Arthur Bloomfield – Dropping in On the Final Adler Years at the San Francisco Opera: The Spirit of ’78

Our guest commentator Arthur Bloomfield writes:

When, in 1977, my publisher asked me to bring my history of the SFO up to date, naturally I jumped at the opportunity and the book, The San Francisco Opera 1922-78, was duly published. But this was several years before the great regime of Kurt Herbert Adler came to an end, and other work shortly called me away, so his last seasons, 1978 through 1981, were never chronicled by this observer in book form.

[Below: Kurt Herbert Adler; edited image, based on an historical photograph from the Bancroft Library.]

But broadcast tapes of most of the performances from this indubitably fertile period in the company’s history — Adler obviously intent on leaving his desk, and podium, on the wings of crescendo — are parked just a few feet from where I’m writing these words. Herewith then, the first in an occasional series of articles in which a number of these broadcasts will be revisited.

William who was there of course, five rows ahead of me in the Orchestra section of the War Memorial Opera House, will be offering comment and memories too. And meanwhile, naturally, I hope you’ll visit my new e-book on the styles of the great oldtime conductors, at……

Ten operas more or less were the norm on Adler’s autumn menu in the Late 70s and my wife and I used to feel fairly confident of a 90 pct. success rate. Not bad for a company maneuvering so much potential magic on and off stage between Labor Day and the final crumbs of pumpkin pie in Thanksgiving’s wake. Let’s plunge in, via my faithful tape deck, with a memorable Der Rosenkavalier conducted by the Budapest Opera’s musical director Janos Ferencsik and starring Leonie Rysanek as the Marschallin, a role she rediscovered at age 42 having given it up at 25.

[Below: Leonie Rysanek as the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”; historical photograph, from the  Austria-Forum (Die oesterreichische Wissensnetz).]

Ferencsik rouses us immediately with an ultra-ebullient prelude, reminiscent perhaps of Erich Kleiber down at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. Elegantly shaded, it’s also a very sexy piece of work, the principal clarinet almost moaning with joy half way along. Well, it was Ferencsik over lunch in San Francisco’s North Beach who explained to me in his husky Mittel Europa English exactly where the orgasm in Strauss’ prelude is — the whooping horns, of course, how could I be so naive!

More wonderful stuff from his baton: in the getting-to-know-you duet of Octavian and Sophie in Act 2 hovering woodwinds chirp helpfully like angels of awakening love; and then by sweeping through much of the ensemble bedlam of the ensuing scene he seriously reduces the tedium factor even perfect Straussians would have to admit is a challenge at this point in a Rosenkavalier evening.

[Below: Conductor Janos Ferencsik, sitting onstage in the San Francisco Opera’s sets for Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”; resized image, based on an Ira Nowinski photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]

Rysanek was a warm protagonist, not without fragility in the face of life’s bedroom and dressing table challenges, and a Marschallin too who retained a certain girlish quality, even singing at times with an agreable near-croon, evoking a Viennese Leontyne Price. Also to be enjoyed, Hanna Schwarz’ agile/nubile Octavian, an Ochs from Walter Berry with (almost!) a college education, and Carol Malone, a Hamburg Opera stalwart, showed off a substantial lyric soprano as Sophie.

The pleasingly ringing Italian Tenor — who doesn’t sound like a comprimario drafted for a short role to balance the budget — is Jerome Pruett. I see from Wikipedia that he’s on the soundtrack of the 1988 film The Music Teacher along with Jose Van Dam.

Commentators in a hurry to fire negatives in the air at helpless targets like to say that Adler was slow to hire “first rate” conductors. But such is scarcely the case. Aside from obvious names like Bohm, Kubelik, Rostropovich, Ferencsik, Gavazzeni, Sanzogno, Horenstein, Mackerras, Leitner, Leinsdorf, Leppard, Martinon, Rudel and Pritchard, men like Kaimierz Kord, Jesus Lopez-Cobos, Ricardo Chailly and Reynald Giovaninetti who became well-known, and surprise inspirations such as putting Gunther Schuller in charge of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, and other stalwarts of the Italian wing Giuseppe Patane, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, Oliviero deFabritiis and Bruno Bartoletti, and intermittently marvelous Germanics such as Otmar Suitner and Horst Stein, not to mention the ill-fated star-in-the-making Calvin Simmons who has a concert hall named after him in Oakland, California, and there’s also Jean Perisson, recommended by Regine Crespin, who was perfect for Charpentier’s Louise, well, ladies and gentlemen, in addition to these scarcely inept batoneers Adler maintained an 8 or 9-out of 10 batting average engaging low profile but high quality maestri such as Hans Drewanz and Gunther Wich who led, respectively, Don Giovanni and Fidelio in the ’78 season presently under consideration.

Well, Drewanz was general music director in Darmstadt, not exactly New York or London but Erich Kleiber once held that job, and Wich presided over the not inconsiderable innings of the Duesseldorf Opera. Wich, I believe, retired into teaching, but Drewanz shows up on you-tube conducting in Japan in 1998. His San Francisco Giovanni was first class for sure, a thing of panache and pace, setting off with an anguished and urgent reading of the overture’s introduction. He captures that placid Olympian quality in the innocent arpeggios after the Commendatore is run through, he provides a light and darting frame for Walter Berry’s Madamina, his woodwinds have personality and presence throughout.

A roll call of the cast would include the show-stopping Ottavio of David Rendall, the suave and spiky Giovanni of Justino Diaz, Gwynne Howell’s elegant Commendatore. Hearing it again, the sultry, gleaming Anna of Olivia Stapp rather reminds me of Gre Brouwenstijn or Raina Kabaivanska in vocal texture; her second act aria seems to have somewhat unnerved her on broadcast night but she comes out swinging in the coloratura section — ah, the snares of the limelight.

Another kind of vocal light is shed on Elvira by Ellen Shade (no pun intended), an estimable artist with a bright, light spinto, a sort of quasi-soubrette sound. Reminders of Janis Martin here! And the Zerlina is Ruth Welting with her cultivated babydoll soprano, dainty but strong, the aural equivalent of looking through rose-colored glasses.

Fidelio was a tight little show with big excitements. The rhythmic zap and highly characterized interplay of crucial woodwinds made Wich’s Third Leonore Overture a standout experience and he received an ovation as validation of that state of affairs. A radiant, heroic Leonore from Gwyneth Jones did no harm at all, and Spas Wenkoff the Florestan, why his lyric heldentenor seemed to come from a great depth and have no trouble making the ascent. Marius Rintzler’s mellow bass in the role of Rocco made a nice foil for the oily/fiery villainy of Siegmund Nimsgern’s Pizarro, a fast-talking Type A character if ever there was one. Note too a spunky Marzelline from Sheri Greenawald!

And then with the year’s Lohengrin Kurt Herbert Adler himself was on the podium — all those papers on his desk upstairs could wait. And we’ll talk about that delightful production in Part 2 of this commentary (See The Final Adler Seasons at the San Francisco Opera with Arthur Bloomfield – The Spirit of ’78, Part 2.)

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For previous commentaries by Arthur Bloomfield, see:

Guest Commentator Arthur Bloomfield: “A Great Time Machine Trip” and,

Arthur Bloomfield’s Guest Commentary on mid-20th Century Conductors, Part 2: Fritz Reiner and,

Arthur Bloomfield’s Guest Commentary on mid-20th Century Conductors, Part 3: Gennaro Papi and,

Arthur Bloomfield’s Guest Commentary on mid-20th Century Conductors, Part 4: Wilhelm Furtwaengler.