The Note from William: This post continues my series of observances of the 50 year anniversaries of the historic performances that I attended at San Francisco Opera during the general directorship of Kurt Herbert Adler. This is the sixth of six such observances of performances from the company’s 1962 Fall season.
As related in earlier articles on my sampling of the offerings during San Francisco Opera’s Fall 1962 season, I had traded away four of the six performances on my Saturday series to attend three performances by the famous Catalan soprano Victoria de los Angeles, that included her only Desdemona ever [See 50 Year Anniversaries: McCracken, de los Angeles and Gobbi in “Otello” – San Francisco Opera, October 9, 1962] in San Francisco and one of only two performances as Donna Anna at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.
[Below: Soprano Victoria de los Angeles sang the role of Mimi; edited image, based on a copyrighted Zuma Press photograph from spainisculture.com]
Puccini’s “La Boheme” was on my series, but the Mimi at that performance was soprano Dorothy Kirsten, whom I had already seen in two separate roles. Although I admired Kirsten’s work, I wanted to see de los Angeles’ Mimi. My instinct proved to be correct. As it turned out it was the only performance in which de los Angeles sang that role in San Francisco.
In fact, in her entire career de los Angeles sang only four performances at the War Memorial Opera House, and by trading around by subscription tickets I saw three of those performances, each in a different role. And I was to see Kirsten perform Mimi seven years later in San Francisco with Luciano Pavarotti.
[Below: the audience at a performance at the War Memorial Opera House, resized image of a photograph, from Shen Yung Performing Arts.]
Mimi’s partner in a tempestuous relationship, Rodolfo, was played by Italian tenor Renato Cioni. I have already discussed Cioni’s importance as a leading Italian tenor for the San Francisco Opera between 1961 and 1968 [See 50 Year Anniversaries: Bastianini’s “Nabucco”, with Tozzi, Cioni and Janis Martin – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 1961.
The performance I saw was the only one in San Francisco Opera history in which Marilyn Horne, who sang the part of Musetta, co-starred with de los Angeles. Although I had seen Horne in three substantive roles - Marie in Berg's "Wozzeck", Marzelline in Beethoven's "Fidelio" and Marina in Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" - Musetta is a role that demonstrates comic flair, one of Horne's career trademarks (especially when the three most famous Rossini comic operas are concerned).
I believe strongly that an opera singer that not only has the vocal skills, but who can display wit and mastery of comic timing, is a major asset to any opera company. "Boheme", despite its tragic ending, is an opera that relies on comic interplay among the four Bohemians (besides Cioni, the Marcello of Thomas Tipton, the Schaunard of Russell Christopher, and the Colline of John Macurdy; and their landlord Benoit, Musetta and her sugar-daddy Alcindoro.)
Guided by stage director Dino Yannopoulos, all the desired comic elements of a successful "Boheme" were much in evidence, helped by the fact that (as is the custom) the roles of Benoit and Alcindoro were both played by the same singer. In this case, that singer was one of the great crossover artists between opera and film - the 62 year old basso buffo Salvatore Baccaloni.
[Below: Papa Vittorio Rocco (Salvatore Baccaloni, right) advises his son Nick Rocco (film actor Richard Conte, left) in the 1956 Hollywood film "Full of Life"; edited image of a production photograph for Columbia Pictures.]
“La Boheme” has always been a special opera for me, because every performance I’ve seen has included great operatic stars of the past five decades. It was this performance – my first “Boheme” that set that course, and the San Francisco Opera (with occasional visits to cities such as San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Fe) that has continued to showcase the great contemporary artists of the day in what is arguably the most popular Italian dramatic opera.
And this great cast assembled in its entirety only once, for the October 22nd performance 50 years ago.