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A Crescendo of Passions: Behind the Scenes at the Premiere

By Mirka Zemanová

By 1910, when the great Czech soprano Emmy Destinn (1878-1930) created Minnie in La fanciulla del West, she was a celebrated diva. She appeared regularly in Berlin, at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden (her Butterfly was unforgettable), and at the Met. Puccini had therefore counted on her for the part of the Girl. He sent her the score in August 1910, while she was resting at a country estate in Bohemia which she used to rent for the summer; like Puccini, she loved hunting and was a crack shot.

Caruso—the first Dick Johnson—arrived in New York in October, ready for the rehearsals. But still no Destinn. The soprano Frances Alda, Destinn's colleague at the Met and the first wife of the Met's director, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, recalled in her autobiography (Men, Women and Tenors) the frantic exchange of cables across the Atlantic:  "‘What's the matter with the woman,' Gatti wailed. ‘First she is coming by this boat. Then she wires she will take some other boat. Then, when she finally sails, she leaves the ship at Cherbourg because she doesn't like it, and waits over for some other vessel. What will Puccini say if he arrives, and still we have no Girl?'"

Destinn arrived in New York on the day the season opened and set to work. She was a phenomenally quick learner, but Fanciulla was hard work and Toscanini probably the only man she truly feared. Her struggle with both the music and the conductor is recorded in a series of letters to her Prague lover Jaroslav Otto, son of a famous Prague publisher. "Tonight," Destinn writes to him on November 17, 1910, "Aida is on—I don't know what it's going to be like, Toscanini will probably make it sticky for me, as he is absolutely livid with me…Puccini arrives tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, they will probably make a great to-do of it."

In fact, Puccini arrived the same day, and saw the performance: "Aida is already behind me," Destinn writes to Prague on November 18, "a good performance, Maestro Puccini was at the theatre and twice came to tell me how happy he was with me; Gatti has also appeared but we quarrelled. I have promised him that I shall learn the whole part of Minnie within a week, and I shall keep that promise."

Written almost daily, Destinn's letters acquire the character of a diary. On November 23, with rehearsals in full swing, she writes to Prague:  "Toscanini is so angry with me again that he won't even speak to me. He is full of bile and last night he carried on like an absolute fool. He is a stuck-up man who thinks he understands everything better than everyone else, and he even quarrelled with Puccini about tempi. I'm sure they'll soon be at each other's throats, there is no doubt about that; I myself get treated like a schoolgirl and what I think he'd really like is to buy a cane to use on me. Puccini is truly patient and I'm immensely surprised that he lets himself be lectured by the man—that is a totally private affair which has no place in a rehearsal room!"

News about the difficulties of the part soon began to spread. "Mary Garden in Chicago has returned the part of Minnie," writes Destinn on November 24, "she says that she hasn't got enough time to study it, but the main problem is probably that she could never manage to sing it." Asked whether the refusal was a rumor, Mary Garden, a renowned Mélisande, sent a characteristic telegram:  "No rumor!  Stern reality.  Have all I can attend to with my French works." 1

Before the premiere on the 10th, Destinn only took part in one other production. "I sing little," she writes on November 27, "as I need all my strength for wearisome rehearsals untroubled by moods—Maestro really can ruin all one's joy in the role, this is all that he succeeds in achieving by his ‘furynini.'"

Yet Puccini's admiration for the conductor knew no bounds:  "Caruso is magnificent in his part, Destinn not bad but she needs more energy. Toscanini, the zenith!—kind, good, adorable—in short, I am content with my work and I hope for the best. But how tremendously difficult it is, this music and the staging!"2

"You ask if Fanciulla was hard work," Destinn writes to Jaroslav on December 8, "no, it was drudgery, digging for gold and malaria, ten hours a day, of which two to four hours were with Romei (the producer), the rest with the Fever Toscanini. But he is all of a heap now…   Today he came to my dressing room with the following remark:  in the second act, I should resist Amato when he attacks me. But Amato is very strong and because he grabs me in his arms and holds my elbows, I cannot move at all. So I said:  ‘Maestro, show me how you want me to do that'—and grabbed him exactly as Amato grabs me. Well, you know that with my muscles he couldn't move a bit and, peeved, he said to me:  ‘Of course, you are stronger than me!' Indeed! ... He is only a wimp and not someone with healthy views about life."

