Opera Warhorses

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

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50 Year Anniversaries: Schwarzkopf, Boehme in San Francisco Opera “Rosenkavalier” – September 29, 1960

December 27th, 2010

The standard repertory of opera is disproportionately represented by the output of composers from four nations – Italy, Germany, France and Austria. In the 21st century the singers who perform those operas come from nations throughout the world, but, for much of the history of opera, up into well into the postwar era of the latter half of the 20th century, the four countries from whom the major operatic composers came, also produced a disproportionate number of the major opera singers.

This is a subject that we will return to in future posts, discussing in more detail why it was so in the past and why it is less so now, but this particular post is one of a series of features observing the 50 year anniversaries of operatic performances I attended as a teenager and thoughts that each occasion evokes.

Of the five performances I saw in 1960, I have left the discussion of the 50th anniversary of my first “Rosenkavalier” to the end of December 2010 for two reasons. First, next month is the hundredth anniversary of the opera’s first performance. I am scheduled to review a performance of that opera just a few weeks after the 100th birthday at San Diego Opera, and it seems right to concentrate my discussions of performances of Richard Strauss’ most famous opera nearer to the centennial date.

Second, historical forces had created a political and military alignment of the four nations listed as the home countries of opera’s standard repertory. Each of the four during the greater part of the first half of the 1940s were enemy nations of the United States of America and its wartime allies.

Kurt Herbert Adler and the Movement for Postwar Reconciliation

German National Socialism incorporated (many would say expropriated) German art and music, with operatic performance adhering to doctrinal considerations. Two of the major Nazi leaders were rival patrons of the two largest Berlin opera houses, Goebbels of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and Goering of the Berlin Staatsoper. Unlike today, in which most major international opera stars contract with individual companies for a month or two at a time, a singer was sometimes associated year round with a single house. In the German and Austrian houses, Nazi party membership was expected, and in the case of the rare artists who were exempted from such a requirement (such as heldentenor Ludwig Suthaus), one knew that powerful patrons shielded them.

An ambitious artist might engage in maneuvers in house politics to advance a career or (a point made by Arthur Bloomfield in our recent correspondence on this point) resign themselves to a surface acceptance of  the unpalatable doctrines of the society in which they found themselves, and, as an escape, immerse themselves in their artistry.

If those politics were consonant with the interests of a totalitarian state – especially one that failed, as did the Nazis, Italian fascists, and later the Soviet Union – the course of one’s career could be the subject of review by those of nations that defeated or outlasted the totalitarian state. I have posted a picture of tenor Mario del Monaco in his Italian army uniform. A picture of the young tenor Giuseppe Campora in a fascist youth organization uniform is extant. But Decca Records and San Francisco Opera were among the institutions of the victorious Allied Nations that welcomed both early in the postwar years.

The German artists I had seen in my first five years of opera-going – Suthaus, Hans Hotter, Paul Schoeffler, Kurt Boehme and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf – spent the years of World War II in German and Austrian houses. Schwarzkopf, associated with Goebbels’ Deutsche Oper was especially scrutinized by Western opera company intendants, and even following her death in the 21st century, an occasional author will revive the “what did she do during the war” controversies. But recording company EMI gave her postwar career a boost, and the San Francisco Opera, under the Austrian emigre Kurt Herbert Adler, sponsored her American debut in San Francisco. Ultimately, even the New Year Met, which, under Sir Rudolph Bing, tended at first to be less willing to buy into the concept of a Schwarzkopf reconciliation, invited her to perform on their stage.

[Below: Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin; edited image, based on a historical photograph.]

I am again supplementing my five-decades old recollections with selected quotations from a contemporary source, the major history of the opera company by my friend and colleague, Arthur Bloomfield, then opera critic for the San Francisco Examiner. Again, so that is clear which remarks are mine and which are his, I will so identify each paragraph that quotes him and place it in parantheses and unbolded italics. The quotations are (occasionally non-substantively edited) excerpts from Arthur Bloomfield’s 50 Years of the San Francisco Opera,1972, San Francisco Book Company, San Francisco, California.

(Bloomfield: The Marschallin was sung by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, who made her operatic debut on the [War Memorial] Opera House Stage September 20 [1955]. In an interview the 39-year old soprano, an early starter, noted that she did not sing so much in opera anymore, and indeed, she had something resembling a phobia about the supposed pressures of opera engagements in the U. S. But Adler met her after a concert in Los Angeles and persuaded her to come. His persuasion was San Francisco’s gain; her highly inflected and near-youthful interpretation of the Marschallin was, if not agreeable to all, on a very high plane of distinction. With Frances Bible an excellent Octavian [as she was in the September 29, 1960 performance] . .  . [the 1955] performance set a standard for seasons to come.

