Maretzek Italian Opera: Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal - American Premiere

Event Information

Academy of Music

Manager / Director:
Max Maretzek

Carl Bergmann

Event Type:

Record Information


Last Updated:
1 March 2019

Performance Date(s) and Time(s)

25 Nov 1864, 7:30 PM

Program Details

American premiere of Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal.

The performance began at 7:3pm because of the opera’s length (see review in Dwight's Journal of Music).

Scenery by Calyo.

Performers and/or Works Performed

aka Dom Sebastian, King of Portugal; Dom Sebastien; Don Sebastian
Composer(s): Donizetti
Text Author: Scribe
Participants:  Maretzek Italian Opera Company;  Fernando [bass-baritone] Bellini (role: Cameons);  Carlotta Carozzi-Zucchi (role: Zaida);  Bernardo Massimiliani (role: Sebastian);  Wilhelm [baritone] Müller (role: Ben Selim);  J. [tenor] Reichardt (role: Don Antonio);  Signor Lancioni (role: Don Enrico);  Mlle. [dancer] Auriol (role: Ernestine);  Signor Ximenes [tenor] (role: Don Luigi);  Augustino Susini (role: Giovanni);  Domenico Lorini (role: Abadialos)


Announcement: New-Yorker Staats-Zeitung und Herold, 19 November 1864.

Advertisement: New-Yorker Staats-Zeitung und Herold, 20 November 1864.

Announcement: New-York Times, 21 November 1864, 5.

Advertisement: New-York Times, 21 November 1864, 7.

Advertisement: Courrier des États-Unis, 21 November 1864.
“For the first time in America.”
Announcement: Courrier des États-Unis, 21 November 1864.

Announcement: New-Yorker Staats-Zeitung und Herold, 21 November 1864.

Announcement: New-York Times, 22 November 1864, 5.
“We are glad to notice that Mr. Carl Bergmann has been added to the Academy forces.  He is one of the best conductors in America, and, in works that depend largely on the chorus and orchestra, is without an equal.
Advertisement: New York Herald, 23 November 1864.

Announcement: New-York Times, 23 November 1864, 5.
“The entire activity and attention of the Fourteenth-street establishment are now devoted to the production of ‘Don Sebastiano,’ which takes place on Friday next.  Rehearsals are proceeding from morning till night.  The result will be an operatic spectacle that has never been equaled in this country.”
Announcement: New York Herald, 24 November 1864, 1.
“The great event of the season at the Academy will be the production of Donizetti’s grand opera of Don Sebastiano—the first time it was ever presented to an American audience—on tomorrow evening.” Includes opera’s plot.
Advertisement: New York Herald, 24 November 1864.
Full cast list given.
Announcement: New-York Times, 24 November 1864, 5.
“’Don Sebastiano’ will be given for the first time in America.  It has been in preparation for many months.”
Advertisement: New-York Times, 24 November 1864, 7.
Full cast list given.
Advertisement: Courrier des États-Unis, 24 November 1864.
Announcement: New York Post, 25 November 1864.
“The leading musical event of the season will be the long-promised production at the Academy of Music, to-night, of “Don Sebastian.” An elaborate rehearsal took place yesterday, at which the scenery—skillfully prepared by Calyo—even under the garish light of day, showed features of the most attractive order. . . .In the great funeral procession scene about three hundred persons will be on the stage. . . .In the first act, the departure of the royal bark which carries Don Sebastian to Africa will be saluted with real cannon. . . .[Regarding the music] [We] would only remind our opera-going readers that they will find it to be of a more grandiose style than is usual with Donizetti, while it also contains several of those delicate melodies which are the special charm of the Bergamasc composer.”
Announcement: New-York Times, 25 November 1864, 4.
“It is an important work, and, we have reason to know, has been placed upon the stage in a most liberal manner by Mr. Maretzek. . . . No opera of equal importance has been produced for many years.  The orchestra and chorus have been strengthened for the occasion. . . . Upward of two hundred additional persons are employed in the representation of this splendid work.
It is necessary to bear in mind that the performances commence half an hour earlier than usual. . . . The first act contains several gems, and is distinguished by a tableau of unusual beauty.”

