Ask any opera fan for a list of favourite operas, and you may well get among them La traviata, Carmen, Madama Butterfly, and Barber of Seville. According to the most recent statistics from the last five seasons (2011/12 to 2015/16), these four operas rank #1, 3, 6, and 7 in popularity, based on the number of performances worldwide. You’ll be surprised to know that these four operas all failed miserably at their premieres. Let’s take a closer look:
(#1 – 4,190 performances) It premiered at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 1853. It’s said the audience objected to the soprano, who was deemed at 38 too old (!) to sing Violetta. Verdi wrote in a letter: “La traviata last night was a failure. Was the fault mine or the singers? Time will tell.” Verdi made some revisions to acts 2 and 3, and when the opera was staged in 1854, it was deemed a huge success, thanks in part to a different, younger Violetta. Ageism is nothing new! When it premiered in London in 1856, the story was considered too lurid for public consumption and the Church of England tried to stop the performances, and the Queen didn’t attend.
(#3 – 3,280 performances) This Bizet masterpiece is sometimes considered the first example of the verismo style. Perhaps that was too much for the Opera-Comique audience in 1875. The reviews were mostly negative, with complaints that it was too Wagnerian and the orchestra drowning out the singers. Famous musicologist Ernest Newman wrote that the audience was shocked by the realism and the low morals of most of the characters, although it received high praise from none other than Tchaikovsky. It eventually enjoyed success in subsequent years.
(#6 – 2,641 performances) Puccini wrote several versions of the opera. The original, two act version that premiered at La Scala in 1904 was deemed a failure. He changed it into a three-act version, added an aria (“Addio, fiorito asil”) for the cad Pinkerton, to make him more sympathetic. The revised 1907 version, the fifth revision, is the one performed these days, although the original version from 1904 is occasionally performed. It opened the 2016-17 La Scala season.
The Barber of Seville
(#7 – 2,549 performances) It’s Rossini’s best known opera, hands down. Strangely, its premiere at the Teatro Argentina in Rome in 1816 was a failure. It was a partisan crowd – they were there to boo. Many in the audience were supporters of Rossini’s rival, Giovanni Paisiello, who had already composed his own version of the opera and who did not look kindly on Rossini infringing on his territory. At the next performance, without the hecklers, it was considered a success, and it went on to be the most beloved of Rossini’s forty operas.
There are plenty more examples of operas that were met with initial failure before going on to success. To that list, we can add Bellini’s Norma, ranked #42, with 491 performances over 5 seasons. Bel canto fans consider Norma to be Bellini’s masterpiece. Its relatively low number of performances likely reflects the difficulty of finding dramatic coloratura sopranos who can do justice to the title role. The great Giuditta Pasta was the first Norma, but she did not score a triumph on opening night. Bellini himself called the premiere a “fiasco,” partly due to singers having tired out from too much rehearsals.
It was also attributed to the presence of members of a hostile claque who were supporters of Bellini’s rival, Giovanni Pacini. Subsequent performances showed the true worth of this great Bellini gem. Toronto opera fans who have seen the COC revival starring Sondra Radvanovsky this past season would likely agree. The great Radvanovsky is slated to open the Met’s 2017-18 season in September, as – you guessed it – Norma.