Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Cosi Fan Tutte – October 25, 1956

February 27th, 2006

Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” had never been performed in San Francisco Opera history until October 2, 1956. I saw my first performance of the work in the San Francisco Opera tour at San Diego’s Fox Theatre, three weeks later. George Jenkins’ new production of the Mozart “dark comedy” marked a new approach to presenting opera by the San Francisco company, reflecting the ascendancy of Kurt Herber Adler (thrust into a leadership role by the death of founding General Director Gaetano Merola).

Through most of the early history of the San Francisco Opera, most operas were presented only once a season. Those presented twice (and very few operas had more than two performances a season) often had cast changes between the first and second performances.

[Below: Richard Lewis as Ferrando; edited image, based on a Robert Lackbach photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Prior to the 1956 “Cosi”, only one opera had been presented with the same cast for five or more performances — Wagner’s “Lohengrin” with Astrid Varnay, Margaret Harshaw, Set Svanholm and Nicola Moscona — but it only played in San Francisco for two of its six total performances. It was first performed out of town (Portland and Seattle), then opened the 1946 season in San Francisco, with one other S. F. performance between visits to Sacramento and Los Angeles.

The 1956 “Cosi” cast was memorable, as was the Jenkins’ clever production. My description of the 1955 “Faust” (see Faust November 3, 1955) detailed the operatic assignments of all the principals in that opera, leaving no time for the multiple rehearsals that now occur routinely. But each of the six “Cosi” artists had other assignments prior to or just after the production and time to rehearse as an ensemble.

The “Cosi” conductor for all five performances was Hans Schwieger, then conductor of the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra, who also conducted the season’s three performances of “Die Walkuere”.

Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, the Fiordiligi, and Frank Guarrera, the Guglielmo, respectively had been Alice and Ford, alongside Leonard Warren who sang the title role of Verdi’s “Falstaff” for two performances in late September.

[Below: Fiordiligi (Elizabeth Schwarzkopf) finds herself charmed by an Albanian (Frank Guarrera, who is Guglielmo in disguise); edited image, based on a Robert Lackbach photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Concurrently, Richard Lewis, the Ferrando, had been Dmitri with Boris Christoff singing the title role for two performances of Mussorgky’s “Boris Godounoff”. Lorenzo Alvary, the Don Alfonso, had performed Daland to Leonie Rysanek’s American debut as Senta and Ludwig Suthaus’ Erik, alongside Hans Hotter’s performance of the title role of Wagner’s “Die Fliegende Hollaender”.

The two remaining cast members were preparing for roles that opened just after the “Cosi” premiere on October 2nd. Nell Rankin, the Dorabella, would also play Fricka in a new production of Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” three nights later , to Birgit Nilsson’s American debut as Bruennhilde, and, in that memorable evening, also to Rysanek’s Sieglende, Suthaus’ Siegmund, Hotter’s Wotan and Alvary’s Hunding.

[Below: Nell Rankin as Dorabella (left) and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as Fiodiligi; edited image, based on a Robert Lackbach photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Both Rankin and Alvary on the next evening (October 6) would be ready for the second performance of “Cosi”. (Ticket sales for the “Cosi” were robust, and a matinee third performance in San Francisco was added on October 14.)

Patrice Munsel, the Despina, had a second assignment opening on October 12 — Adina in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”, with Giuseppe Campora the Nemorino, Italo Tajo the Dulcamara and Louis Quilico the Belcore. This opera closed the San Francisco season on October 18th, with the Southern California season opening the next day.

[Below: Patrice Munsel as Despina; edited image, based on a Robert Lackenbach photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

In the 11 days between the last San Francisco “Cosi” in on the 14th and its performance in San Diego, five of the six singers had other assignments. Rankin was Amneris to Rysanek in the title role of Verdi’s “Aida” on the 17th, and Munsel was in “L’Elisir” on the 18th. Guarrera played Lescaut in Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” on the 19th. He and Schwarzkopf repeated their “Falstaff” roles on the 21st, and Alvary repeated Daland on the 22nd. Only Lewis had the week and a half without assignments.

[Below: Richard Lewis is Ferrando (left) and Frank Guarrera is Guglielmo; edited image, based on a Robert Lackenbach photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

After the performance in San Diego on the 25th, Alvary was in Los Angeles the next evening in “Die Walkuere”. Also in Los Angeles, Schwarzkopf and Guarrera repeated their “Falstaff” roles on the 27th, and Rankin performed in “Aida” on the 28th, Munsel in “L’Elisir d’Amore” on the 29th, and Lewis in “Boris Godounoff” on the 30th. The entire cast repeated “Cosi” in Los Angeles on November 2nd. Alvary performed the last “Walkuere”, that ended the Southern California tour on the 4th.

All of conductor Schwieger’s performances were between October 2 and November 4. The next month he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

[Below: George Jenkins’ set designs for the “Cosi fan Tutte” wedding feast; edited image, based on a Robert Lackenbach photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The production designer, George Jenkins, had three San Francisco Opera productions in two years to his credit. Not only did he design the opera company premiere of “Cosi”, but he also was responsible for the sets for the company premiere the subsequent season of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”, as well as a new production of Puccini’s “La Boheme”, a production seen in San Francisco as late as the 1973 season and afterward in Portland, Oregon, Brooklyn, New York and Cleveland.

The Jenkins “Boheme” later became the property of the Cleveland Opera, which has produced it this millenium and still has it in its collection of productions offered for rent to other opera companies.

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