Historical Performances: Bastianini’s “Nabucco”, with Tozzi, Cioni and Janis Martin – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 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 sixth of six such observances of performances from the company’s 1961 Fall season.

This series of memorializations of San Francisco Opera performances of a half-century ago has described my very first subscription series at the San Francisco Opera – row V Orchestra Center Aisle seats on the six opera Thursday night series. I had attended the first four operas of the series on their designated performance nights, but, in the case of the last two operas on my series, I traded my ticket for different nights.

The fifth opera would have been Verdi’s “Nabucco”, starring Cornell MacNeil in the title role, with Giuseppe Zampieri as Ismaele, Margarethe Bence as Fenena and Janis Martin as Anna. A photograph of that cast appears below.

[Below: a photograph of the cast for the Friday night October 6, 1961 performance of Nabucco, with, from left Ismaele (Giuseppe Zampieri), Abigaille (Lucille Udovick), Nabucco (Cornell MacNeil), Anna (Janis Martin), Zaccaria (Giorgio Tozzi) and Fenena (Margarethe Bence); resized image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

But I saw the final Monday night (a “non-subscription” performance, added to meet the demand for tickets) in which Ettore Bastianini was Nabucco and Renato Cioni was Ismaele. Although Bence was supposed to have been the Fenena, circumstances required a cast change. There being no cover for Fenena, Janis Martin, the Anna, was enlisted into service, as will be described below.

An Italian Tribute with an Italo-American Cast

The 1961 “Nabucco” was a new production (revived in 1964 with Tito Gobbi and in 1970 with Cornell MacNeil). San Francisco Opera Historian Arthur Bloomfield illuminates the production’s background: “[It] was an unusally festive event, celebration of the 100th anniversary of Italy’s unification being a central element of the evening.”

Of the production itself Bloomfield noted that “Nabucco was unveiled in a near-Cinemascopic production by Andreas Nomikos which mixed spaciousness (a diagonal shaft of columns backing off toward the eye here, a painted backdrop path flowing into infinity there) with the immediacy that came from a then-novel use of a raked stage . . . [Stage director Paul] Hager had a field day, tumbling terrified Hebrews from the wings onto the sloping temple floor as the first act battle spilled to the stage.”

In retrospect, one notes that this celebration of Italian unification was comprised in the earlier performances by an American-born cast for the principal roles, excepting only the Ismaele or Giuseppe Zampieri. MacNeil (Nabucco), Udovick (Abigaille), Tozzi (Zaccaria) and Bence (Fenena) were all American-born. In this, the final performance, the presence of Bastianini and Renato Cioni (replacing MacNeil and Zampieri) doubled the Italian-born principals, but the final tally  still had a majority of American artists in the five principal roles.

Ettore Bastianini’s Nabucco

The San Francisco Opera, whose founding general director was the Italian conductor Gaetano Merola, and whose second general director was the Austrian emigre Kurt Herbert Adler, was at the forefront of promoting reconciliation between the artists and audiences of nations in the postwar era.

Thus, I was among the first American audiences to see such Italian baritones as Giuseppe Taddei and Tito Gobbi, and had only a few days before seen, for the first time, the great baritone Ettore Bastianini. The operatic careers of both Taddei and Bastianini were sidetracked as they were conscripted into the Italian army and air force respectively, and, even though Gobbi was able to perform in Italian houses during the war years, his international career had to await the war’s end.

As I have reported, I saw Bastianini the two times in 1961, including his magnificent Renato (see 50 Year Anniversaries: Brouwenstijn, Bastianini, Zampieri in “Ballo in Maschera” – San Francisco Opera, October 12, 1961), and then, singing with Renata Tebaldi, twice again in 1965, both times as Carlo Gerard in Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier”.

[Below: The young Italian baritone Ettore Bastianini; resized image from ettorebastianini.com.]

I’m usually good on remembering details, but a half century later, I can’t recollect exactly why I changed from the Thursday night to Monday night “Nabucco” (perhaps for reasons related to my college work), although I do recall that my friend, the elderly doorman, Mr Fisher, (whom I mentioned in my feature on the 1961 Leontyne Price “Butterfly”) sat in the seat next to me for that Monday performance.

Later events showed switching the nights was the right choice. Bastianini, singing the title role at age 39, but only once in San Francisco, would die of throat cancer only six years later. (I was able to see MacNeil perform the role several years later.)

Lucille Udovick’s Abigaille

The 31-year old Abigaille was Colorado-born Lucille Udovick, most of whose career was based in Europe. Afflicted with a spinal problem that shortened her career, she took on roles requiring a voice of power and in the case of Abigaille, coloratura agility as well.

