Opera Warhorses

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

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Dropping in on the Adler Years: The Spirit – and High B flats – of ’79…..

March 13th, 2011

Our guest commentator (and historian of the San Francisco Opera) Arthur Bloomfield writes:

Time to review another of the protein-rich San Francisco Opera seasons from the final years of Kurt Herbert Adler’s long reign as the company’s all-seeing general director, that veritable eagle of Van Ness Avenue.

Listening again to the 1979 broadcasts, where to begin? Well, how about the Five Tenors?

There was Luciano Pavarotti in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda sounding characteristically boyish and more dramatically involved than was sometimes the case in a hype-notic career that tended to march to his rather narcissistic drum. There was Placido Domingo in his customary handsome form in Puccini’s Fanciulla del West. There was Giacomo Aragall lending vocal perfume and pathos to the four act Verdi Don Carlo. There was the meaty Mediterranean ping of Carlo Bini opposite Montserrat Caballe in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, new to the company.

And perhaps most interesting of all, there was the energetic and exciting Veriano Luchetti, sort of a cross between the dulcet Luciano and that oldtime master of machismo robusto Francesco Merli, playing opposite Leontyne Price in Verdi’s Forza del Destino. Merli you might remember from the prewar Cetra recording of Puccini’s Turandot, vibrant as a throbbing Maserati.

[Below: Tenor Veriano Luchetti, here as Foresto in Verdi’s “Attila”; resized image of photograph for Teatro Comunale, Firenze.]

With his hot and handsome sound, biting projection and an ego-rich exuberance of manner stopping just sort of misdemeanor, it was rather as if Luchetti were perspiring into my Time Machine tape deck. Well, I’d just cleaned the deck’s gummy chrome with Pernod because I’d run out of utility alcohol, but that, I’m sure, had nothing to do with the impression left by this liveliest of tenors.

The title role of La Gioconda smoldered elegantly in the soprano of Renata Scotto, a singer capable of great delicacy and pathos, a colorist not afraid to make the occasional ugly sound for dramatic purposes. The sort of “singing actress,” Scotto, who’s likely to be labeled a Sarah Bernhardt or Eleanora Duse of the Opera!

Although her voice, as I remember, was bigger, Scotto could claim membership in the scantily populated school of Magda Olivero, that haunting mistress of the pathetique in all its beguiling shades. No soprano, I think, has embodied Gioconda more than Scotto, who seemed to feel this hapless creature’s misery in her bones, producing a final act that was quite awesome indeed.

[Below: Renata Scotto as La Gioconda, backstage at the San Francisco Opera in 1979; edited image, based on a Ira Nowinski photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]

Traveling in Europe in the Seventies, one noticed quite frequently mufflered and Brooks Bros.-hatted gentlemen sitting in the departure lounge of Heathrow or Rhein-Main with an opera score for reading material. These of course were the tenors, baritones and basses commuting from one Covent Garden or Staatsoper to the next.

One of them might have been Norman Mittelmann, the Canadian baritone who studied with the 1930s star Richard Bonelli, sang mostly in Europe and was the Barnaba of San Francisco’s ’79 Gioconda. Not a name to rush to the lips of members of Bastianini or Nucci fan clubs, but he was an impressive baritone with an attractive “American” sound slightly reminiscent of Leonard Warren. Bonelli of course was an American, real name Bunn! Clever at characterization, Mittelmann knew enough not to run aground on Barnaba’s insatiable fury.

Adler’s Gioconda cast also boasted the plummy, regal Stefania Toczyska as Laura and the brand new Ferruccio Furlanetto (still very much with us) as Alvise. Bruno Bartoletti freed himself long enough from his musical directorship at the Chicago Lyric to conduct a crisp and swaggery performance, suavely riding Ponchielli’s melodic waves.

Minnie in Fanciulla, that tomboy of the treble clef, surely a younger sister (or country cousin) to Floria Tosca, was in the exhilarating hands of Carol Neblett, the Kim Novak of the opera as they used to call her for her glamour and edge. With a husky, vibrant, flexible spinto soprano she seemed the veritable voice of experience, a tough cookie in the factory of life. Not here the relatively naive charm of Renata Tebaldi on the old Decca recording but the essential blood and guts of the part.

[Below: Minnie (Carol Neblett) invites a man, Dick Johnson (Placido Domingo), to her cabin in the 1979 production of  Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West”; edited image, based on a a Ira Nowinski photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]

And Benito di Bello was a dark Rance with a T-bone steak of a baritone, conveying vividly that this verismo character, the ever spurned baritone, is the Tonio of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci with better posture and a badge of office. Not to mention the usual cigar. Adler’s Fanciulla casting, with for instance Covent Garden’s ace comprimario Francis Egerton as Nick, was plenty deep, and Giuseppe Patane’s muscular-romantical conducting, without the distraction of a score on his lectern (with flapping pages perhaps?) was ideal.