[The 1960] “Rosenkavalier” brought a new Ochs in Kurt Boehme, the distinguished Munich bass. Here was a Lerchenau with a battering ram belly and cheeks that shook like bowls full of jelly, a giggly, bumptious, overgrown boy of an Ochs. He missed the pathos that lies in the part but he did sing it gorgeously besides being a barrel of fun. Varviso’s warm lyric touch in the pit was a big asset.)

Elizabeth Schwarzkopf performed for the San Francisco company  for a total of 53 performances in seven roles, between 1955 and 1964. Of those 53 performances, 34 were at the War Memorial in San Francisco, 15 were at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and four at the Fox Theater in San Diego. Two of the seven roles constituted most of her operatic performances in California – she was the Marschallin 17 times (12 in San Francisco) and Fiordiligi 14 times (nine in San Francisco). I saw her perform both, each in two separate seasons.

All of Kurt Boehme’s performances occurred in 1960, with five performances (split between the three California cities) of Ochs and three (split between San Francisco and Los Angeles) of King Henry in Wagner’s “Lohengrin”.

[Below: Kurt Boehme as the Baron Ochs of Lerchenau; resized image, based on a historical photograph.]

Boehme’s boisterous Ochs was a intensely accessible and likeable portrait. Over the years I have seen a range of behaviors in onstage Ochses, from an earthy Josef Greindl to Regine Crespin’s Marschallin (San Francisco, 1967) to a rather more suave and dignified Kristinn Sigmundsson to Soile Isokoski’s (San Francisco, 2007).

Sophisticated Ladies

Boehme was a wonderful foil to the cooly elegant, very refined, slightly distant Marschallin. In total I saw Schwarzkopf in three roles, Fiordiligi (1956 and 1963), the Marschallin (1960 and 1964) and Donna Elvira (1962). As one reflects on these three women (Fiordiligi, the Marschallin and Donna Elvira) and their experiences during the duration of the operas in which they appear, it may well be that they held a significance for Schwarzkopf. These are sophisticated women whose dealings with Ferrando, Guglielmo, Don Alfonso, Prince Octavian, Baron Ochs, Don Giovanni and Leporello, we as the operatic audience are privileged to observe. Schwarzkopf was able to find and project the underlying strength in each of these roles. Another role that Schwarzkopf performed in two different seasons with San Francisco was the “Figaro” Countess.

I can envision these four ladies – as characterized by Schwarzkopf – in conversation with each other, each recognizing the others’ station and experience, but always retaining their dignity and reserve. I can even imagine a comment from the  Marschallin when Donna Elvira is out of earshot: “Poor dear, such a scandal, but he got what was coming to him”.

(One notes that each of these four portraits were shared with both of the tour cities – Los Angeles and San Diego.)

A Vivacious Varviso

The Swiss conductor, Silvio Varviso, performed 82 times for the San Francisco company in two distinct time periods. The earlier period was a three year period between 1959 and 1961, in which he was used as a utilitarian conductor, most of whose assignments were the standard repertory works, such as Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata” and Puccini’s “La Boheme”. The most notable assignment of his first period was conducting the United States premiere of Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1961, with Geraint Evans as Bottom and the 26 year old Marilyn Horne as Hermia. However the 1960 “Rosenkavalier” was the only time I saw him conduct in this earlier period .

[Below: Silvio Varviso, conductor of the San Francisco Opera “Der Rosenkavalier”; resized image of a historical photograph.]

He returned in 1971 for an additional 40 performances at the War Memorial Opera House through 1982, that included some of the most lustrous casts in that “Golden Age” decade, all of which I saw for at least one of his performances – Sena Jurinac, Christa Ludwig, Helen Donath and Manfred Jungwirth in “Rosenkavalier”; Gwyneth Jones, Josephine Veasey and Martti Talvela in Verdi’s “Don Carlos”; Birgit Nilsson, Yvonne Minton, Jess Thomas and Kurt Moll in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”; Federica von Stade, Renato Capecchi and Giorgio Tozzi in Rossini’s “Barbiere di Siviglia”; Ileana Cotrubas, Giacomo Aragall, Dale Duesing and Samuel Ramey in Puccini’s “La Boheme”; Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Giacomo Aragall, Wolfgang Brendel and Evgeny Nesterenko in “Don Carlo”; and Hermann Prey, Lucia Popp, Tom Krause and Helena Doese in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro”.

Now, fifty years after my first live performance, it is time to wish “Der Rosenkavalier” an early happy 100th birthday.

For a review of the latest San Francisco Opera performances of “Rosenkavalier”, see: S. F. Opera – A Center for “Rosenkavalier” Excellence: June 24, 2007.

Tags: 50 Year Anniversaries