Announcement: New-Yorker Staats-Zeitung und Herold, 25 November 1864.
Background information about the work.
Review: New York Herald, 26 November 1864, 5.

“The Opera of Don Sebastiano. The Academy of Music, perhaps, never presented so brilliant an appearance in point of numbers, elegance of costume and fashion, which the metropolis only displays on great occasions, as it did last night. The house might be compared to a skillfully composed bouquet whose color and beauty are blended by the hand of art. The event was the first production of Donizetti’s grand opera, Don Sebastiano, which has been in preparation for some time, and upon which Mr. Maretzek has employed a large amount of labor and a liberal expenditure of money. For scenic and dramatic effect this opera excels anything ever before presented at the New York Academy.

    [Synopsis of plot.]

    [With the] exterior of the tower, with the waves washing its base, Mr. Calyo, we think, achieved his greatest artistic success. In the solid aspect of the structure (which is built out on the stage) and in the water effect, usually the weakest point in scenery of this kind, he has made a really fine picture.

    From this hurried description of the work, written at a late hour at night, for the opera did not close until half-past eleven, it will be seen that its spectacular divide the attraction with its vocal and instrumental features. Of the former there is such a prodigal display that they render the mind of a time incapable of giving the score the attention that it merits. The composer, however, has provided in a measure against this objection by crowding all the gems of the opera into the fourth and fifth acts. The music of the three preceding ones seems adapted to the purpose which he had in view, being strongly marked and rich in fine choruses. What is most to be admired in the work is the even distributions which is made of its parts, all the energies of a cast, embracing nearly the entire troupe, being called into requisition. There is scarcely a role in it which cannot be made an important one by a good singer, and this fact, as well as its magnificent scenic effects, will explain the cause of the many delays that attended its production. The full appreciation due to the labors of the director will not, however, be awarded him until the opera has been heard several times. It will then be seen that he has attempted and succeeded in a task of greater difficulty than any that he has undertaken in the course of his managerial career.”

Review: New York Herald, 26 November 1864, 4.
The operatic performance last night was also an almost unrivalled one. An opera never before played in this city was produced with a magnificence and richness that no European performance could surpass, and that few can equal, and with singers whose reputation is first rate in Europe, drawn hither, as all that is good in Europe is, by the liberality of our people.
COMMENT: This is part of a larger article on New York’s emerging art culture [see AR: NYH 11/26/64, p. 4]
Review: New York Post, 26 November 1864, 1.

Don Sebastian. Donizetti and Maretzek. The Great Scenic Opera. Our opera lovers are indebted to the great original genius of the gifted Donizetti, who composed the work, and to Maretzek, whose excellent judgment and enterprising liberality transferred it to the American stage. The first performance of this admirable and imposing lyric drama took place at the Academy of Music on Friday evening, and was in every respect a complete success. A more brilliant scenic display has not been witnessed at this establishment since the production of Meyerbeer’s “Prophete,” several years ago, than is included in “Don Sebastian.” Calyo has done himself infinite credit in his department in his new scenes. The King’s palace and the port of Lisbon, in the first act, with a view of the Portuguese capital in the background; the field of Alcazzar Kebir after the battle; interior of the royal palace at Lisbon; the great square of the city; and the exterior view of the tower of Lisbon, are bits of scene painting which rise to the dignity of really artistic works. The audience was scarcely appreciative of the efforts of this American Beverly, and the respective scenes, as they were disclosed in the course of the piece, should have been more warmly applauded.

[Opera plot.]

    The audience which witnessed the first performance of “Don Sebastian” in America was very large, very undemonstrative, and apparently so occupied with the stage and scenic effects as to find little opportunity for noticing the musical features of the work. Bellini, who won to himself a lion’s share of the honors of the evening, drew the first hearty applause in his air O Lisbona. The first two acts, however, excited no enthusiasm excepting as regards the stage appointments, but the three last were successful in arousing the audience to a livelier appreciation. The quaint and highly original septet, Non so se piu nel cor, was unanimously encored, and the emotional duet, Ah per salva—a composition replete with the effective syncopated progressions Donizetti uses so felicitously—nearly received the same honor. The baritone barcarole and concluding trio also excited a high degree of interest.

