Historical Performances: An American “Boris Godunov” Starring Tozzi and Dalis – San Francisco Opera, September 21, 1961

Note from William: This post continues my series of observances of historic performances that I attended at San Francisco Opera during the general directorship of Kurt Herbert Adler. This is the first of six such observances of performances from the company’s 1961 Fall season.

Even as an entering college Freshman, I had a taste for opera and so invested in my very first subscription to the San Francisco Opera, an orchestra seat on the center aisle in Row V. In those days the San Francisco Opera had the “regular subscription series” that constituted the Tuesday and Friday nights in each week of the Fall season. There were two other series, one Thursday and one Saturday night. I took the six opera Thursday night series.

[Below: Basso Giorgio Tozzi as Tsar Boris Godunov; resized image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The first opera was Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” in my first live performance of that work, and the first performance of the opera that season.

I had, in my early teens, invested in the four disk long-play album of Rimsky-Korsakov’s radically (and quite elegantly) re-orchestrated version of the opera in Russian, with Boris Christoff and Nicolai Gedda (both of whom I saw in San Francisco Opera performances, but neither in a Russian opera). But this performance was in English, as would be later San Francisco Opera performances in 1966. Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration was used in 1961, and was still considered the edition of choice by most opera houses.

Although this was the seventh season in which “Boris” was presented at San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House, it was the first time ever in English. In 1956, it had been mounted in Russian for Christoff (with Hans Hotter as Rangoni, the only time in his career singing a role in Russian), but the previous years when the title role was assumed by Ezio Pinza (1945, 1946 and 1948) and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (1951 and 1953) the opera was sung in Italian.

So my performance, only the ninth “Boris” ever performed at the War Memorial, was the first ever in English and the first with a basically all American or at least all English-speaking cast in the main roles. The False Dmitri was Albert Lance, an Australian, in his American debut season, whose successful career in France has caused him to be described as a “French tenor”. Of the principal named roles, only the Rangoni,  Plinio Clabassi, was European born.

[Below: Australian tenor Albert Lance; edited image of a publicity photograph.]

Although Giorgio Tozzi was of Italian descent, he was born in Chicago and named George. It was the publicity department of RCA Victor records that Italianized his first name. This was the second role I had seen Tozzi perform, after seeing him first as Fiesco Grimaldi in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” (see 50 Year Anniversaries: “Simon Boccanegra” with Tito Gobbi, Giorgio Tozzi – October 6, 1960. Four years before that, I had seen Christoff perform Fiesco. (The next San Francisco performances of each of the roles that Christoff had sung in 1956 were sung by Tozzi in 1960 or 1961.)

My colleague Arthur Bloomfield’s remarks recorded in  his 1922-1978 The San Francisco Opera about the 1961 “Boris” gives his impressions of the staging: “Tozzi offered a lyric but reasonably gripping Boris, minus rugged Slavic vocalism but not prettified. [Stage Director Dino] Yannopoulos went for broke, practically crucifying our tragic protagonist at the end of the Clock Scene as he fell back, arms outstretched, against a fallen table. At another point in the show Herbert Handt, the Shouisky, could be caught peering over the back of Boris’ chair like some Charles Addams character who’d just come out of a manhole”. The American character tenor Handt, later a conductor, appeared at San Francisco Opera only in the 1961 season.

The Varlaam was Kieth Engen, a California basso almost whose entire 40 year career was based in Munich, and who changed his first name from “Keith”, so that the German pronunciation of his name name sounded as “Keet” instead of “Kite”. He sang five roles in San Francisco in 1961 (I saw him in three of them) but appeared there only that season. Of him, Bloomfield remarked “The busy Mr Engen was an unusually boozy Varlaam who reeled more vigourously than his predecessors”. Other members of this “American Boris” cast included the Pimen of New York born Joshua Hecht (a student of superstar soprano Rosa Ponselle) and the Missail of Howard Fried.

Although Engen, Handt and Clabassi spent only one season in San Francisco, the Marina, Irene Dalis, had a much longer association with the opera company. She was my first Amne (see The Woman Without an Equal – Leonie Rysanek in “Frau ohne Schatten”: San Francisco Opera, September 24, 1960) and Ortrud (see 50 Year Anniversaries: Sandor Konya, Irene Dalis in “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 27, 1960) with several more roles in operas to come that I would be seeing for the first times.

[Below: Irene Dalis as Marina; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

In these seasons, in which an opera was often performed only a couple of times a season, a role might be split between two artists. In the “full subscription” performance three or so weeks later, Marilyn Horne was the Marina. At each “Boris” performance the evening’s Marina was appearing in the role the only time she sang it at the War Memorial Opera House. (It was Dalis that was Marina during the single “Boris” performance in Los Angeles.) There were very few roles that Dalis and Horne shared in their respective repertoires, but there was one that I saw Dalis perform in 1962 and Horne in 1966 – Princess Eboli in Verdi’s “Don Carlo”.

The language in which “Boris” was performed in San Francisco (Italian in the 1940s and early 1950s, English in 1961 and 1966 and Russian in 1956 and from 1973 on) is not the only change in the performance styles that one can note over the years. Because there exist two separate versions composed by Mussorgsky, each of which has one or more scenes that the other does not, there has never been a definitive version for performance in San Francisco that has “settled” how the opera will be staged. For example, Marina’s and Rangoni’s scenes do not appear at all in the 1869 version (the one chosen by San Diego Opera for performance in 2007 and by the San Francisco Opera in 2008).

[Below: Giorgio Tozzi as Boris Godunov; resized image, based on a historical photograph from The Telegraph of London’s website at telegraph.co.uk.]

And in the early performance history in San Francisco, the version with Marina’s “Polish scene” was used but the scenes with Rangoni were deleted. Over the years, the indecision of what to keep and what to use has provided many opportunities for learned essays in the opera programs and elsewhere about how the opera should be performed.

But in 1961, seeing my first “Boris” in person with a great cast in the wonderful War Memorial Opera House was a great joy. I was hearing the opera with the vibrant Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration, that remains a forbidden pleasure, even as the fashion has long-since moved to performing the opera with the orchestration that Mussorgsky himself wrote. This, of course, is a topic to which I will return again (and again) in the future.

For my reviews of more recent performances, each of which discusses the performing editions and production choices, see: World Treasure: a Stunning Dallas Opera Revival of Tarkovsky’s Classic, Insightful “Boris Godunov” – April 1, 2011, and also,

Ramey at S. F. Opera in Fascinating 1869 “Boris” Production – November 2, 2008, and also,

Furlanetto’s, San Diego Opera’s, Compelling 1869 Version of “Boris Godunov” – January 30, 2007.