Fifty years ago, as a college sophomore, between studying, term papers and fraternity parties, when the interest and opportunity arose, I would purchase an orchestra seat to the San Francisco Opera. The spring semester over and finals done with, I took in the final performance of San Francisco Opera’s Spring Opera Theater production of Rossini’s “Italian Girl in Algiers [L’Italiana in Algeri].
I was already familiar with the artist singing the title role, the 29 year old Marilyn Horne, whose performances in the roles of Marina in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” [50 Year Anniversaries: An American “Boris Godunov” Starring Tozzi and Dalis – San Francisco Opera, September 21, 1961], Marzelline in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” [50 Year Anniversaries: Brouwenstijn, Uhl, Schoeffler, Horne, in “Fidelio” at the War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, October 5, 1961], Marie in Berg’s “Wozzeck” [50 Year Anniversaries: Geraint Evans, Marilyn Horne, Richard Lewis in “Wozzeck” at San Francisco Opera – September 15, 1962] and Musetta in Puccini’s “La Boheme” [50 Year Anniversaries: de los Angeles, Cioni, Horne, Baccaloni in “La Boheme” – San Francisco Opera, October 22, 1962], I had reported on previously in this 50-year anniversary series of observances.
Her role in “Wozzeck” had first brought Horne to the attention of San Francisco Opera’s general director Kurt Herbert Adler, who, when his first choice became unavailable, needed to recast its soprano role for its 1960 premiere in San Francisco. “Wozzeck’s” Marie also opened doors for Horne at the other international theaters, but it is not Horne’s roles in operas of Berg, Mussorgsky, Beethoven or Puccini on which Horne’s lasting fame rested. Horne’s operatic fame is most directly associated with the operas of Rossini.
[Below: Isabella (Marilyn Horne, right) recognizes Lindoro (Andre Montal (front, left) in the Algerian court; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
In many ways the two Spring Opera Theater [SPOT] performances of “L’Italiana” were significant. Specifically designed to showcase young American artists, the performance brought together the 29 year old Horne, with the 31 year old Maryland born bass-baritone Spiro Malas as Taddeo and, as Lindoro, a 24 year old African-American Andre Montal, a recent graduate of Philadelphia’s Curtis Academy. I found Horne’s, Malas’ and Montal’s performances most impressive.
[Below: the cast of “L’Italiana” from left in first row, Nancy Williams as Zulma, Andre Montal (face visible behind Williams) as Lindoro, Patricia Brooks as Elvira, Marilyn Horne as Isabella, Spiro Malas as Taddeo, center, back row in white head covering, Herbert Beattie as Mustafa;; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Cast as Mustafa was the 38 year old basso buffo Herbert Beattie, who had achieved success at the New York City Opera and had appeared in lead roles, especially in in the major comic bass roles in six of the seven SPOT seasons between 1962 and 1968. Of his Mustafa, my friend and colleague San Francisco Examiner Arthur Bloomfield observed that “his mugging was always inextricably bound up with a genuinely musical and accurate account of the score”. Beattie’s Mustafa “had real dignity, and was immensely funny in the bargain”.
Horne and Lewis
The conductor was Henry Lewis, a 32 year old African-American, who was in his third season with SPOT. He had already achieved, in his own right, a number of significant milestones, youngest (16) and first African-American instrumentalist (double-bass) to play in a major symphony orchestra, and the first African-American to conduct a major orchestra.
He is probably better known for another first, that of being Marilyn Horne’s first husband. In the history of opera, perhaps he will ultimately best remembered as the person who encouraged Horne to pursue leaning the techniques to sing Italian bel canto opera correctly (concentrating on the coloratura mezzo-soprano repertory), and took on the talk of so training her.
[Below: Mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne with her husband, Conductor Henry Lewis, in 1961.]
After this SPOT performance, Horne returned two years later as Eboli in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” and then was absent from the company for 12 seasons. Ironically, it was the opera “L’Italiana in Algeri” that prolonged the absence for most of that time period. Adler had scheduled Horne to open the San Francisco Fall 1973 season in a new production of Donizetti’s “La Favorita” mounted for her and Luciano Pavarotti. However, when it was too late for Adler to replace her with a star of comparable importance, she accepted an invitation to appear in a new Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of “L’Italiana” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, to Adler’s fury, damaging San Francisco’s opening night.
It would be 15 years after this performance that Horne and Lewis would both appear together in a San Francisco Opera production – with Lewis conducting Horne in the title role of Rossini’s “Tancredi”. One might find significance in the fact that also appearing in the 1979 “Tancredi” cast was Greek basso Nicola Zaccaria, who, by then, was Horne’s second husband.
Hebert and Klein
Another pair of young Americans also was critically important to the success of this performance. New Yorkers Bliss Hebert and Charles Allen Klein were respectively the stage director and set designer.
This was the only production that both Hebert and Klein created for the San Francisco Opera together, although Hebert was to have assignments in the company’s later Fall seasons. The personal, as well as artistic relationship of Hebert and Klein, which continued through the next half century, was formally sealed at the end of 2013, after New York State recognized same-sex marriages.
[Below: Stage Director Hebert Bliss; image of a production photograph from wikipedia.com.]
To quote Bloomfield again, “[Hebert and Klein] propelled their Rossini audiences to a never-never land of rabbit-suited eunuchs, a Viking-styled getaway boat, and sets that looked like cardboard cutouts from a children’s puppet show”.
The First Act Finale
“L’Italiana” is the 19th century’s first enduring Italian comic opera, although one done much less often in the century preceding this performance than in the half century that followed it. Although it was built on the 18th century opera buffa form, it is Rossini’s first great comic work, displaying his highly original approach to Italian operatic theater, that was to transform the course of Italian opera.
No opera better shows Rossini’s convention of ending the first act of a comic opera in seemingly insoluble confusion. As great as the comparable scenes of his later “Barber of Seville” and “La Cenerentola”, nothing can be more hilarious than the first act finale in which the six principal singers in succession complain about how that insoluble confusion has gotten into their heads – ringing bells, pounding hammers, cawing crows, booming cannons.
I’ve seen many of the great Rossini singers of the half-century lay on the comic gags in their own (or their stage director’s) way, but Bliss Hebert’s staging of Horne’s Isabella, Beattie’s Mustafa, Montal’s Lindoro, Malas’ Taddeo, Nancy Williams’ Zulma and Patricia Brooks’ Elvira strutting their stuff, was as hilarious as any I have subsequently seen.
Since I was able to attend only one of the 1964 operas of May and June 1964, unquestionably this historic “Italiana” would be the choice. The 1964 productions SPOT of Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” and Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” were repeated in later season (as was “L”Italiana) so I was to see them in time (and I did see “L’Italiana” with a different cast two years later.).
However, two operas from that 1964 SPOT season have been absent from the San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House in the past 50 years. In 1964, Norman Treigle was Olin Blitch to Lee Venora’s Susannah and Richard Cassilly’s Sam Polk in Floyd’s “Susannah”. Thankfully, “Susannah” will have its main season San Francisco Opera premiere in September 2014, just over a half century later.
[Below: the San Francisco Opera’s Spring Opera program; resized image of a brochure, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The other rarity was a single performance if Weber’s “Die Freischuetz” with Cassilly as Max. Although at one point a previous San Francisco Opera general director, Pamela Rosenberg, had scheduled then cancelled Weber’s opera, her successor, current General Director David Gockley has publicly stated that San Francisco audiences should not expect it anytime soon at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.
As much as I regret missing “Susannah” and “Freischuetz” 50 years ago, I can report that I passed all my semester final exams.