Her only other role in San Francisco was the title role in the 1961 production of Puccini’s “Turandot” (which was not on my series). I believe she was an under-appreciated artist, aspiring to sing roles that others regarded as “voice-killers” and doing a creditable job of it.

[Below: Colorado soprano Lucille Udovick as Abigaille; resized image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Renato Cioni’s Ismaele

In the five seasons I had been attending Italian operas performed by the San Francisco Opera, I had seen Italian tenors at the Fox Theater in San Diego (Giuseppe Campora as Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and Mario Del Monaco in the title role of Verdi’s “Otello”) at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles (Roberto Turrini as Gabriele Adorno in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” and Gianni Raimondi as Edgardo in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”) and at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco (Giuseppe Zampieri, both as Gabriele Adorno and as Riccardo in Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera”).

On this Monday night, there was a cast change that permitted me to see one of the younger Italian tenors of the postwar era, the 32 year old Renato Cioni. He was a tenor associated with several of the contemporary superstars, including Maria Callas. I myself was to see him perform Rodolfo (with Victoria de los Angeles as Mimi) in my first live performance of Puccini’s “La Boheme” and, subsequently Rodolfo to Renata Tebaldi’s Mimi.

[Below: Renato Cioni as Rodolfo and Renata Tebaldi as Mimi; resized image, based on a historic photograph.]

Cioni was also Elvino to Joan Sutherland’s Amina in my first performance of Bellini’s “La Sonnambula”, and Enzo to Leyla Gencer’s Gioconda in my first performance of Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda”, and Ernani to Leontyne Price’s Leonora in my first performance of Verdi’s “Ernani”.

Cioni remained San Francisco Opera’s most important Italian-born tenor until 1967, when another tenor from Italy, Luciano Pavarotti, six years Cioni’s junior, took San Francisco by storm. Both tenors sang in 1967 and 1968, but from 1969 through 1981, the end of the Kurt Herbert Adler era, Pavarotti would reign as the Italian-born tenor at the San Francisco Opera.

Giorgio Tozzi’s Zaccaria

The Chicago basso, Giorgio Tozzi, whom I had also seen perform the roles of Fiesco Grimaldi in Italian (see Historical Performances: “Simon Boccanegra” with Tito Gobbi, Giorgio Tozzi – San Francisco Opera, October 6, 1960) and Tsar Boris in English (see 50 Year Anniversaries: An American “Boris Godunov” Starring Tozzi and Dalis – San Francisco Opera, September 21, 1961), returned to the Verdian basso cantante repertory as the Hebrew prophet Zaccaria.

It was still regarded as sufficiently unusual for an American basso to be considered an international calibre opera star that RCA Victor Records’ publicity department renamed George Tozzi as Giorgio. But Tozzi, both as artist and teacher, did a large part in establishing that high reputation that so many American bass-baritones and basso cantantes have had (and still have) in the opera houses of the world.

[Below: Illinois basso Giorgio Tozzi; resized image, based on a promotional photograph.]

Janis Martin’s Fenena

According to Arthur Bloomfield’s history, Janis Martin received the request Friday night, October 20th, to learn the part of Fenena in order to perform it the evening of October 23rd. (Some accounts have an even shorter duration.) General Director Adler enlisted San Francisco Opera’s pre-eminent assistant to the artists, Otto Guth (soon to become a favorite of Pavarotti, who worked with Guth for so many of his role debuts).

As I entered the opera house, the buzz about the 22-year old Martin learning an entire role in little more than a day was a main topic of conversation, and a warmly sympathetic audience (and a well-cued prompter) was in her corner. It was a proper “star is born” triumph.

Martin continued to have a full plate of smaller comprimario roles, some little more than a walk-on, each season through 1964 (in which “Nabucco” was revived for Gobbi, with Martin cast, from the earliest stages, as Fenena). Two years after that, Martin returned to San Francisco Opera in major mezzo-soprano roles, including Venus in “Tannhauser” with Jess Thomas and Regine Crespin. Then as her voice matured, she tackled the dramatic soprano repertory, ultimately singing all three Bruennhildes in one of the 1990 cycles of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen”.

[Below: California mezzo-soprano Janis Martin; edited image, based on a promotional photograph.]

Francesco Molinari-Pradelli was the Conductor. Gwen Curatilo replaced Janis Martin in the small role of Anna.

Even though I never saw Udovick again, and Bastianini only twice more in 1965, I saw Cioni in several major roles through 1968. Tozzi performed at San Francisco Opera through the 1978 season (memorably performing Baron Scarpia to Magda Olivero’s Tosca), and Janis Martin was an important presence in the San Francisco Opera cast lists in many seasons through 1990.

It was a thrilling end to a wonderful six-opera sampler of the 1961 season of the San Francisco Opera.