The cast for Don Carlo was certainly starry, but I must give my academy award to the amazing basso Yevgeny Nesterenko whose Philip II was as scintillating as austere. His spiky, biting singing was what you’d expect of an effective Philip but there was also an elan that was fascinating.

When he sang “She never loved me” at the opening of his great solo scene the head tone and lilt he put at the music’s service (Verdi asks here for a dreaminess) gave a certain swagger to this cavalier monarch’s misery. And here and elsewhere like a great singing actor Nesterenko arranged Verdi’s notes into arching conversational phrases of quarters-eighths-sixteenths that didn’t necessarily correspond exactly to the note values on the page.

This of course happens much more in opera than one might think — and not just when the singers don’t really know or remember all the notes! — because people in dramas on stage and off don’t talk to others, or themselves, in the neatest mathematical arrangements of syllables. It’s the great artists who understand this and produce a sort of grace that’s not always easy for a composer to notate. Of course he can write a piacere!

Anna Tomowa-Sintow was a classy Elisabetta, and I was especially taken by the Eboli of Livia Budai, a sexy Hungarian mezzo just launched on the international opera circuit. Add to sparkly and provocative arpeggios lyrical phrases that floated through space as if projected by an astronaut of bel canto and you have a lovely A-1 performance.

Then there was  the Rodrigo of young Wolfgang Brendel who happened to share my taste for lunchtime omelettes at the counter of Doidge’s beloved diner on outer Union Street — he proved a jolly neighbor at that old haunt. Onstage he offered a dark and almost Slavic baritone with a good dollop of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to seal the handsome sonic package.

And in the pit Silvio Varviso struck just the right balance between morbidity and momentum.

In Forza that delightful animal Luchetti addressed his amorous attentions to the Leonora of Leontyne Price who at 52 showed no signs of vocal wear and draped handsome phrases on the treble reaches of Signor Ricordi’s score with her accustomed mellifluous dash. Hers was not quite as pathetique an interpretation as that, say, of Leyla Gencer whose Scala Leonora I chanced to re-hear the other day, but for superb sound, beautiful phrasing, and a more than adequate command of the dramatic aspect, Leontyne remained formidable.

Other pluses, the elegant Don Carlo of Renato Bruson, the mellow megaphonic almost too-big Guardiano of Martti Talvela, and the booming, quite serioso Melitone of the veteran Giuseppe Taddei, a characterization that was less quirky than that of the inimitable Renato Capecchi but suggestive of a quasi-cloistered cousin of the Varlaam of Boris Godunov.

And the opera was, if I’m not mistaken, given virtually complete, with all the tenor-baritone duets present and accounted for. I’m reminded that when as a young teenager I saw Forza for the first time, with Ezio Pinza yet as Guardiano, my father told me that Nick Gantoni, his barber, and the supplier now and then of tasty fresh-caught trout, had told him that Forza was the longest of Verdi’s operas.

And, if you don’t count the five-act Don Carlos, which we’ll excuse Nick for not knowing about, that would seem to be a correct statement.

Madame Caballe only appeared in one performance of Devereux, luckily the broadcast, because she was plagued by phlebitis and had to withdraw from the rest of the run, being replaced gamely if not apparently very excitingly by the local Ellen Kerrigan, a mainstay of the Lamplighters, that admirable Gilbert and Sullivan troupe. Caballe sounds ravishing in the relay, and I was entranced by the rip-roaring ultra-symphonic conducting of Gianfranco Masini, an excellent maestro who died relatively young.

But I didn’t enjoy the antics of a sonically athletic audience that, like many a ballet crowd today, sounded eager to explode in pistol shots of applause for their idol, and just may have been more interested in the idea of a “star” than the performance itself. Well, if that statement betrays a bit of old fogeyness (and I’m not retracting it) perhaps it’s because I’ve been re-reading a memoir by that stately gentleman of letters Edmund Wilson and his style is on my mind.

Incidentally, literary people sometimes make the best music critics and Wilson’s account of the original London production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes is so vivid it almost hurts. You can look it up in Europe Without Baedeker.

Arthur Bloomfield is the author of the new e-book, More Than The Notes, The Conducting of Toscanini, Furtwaengler, Stokowski and Friends, available at morethanthenotes dot com

For the previous posts in this series on the last four years of the Adler intendancy in San Francisco, see: Arthur Bloomfield – Dropping in On the Final Adler Years at the San Francisco Opera: The Spirit of ’78, and, The Final Adler Seasons at the San Francisco Opera with Arthur Bloomfield – The Spirit of ’78, Part 2.

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