50 Year Anniversaries: “Don Giovanni” with Leontyne Price’s Donna Anna – San Francisco Opera, October 15, 1965

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 ninth of sixteen such observances of performances from the company’s 1965 Fall season.


In 1965, the San Francisco Opera would usually present only two or three performances of a given opera, often with important cast changes between performances. So was it with the new production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” by the famous Broadway designer Oliver Smith, whose new “Fledermaus” production I had attended [See 50 Year Anniversaries: “Die Fledermaus” with Mary Costa, Richard Lewis, Reri Grist – San Francisco Opera, September 18, 1965.]

Although “Don Giovanni’s” third and final performance was scheduled for my Saturday series at the end of October, that Saturday performance had Spanish soprano Pilar Lorengar as Donna Anna, whereas the first two performances, both on Friday night, had Mississippi soprano Leontyne Price. Not wishing to miss Price’s Anna, I arranged for a ticket to the new production’s premiere, while retaining my Saturday subscription series ticket.

There were two cast changes between the October 15 and 30 performances – the Donna Anna and the Leporello. The first night performance included basso Ugo Trama, whom I had very much liked as Padre Guardiano to Price’s Leonora in Verdi’s “Forza del Destino” [50 Year Anniversaries: “Forza del Destino” with Leontyne Price, Konya, Wolansky – San Francisco Opera, October 9, 1965]. Heinz Blankenburg would be the Leporello to Lorengar’s Donna Anna.

[Below: Donna Anna (Leontyne Price, right) confronts Leporello (Ugo Trama, left); edited image, based on a Cahen production photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


It was a distinct pleasure to hear Mozart sung by Price, a true dramatic soprano whose specialty were the great heroine roles of Verdi, and Trama, a basso cantante with the luxurious legato that success as Guardiano necessitates.

This was the second time I had seen “Don Giovanni” performed, both times at the San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House [See 50 Year Anniversaries: “Don Giovanni” with Tozzi, De Los Angeles, Schwarzkopf, Evans and Lewis in Zeffirelli’s Production – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 1962].

[Below: Don Giovanni (Thomas Stewart, right) shows bravado in a situation where Leporello (Ugo Trama, left) is fearful; edited image, based on a Dennis Galloway photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The Don Giovanni was the Scottish baritone Thomas Stewart, who exemplified the baritone tradition of performing Giovanni, as opposed to the basso tradition that Tozzi represented. The one member of the 1965 cast who was also part of the 1961 was the great Welsh-born British tenor Richard Lewis.

I will discuss Stewart and Lewis at greater length as well as the other cast members – Jolanda Meneguzzer as Zerlina and Lucine Amara as Donna Elvira – and conductor Molinari-Pradelli in my account of the October 30th performance.

Oliver Smith’s New Production

This was the first night of a controversial new production, in which various scenes took place in structures that were intended to represent pieces on a chessboard. The structures would turn to create new spaces, all designed to create fast-paced scene changes.

[Below: the Oliver Smith design for the Donna Elvira balcony scene; resized image, based on a watercolor in the Library of Congress’ Oliver Smith collection.]


In the 21st century flexible sets that facilitate fast-pace scene changes are commonplace, but opera companies in the mid-20th century had warehouses filled with traditional heavy sets that required that curtains be closed in the middle of an act to change from one scene to the next.

I will return to the subject of the Smith sets when my discussion of the October 30th performance is posted.

During Price’s years at the San Francisco Opera, she sang both of the dramatic women’s roles in “Don Giovanni” – Anna and Donna Elvira. However, her total performances of Mozart operas in San Francisco was a small number – two Elviras in 1959 and two Annas in 1965.

[Below: Leontyne Price in 1959, backstage at the War Memorial Opera House, in costume as Donna Elvira; edited image of a Carolyn Mason Jones photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Thus my instinct – to secure the ticket to an extra performance with a cast change in a major role – proved prescient (as it did with Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier” earlier in the season and would with Puccini’s “Tosca” later that month.)

Each time I was able to see an important artist sing a role – Richard Tucker’s Chenier, Price’s Donna Anna and Jess Thomas’ Mario Cavaradossi – that I would never have the opportunity to see them perform again.