Few conductors have been more intimately associated with the world of Italian opera than Toscanini, whose early career coincided with the final flowering and, to borrow the subtitle of one book on Turandot, the end of the great tradition. But his link with the premieres of great works began with the unveiling of Verdi’s final tragedy, Otello, at La Scala in 1887 – not from the podium but among the cello section.
Toscanini’s own Verdi recordings would set down a benchmark of dramatic intensity allied to musical fastidiousness and respect for the score. But as his career as a conductor took off, he became increasingly a champion of a whole raft of Italian composers of the post-Verdi generation. He conducted the premieres of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in 1892 and Zazà in 1900, and in 1896 introduced the world to Puccini’s La bohème.
A couple of years after that he was installed as principal conductor at La Scala, and in his decade in that role was at the helm of a raft of premieres and first Italian performances. Those by Italian composers – the likes of Mascagni, Franchetti and Cilea – have largely fallen out of the repertoire, but it was Toscanini who first introduced Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, Salome as well as Pelléas et Mélisande to Italian audiences.
At the New York Met, he was in charge of a second major Puccini premiere with La fanciulla del West (1910), a score into which the composer introduced a richness of orchestration itself arguably influenced by Strauss and Debussy.
Once installed back at La Scala in the 1920s, Toscanini also conducted several further premieres including two major unfinished works. He unveiled Puccini’s final opera, Turandot, in 1926. Coming full circle, however, he also helped complete and, in 1924, premiered Nerone, the grand final work of Arrigo Boito, librettist of Verdi’s Otello.