An important milestone in soprano Leyla Gencer’s distinguished career occurred at age 28, when in 1956 she debuted at the San Francisco Opera, substituting for Renata Tebaldi in the title role of Zandonai’s “Francesca da Rimini”, once a great verismo hit that even in the 1950s had become a rarity. She was invited back in 1957 to perform the role of Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” in her own right, but soon took over the title role of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” in a series of performances that Maria Callas had originally contracted to perform.
[Below: Leyla Gencer is the Lucia; resized image, based on a historical studio photograph.]
I attended her final San Francisco Lucia at the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium, the fourth opera I saw at this imposing edifice during the 1956 and 1957 post-season tours of the San Francisco Opera in Southern California. My previous comments on the 50 year anniversaries of the other three operas I saw at the Shrine, which collectively displayed luminous performances by Renata Tebaldi, Leonard Warren, Boris Christoff, Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek, Nell Rankin, Ludwig Suthaus, Hans Hotter, Richard Lewis and Rita Streich, are cited at the end of these remarks.
From the perspective of 50 years, it is natural to think of Lucia as an obvious Gencer role. After all, she is the pre-eminent figure in the 20th century “Donizetti Revival”. Maria Callas obviously laid claim to the historic dusting off of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” and Montserrat Caballe, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills made crucial contributions to the 20th century performance histories of “Maria Stuarda”, “Roberto Devereux” and “Lucrezia Borgia”, but it was Gencer who had precedence in the first two, as well as “Caterina Cornero”, and who breathed life into the Donizetti Renaissance.
But that was to be Gencer’s future, and had not been her past. Before her four San Francisco Opera performances of Lucia, two in San Francisco and two in Los Angeles in Fall, 1957, she had never performed in a Donizetti opera, nor had any “bel canto” roles in her performance history.
The role she had performed most often was Violetta, a role that many coloratura sopranos associated with bel canto do perform, but her other roles mainly were those in the spinto or dramatic soprano categories (e.g., the title roles in Puccini’s “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly”, Santuzza in Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”, and the Leonora roles in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” and “Forza del Destino”, all of which she shared with Tebaldi.)
Obviously, radical changes in her repertory were being planned, with Lucia scheduled for late November- early December, 1957 in Trieste, conducted by Oliviero de Fabritiis, her associate from San Francisco’s 1956 Francesca performances (and conductor for legendary Beniamino Gigli recordings). Within seven months, the historic live performance of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” was recorded for posterity, for which Gianandrea Gavazzeni conducted the Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Milano della RAI, with Gencer and Guilietta Simionato respectively as Henry VIII’s second and third wives.
Since no comparable studio recorded live performance of “Lucia” appears to exist (an unreviewed CD of the de Fabritiis/Gencer Trieste “Lucia” is listed by specialty shops), her July, 1958 Bolena for RAI quite adequately represents what Gencer’s voice sounded like that November at the Shrine. The roles of Lucia and Anna Bolena share many similar vocal passages and require the same basic technique, so many coloratura sopranos with a dramatic flair have sung and do sing both roles. Bolena being Gencer’s second foray into Donizetti’s dazzling prima donna soprano roles, the RAI recording surely reflects Gencer’s experience with Lucia in San Francisco and Trieste, under the tutelage respectively of conductors Molinari-Pradelli and de Fabritiis.
In mid-20th century mythology, Callas introduced to opera the concept of acting, including such Stanislavsky-inspired elements as attention to motivation and the meaning of words being sung. Obviously, many operatic divas, that were her performing contemporaries or her then still living predecessors, felt they did that also.
Callas, however, was able to establish herself (with a little bit of help from EMI, the recording studio that secured her contract) as a postwar media star. Obviously, becoming the subject of intense interest to paparazzi is not necessarily an indication of merit or talent, although few would dispute that Callas was one of the most technically accomplished artists in operatic history.
But, as I reflect on the Shrine “Lucia” a half century later, it seems to me that a positive spin-off of the Callas phenomenon was that, over a century after Gaetano’s death, Callas could demonstrate that there was dramatic content still to be mined in Donizetti operas that had been great hits 120 years earlier. When you have star power, what you embrace and celebrate can become intensely interesting to the press and, when there is enough media buzz, sold-out opera houses follow.
[Below: Giuseppe Taddei, in the year of his American debut season with the San Francisco Opera, was Enrico, Lucia’s brother; resized image of a historical studio photograph.]
The ticket-holders, most deeply disappointed that Callas was not coming, as something much more rewarding than a consolation prize, were treated to performances of an emerging world phenomenon, with Gencer displaying extraordinary acting abilities, a beautiful voice and technique, and showing an agility with coloratura which most of the audience had no reason to expect.
