March 6th is the anniversary of the premiere of Verdi’s La Traviata. The most popular of all his operas, Traviata had an unfortunate beginning. Based on the popular novel, La dame aux camelias, by Alexandre Dumas, fils, Verdi had attended a performance of the play in Paris, and came out of the performance with ideas for an opera whirling around his head. It wasn’t perhaps the best time to be contemplating a new work. Verdi had only just finished Rigoletto, and was currently working with two librettists with multiple plans for operatic projects, La Fenice in Venice was eager for a new Verdi work, but Verdi was worried following his experiences with Rigoletto, that the Venetian censors might not be happy with the storyline of Traviata, the tale of a high class courtesan and her young lover.
He was right to be concerned…
La Fenice reluctantly agreed to the staging of La Traviata, but there were going to be rules. One of the most important was that Traviata could not be staged in modern dress. It was perfectly alright to have a “bad girl” from the past, but presumably things were different now. To me the party scenes in Traviata have always epitomised mid-nineteenth century Parisian glamour; but the opening night audiences were treated to scenes from the France of Cardinal Richlieu, and the world of the Three Musketeers (ironically enough written by Alexandre Dumas, pere).
There was more trouble in store. Even before the opera made it to opening night, there were concerns about the ability of the leading soprano, Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, to carry the role. These were confirmed at the premiere with grumbles from the audience that she was too old (she was 38) and too fat to look like a woman dying of consumption. Despite some cheers from the audience at the end of Act I, there was grumbling throughout, and Verdi concluded sadly after the performance “Last night was a failure. Was it my fault or the singers? Only time will tell”. Some extensive re-writes of the interior acts led to a revised version which was first performed in 1855, the audience response this time was much more positive. Despite a rather strange debut in England (the church advised against attending, and Queen Victoria didn’t go to a performance, though apparently she enjoyed the music in private), the opera went from strength to strength, and now tops the list of most frequently staged operas. There’s even been a flash mob rendition on the Milan underground.
Verdi, I’m sure, would have taken comfort in the fact that he’s not alone in having an unfortunate review. Puccini’s La Boheme also in the top five of most performed operas received a devastating review from critic, Carlo Bersezio, who maintained that “La Boheme will leave no great trace on our lyric theatre”. Carmen (another member of the top five) was also snubbed as “…dull and obscure”.
Difficult premieres seem to be a composer’s lot; and you may need a thick skin to cope with them. Rachmaninoff, with whom Susi shared some slow moments a few weeks ago, suffered a severe bout of depression following the premiere of his First Symphony. Rather like Verdi with Traviata, many of the problems seem to have lain with the performers rather than the work itself. There have been persistent rumours that the conductor of the premiere, Alexandre Glazunov, was drunk, though Rachmaninoff loyally had nothing to say about this. The programme of the premiere, which consisted of three new works, was not conducive to a fair reception either; and the musicians, probably with the burden of so much new music were desperately under-rehearsed. A savage attack by composer and critic, Cesar Cui, who compared the symphony to the ten plagues of Egypt, and suggested that it would be enjoyed by the inmates of an asylum in Hell, was too much for the fragile psyche of the young composer. Rachmaninoff entered a period of writer’s block, and it would be four years before a major new work was completed – his triumphant Second piano concerto.
Rachmaninoff wasn’t alone in being savaged by the Russian music critics, indeed his beloved Tchaikovsky’s First piano concerto was compared to the world’s first pancake “a flop” (the Russian version of “Practice makes perfect”)
As far as popular music is concerned, there have been a fair number of hiccups too. I’m sure that the New York Times still cringes every time the review of a young Elvis Presley is mentioned – “Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability. His specialty is rhythm songs which he renders in an undistinguished whine.”
Some reviews are just so awful, that you end up laughing out loud at them, though I feel for the group, The National, at the receiving end of this one:
With a different singer they would just be bland and uninspired, here they come off as supremely unlikable… In the absence of a band with personality, all that’s really left to focus on is the singing… the awful, awful singing.”John Langmead. Pop Matters, 12th April, 2005
Despite a dodgy review though, The National, nearly 20 years on, continue to perform, and people still listen to Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony (indeed, I’m listening to it now). In the end, whatever the critics may say, it’s the individual response to music that matters; and although to one critic Sibelius’ violin concerto may be “a polonaise for polar bears” or simply “far too complex, far too busy, dark and dingy”, in a different time and place, the same critic may declare, as indeed Donald Tovey of the polonaising polar bears did, that “I have not met a more original, a more masterly, and a more exhilarating work than Sibelius Violin Concerto.” Music has that effect, even a critic can change their mind.