The Triumphal Scene of the second act of Verdi’s Aida was well underway, with all of the extras actively engaged in one of grand opera’s most elaborate ensemble displays. Wave after wave of dancers, laden with the spoils of war, completely filled the main stage.
They were followed almost immediately by the appearance of Signor Bertini (Metropolitan Opera tenor Carlo Bergonzi, in a ridiculous but no less authentic handlebar mustache) as Radamès, the victorious Egyptian general in charge. Trumpets proclaiming his arrival blare forth from every corner of the auditorium, to the spectators’ growing excitement and delight.
Just as the chorus of high priests announces the entrance of the defeated Ethiopian captives, now permanently enslaved to the haughty Egyptian empire, the prima donna portraying the slave princess Aida holds up her hand to quiet the proceedings.
Taking his cue from the singer, the wiry conductor Arturo Toscanini, played by the even wirier C. Thomas Howell, brings the massive spectacle to a halt, as the star soprano, Madame Nadia Bulichoff — interpreted by American actress Elizabeth Taylor, a notoriously flamboyant diva in her own right — makes an impassioned, impromptu speech against the evils of slavery.
Her words and glances are directed upward, toward the private parterre box where the emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro II (French actor Philippe Noiret, in a flowing gray-white beard), sits with his entourage, attempting to enjoy the show. His imperial glare strongly implies a certain lack of sympathy for the soprano’s liberal stance, as well as hints of a previous “encounter” he would rather not be reminded of at that point.
Nevertheless, Bulichoff’s show-stopping oratory hits her intended target, as the emperor dutifully rises and exits the opera, followed by his royal retinue; amid the cheers, boos, and bravos of the delirious audience members, and to the prima donna’s spontaneous shout of “Long live Brazil!”
Undeterred by the goings-on, the young maestro radiates admiration and respect for the older artist’s bold resolve, as unheralded in its way as his own appearance was earlier that same evening.
* * *
This thoroughly entertaining clip from the limited-release 1988 film Il giovane Toscanini (known by its American-English title as Young Toscanini), directed by famed auteur Franco Zeffirelli, superbly dramatizes the very real and unscheduled debut of the illustrious Italian conductor in a late nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro opera house — with the fictitious episode above excepted and duly noted.
Playing fast and loose with the facts, the picture was lambasted in serious circles for the liberties that were taken in its depiction of this oft-repeated “rags-to-riches” story. Its centerpiece quite properly focused on the young Arturo’s surprise conducting appearance.
Beginning, comically enough, with the opera company’s impresario, one Claudio Rossi (an egregiously miscast John Rhys-Davies, of Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings fame, whose looks were about as Italian as Miss Taylor’s), it details his pathetic attempts at placating an unruly theater audience so that a performance of Aida could take place there. It concludes, in all-too formulaic a fashion, with the serendipitous substitution of the unknown Arturo Toscanini, who succeeds in saving the day with his ovation-inducing podium assignment.
The tall and lanky Mr. Howell, impersonating a tall and lanky Toscanini* — while striving mightily to capture the maestro’s steely-eyed resolve and unrivaled intensity in the pit — is a far cry from the ferocious, hard-driving personality and widely-rumored scourge of symphony orchestras and opera houses that history has preserved for us.
It brings us little comfort, too, to learn that the movie never made it to Stateside. If it had, the picture would have been laughed off the screen for its absurd deviations from the norm. Surely the real Toscanini would never have tolerated any kind of disturbance, especially one coming from a boisterous Brazilian audience.
The truth would eventually win out and prove to be much more enticing than this fictionalized slice of cinema life. Or would it?
Triumph in Rio
After the deaths of Emperor Dom Pedro II and his favorite composer, Carlos Gomes, it would seem that equally adventurous and domineering figures than these two deserving individuals were needed to firmly place Brazil on the musical map. What the national opera most required at this critical juncture was a permanent home, in addition to a strong and fearless guiding spirit — preferably, a native-born spirit — who could drag the culturally backward nation into the modern musical age.
In the end, these two elusive elements would emerge from the most implausible of sources, for imbedded within this scenario was a single act of courageous defiance committed by one of classical music’s most tempestuous personae.
