Hitler was smitten with her. “Madame,” he said, “you are a seductress.”
The Fuhrer wasn’t the only admirer of Germaine Lubin. Star tenor Lauritz Melchior claimed that he had “never awoken a more beautiful Brunnhilde in my long career as a Wagner singer. I remember especially that she was the only Brunnhilde who had wonderfully painted toe nails.”
Lubin was also the most tragic of the 40 or so divas feted at the Palais Garnier in Paris in an exhibition called “Les Tragediennes de l’Opera 1875-1939.”
After the war, she was accused of collaboration with the enemy and imprisoned for three years. Her Paris apartment and country chateau were confiscated, and her career ended.
Many of the names in the exhibition, which brings together photographs, costumes, jewelry and a few films, will be known to record collectors.
Mary Garden, the first Melisande (in Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande”) also appears as Strauss’s Salome, a role in which she shocked the audience: Her lascivious kissing of John the Baptist’s severed head outraged the bien-pensants. In the photo, she looks more perplexed than perverted.
Genevieve Vix, another Salome, seems closer to the real thing. Her come-hither look is convincing, and her flesh-revealing dress would pass muster at the Folies Bergere.
Lina Cavalieri actually sang and danced at that music hall before she became an opera star. She was renowned more for her beauty than for her voice. In the show, you can watch a 1928 short “Institut de Beaute Avec Lina Cavalieri.”
One of her numerous conquests was the New York millionaire Robert Winthrop Chanler from the Astor clan. After a terrible week of married life, he divorced her, which cost him a chunk of his fortune. Cavalieri, who had sung at the Metropolitan Opera, was never invited back.
Appropriately, the show also includes a photograph of her as Thais, Massenet’s Egyptian courtesan.
The composer wrote that role for Sybil Sanderson, a glamorous Californian, with whom he was infatuated. In the photo, she looks more like the monk she’s supposed to seduce.
A pastel of Emma Calve, the greatest Carmen of her time, is more persuasive. George Bernard Shaw was so overwhelmed that he needed a week “before I can trust myself to speak of her Carmen and her Santuzza or indeed of herself with a decent pretense of critical coolness.”
Sanderson is not the only American in the show. Emma Eames and Geraldine Farrar made their names in Europe before they became prima donnas at the Metropolitan Opera.
“Les Tragediennes de l’Opera 1875-1939,” which is supported by Ernst & Young, is at the museum of the Palais Garnier in Paris through Sept. 25. A sumptuous catalog has been published by Editions Albin Michel SA (49 euros or $74.30). Information: http://www.operadeparis.fr.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)