    The artists were somewhat fatigued with their recent arduous rehearsals, and will sing with more vim at the coming repetitions of the opera. Zucchi and Bellini were, however, all that could be desired, and Massimillani will catch up with them next week. The secondary parts and choruses were in every way creditably represented; and the great spectacular lyric drama of Scribe and Donizetti must enjoy a long and remunerative series of performances.”


Review: New-York Times, 26 November 1864, 4.

“ACADEMY OF MUSIC—PRODUCTION OF DON SEBASTIAN.—The first of Mr. MARETZEK’S promised novelties—‘Don Sebastian’—was produced at the Academy last evening, after many weeks of elaborate and conscientious preparation. The opera is entirely new to our public—a fact which is the more remarkable, inasmuch as it is the latest and best work of a composer whose other productions are held in high esteem with us. Nearly twenty years have elapsed since SCRIBE’S excellent story of the unfortunate King of Portugal was set to music by Donizetti. It was intended for Parisians, and was produced in the gay metropolis with great splendor. At first it did not enjoy a very extended popularity. The Court was in mourning for the Duke of ORLEANS, who had been thrown from his carriage and killed. Fashionable pleasures were, for a time, forgotten in a grief that was almost universal. Subsequently, ‘Don Sebastian’ was revived with éclat, and has ever since been regarded as the masterpiece of its composer. A very short inquiry will explain why it has not been produced here. The work is long, and constructed on the largest plan of the French stage. There are five acts and as many situations. A very heavy expenditure has to be encountered before it can be submitted to the public at all, and no one has felt disposed to run the risk of such a venture, even if any have had the ability to make it. A combination of happy circumstances has induced Mr. MARETZEK to undertake the task, and ‘Don Sebastian’ must now be added to that long list of operas which he has been the first to introduce to our public, and which, with one or two exceptions, constitutes the entire repertoire of our opera house.

[summary of plot]

It will be seen that the opportunities for display are unusually great. They have been seized with true zeal by Mr. MARETZEK. Five entirely new sets of scenes have been prepared (painted by Mr. CALYO,) illustrating each act. We have not always been able to compliment this gentleman on the efforts of his brush, but on the present occasion we may safely do so. The perspective part of the “Battle-field of Selim-Kebir” is truly admirable; so also are the “Square in Lisbon,” and the “Tower” of the last act. Managerial liberality extends beyond the matter of scenery. The dresses are new and beautiful; the appointments good and appropriate. We do not often see on any stage a pageant of more imposing proportions than the funeral of the third act. Upward of three hundred persons are on the scene at the same time.

The music of DONIZETTI is generally like DONIZETTI’S music. Prolific and felicitous in the matter of melody, the composer did not always succeed in avoiding repetitions of himself. There are fragments in ‘Don Sebastian’ that remind us of earlier operas; but as a whole it contains a better suit of numbers than we can find in any other work from the same pen. The plot is piteous, and the music could easily have been heavy. It is, on the contrary, light and graceful, yet impressive. There is not a dreary statement in it from beginning to end. The stock sequences of  Italian composers have been avoided with evident care. In many of the concerted pieces there is a striking originality of motivo, and a happy and unusual distribution of the vocal parts. We would refer particularly to the septetto in the fourth act—a singularly beautiful melody in triple time, and treated for the voice as the classical composers treat a subject for instruments; namely, by passing the theme from one register to another and then uniting them in appropriate masses. We have heard nothing of DONIZETTI’S superior to this. In a different style, but equally fresh, is the recognition duet (O fausto di!) between the King  and Camoens. The marche funebre is dramatically large. It depicts the monotony of grief in few but strongly-marked tones. We could refer to other particular gems. But we desire to convey a general impression of the music, rather than to supply a series of vague illustrations. Of suave, fluent melodies there are many, and we shall expect to hear the tenor romanza which ends the second act (Deserto in terra), the baritone romanza (O Lisbonia), and the barcarolle (La notte è serena), for the same voice, speedily on all the hand-organs of the city. The finales are generally broad and effective—that to the first act being of a peculiarly popular character. The instrumental part of the score is unusually full. True greatness, after all, displays itself here, and the rank of ‘Don Sebastian’ will always be determined by its vast superiority, in this respect over other works by the same composer. The ritornelli, or connecting links between the various pieces, are varied and effective; the accompaniments are, in some instances, absolutely delicious, the coloring is strong and masterly, and the delicacy—when that quality is demanded—is such as an Italian only can command. This is the proper place to say that the opera was produced under the direction of Mr. CARL BERGMANN, and that every musical intention of the composer was fully realized by that admirable musician. The accession of his firm will and clear intellect to the direction forces of the Academy is a boon to the public.