This act, considered by musicologists as a watershed in the history of the operatic art — an event that has long since passed into the realm of musical myth, as evidenced in the opening section — was the unexpected conducting debut of principal cellist and assistant chorus master, Arturo Toscanini, during a combative June 1886 performance of Aida by a visiting opera troupe, the Compagnia Lirica Italiana, at the Imperial Theater in Rio. (Note: There is no record of the emperor or his court having attended the opera that night, or of a mid-act disruption by one of the cast members.)
As it was, the fiery maestro from Parma was forced to step into the shoes of Brazilian composer-conductor Leopoldo Miguez, after a storm of controversy and a vociferous public outcry compelled Miguez to quit the orchestra prior to show time. The protest had much to do with the Italian company’s stubborn refusal to take orders from a contracted Brazilian “outsider” as well as to Miguez’s questionable musical abilities. It all spilled over in the press and ultimately rubbed off on the shoulders of his hapless replacement, conductor Carlo Superti, who was prevented from taking up his baton just as the opera was about to begin by a steady hail of catcalls and projectiles.
In desperation, the company’s management approached a recent conservatory graduate, the nineteen-year-old Arturo Toscanini, who was not directly involved in the squabble, as a last-minute replacement to salvage what he could of the evening and the rest of the tour. This is the officially accepted version of the events that unfolded on that remarkable occasion.
Actual period accounts, moreover, do not differ markedly from each other in that respect, despite the haphazard nature of the situation. Consequently, they have leaned more toward shining needed light on the probable causes for the young maestro’s podium bow. One in-depth retelling, by Italian author Filippo Sacchi, placed the blame for what happened squarely on maestro Miguez, who “showed himself not only incompetent in dealing with music but also with money.”
Continuing along these same lines, Sacchi records that “Miguez was a native of Rio, where he had many partisans. He wrote an open letter to the papers to announce that he was retiring from the company, which, he contended, had not fulfilled his hopes… He had been forced to abandon his post because of the unjust and preconceived prejudice manifested towards him by the company, which, owing to misguided chauvinism, had not wanted to obey a Brazilian conductor. The statement finished by accusing Superti of instigating the insubordinate action of his compatriots.”
According to Sacchi, there was nothing left for the opera company to do but to move ahead with its planned presentation of Aida: “To cancel it meant destitution for the company, which was already owed a month’s pay; it would also involve interminable complications because of the contracts already entered into with the management of the theatre, costumiers, etc.; it also involved the thorny problem of their return to Italy, which Miguez had not budgeted for. They decided, therefore, to proceed as if nothing happened. So the good Superti stepped on to the rostrum, successfully concealing his nervousness by an outward appearance of great self-confidence, exactly on time. But this was not his night.”
As Sacchi relates it, “Before he could begin, the whole audience rose to its feet with the roar: ‘Down with the Italians! Up with Brazil!’ …Some of the gentlemen from the front rows of the stalls threw themselves on the luckless Superti, dragged him to one of the side-doors, and flung him out… the players were paralysed [sic]. Two or three of the more quick-witted of them had run on to the stage to consult with the others. There, terror-stricken and perplexed, high priests, warriors, and Ethiopian slaves cowered behind the curtain, which had been lowered, frantically searching for a solution. The audience [was] shouting and whistling and gave no sign of wanting to leave the theatre. The more courageous members of the orchestra were for carrying on at all costs. But who would step on the rostrum? Who would be capable of pulling the performance together under these conditions and facing a rowdy and hostile audience?”
Who indeed? At that lowest of possible low points, a light bulb went off in someone’s head: “Suddenly somebody suggested, ‘Toscanini.’ ‘Toscanini? But Toscanini is a cellist.’ Nevertheless, the name was on everybody’s lips.” A frantic search was begun to find the young musician before the house’s wrath came down around them all.
In the interim, the company’s chorus-master, Aristide Venturi, was coaxed (“like a lamb to the slaughter”) into the unenviable position of leading the opera’s prelude, which under normal conditions would have quieted the crowd down. This was not one of those conditions, however: “At sight of him there was a roar of fury from the audience. The poor fellow jumped down and hid behind the double-basses.”
A makeshift scouting party finally located the absent Arturo. “He had been spending the day with a girl and had brought her back to his hotel, fortunately only a few yards from the theatre.”
