example of painting, the sister art of music—after toying dully with the ‘future’—has also directed her attention to the past. Gluck, who has been dead and buried for the greater part of a century, has been ‘revived.’ The good people of Paris brought him from his grave, and galvanised him into life, and put him on his musical pins once more, and gave him ‘a run’ in the gay Metropolis. Revived, rescusitated [sic] and restored in this manner, the old gentleman is in fine fig for a new career. Indeed, the proof of this is found in the fact that he has already trotted across the Atlantic to America. Mlle. Vestvali, a lady who will be remembered as a favorite contralto during the seasons of Grisi and Mario, signalized her rentrée upon the American stage last night, by the production of the Maestro’s ‘Orpheus.’ The version performed was nearly the same as that recently played with so much success in the French capital. It differs from the ordinary one in being denuded of certain modern excresences [sic] and inversions, and in following strictly the poem as originally written, and, historically considered, much of the interest of the revival lies in this fact, for Gluck was a reformer who, with real genius, attempted to do a hundred years ago, what the ‘School of the Future’ pretends to do now. He has himself written very explicitly on the subject of Italian opera, and his theory corresponds singularly with the wordy doctrine of the modern non-melodists. It is—broadly stated—that music should be subservient to poetry; that melody, except as a temporary vehicle of expression, is not the sole end and aim of composition, and that ordinary recitative, where a voluble singer gallops through a lengthy speech to a single chord, is nonsensical and childish. The converse of this is that a man may use every kind of elaboration, provided he does not stop the action of the piece by the superfluous introduction of melodies that are intended only for the popular ear. It is difficult now to estimate the extent of Gluck’s influence on art. It is conceded that he imparted largeness to the prevalent Italian style, and gave to the scena a simple intensity and an earnestness that were unknown until then. What was good in his theory was long ago absorbed into the ordinary practice of opera writing; what was bad is not likely to be accepted by the present or any other revival. The general public, however, in listening to ‘Orpheus,’ will be struck with the fact that it is melody alone that now imparts zest to the work; melody that is old-fashioned, to be sure, but still, simple, graceful and tender. M. Berlioz, the eminent critic, regards it as the best kind of melody the world has ever seen, or is every likely to enjoy, but on this subject M. Berlioz—a bad melodist himself—is not absolutely infallible. The popular saliencies of the opera are certainly good or they would not have lasted so long in the public’s fickle esteem.
There is, strictly speaking, no plot to ‘Orpheus,’ the dialogue consisting merely of an expansion of the old mythological legend of Orpheus’ descent to Hades in search of his lost wife Eurydice, with just sufficient progress in the narration to maintain interest. The libretto is very short, and, in the English version, very weak, inelegant and false. Nevertheless, we would recommend everyone to purchase the book, for, what with the opening statement, that the opera on its recent revival was played for more than 300 nights, and the ‘introduction’ to the ‘argument,’ giving us a brief insight into heathen mythology, and the ‘argument’ itself dwelling on points that are not even referred to in the book, and the amazing harangue ‘to artist,’ by Felicita Vartvali [sic], and the memoir of that lady’s extraordinary triumphs are here and elsewhere, it is assuredly an extraordinary publication, and cheap at any price.
There are no male singers required in this opera, the rôle of Orpheus having been written for a contralto. A hundred years ago there were few male singers, and then only the pitiable castrati, for whom Gluck had no liking. Mlle. Vestvali looks the hero-musician to perfection, and from the first to the last is comparatively unembarrassed in her impersonation. The plastic opportunities of the past are very great, and it is at least as important to have one whose attitudes are graceful as one who can give due importance to the music. In the last named respect Mlle. Vestvali is also excellent. Her dashing and earnest style is not ill-fitted to the tribulations of the forlorn youth. She was frequently applauded; and after her very difficult scena of the first act, was called out and bouqueted in the most liberal manner. We may mention here that the Drummond light used on the stage is overdone and becomes tiresome. The introduction of the same light in the body of the house is by no means a happy inspiration.
