GENNARO PAPI

1886-1941

At least one prominent historian of the Metropolitan Opera – and perhaps some copycats too — dismissed the diminutive and ubiquitous Gennaro Papi as a routinier. But to categorize thus this creative ball of fire, this master of operatic edginess – he had a long history in winter and summer opera in Chicago, then came to the Met in the mid-Thirties – is to absolutely miss the point. Look in more modern times to Nello Santi, fifty years now at the Zurich Opera, for a maestro in this mode, a conductor of fire, charm and total mastery of that sweet science called rubato.

Off to Cleveland we go. The Met is on tour, it’s April 17, 1937, and Papi is in the pit for Carmen with Rosa Ponselle. Here is my log of this performance: A) an urgent, light-stepping prelude, the toreador tune dished out with a characteristic Papian asymmetry, B) a “here goes” micro-breath before the Fate theme, this of course written into Bizet’s score with a fermata rest, C) a tumbling children’s chorus with swiping piccolo and toybox staccato, D) a mad dash of those stampeding stage-door Romeos as the cigarette girls take their break, E) an opening of the Micaela-Jose duet exquisitely fragile, sad, tender, F) a great orchestral embrace as same duet ends, G) in the second act a whirling gypsy dance, a cavalry charge into a lilting toreador aria, then with the Flower song an introductory English horn that seems to announce: “Oh dear dear, all is lost!” Then we’re indebted to Papi for brisking up the smugglers’ chorus early in act 3. Bizet’s allegretto moderato pegged at 96 beats to the mountaineer minute is a shade conservative, the effect more dour perhaps than ideal for these bandits with riches on their mind — at 120 beats Papi gives them the drive to hustle a bit. Next bright idea: by pitching the heart of the Card Scene ten beats below the 66 of Bizet’s andante molto moderato he delivers Tragedy at its most riveting. Not to say painful!

Also from the Met (“and here is our conductor, Gennaro PA-pi,” intoned beloved Milton Cross many a winter Saturday over the Blue Network, chewing his vowels with relish):

2-15-36: An Il Trovatore coming on as a veritable jungle of emotions. Biting anger, caprice, a sly edginess: all this to scrape most delightfully the bottom of the barrel of pathos . . . 4-10-37: A Cavalleria Rusticana stocked with languorous curtain rise, indolent opening chorus, prancing Alfio, a meandering bass line around Santuzza’s entrance which is profoundly disturbing. In short, a sultrier, more dangerous Cav there never was . . . 1-8-38: Another Trovatore to remember – for the elegant ripple of strings in Leonora’s first act cabaletta, the No Rush of Manrico’s, let’s face it, narcissistic serenade, the tension and refinement of the subsequent trio involving our heroine and her competing suitors . . . 2-26-38: A rip-roaring Aida with a jaunty, swinging chorus of Egyptian hawks in the first scene, later a snap-crackle-pop Triumphal Scene stamped with Papi’s trademark volatility. Tchaikovsky’s beloved term incalzando (meaning heating-up) might have been invented for this interpretation . . . 3-11-39: A Rigoletto which comes to the point quickly in the deep despair of an accursed prelude on the downswing from its fist-clenching climax. And this provides an echo to the post-climax dash-dot-dash-dash’s of the prelude to Lucia di Lammermoor from 2-27-37: they suggest the forced curtsys of a heroine at a fete against her will. The loony devil-may-care of the harp cadenza summoning Lucia into action has the abandon and unreality of a Harpo Marx set piece . . . Then there’s 12-21-40: A Don Pasquale displaying Papi as a master of teasing rubato and brio supreme: the music just seeps out of an enchanting buffo woodwork.

The last word I give to the late San Francisco critic Alexander Fried who wrote in a sympathetic obituary (Papi having died a few hours before a scheduled broadcast): “Without being the exhibitionistic or arrogant type of conductor, he had an interpretive style that was consistently individual and scrupulous. Indeed, he conceived certain tempos in popular operas – zipping little vivacities in Rigoletto, for instance –that were so much his own that such stars as Lily Pons and Lawrence Tibbett had to be very careful to blend in with them . . . People who did not care for Papi and who, for mysterious reasons, could not detect his finesse, considered him a routinier. No routinier ever loved music as Papi did.” Amen. And on a lighter note a Papi anecdote. One day Al Fried ran into him in the lobby, and said: “You know, maestro, I admire your conducting very much, but you haven’t lost that habit of hissing at the orchestra. You’d be surprised how one can hear it [in seat L-1] even over the trombones.” “All right,” said Papi, without losing a beat, “the nexa time I putta potato in my mouth.” Case closed.