Other versions placed Toscanini somewhere inside the opera, but decidedly not in the orchestra. Regardless of the circumstances involved — and against his not inconsiderable will — the annoyed and visibly antagonistic principal cellist was whisked off bodily to the theater, where, “To his amazement the young man found himself on the stage surrounded by the whole company. A vehement argument ensued. They explained that he was their only hope, that unless the performance continued they would not have enough money to buy food the next day, and promised to help him as much as they could. Toscanini told them that they were mad. How could they expect him to conduct? …he had never conducted in his life. He had never even held a baton in his hand.* He persisted in his refusal. It seemed unlikely that any argument would move him.
“All of a sudden, his eyes focused on… two young members of the chorus, both from Parma. One of them, in particular, gazed at him imploringly. She had a simple, honest, peasant face – a face from home. She clasped her hands as if in prayer, then the poor woman broke into Parmesan dialect: ‘Come on, up with you, Toscané!’ That settled it. It was the voice of Parma. He murmured: ‘Very well, if you want me to, I’ll try.’”
Fuming and fussing every step of the way, Toscanini was physically deposited onto the conductor’s platform, with a fair amount of cajoling from some of the orchestra members: “Nobody, not even Toscanini, remembers exactly what happened subsequently. Either the audience had grown tired of demonstrating or they had come to their senses and were behaving in a rational instead of an emotional manner; or perhaps the unexpected sight of this beardless youth had shocked them into silence. The fact is that there was complete silence in the theatre. Toscanini mounted the rostrum, tapped on the music stand, and gave the attack.”
In the absence of convincing evidence to the contrary, nothing could possibly have topped this engrossingly told, if patently artificial, example of storytelling at its best. Another contemporary take — this one compiled, in 1929, by Tobia Nicotra — tried its own hand at myth-making, while corresponding closely to the details already provided in Sacchi’s theatrically flavored rendering, especially where it concerned Brazilian maestro Miguez:
“Although his dignity had been seriously offended, Miguez made no protest during the two months spent with the company at San Paulo [sic]. But once they reached Rio, where he was at home, he published a scathing letter denouncing the disloyalty the Italians had shown him, and announced his resignation from the conductorship.”
Picking up the narrative where Sacchi had left off, Nicotra then describes what came afterward: “[T]he musicians of the orchestra acted. They knew that their nineteen-year-old ‘cellist had extraordinary talents; they divined the ‘born conductor.’ And when Toscanini seemed reluctant, they came forward and deposited him on the rostrum by main force.”
No mention of a girl or a hotel room was included in this slightly more sanitized reading. But from this point on the story would progress inexorably toward its ultimate conclusion: “The sudden appearance of this boy and the utter novelty of the situation caught the audience. Their curiosity pricked, and silence descended as though by sorcery. An impressive silence after that earlier hubbub. But was the audience really appeased or was this merely a pause for astonishment before a worse uproar?”
The answer came quickly enough. To his lasting fame and credit, the fledgling conductor’s initial exposure was a tour de force for himself and for the struggling opera company. He even succeeded in leading the work entirely from memory (an absolute necessity, given his severe myopic condition), which was thought to be an uncommon practice at the time:
“There stands young Toscanini on the conductor’s dais wearing somebody else’s dress coat – which they have got him inside of without his being aware of it – holding a baton someone has managed to thrust between his fingers. He closes the score (for he is never during his whole career to conduct except by memory), lifts his baton, sends the familiar electric glance to left and right, and gives the signal for attack. The prelude begins. Self-pledged, the orchestra makes its most heroic efforts to second this conductor in whose hands the fate of their season may possibly be saved.
“The opera closes; there is a delirium of applause. Disaster had been averted for the company; and Toscanini’s ordination in the conductorship, accomplished by the luck that had put him on the rostrum at the crucial moment, was attended by a tumult of praise. The season continued without a break in success, and the youthful leader arranged and directed eighteen operas during the company’s tour. Luck had done better than the conservatory.
“Toscanini’s fellow musicians had recognized intuitively qualities his teachers had overlooked. He had had to leave the school to find himself.”
Toscanini did indeed “find himself” in Rio. His unequivocal triumph there led to additional European and South American engagements — including a four-season stint at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, which contributed greatly toward solidifying his international reputation abroad, thus launching him on one of classical music’s most outstanding, and long-lived, conducting careers.
