This Italian maestro proved his worth in several major houses in Europe before coming first to South America, and later, to North America where he played a similar role in New York and Chicago. Although known for his work in the Italian repertory, he was thought by Maggie Teyte to have been an exemplary conductor of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, an opera Teyte had coached with the composer. Polacco began his musical training at Marcello Conservatory in Venice, where he studied with Nicoló Coccon before moving to Milan where he worked with Coromaro and Galli. After additional study in St. Petersburg, he was invited to London in 1890 to assume a position as an assistant conductor. In 1891, he made his debut with the Shaftesbury Theatre, just then initiating an opera season under conductor Luigi Arditi. The work was Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice and his success in substituting for the company's principal conductor led to an invitation from Rio de Janeiro, where he conducted for the ensuing 11 years, also accepting during that time engagements in Buenos Aires. Upon his return to Italy, Polacco served as a principal conductor at La Scala for three years, after which he conducted at Rome's Teatro Costanzi leading, among other important works, the Italian premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande. In 1911, at the invitation of the composer, Polacco led the Savage Opera Company's production of Puccini's La fanciulla del West, touring the opera to many American venues. Polacco's success came to the attention of the Metropolitan Opera and, on November 11, 1912, the conductor made his debut at that theater directing Manon Lescaut in a manner that foreshadowed future triumphs. From 1915 to 1917, he served as head of the Italian wing of the company. Meanwhile, Polacco had been summoned to Covent Garden after being reached aboard a ship by telegraph to replace Cleofonte Campanini, who was headed for Chicago. On the basis of the May 21, 1913, Tosca with Destinn, Martinelli, and Scotti, critics and audiences alike felt that Polacco would bring the Italian wing to the same level reached by the German division when conducted by Richter or Nikisch. In 1918, Polacco was invited to Chicago to take over several assignments originally scheduled for the now-ailing Campanini and thus made his debut conducting the November 18 opening night. Galli-Curci was the Violetta in a La traviata that crackled with intensity. Other operas led by Polacco that season included Madama Butterfly, Aida, Tosca, La bohéme, La Gioconda, and Cavalleria Rusticana. After that first Chicago season, engagements in France, Cuba, and South America kept the conductor busy until Mary Garden called him in 1921 to become music director and principal conductor of the Chicago Opera, reorganized as the Chicago Civic Opera. Working with the tempestuous Garden, Polacco—despite several voluble conflicts with his "directa"—filled the position more than honorably. From the November 14, 1921, production of Samson et Dalila through the time of his retirement for health reasons in 1930, the conductor concentrated on his work in Chicago, conducting just one year (1927) in Boston. During his Chicago tenure, Polacco confirmed his outstanding grasp of a wide-ranging repertory and an unflagging ability to light fires under nearly any cast. He often conducted Garden, notably in her French repertory and in Strauss' Salome. Polacco's final Chicago performance found him leading Garden's Mélisande on February 1, 1930.

© Erik Eriksson, All Music Guide


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