The small, but interesting rôles of Love and Eurydice, were sustained by Miss Geary and Mme. Rotter, in a creditable way. The first-named lady has a pleasing soprano voice, and sings without embarrassment.
Some new scenery has been painted for the occasion, and the dresses are clean and neat; but there is no pretence [sic] on these subjects, nor would it be justified. The orchestra and chorus, under the unfailing direction of Mr. Carl Anschutz, are all that can be desired. Some of the most enjoyable traits of the work will be found in these departments.
We do not anticipate a powerful uprising on the subject of ‘Orpheus,’ and are pretty sure it will not run three hundred nights in New-York. But it is a curious and charming work, and one that, to the public as well as the musical student, will be found full of interest. We are sorry the English version has not been more carefully prepared, although, as the two principal artists and the entire chorus are English, it is perhaps of little consequence. The work will be repeated to-night, and every night, with the exception of Thursday and Saturday. (On the latter day there will be a matinée.) Judging from the favor with which it was received last night, it will steadily make its way with the public.”
“‘Orpheus,’ Gluck’s opera, was sung last night at the Winter Garden Theatre by Vestvali and her company, chief among the latter being Madame Rotter and Miss Geary. The attendance was large and the applause hearty. Those who enjoy simple intensity, and a singular quality of melody beautifully adapted to the situation of the moment, and who can glean pleasure by studying the structure of a work, separating the orchestral from the vocal, will find a frequent hearing of ‘Orpheus’ very satisfactory. Those who must have the sort of dramatic evolution which is seen to perfection in the modern opera will probably find this revival dull. The singing and action of Vestvali are to be very highly commended, and warm praise must be given to the orchestra, guided by the magnetic baton of Anschutz. The mounting of the piece is as good as could have been expected when the managerial spirit which rules most theatres is taken into account. That some new scenery and a number of clean dresses were added to the treasures of the establishment for this occasion is a subject for congratulation among those who attended the opera.”
“‘Orpheus’ was given again last evening at Winter Garden with great success. Mlle. Vestvali confirmed the favorable impression produced by her first performance of the role. In fact, it may be said that last evening the opera was heard to better advantage than on Monday. The choruses evinced careful rehearsals, while the orchestra played with great ensemble and effect.
The house was filled by a most fashionable audience. As on the first evening the warmest applause was bestowed upon the efforts of Mlle. Vestvali. She seemed to act with even more dramatic effect than on Monday. The uncertainty of a first representation was passed, and she gave herself up to her role with an ardor which drew from the public continued marks of approval. The beautiful music gains upon being heard, while it was noticeable that the artists who assist Mlle. Vestvali sang and acted much more acceptably than on the first night of the opera. In the fourth act the grand scene between Orpheus and Eurydice (Mme. Rotter) was very successfully rendered. Mlle. Vestvali sang ‘I have lost my Eurydice’ with intense feeling and expression. She was really admirable in this act. Mme. Rotter also acted and sang most effectively.
Miss Geary, as Love, seemed more at ease and sang more pleasingly. Her voice is well cultivated but her actions are, as yet, too much restrained. She was, however, quite successful.”
“The debut of the English opera under the auspices of Mme Vestvali has been very happy. Orphée obtained a complete success as music and as interpretation. The work of Gluck holds the bill for all the nights of the week except tomorrow.”
“Vestvali will open the Winter Garden to-night, for an operatic season, commencing with Gluck’s ‘Orpheus,’ to be sung in English. . . . Vestvali has recently had an opportunity to study Mme. Viardot-Garcia’s wonderful performance of the part of ‘Orpheus,’ as well as the whole of the opera as produced under Berlioz’s direction in Paris.”
