“Ah, there go the house lights, which means that our conductor, ET-tore PanIZ-za, is on his way into the pit” — such was the refrain heard many a Saturday afternoon from 1934 to 1942 as the Metropolitan Opera’s beloved radio host Milton Cross, chewing his words with the felicity of a discriminating curate, rang up the curtain on the performance of the day. Lucky were the Met subscribers and the vast radio audience in the U.S., Canada, etc. who knew that the pack of Italian operas assigned to Panizza – or operas in Italian, we should say, because these included Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro as well as Moussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (neither Russian nor English being deemed logistically feasible for that one) – would be in excellent hands.

A pince-nezed dynamo who’d worked with Toscanini, Panizza was a conductor of fire and taste, punch and poetry. His performances were tight and DECISO, but, with the exception of his slightly dry but still admirable Puccini, never the least bit musclebound. His Council Chamber Scene in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra was hair-raising, the spell he cast in the final pages of Bellini’s Norma, soprano and tenor about to ascend the funeral pyre, no less powerful. He was always happy to go that extra little mile of expressive inflection, phrasing to foster spontaneity and – I’m thinking especially of several Aida broadcasts – slowing significantly for emotionally pregnant passages. The richly ironical melodic caress of Amneris’ initial reference to Aida alla Panizza is a case in point. And Aida’s entrance cued by his baton could be so sad & fragile in its unrushed pacing you seemed to see Radames’ eyes following this endangered creature ever so lovingly across the Big Stage.

In the Nile Scene as Aida sings so sinuously of Ethiopia’s intoxicating foreste vergini, to which these doomed lovers might escape, Panizza observing that Verdi has reduced to andantino, with the added perk of a dolcissimo, would elect adagio instead and the heroine’s message has never been clearer. No, Panizza doesn’t honor Verdi’s metronome marking here, and certainly there were times when Toscanini wasn’t on the number either — which reminds me of Brahms’ remark that a published metronome marking is good for about a week! Readers take note . . .