He went back to Italy a victorious field commander, but not before playing second “fiddle” (or second cello, as the case may be) in the February 1887 premiere of Verdi’s Otello. His long anticipated return trip to Brazil, however, occurred only in June 1940 — four and a half decades after the fact — as part of the NBC Symphony’s “good neighbor” tour of the South American coastline. Author Lisa M. Peppercorn, reporting for The New York Times, wrote rapturously of the event: “Rarely has an artist received such an impetuous, almost frenzied, reception as Toscanini got on his return to Rio de Janeiro this year.”
Wherever they went, the same ecstatic reviews followed the Italian conductor and his all-American troupe of players, in nostalgic recognition of their past and present accomplishments. The tour was lauded in the press as “one of the most elaborate good-will gestures made toward South American countries in recent years.”
The orchestra’s musicians, whom Toscanini normally kept at bay, found him to be eminently approachable: “The trip was marvelous on the way down… We spent all our time in the pool, eating all our meals on the deck – it was great,” raved bassoonist Leonard Sharrow. “And Toscanini was up on deck with all of us. We could get close to him, talk to him.” Everyone took advantage of their time together, but the moments of repose became fewer and far between and would soon pass from memory as the tour began to wind its way down:
“The day after the Fourth of July concert, the orchestra boarded the S.S. Uruguay [the same ship that brought Carmen Miranda and her band to America not one year earlier] for the last leg of the journey… The group performed in São Paulo on July 8 and in Rio the next two nights and then immediately boarded the vessel to begin the voyage home.”
Although he lived another seventeen years, during his lifetime the Maestro, as he was now called, never sought re-engagement in the country that had given him his start. And why should he have? Unlike the nearly destitute Carlos Gomes, Toscanini had found a more suitable outlet for his talents in the abundant cultural life of New York City. He spent his days directing (some would complain that he “browbeat”) an orchestra specifically tailored to his rigid performance standards, along with profiting handsomely from an exclusive RCA recording contract.
After the war, Toscanini continued to remain active in the U.S. until his retirement in 1954 at the age of 86. Seeming to wag his finger at the reader despite his previous commentary, writer Sacchi has nonetheless come back to admonish against our taking too much of what transpired earlier in Rio at face value:
“This factual account of the first occasion on which Arturo Toscanini conducted a full orchestra in public may help to dispel some of the misconceptions, which have almost become a legend. It has been presented as a simple stroke of luck. Some of his admirers even seem to believe that some sort of supernatural agency intervened and that he was transported to the rostrum by magic. In fact it should be realized that this incident was the logical result of incessant and meticulous hard work. The orchestra chose him as their leader and conductor because they were conscious that he was the only one who knew the score by heart from first note to last: for, when the company was still at São Paulo, Arturo spent most of his free time helping to rehearse singers and instrumentalists, who realized that they were weak in some part of their roles… It was no simple stroke of luck: but luck was on his side.
“When Toscanini left Rio, he took away with him more than a small sum of money. The citizens of Rio, long before the end of the season, had forgotten all about their hatred for the Italians, and now loved and admired them as much as they had formerly hated them.”
It was a lesson that did not go unnoticed by others. Recovering from his earlier fiasco, Leopoldo Miguez eventually went on to earn kudos of his own as a champion in Brazil of the works of composers Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, and Richard Wagner — an unprecedented feat for a Brazilian of that epoch. A frequent traveler to the European mainland, the native from Niterói eventually proved his worth as a competent and respectable administrator, in his capacity as the head of Rio’s Music Conservatory.
He even won a First Prize for himself in an 1890 competition, the result of which was the scoring of the Hino à Proclamação da República (“Hymn to the Proclamation of the Republic”), once known to every schoolchild until it was supplanted by the lyrics to the current Brazilian national anthem; it no doubt helped his chances that Miguez was an avowed republican sympathizer as well.
But as far as the Brazilian national opera was concerned, neither he nor the supremely gifted Toscanini would prove to be that true guiding light destined for domestic greatness.
(End of Part One)
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
* In reality, the famously short-tempered Italian maestro also came up short in the height department, although that never stopped Toscanini from engaging in a number of dalliances with a variety of leading ladies, to include an all-too well-known liaison with American soprano Geraldine Farrar.
* Here, Sacchi’s use of literary legerdemain has gotten in the way of the facts. The truth is Toscanini was thoroughly schooled in the rudiments of the conducting art during his student days at the Parma Conservatory. Still, having the young maestro state his case in this purposeful manner did make for a riveting good tale.