“New York, May. 26…Last night, Mlle. Vestvali inaugurated a season of opera at Winter Garden, the scene of her former success. Glucks ‘Orpheus,’ an English translation of the libretto—was the announcement for the evening, with Mdlle. Vestvali as Orephus; Mme. Rotter, Euridice; Miss Geary, the Goddess of Love; Miss Kemple, Hymen; Miss Drome, a Blessed Spirit; and Mr. Fouche, Pluto; with a corps of assistants in the shape of nymphs, spectres, furies, demons, spirits, &c. A glance at the cast will lead to the correct supposition that Mlle. Vestvali and Mme. Rotter have the fate of the opera resting upon them. Such is the fact. The first three acts depend solely upon the vocal and dramatic success of Mlle. Vestvali. The music of the opera is very pleasing, the general nature of it sad and plaintive. The mise en scene is very creditable, and, although it is a matter of considerable doubt as to its meeting with the success here it did in Paris, yet it will be attractive for a number of representations. Mlle. Vestvali looks as beautiful as ever and still may claim the favored title ‘Vestvali the Magnificent’. [Signed] T.W.M.”
“…The most noteworthy event of the week just closed, was the performance of an English version of Gluck’s opera of ‘Orpheus,’ produced at the Winter Garden by Vestvali. The fear we expressed in our last that the prices of admission were too high for the masses, seems to have been well-founded, for business throughout the week proved very bad, scarcely half a house being present on any one evening. A full account of the opera is given in another article [see below]. Vestvali, with her superb limbs and exquisite vocalisation [sic], was unequal to the task of attracting a large audience even on the opening night, and since then the habitues have been more shy than ever. High prices won’t go down in New York, that’s certain, and the sooner public performers comprehend this fact, the better will it be for themselves.
…The experiment of English Opera was again essayed on Monday night, May 25th, at the Winter Garden, under the auspices of M’lle. Felicita Vestvali, who has collected a troupe of first class artists to assist her in the enterprise. The opera selected was Gluck’s famous ‘Orpheus, or the Trial of Love,’ or rather, an English adaptation of it. This opera was written nearly a century ago, but it is nevertheless a model composition, and is especially noted for its beautiful melodies. Indeed, we have no doubt it has been the fountain from which many a modern operatic composer has quaffed many a draught of melody. At its revival, in Paris, a few years since, it achieved an unparalleled success. This is the first time it has been presented here. On account of the rather high scale of prices that had been introduced, we did not expect to see the house very crowded, and it was not; but still there was a very good attendance, both in point of character and numbers. The parquet and orchestra stalls were well filled, and there was a fair attendance in the second circle, and about twenty or thirty in the upper tier. Had the usual charge of 25 cents been adopted for the latter locality, it would no doubt have been filled. In the back part of the parquet, two calcium lights were introduced to allow the fashionables to see each other in that part of the theatre, that being an important part of opera going, whether to Italian or English representations. A quarter of an hour after the time appointed, the curtain rose upon the first scene, displaying Orpheus—Miss Vestvali—mourning at the tomb of his loved spouse, Euridice. He is attended by goddesses in hoops and pink tights, and by some of the second class gods in night gowns. Hymen—Miss Kemble—stands by the tomb, and condoles with the mourners. After the aforementioned goddesses have placed flowers on her tomb, Orpheus bids them all retire, and he then invokes the assistance of the gods to enable him to visit the realms of Pluto, and regain his bride. Cupid—Miss Geary—then appears, and makes a covenant with him, whereby he is permitted to enter upon a severe trial of his love, and visit Hades. This closes the first act, the singing of both being very fine in this introductory act. The second act is a very brief one, and in the scene is supposed to represent the infernal regions, with a view of a number of furies and demons. The effect, however, is entirely spoiled by the inferior scenery and stage appointments, and the disguise assumed by the attendant goddesses of the previous scene, is too flimsy not to be apparent to a child. Pluto is here