She also had co-stars of the first rank – Gianni Raimondi as Edgardo and Giuseppe Taddei as Enrico. Grateful as I was to have heard tenors Ludwig Suthaus and Richard Lewis in German operas at the Shrine, I have elsewhere recorded my observation that the Gabriele Adorno in the 1956 Shrine performance of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” was inadequate, so up until this “Lucia” performance I had been deprived of the sound in this wonderful setting of a great tenor voice in a classic Italian opera. Raimondi’s Edgardo provided me with the opportunity to hear an Italian tenor in brilliant voice play to the vibrant acoustics of the Shrine. Gencer and Raimondi were thus a memorable pair. (A souvenir of Raimondi’s voice may be obtained through the nearly contemporaneous (1956) Cetra studio recording of Donizetti’s “La Favorita”.)
[Below: Gianni Raimondi as Edgardo of Ravenswood; resized image of historical photograph.]
This essay is about Gencer and the 1957 performance of “Lucia”, rather than the mid-century Donizetti Revival. But future essays on this website will return to the subject of the status of Donizetti in the current repertory. As it turns out, I am scheduled to see several different Donizetti operas in various cities over the next year, including another opera associated with Gencer – “Maria Stuarda”- next February in San Diego.
Interestingly, the San Diego Opera has decided always to refer to the opera as “Mary Queen of Scots (Maria Stuarda)”, suggesting that after all these centuries the familiar name of Queen Elizabeth I’s Catholic cousin still has drawing power among Anglophones.
Gencer appeared in seven roles in three consecutive San Francisco Opera seasons beginning in 1956. Excepting her Violettas, each of the operas in which she appeared with the San Francisco Opera during these years was a role debut. She returned in 1967 for four performances in the title role of Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda”, substituting for yet another indisposed artist – Regine Crespin.
The following lists the Young Gencer’s performances at San Francisco Opera during the 1950s:
9-28-56 Zandonai, Francesca da Rimini (Leyla Gencer U. S. Debut, Margaret Roggero, Richard Martell, Anselmo Colzani, Heinz Blankenburg; cond. Oliviero de Fabritiis)
10-4-56 Zandonai, Francesca da Rimini (Gencer, Roggero, Martell, Colzani, Blankenburg; cond. de Fabritiis)
10-31-56 Zandonai, Francesca da Rimini (Gencer, Roggero, Martell, Colzani, Blankenburg; cond. de Fabritiis) Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles
9-19-57 Verdi, La Traviata (Gencer, Gianni Raimondi U.S. Debut, Robert Merrill, Harve Presnell; cond. Glauco Curiel)
9-27-57 Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor (Gencer, Raimondi, Umberto Borghi, Lorenzo Alvary; cond. Francesco Molinari-Pradelli)
10-6-57 Verdi, La Traviata (Gencer, Raimondi, Merrill, Presnell, cond. Molinari-Pradelli) Memorial Auditorium, Sacramento
10-10-57 Verdi, La Traviata (Gencer, Cesare Curzi, Merrill, Presnell, cond. Curiel) Student Matinee, San Francisco
10-17-57 Verdi, La Traviata (Gencer, Curzi, Borghi, Presnell, cond. Curiel) Student Matinee, San Francisco
10-25-57 Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor (Gencer, Jan Peerce, Giuseppe Taddei, Nicola Moscona; cond. Molinari-Pradelli) Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles
*10-31-57 Verdi, La Traviata (Gencer, Jon Crain, Merrill, Presnell; cond. Curiel) Fox Theatre, San Diego
11-1-57 Puccini, Turandot (Leonie Rysanek, Gencer, Eugene Tobin, Moscona; cond. Molinari-Pradelli) Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles
11-5-57 Verdi, La Traviata (Gencer, Peerce, Borghi, Moscona; cond., Curiel) Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles
11-09-57 Verdi, La Traviata (Gencer, Crain, Merrill, Presnell, cond. Curiel) Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles
*11-10-57 Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor (Gencer, Raimondi, Taddei, Alvary; cond. Molinari-Pradelli) Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles
9-16-58 Verdi, Don Carlo (Piero Miranda Ferraro, Gencer, Irene Dalis, Frank Guarrera, Giorgio Tozzi, Giuseppe Modesti; cond. Georges Sebastian)
9-25-58 Verdi, Rigoletto (Robert Weede; Gencer, Cecilia Ward, Raimondi, Alvary; cond. Jean Fournet)
10-17-58 Massenet, Manon (Gencer, Richard Lewis, Louis Quilico, Alvary; cond. Fournet)
10-20-58 Verdi, Rigoletto (Weede, Gencer, Claramae Turner, Raimondi, Alvary; cond. Fournet)
10-27-58 Massenet, Manon (Gencer, Lewis, Quilico, Alvary; cond. Fournet) Fox Theatre, San Diego
11-2-58 Massenet, Manon (Gencer, Lewis, Quilico, Alvary; cond. Fournet) Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles
11-4-58 Verdi, Don Carlo (Jussi Bjoerling, Gencer, Dalis, Guarrera, Tozzi, Modesti; cond. Sebastian) Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles
11-8-58 Verdi, Rigoletto (Weede, Gencer, Ward, Bjoerling, Alvary; cond. Fournet) Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles
*Performances that are subjects of 50th year anniversary essays on this website.
For reviews and discussions of other 1956 and 1957 performances of the San Francisco Opera at the Shrine Auditorium, see the following pages: