Opera Warhorses

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

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The Final Adler Seasons at the San Francisco Opera with Arthur Bloomfield – The Spirit of ’78, Part 2

December 1st, 2010

As we said at the end of our first installment on the 1978 season (see Arthur Bloomfield – Dropping in On the Final Adler Years at the San Francisco Opera: The Spirit of ’78) Kurt Herbert Adler, the SFO’s general director, came down from his office, momentarily withdrawing his fingers from numerous administrative pies, to conduct Wagner’s Lohengrin himself. There’s an old saw that Adler was a more or less terrible conductor, but such in most instances was simply not the case.

[Below: Kurt Herbert Adler rehearsing with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra; edited image, based on a Ira Nowinski photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]

Quite the contrary in this Lohengrin launched with an exceedingly plaintive wind chord, the first thing one hears after the conductor activates the orchestra. The intensity underlying Elsa’s Dream was something special too, and my how in this scene he built the tension as the chorus considers the possibility of an unknown hero dropping somehow into their space.

Guy Chauvet, the French tenor who could sound something like a cross between Sandor Konya and Jess Thomas, was not as I recall in good voice on the opening night of the Lohengrin run, but the broadcast which I’ve just re-listened to, coming as it did some days later, finds him doing his sweet and clarion thing with aplomb. He even sings the first seven measures of In fernem Land more quietly than Wagner’s specified pianissimo. Just try that! In the Farewell, thanks to a fortuitous mixture of midnight fatigue and some very keyed up expression he created an atmosphere of near-terrifying despair that was entirely sui generis.

[Below: French dramatic tenor Guy Chauvet, here as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s “Tosca”; edited image, based on a photograph by DR.]

For Elsa there was Anne Evans, on the threshold of a Wagnerian career that climaxed with Isoldes and Bruennhildes at London’s Coliseum. She brought to San Francisco a  creamy/friendly lyric soprano, quite radiant indeed. And Janis Martin with a light timbre of her own (casting for blend here!) was an incisive Ortrud, vocally sexy as was usually the case with this underrated artist. Gwynne Howell’s King Henry was, of course, a joy to listen to.

Not visible of course on the broadcast tape is Beni Montresor’s entrancingly filmy mise-en-scene, fairy tale like — and what is Lohengrin if not that? — but not bedeviled by cuteness.

Now for Verdi’s Otello Adler engaged none less than Carlos (son of Erich) Kleiber to conduct. Kleiber fils was a very good conductor, and thanks to unusually bull’s-eye-hitting genes no less wonderful than Papa Kleiber sashaying through the airy avenues of Johann Strauss, which is a talent not to be sneezed at, but he was, I think, not quite the paragon he was cracked up to be in some quarters. His repertoire was tiny, and he cancelled a lot, fostering thereby a first class mystique — Herbert von Karajan was quoted as saying Carlos would fulfill an engagement only when his refrigerator was empty.

Well, there must have been plenty of sausages and Loewenbrau therein because, you guessed it, the idea of coming all the way from Bavaria to the Wild West of North Beach, Berkeley and (just on the horizon) Silicon Valley lost its appeal for the younger Kleiber sometime in the summer of ’78, and Adler had to replace him pronto.

Enter here Giuseppe Patane who rode brilliantly to the rescue. Case in point, the gravity of those tremoli on the first page of score, these told us we were in good hands. So, what’s in a name? Patane wasn’t to mindless cataloguers of celebrity performers the conductorial equivalent of a bag by Gucci or a car by Ferrari but it just happens he was a dynamo (died on the podium ten years later, he did), a conductor of zest, precision and imagination. If my life had depended on it I would have hired him to conduct just about anything — he did Wagner in Berlin, by the way.

[Below: Conductor Giuseppe Patane; resized promotional photograph.]

The merits of Placido Domingo’s Otello need not be repeated here. Meanwhile I’d forgotten until re-hearing the broadcast how wonderful was the Desdemona of Katia Ricciarelli, perfect mistress of the ethereal, the clearest bell of a soprano, with a Sauvignon Blanc tone and a girlish fragility to boot. Then note the dark Iago of the lamented Guillermo Sarabia, from whose mouth issued great blocks of mahogany in sound.

[Below: Katia Ricciarelli; edited image, based on a promotional photograph.]

In Bellini’s Norma Adler cast the late Shirley Verrett, an intermittent mezzo so to speak, in the title role, opposite the Adalgisa of Alexandra Milcheva, a card-carrying mezzo soprano. A case, this, of tilting the female side of the bill in favor of mezzo coloring. Well, listening to the two of them is a little like trying to distinguish between two not quite similar heirloom tomatoes in a bin, juicy and wholesome. And I’m not complaining!

To try the description a different way, let’s report a delightfully unctuous-sounding, Ebe Stignani-suggesting Verrett mated with the creamy, girlish tones of Milcheva.

And despite what you may have read elsewhere on the internet, Verrett’s Norma on broadcast night (and a pirated recording) was a success, the voice meaty and ringing, execution clean and not too chesty, her interpretation biting and beautiful.

[Below: Shirley Verrett as Norma in San Francisco Opera’s 1978 production; edited image, based on an Ira Nowinski photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]

For a link to Paolo Peloso’s snappy, organic, highly expressive conducting of Norma you could look to the currentday Fabio Luisi, or the SFO’s own Nicola Luisotti — all these fellows are expert at taking prescribed tempo changes and slightly exaggerating them for super dramatic effect. What happened to Peloso? Even Wikipedia is silent.

In the ’78 La Boheme Giacomo Aragall’s Rodolfo had the charm gone missing from Nunzio Todisco’s slam-dunk Pollione in Norma, and enough to make you forget that his singing wasn’t quite as tidy as it might have been. Ileana Cotrubas’ Mimi was enchanting, no surprise. And wow, what imaginative conducting from Silvio Varviso, the little Asian staccati early in Act 3 dancing light as sonic snowflakes by the guardhouse door.

[Below: members of the cast of the 1978 San Francisco Opera production of Puccini’s “La Boheme” in rehearsal, background left, Giacomo Aragall (Rodolfo) and Ileana Cotrubas (Mimi), at table Samuel Ramey (Colline), Dale Duesing (Schaunard) and Brent Ellis (Marcello); edited image of a Ira Nowinski photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]

His lingering way with Mi Chiamano Mimi was a reflection of the ambiguities in Puccini’s tempo directions here — how can you be andante and lento at the same time, not to speak of andante and calmo? Varviso stressed the lento and the calmo and put us in his debt.

(Arthur Bloomfield’s new e-book, More Than The Notes, The Conducting of Toscanini, Furtwaengler, Stokowski and Friends, is at www.morethanthenotes.com.)

Tags: Blazing Batons with Arthur Bloomfield