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As Music Director Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus prepare for the April 2016 performances of Falstaff, CSO program annotator Phillip Huscher looks back on reactions to the first performances of Verdi’s final opera in Chicago:

In August 1893, six months after the premiere of Verdi’s Falstaff at La Scala in Milan, Italy, the Chicago papers reported that the new opera was likely to be produced in Chicago in 1894. Despite the high level of curiosity about the work, it was not staged in Chicago that year. The next season, the Metropolitan Opera gave the U.S. premiere on Feb. 4, 1895, and the Chicago premiere of Falstaff followed on March 14, given at the Auditorium Theatre by the Abbey & Grau Company, with Victor Maurel, Verdi’s original Falstaff, in the title role. Another famous singer and Chicago favorite, the American soprano Emma Eames, sang Alice Ford. (In addition to her operatic appearances in Chicago, Eames had sung Mozart and Schubert with music director Theodore Thomas and the Chicago Orchestra in May 1894.) Eames had arrived in Chicago earlier in the week feeling ill — she blamed the air in Boston, where she had last appeared. Once in Chicago, she canceled a single performance as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello to be ready for the Falstaff premiere. (The Chicago Orchestra, in the closing weeks of its fourth season, was playing a concert in East Saginaw, Mich., the night of the Falstaff premiere, as part of a 36-city regional tour in honor of Thomas’ 50 years of service to American music.)

“Verdi Makes a Hit” was the headline on the Chicago Tribune review of the Falstaff performance, with the subtitle “Great Interest Manifested in the Master’s Latest Work.” Nonetheless, the Tribune reported that the audience response was somewhat muted. “It was not a performance to call forth great enthusiasm; rather one for smiling approval.” Eames did appear, although she was announced as “consenting to sing to oblige the management.” The Tribune reported that she “was not at all in good voice,” and found her acting stiff. Although the subtlety and detail of Maurel’s Falstaff tended to evaporate in the vast spaces of the Auditorium, “his portrayal was a work of eminent art.” After his “inimical” singing of “Quand’ ero paggio,” three encores were demanded. “There was much curiosity in musical circles to hear the heralded work,” wrote another reporter, “and there were many listeners who followed the music with their fingers on the score.”

Among those was the great tenor Jean de Reszke, who had sung both Otello and Radames in Chicago, and had returned to appear with the touring company in Manon and Carmen. “The audience is wonderfully quick and appreciative tonight,” he told the Tribune. “They do not seem to miss a point and are entering into the spirit of it all so thoroughly. It is a pleasure for the singers to have their work so intelligently received.”

A very young Willa Cather, a decade before she first gained great popularity with her novels O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark and My Ántonia, traveled to Chicago to cover the performance for the Nebraska State Journal, where her earliest writings were regularly published. “There is something especially wonderful and sacred about any great masterpiece in its first youth,” she wrote, “before its romanzas have become street music, before the concoctors of comic opera have stolen the choruses, while it is played by the first cast, and the ink of the score is scarcely dry.” Cather was a great lover of opera — Thea Kronberg in The Song of the Lark is one of the great fictional opera singers — and she brought all of her customary insight and sensitivity to her early newspaper work. “Something of the very personality of the composer seems to cling to it,” she wrote.

Its bloom, its freshness, the wonderful charm of its novelty, even the slight uncertainty with which some of the principals carry their parts, all emphasize that one is witnessing an absolutely new creation, a new work that did not exist yesterday, that has been called up out of nothingness and that henceforth will be a part of the art of the world. On such an occasion one feels dimly what it must be to create, to dream and to send out of one’s dreams golden song that shall be immortal.

Phillip Huscher has been the program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1987.

TOP: An Aubrey Beardsley illustration of Verdi accompanied a Chicago Tribune review, published March 5, 1893, of the local premiere of Falstaff.