It remains only to say that the performance was a success,--decorous as such thing [sic] are apt to be on a first night but unequivocally a success. As the opera progressed and the audience ceased to be frightened of its own judgment, the applause became general and hearty. The funeral procession was received with a burst of thorough appreciation, which as a spectacle, it fully merited. As a rule encores were avoided, but an exception had to be made in favor of the septette in the fourth act, which was repeated, and the singers subsequently called before the curtain. We shall take another opportunity of speaking of the artists. They exerted themselves creditably, but were evidently fatigued by excessive rehearsal, and not so easy in their rôles as they will be on the next representation. The scenery attracted a good deal of attention, but it was badly lighted up. There are many topics which we must reserve for another occasion.

Review: New-Yorker Staats-Zeitung und Herold, 26 November 1864.
Discussion of the work in general.  For the first performance of this opera, it was a good one, owing to the confident and calm leadership of Carl Bergmann.  The stage setting and the decorations were brilliant and surpass with their grandeur anything we have ever seen on this stage.  The theater was overcrowded as expected.  We believe that Dom Sebastien will dominate the repertoire of the Academy of Music for quite a while.

Review: New-York Times, 28 November 1864, 4.
“We have already spoken of the remarkable splendor of the production, of the merit of the music, and of the excellence of the singers.  A work of such importance is seldom heard to advantage on the first night. It improves as the artists become familiar with their parts, and the audience displays its preference for particular morceaux. We anticipate a perfect rendering of the work to-night, and a success even more marked and emphatic than that of Friday. No opera has ever been given at the Academy of Music that contains so much for the eye and ear.”

Review: New-York Daily Tribune, 28 November 1864, 5.

“Academy of Music—The production of ‘Don Sebastian’ at the Academy of Music is a convincing proof of Mr. Maretzek’s courage. Its antecedents are by no means tempting to managers. No other opera of equal pretension by Donizetti has been received with so little favor in European capitals. . . .The spectacle of an American manager seeking success through an operatic medium which has elsewhere been chiefly associated with failure, naturally awakens our esteem, for his enterprise and our admiration for his valor. We trust that he will be adequately rewarded.

    [Background on Donizetti’s previous operas and “Don Sebastian”.]

The audience at the Academy of Music last Friday evening appeared indisposed to reverse foreign judgments.  The opera was carelessly received—much more so than its own merit or that of the performance deserved.  The fact is that the Academy of Music audiences are incapable of an original expression of opinion.  They are brilliant and fashionable but brilliancy is not intelligence, and fashion is not understanding—least of all nowadays.  They are equally innocent of the power to appreciate and the faculty to censure.  As a rule they are cold and indifferent, except to the favorite blandishments of individual artists; and although enthusiastic recognition often hails the production of an important musical work, it never springs spontaneously, but is in some way predetermined by foreign report. The performance of “Don Sebastian” was entitled to better treatment than it received. The artists engaged in the representation exerted themselves handsomely and well, and the liberal intentions of the management in respect of scenic display, costumes, etc., were most abundantly and profusely manifested. The entire mise-en-scene was admirable. The details of stage effect were judiciously and impressively arranged. The production was in all way thoroughly creditable to Mr. Maretzek’s enterprise.

