By Giorgio Gualerzi
The premiere of Germania took place at La Scala on 11 March 1902 and it was the first of a run of 11 performances at the theatre. With remarkable timing, just a month later Enrico Caruso (the first Federico Loewe) recorded the arioso “Studenti! Udite” from the Prologue, accompanied by Salvatore Cottone on the piano. It was followed by the aria “No, non chiuder gli occhi vaghi” from the first act. The young tenor was not yet famous and the former was the first of the legendary ten recordings that he made for the Gramophone & Typewriter Co. Ltd. for no fewer than 100 pounds sterling. Caruso also performed works from Tosca and Iris in this initial session, which went down in both recording and operatic history.
The Gramophone & Typewriter Co. Ltd. had the insight to identify Caruso as a potential gold mine and the recordings paved the way to incredible – but fully deserved – success for the tenor. In addition, the fact that they were made so soon after the premiere is the clearest evidence of the great acclaim met among critics and the public by Alberto Franchetti’s opera. The composer’s cause was helped a great deal by the exceptional vocal and instrumental performances shepherded by the hugely dedicated Arturo Toscanini. Although Caruso was initially in poor physical shape, the conductor included him alongside Mario Sammarco and Amelia Pinto in his select group of singers. The opera proved very popular, as underlined by the fact that two pieces were performed again and the composer received 15 curtain calls. The critic from “Il Sole” summed it up when he wrote “as well as a skilled composer, in Germania – as in Colombo – we can plainly see an original melodist, an effective colourist; essentially, a complete musician.”
The critics in Milan were not the only ones to approve of Franchetti’s opera. Two years later, a Genoese reviewer fell in line with his counterparts from other cities by noting the “frank and profound admiration” felt for Germania, with which “Franchetti impressively consolidated the reputation that he earned with Asrael and Colombo as a musician with majestic ideas, ingenious inspiration and extensive expertise of musical techniques.” In the previous two years, Germania’s enormous success had seen it travelling up and down Italy and being hosted by numerous theatres of all sizes (as well as some notable venues beyond the national borders), starting with the Teatro Grande in Brescia in August 1902.
It was as if the clock had been turned back almost 40 years to the time of Ruy Blas and Il Guarany, which enjoyed widespread – perhaps even excessive – renown for decades before being quickly ousted by certain 20th century works, which in turn reached great heights but were later completely forgotten. This was the case with Germania, which was taken to approximately 30 theatres in Italy and elsewhere between March 1902 and April 1905. It gives a clear indication of both the objective qualities of the opera and the might of Casa Ricordi, which was pulling out all the stops in a fierce battle with its rival publisher Sonzogno. There were probably also other factors behind the extraordinary level of success enjoyed by the opera, such as Franchetti’s vast wealth, his Masonic support, and his justifiable desire to celebrate Germany, where he studied his craft in great depth. The latter reflected a generally favourable Italian attitude towards Germany in political and cultural terms at the turn of the century. Both countries were members of the Triple Alliance and this was also the time when Leoncavallo was working on Der Roland von Berlin, which celebrated the deeds of the House of Hohenzollern, as embodied by Kaiser Wilhelm II.
It was only natural for such a successful opera to make rapid waves in the record industry that was gradually taking shape. Some of the most significant singers involved in the most prominent editions in the period in question immediately got on board. First of all, there were the three “creators” from La Scala: in order, Enrico Caruso, Mario Sammarco (he too was making his first record and it is thought that he sang “Ferito, prigionier”, but it was simply given the vague title “Story”) and, in the only significant recording by a soprano, Amelia Pinto, who performed the impassioned outpouring of emotions by Ricke from the first act. All three of them appeared in some of the biggest later performances of Germania: Pinto in Lisbon (1907); Sammarco in Brescia (1902), Bologna (1902), Rome (1903), Palermo (1905), Parma (1907), and London (1907); and Caruso in the Americas, first in Buenos Aires (1903), and then in 1910-11 in Philadelphia, Chicago and twice at the Metropolitan Opera House. Following the latter experience, he decided to record the two pages of Federico Loewe again in 1910. It is no surprise that the same two pages were recorded for Fonotipia by the two men who played Federico in the revival of Germania at La Scala in January 1904 (which underlined just how successful the opera was). First came a recording by the famous Catalan tenor Francesc Viñas in 1907 (although he had actually sung the appeal to the students on his first ever record back in 1903). Giovanni Zenatello then followed in his footsteps in 1911. There was still room for a couple more leading tenors to record “Studenti! Udite” for Fonotipia: first came Edoardo Garbin, who was the second ever Federico (in Buenos Aires and Montevideo in July and August 1902), then the Frenchman Mario Gilion, who performed in the “local premiere” in Odessa in March 1905. As with the tenors, Germania was also a popular choice among top baritones, all of whom were signed by Fonotipia and performed some or all of the pages sung by Carlo Worms. Following in the wake of Sammarco were members of the generation born in the 1870s, including: Pasquale Amato, who appeared with Caruso in the Americas; Giuseppe De Luca, who was seen on stage in Naples (1902) and Buenos Aires (1903); Riccardo Stracciari, who performed in Lisbon (1903), and Domenico Viglione Borghese, who sang both on a tour of South America in 1910 and in Reggio Emilia in 1921. Meanwhile, a recording of “Ferito, prigionier” was made on a phonograph cylinder in 1908 by Carlo Galeffi, who appeared as Worms at Milan’s Teatro Dal Verme in November the following year. This was particularly significant because he also appeared in a performance of Germania at La Scala in May 1929 (the driving force behind which was Toscanini, who had always been openly fond of Franchetti) that marked the end of a journey that began in March 1902.
It is worth noting that further evidence of the popularity of the opera is provided by recordings by less prominent singers such as the baritone Matteo Dragoni and the tenor Giuseppe Agostini. The Catalan Piero Pauli was another less known singer who recorded the two tenor parts in the late 1920s. In addition, two editions of the opera were broadcast on the radio from Turin and Rome in the early 1930s. Germania then fell out of favour and only returned to the stage in Reggio Emilia on 20 January 1953 in a late but suitably impressive commemoration to mark the 50th anniversary of the premiere. 16 years later, Italian broadcaster RAI presented a generous selection of highlights from it.