False Starts: 9 Masterpieces that Flopped at Their Premieres
Ryan Wenzel and Eric M. Gewirtz October 6, 2015
False Starts: 9 Masterpieces that Flopped at Their Premieres
Don’t judge a work by its premiere: Some of history’s most celebrated and groundbreaking pieces of music, operas, ballets, and films didn’t receive their due at first, either because of the tastes of the time or problems that marred initial performances. Here are nine of the most surprising examples.
George Frideric Handel wrote several operas, oratorios, and other vocal works in his lifetime. And despite having written eternal classics such as Messiah with its “Hallelujah” chorus, one of his favorites, the oratorio Theodora, was among his least successful. Too bad few experienced it upon its premiere. In March 1750, the work was scheduled for its first performance at London’s Covent Garden, but a week earlier an earthquake led many to leave town. And if that weren’t enough, its story of the persecution of a Christian saint (the title character) turned away many fans of his earlier dramatic oratorios. Handel’s Theodora initially received only three performances and was considered to be among his least successful works. Today, it stands among his most recognized, with several re-interpretations of the work for both oratorical and opera presentations.
There are few holiday traditions more beloved than The Nutcracker, but when Tchaikovsky’s ballet premiered in 1892 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, with choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, reception was less than enthusiastic. Although critics gave Tchaikovsky's music a pass (unlike his earlier Swan Lake, which was deemed too symphonic), the libretto was called “lopsided” and criticized for straying from the E.T.A. Hoffmann tale on which it was based. And many—shockingly—believed children figured too prominently. The ballet fared better in the New World: Productions by Willam Christensen for San Francisco Ballet in 1944 and George Balanchine for New York City Ballet in 1954 met with enormous acclaim, causing Christmastime performances to spread to companies across the country. See George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™ at the David Koch Theater from November 27–January 3 and in select cinemas nationwide on December 5 and 10.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3
One of history’s most celebrated composers had his hits…and misses. Several of his works, including his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, as well as his Fourth Piano Concerto and Choral Fantasy, were premiered in an epic four-hour long marathon concert in 1808, where the orchestra was said to have stopped playing and started over. But it’s his famous Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) about which a critic said in 1829: “[It] contains much to admire, but it is difficult to keep up admiration of this kind during three long quarters of an hour. It is infinitely too lengthy…If this symphony is not by some means abridged, it will soon fall into disuse!” Beethoven definitely had the last laugh.
Two factors accounted for the failure of Anton Chekhov’s landmark play The Seagull on its 1896 Saint Petersburg premiere: The audience was unprepared to appreciate the subtleties of this new type of drama, and the actors similarly misunderstood the material. Vera Komissarzhevskaya, who starred as Nina and was considered by many to be Russia’s greatest actress, was so agitated by the audience’s hostility on opening night that she lost her voice. Chekhov left his seat to watch the rest of the performance from behind the scenes, and later remarked, “I shall never either write plays or have them acted.” (Fortunately, he reversed his decision.) Opinion improved during the original production’s run, and two years later, in Moscow, Constantin Stanislavski mounted a revival that was met with unanimous critical acclaim. The play has since been performed several times on Broadway and by troupes including the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“If it were possible to imagine His Satanic Majesty writing an opera, Carmen would be the sort of work he might be expected to turn out.” That’s one of many insults critics hurled at Georges Bizet’s most famous work following its 1875 premiere at Paris’s Opéra-Comique, and the French public was mostly indifferent. (Tchaikovsky, however, attended an early performance and declared the opera “a masterpiece in every sense of the word…one of those rare creations which expresses the efforts of a whole musical epoch.”) The day after Carmen’s 33rd performance, Bizet died abruptly of heart disease at age 36, never witnessing the opera’s improved reputation through later productions outside France. With its revival in Paris in 1883, Carmen cemented its position as a cornerstone of the operatic repertoire and is now the second-most performed opera in the world, with frequent performances at the Metropolitan Opera.
The Rite of Spring
The riotous 1913 Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring with the Ballets Russes is the stuff of legend, yet it remains unclear whether Igor Stravinsky’s pulsating, dissonant score or Vaslav Nijinsky’s inverted, anti-classical choreography caused the most stir. Audience members (a mix of wealthy elites and avant-garde Bohemians) started brawling with one another early in the performance; according to one double-bass player, “Many a gentleman’s shiny top hat or soft fedora was ignominiously pulled down by an opponent over his eyes and ears, and canes were brandished like menacing implements of combat all over the theater.” The ballet was given just nine more performances, and Nijinsky’s steps were quickly forgotten. But orchestras the world over soon began performing Rite regularly, and the piece has since been staged by choreographers including Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Pina Bausch, and Bill T. Jones.
An American in Paris
George Gershwin was an innovator who lived in an age of conservative ears. Though many enjoyed his songs, his works for the symphonic stage suffered setbacks from major critics. His concert piece An American in Paris, inspired by a trip to the French capital, was premiered in 1928 on a concert program featuring works by César Franck and Richard Wagner, an odd fit for sure. Further, Gershwin was reportedly dissatisfied with conductor Walter Damrosch’s interpretation. Critics laughed. The New York Telegram wrote: “An American in Paris is nauseous claptrap, so dull, patchy, thin, vulgar, long-winded and inane, that the average movie audience would be bored by it.” Replied the composer: “It’s not a Beethoven Symphony, you know…” Of course, this symphonic poem later inspired the 1951 film with several famous Gene Kelly dance sequences as well as the musical adaptation.
The Barber of Seville
The 1816 premiere of Gioachino Rossini’s opera buffa The Barber of Seville in Rome was nothing short of a disaster. The musicians were underprepared, the performance was plagued by onstage mishaps, and fans of a rival composer, Giovanni Paisiello (who had previously set the tale to music), hissed and jeered. Discouraged, Rossini opted to stay at home during the second performance, which without Paisiello’s disruptive supporters in the audience was a resounding success. Productions across Europe soon followed, and the opera was the first to be sung in Italian in New York City. Experience it this season at the Metropolitan Opera, in a production by Bartlett Sher.
It’s a Wonderful Life
Another holiday staple—and now one of the most critically acclaimed movies ever made—Frank Capra’s heartwarming It’s a Wonderful Life had no wings when it was released in 1946. The film was dismissed by the New York Times as overly sentimental and lost $525,000 at the box office. Only in the 1970s, when it became a mainstay on television during the Christmas season, did the film finally get recognized as a masterpiece. Its late success came as a surprise to Capra, who had always stood by his work: Of his many films, he considered It’s a Wonderful Life his favorite, as did its star, Jimmy Stewart.