Toscanini's main concern, of course, was the interpretation, and at the first dress rehearsal he was not happy with Destinn, who sang only in half-voice. Disaster followed, and had it not been for another Czech at the Met, the ballet master Otakar Bártík, there might have not been any premiere:  "I have only managed to catch her in her suite at the hotel, upset beyond control," Bártík later told a friend in Prague, librettist Ladislav Novák, who wrote the story down. "She lay on the sofa as she was, in a fur coat, not open to any request and only stubbornly repeating:  ‘No, I will not sing, I won't, I won't! Let that brute and idiot find himself another Fanciulla!'"

To find a substitute for her at the last moment was impossible. Andreas Dippell, the administrative director of the Met, was quickly summoned, but neither pleas nor threats could move the mortally offended Destinn. Clearly, there was only one man who could placate her.

"I therefore ran at full speed to Puccini who was staying at the same hotel," recalled Bártík. "The jovial composer had been sitting, carefree, at breakfast, but as soon as I told him what had happened, he threw down his knife and fork and flew out of the room in his dressing gown and slippers straight to the offended Destinn. ‘For God's sake, Madame, do you really want to ruin us?' he exclaimed, wringing his hands, and finally took Destinn, still lying face down on the divan, gently by the hand. She slowly got up and let herself be led like a willful little girl to the piano. ‘Right, and now please sing for me the aria as you sang it today at the rehearsal,' said Puccini, and full of affection, sat himself at the piano. She sang divinely! The happy composer merrily struck the last chord, jumped up, and taking Emmy by both hands, kissed her and enthusiastically repeated:  ‘Bravo, bravo, bravissimo!' Destinn smiled and her face cheered up."

Despite the monumental success at the premiere and the massive press coverage, the opera failed to establish itself. Only recently has it entered the standard repertory; perhaps the boom of the Western stole its thunder earlier in the twentieth century.

Lanfranco Rasponi thought Fanciulla "a crescendo of passions that can easily carry an emotional soprano right off balance." 3 But the tenor was carried off balance too. "Our friend Caruso is getting very hot again and this time he is very energetic," Destinn writes to her Prague lover on December 27, "last night he pressed me to him, then in the second act he gave me such a kiss that he became somewhat ‘échauffé' internally and couldn't go on, for which he reproached me..."

On December 30, Caruso asked Destinn to marry him, but she refused. In the Fanciulla cast, she had met the French-Algerian baritone Dinh Gilly, who created the role of Sonora. According to one story, he caught Destinn in his arms when her horse had bucked during the rehearsal. Although there is no mention of Gilly in her letters to her Prague lover, it is possible that her relationship with this baritone—one of the longest relationships in Destinn's life—had already developed.

As for Toscanini, or "The Mask of Yellow Death" as Destinn called him, after the premiere he gave the diva his baton,which became one of her most highly-prized possessions. 4

Mirka Zemanová is a Czech musicologist and the author of Janacek:  A Composer's Life. Her articles have been published in Opera, Opernwelt, and other publications.

New York Times, November 25, 1910

2 Letter to his wife, December 7, 1910, from Letters of Puccini, ed. M. Carner, Harrap, London,1974.

3 Lanfranco Rasponi, The Last Prima Donnas, Gollancz, London, 1984.

4 Václav Holzknecht, Emma Destinnová, Prague, 1972.
Excerpts from Destinn's letters to Jaroslav Otto in Prague, as well as notes from Ladislav Novák's estate, have appeared in Miloslav Pospíšil's Emma Destinnová – Veliké srdce (Emmy Destinn—A Great Heart), Edition Supraphon, Prague, 1980. Pospíšil is Jaroslav Otto's grandson.
All translations into English are by Mirka Zemanová.