seen in his realm, and presently Orpheus appears, and after subduing the fury of the demons by his music, he finally gets Pluto to consent to his visiting the Elysian Fields in search of Euridice, who is among the good spirits that congregate in that mythological paradise. The departure of Orpheus closes this act. The third introduces what the bills represent as the as the Elysian Fields, as described in the heathen mythology, from which we should judge that the word fields was a misnomer, inasmuch as the Winter Garden view gave us little else but water and coral rocks, of the Seven Sister style of make up. In this act, the goddesses of the first act—not all, however—throw off their hoops, and appear in Roman costume; but the few we refer to still adhere to the pink tights and hoops. As the good spirits—only third proof by the way—pass in procession before Orpheus, he seeks to recognize Euridice, and is beginning to despair, when the last one appears, and is soon clasped to his arms. Previously, however, the Spirit of Good—Miss Drome—comes on the stage, and sings a solo; and on Monday night she broke down in an attempt to reach a high note. As she went off, her friends threw her boquets [sic], but they were picked up by the supernumeraries, and they really walked off the stage with them. The departure of Orpheus with his bride closes this act with an ‘impressive tableaux.’ The bill describes the scene of the 4th act as ‘A Thick Forest,’ but we didn’t see it. In fact, the scenery throughout was of the most mediocre kind, and the stage appointments no better. It was as bad as the opera scenery at the Brooklyn Academy. The singing and acting of Miss Vestvali and Madame Rotter—Euridice—in this last act, was worthy of the highest praise. The whole scene is one of the most difficult and trying to any opera on the stage, and from first to last it was splendidly and artistically rendered by both. Orpheus engaged that he would not look on the face of Euridice until he had brought her to earth, and the penalty being that she was to go back to the land of spirits again if he did. Euridice, not knowing the agreement, is distressed at his apparent neglect, and, by her pleadings, finally, after putting him to a severe trial, induces him to look upon her, which he does, and she immediately dies. The exquisite melody which Orpheus sings over his lost one, is the gem of the opera, and it was beautifully sung by Miss Vestvali. Indeed, her splendid personal appearance, her admirable acting, and her truly artistic vocalization, are the features of this production of the opera. She was ably assisted by Madame Rotter—an excellent actress and splendid singer—and by Miss Geary, whose vocal performances were perfectly satisfactory, but her amateurish action in the movement of her arms in the first act, was a drawback. In all other respects, save, perhaps, the choruses, which were pretty good, and orchestral performances, which were first-class, the manner of the production of the opera was everything but creditable to those who superintended the arrangements connected with it. Among the audience we observed a numerous delegation of the operatic and theatrical profession. Madame Johannsen was the observed of observers by her German friends. There was also present a full representation of the genus critics. We like one arrangement, and that is, that reserved seats are not charged extra for. But few present, we presume, were benefitted in their interpretations of the play, by the fact that it was English, and not Italian opera, that was being presented. What with the Italian English of Miss Vestvali, the German English of Madame Rotter, although both did well in this respect, considering the difficulties they have to encounter, and the want of clear enunciation by those who sang in English, it was only here and there that one could understand what they were saying. This opera is one that requires the best of scenic effects and stage appointments to do it justice, and first-class artists with full choruses, to give its beauties in full force; and under such circumstances it would indeed be an operatic treat worth listening to. But in a small theatre, with poor scenery, and poorer stage appointments, and with but half-a-dozen supernumeraries when there should be twenty or thirty, and with but two or three good artists to fill the numerous roles of the opera, it cannot achieve the success it is entitled to; if it does, it will be from the intrinsic merits of the opera itself, and the capital singing of the two prominent vocalists.”