We have but a word to say in reference to the manner in which the ladies and gentlemen entrusted with the principal rôles acquitted themselves. Madame Carozzi Zucchi, an artist of unquestionable eminence, sang the music (not the best in the Opera) of Zaida, the Arabian girl, with extreme intensity and energy. Her acting, too, was full of dramatic fire. Sig. Massimiliani has not the voice for the part of Don Sebastian, which demands the most robust and heroic vigor, but he endowed it with all that graceful method and delicate feeling could supply. In the cavatina at the close of the second act, which, as a necessity of the situation, is mostly tender and subdued, he produced his best effect. Sig. Lorini appeared unequal to the inferior part of Abayaldo. He injured the effect of the fine septette by singing out of tune from the first note to the last. This fault was also too frequent in the performance of Sig. Bellini, who fulfilled the part of Camoens. Sig. Susini, the regent, was majestic and voluminous as ever, in voice and person. He sang sturdily and effectively. If he could subjugate his tendency to overwhelm surrounding voices, it would be better for the effect of his own part as well as those of all others concerned. The chorus on Friday evening was good—well-trained and not scant. The orchestra was sufficiently full, and was capitally conducted by Mr. Carl Bergmann. We regard the production, altogether, as an artistic success. Whether it was a popular one we shall hope to determine hereafter, as soon as the audiences become emboldened to express themselves upon the subject.”

Review: Musical Review and World, 03 December 1864.

R: MRW 12/03/64 – “Donizetti’s opera, “Don Sebastian,” was performed for the first time last week, before a very crowded audience. The plot is somewhat of an African story, and rather dark-colored and cloudy; it is not quite so incomprehensible, as that of Meyerbeer's much anticipated opera, but it has its full share of nonsense and stupidity. We wonder whether it was the gloomy aspect of this opera, and the gloomy reception it received almost everywhere in Europe, which induced Meyerbeer to hold back his opera so long. It is fortunate that African opera in general is of a more cheering character, else our negro minstrels would fare very badly.

[Brief plot description.]

The music gives the impression that the composer intended to do his very best with it. We are told that he spent fully two months upon it. Considering that it usually took him a fortnight to compose an opera, we must give him credit for having made a very extraordinary effort. Well, it cannot be denied, that the treatment throughout shows care and consideration for truthful expression, as much as it is in the power of any Italian composer to give it. The orchestration is undoubtedly the best Donizetti has written for any of his operas. It is anti-Italian, while the melodies are chiefly Italian, although this opera was composed for the French stage. However, these very melodies show that it is not always wise for an Italian composer to be careful; for they lack, with very few exceptions, invention. It seems Italian music must be dashed off, else it becomes tedious. Any other of the wholesale operas of Donizetti has more real melodic power than “Don Sebastian,” although in some respects this is undoubtedly the best he has written.

It gives us pleasure to say, that the mise en scene of the opera was exceedingly good, and that the performance, under the direction of Mr. Carl Bergmann was highly creditable to all concerned.”

Review: Dwight's Journal of Music, 10 December 1864, 357.

“Dom Sebastian” has at last been produced in the most magnificent and gorgeous style, with a liberality quite unusual in opera managers, but a most pleasing and meritorious characteristic of Max Maretzek. To assume the sure success of a new and unknown opera, or even of one that has met with great success abroad, and to prepare for its production, with costly scenery and dresses at a large outlay of means, requires the nerve of such a man as Max Maretzek, and it is to be hoped that his judgment in the present instance may received such hearty approval and support, that his treasury may not be empty, and that the substantial appreciation of such labor and pains may lead him again into the field of novelties, to bring back to us such as may be both for his and our enjoyment and improvement.

    “Don Sebastian” was presented for the first time on Friday evening last, after devoting the whole of Thanksgiving day to a full rehearsal. The Academy was thronged, and “standing room only” was early seen on the walls of the lobby. Seats for this and tomorrow evening had also been secured to nearly the full capacity of the house. The time for commencing was made half an hour earlier, on account of the length of the performance, and it was eleven and a half o’clock before the curtain fell upon the closing scene. . . .

    To attempt a detailed account of the music of the opera, would be very unsatisfactory, and to occupy too much space. To be appreciated it must be heard and studied. As yet, no definite criticism of the press has been published, although many columns have been devoted to the matter, headed with “Don Sebastian” and “Donizetti,” and “Maretzek,” in the linked hand style. In description, the press has been more than usually generous, and has given the opera a large amount of valuable space. “Don Sebastian” is one of the latest and best works of Donizetti, although it is nearly a score of years since it was written. . . .

    [Description of the opera’s plot and scenery.]

    The music of the opera cannot be fairly reviewed upon only one hearing, but it has much in it that will be sung and played at every concert and by every band. The novelty of the scenery attracts and charms the eye, to the great disadvantage of the ear, and it must be heard more than once.”