“This opera was given every day last week at the Wintergarden [sic], under the management of Signora Felicita Vestvali, with Mr. Carl Anschütz as conductor. It was rendered in English, a circumstance which gave the general public an opportunity to judge for themselves of the truth of expression, which is one of the chief features of the music of Gluck. The English version was by Miss Fanny Malone Raymond, with whose valuable services as a translator our readers especially must be fully acquainted. It is difficult to say, whether the opera was a great success; the fact, that it could be given every night before a tolerably large and highly discriminative audience, is in our opinion a sufficient proof, that at least for the greater part of our amateurs it was found attractive. It cannot be denied, that, apart from all historical and artistic considerations, the work in itself offers a great many points of attraction to every one, whether musical or not, who has not lost all appreciation of what is true and good. One need not be an artist, or a musician, or a historian, to be moved by the mournful exclamations of Orpheus over the loss of his wife, his entreaties to the furies to give him passage to the realms where his Euridice dwells, his meeting her, his losing her again by breaking the condition upon which he was allowed to depart with her, and his final reunion with her. We say, all these moments of poetry and grandeur must be appreciated by every one, in spite of their having been clothed with music of the past century, music which is thin and old-fashioned and which has long since become familiar to all of us through the operas of Mozart. But the question arises, whether with all our modern resources of orchestration and instrumentation, with all our romanticism, we could produce music to these scenes, which would be more powerful and more effective. One of the great secrets of Gluck’s power was, that he trusted to the effect of the situation itself, and abstained from making unnecessary additions. Gluck has proven, that whenever the poet gave him an opportunity to be dramatic, he could be so, and not fail to make a hundred years after his opera was first produced, a deep and not to be forgotten impression with his music. We will not dwell here on the so-called reform, which Gluck attempted for the first time in his opera. All those of our readers who have perused ‘Gluck and the opera,’ by Marx, which we published in the last year’s volume, will remember the particulars connected with this reform and this opera. The musician who listens to this music, ought never to forget, that it was written a hundred years ago, at a time, when quite a different style of opera was relished by the courts and the people. The musician ought further to consider that, however small and thin the orchestration may appear to him now, it represented at that time several novel features, especially with regard to the accompaniment of the recitatives. We have become a mighty people in music, since Gluck wrote his great operas, but in dramatic music, with exception of mere technical means, it can scarcely be said, that we have gone beyond him.
The mise-en-scene of the opera was, under existing circumstances, all that could be desired, especially in the first act; the effect of the second act might have been improved, by enlarging the field of action. The whole scene was too much concentrated in the foreground. The ballet too might have been better.
Signora Vestvali gave a very powerful and effective delineation of the character of ‘Orpheus,’ especially in the second and third performance. She has proved to possess the right ambition, and to be a worthy artist, and we sincerely hope our amateurs will know how to appreciate this.”
Part of larger review of multiple operas.
“New York, June 6.—The past musical season has been, on the whole, a rich one for lovers of music in New York…
‘Orpheus’… proved an unequivocal failure as might have been almost surely predicted; for this opera requires an undoubtedly great artist in the principal part, a perfect mise en scene, beyond the possibilities of the Winter Garden, and an essentially music and art loving audience.
Mlle. Vestvali’s performance of ‘Orpheus’ was doubtless modeled after that of Viardot-Garcia, which she must have frequently studied in Paris, but most certainly after it, if we may believe half the raptures of Berlioz, Scudo, Fiorentino, &c., on the wonderful personation of that great artist, who, never handsome past middle age, and with a failing voice, had yet the power to enchain by the magic of her genius, the attention of enraptured audiences, for upwards of three hundred nights,—audiences in part composed of people who went to Paris from England, Italy, and Russia, solely to hear Garcia in ‘Orpheus.’ Mlle. Vestvali has great physical beauty, yet little feminine charm; she astonishes, but she does not touch or attract. She did not fill our ideal of the poet Orpheus, who, we imagine from his history (be the fact in part or not), must have been somewhat effeminate,—either in person or action; her gestures and attitude were too ostensibly intended rather to exhibit herself than the character or composer. Neither was her voice, and especially her school, sufficient for the great music she undertook to render.
Little Madam Rotter was more satisfactory in the single scene allotted to Euridice; she was, at least, honest, earnest, and touching. The scenic effect was mediocre and often incorrect; the modern ballet skirts, parading round the tomb of Euridice, the first act, were enough to throw ridicule on the whole opera. It is much to be regretted that the right spirit did not preside over this revival; how many people, unacquainted with the score, and knowing no better, will judge of the sublimely simple melodies, the deeply truthful expression, the dramatic effect of Gluck, merely from the manner which they heard all this rendered at the Winter Garden, and will, perhaps, deem the weak points the performance those of the great master! May Garcia’s self come here one day, and undeceive New York, we pray! Even the critics (Heaven save the mark!) discoursed unknowingly about the ‘trotting’ of this ‘old fogy’ composer across the Atlantic!!”