Historical Performances: McCracken, de los Angeles and Gobbi in “Otello” – San Francisco Opera, October 9, 1962

Note from William: This post continues my series of historic performances that I attended at San Francisco Opera during the general directorship of Kurt Herbert Adler. This is the third of six such observances of performances from the company’s 1962 Fall season.

In two previous posts, I spoke of my attendance in the first two offerings on the San Francisco Opera’s five opera Saturday night series – Berg’s “Wozzeck” with Geraint Evans and Marilyn Horne and Verdi’s “Don Carlo” with Sandor Konya, Irene Dalis, Thomas Stewart and Giorgio Tozzi.

The third, fourth and fifth Saturday evening offerings were to be Puccini’s “La Boheme” starring Dorothy Kirsten and Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” starring James McCracken and Elinor Ross and a double bill of Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” with important cast members.

But I traded my remaining Saturday evening tickets for three performances in three separate operas in which Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles was scheduled. As a teenager, I had acquired and appreciated the long-play recordings of Victoria de los Angeles in Massenet’s “Manon” and Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” and I had admired her in concert in San Diego, so I was determined to see her in each of the three roles in which she was to appear.

I was in the audience for her San Francisco Opera debut – her only performance in San Francisco of the role of Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello”. In fact, she was only to sing four performances in her career in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. Thus, by my exchanging those Saturday evening tickets I was present at three of those four performances.

[Below: Spanish lyric soprano Victoria de los Angeles; resized image of a promotional photograph for EMI records.]

The role of Desdemona suited de los Angeles’ sweetly lyrical and dramatically expressive voice. But Desdemona is a victim of forces beyond her control or understanding.The fate of de los Angeles’ Desdemona would be determined by the Otello of American tenor James McCracken and the Iago of the Italian dramatic baritone Tito Gobbi.

This performance was McCracken’s third with the San Francisco Opera, his debut occurring a week before as Manrico in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, which he repeated four night’s later. This was his first Otello in San Francisco, which he was to repeat nine days later, with an intervening performance of Otello across the San Francisco Bay in Berkeley.

Thus, like de los Angeles, McCracken had only four performances at the War Memorial that season, although he repeated two roles twice, whereas she performed three roles, but two were roles she sang only one time each in San Francisco. Unlike de los Angeles, he was to return to San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House for several more seasons.

But in 1962, like so many Americans who had listened to the radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in the mid-1950s, I remembered James McCracken as a comprimario artist, who would be assigned the minor roles in operatic performance.

It was a surprise to me as to many others that this artist had left the Met and established himself, not only as a principal singer in Europe, but one who assayed the most demanding dramatic Italian tenor roles in the operatic repertory, including the roles of Otello and Manrico, which he was singing this season.

Intrigued by the favorable press accounts of his debut as Manrico a week earlier, but having seen Mario del Monaco’s extraordinary Otello just three seasons prior [See Mario del Monaco’s Overpowering Otello: S. F. Opera’s San Diego Tour – November 5, 1959], I was quite curious about what a McCracken Otello might be like.

[Below: James McCracken as Otello; resized image of a Louis Melancon photograph for the New York Metropolitan Opera.]

The McCracken Otello at the War Memorial proved to be an intensely dramatic, vocally powerful, larger than life performance. He conveyed the emotions of adoration for de los Angeles’ Desdemona, then he most effectively showed suspicion, then intense jealousy and murderous rage towards her based on Iago’s false testimony.

The vocal and dramatic interplay between an Otello and his Iago is as crucial to a successful “Otello” as that between Otello and Desdemona. McCracken was paired with the most famous contemporary Iago of the era, Italian baritone Tito Gobbi.

[Below: Tito Gobbi was the Iago; resized image of a production photograph.]

I was also aware of Gobbi’s vocal and dramatic skills through his EMI recordings (famously with Maria Callas) and through his San Francisco Opera performances of Jack Rance [see 50th Birthday Celebrations: Dorothy Kirsten Rides High in “Girl of the Golden West” – San Francisco Opera, October 1, 1960] and Simon [see 50 Year Anniversaries: “Simon Boccanegra” with Tito Gobbi, Giorgio Tozzi – October 6, 1960].

Whereas Gobbi’s Simon was noble and his Jack Rance, though willing to let his rival hang, possessed a degree of dignity, Gobbi’s Iago, as expected, was the personification of evil.

The stage director for the “Otello”, in his debut season at the San Francisco Opera, was the Argentine stage director Tito Capobianco, whose future lay in the artistic administration of the New York City Opera, San Diego Opera and Pittsburgh Opera.

[Below: Argentine stage director Tito Capobianco; resized image of a production photograph.]

Capobianco’s stage direction enhanced the performances of the talented singing actors in this “Otello”. But it was Capobianco’s future projects in San Diego and in the Los Angeles tours of the New York City Opera for which I remember his work most vividly!

Rounding out the artistic team were Glade Peterson as Cassio and Janis Martin as Emilia. Francesco Molinari-Pradelli conducted.

My first performance of “Otello” had starred the greatest Otello of the 1950s, Mario Del Monaco. My second starred McCracken, arguably the greatest Otello of the 1960s. I was later to see Placido Domingo, who dominated the role in the 1970s and 1980s, as the Moor.

Generally, I do not subscribe to the theory that there was a “Golden Age” of operatic performance that has not been equalled in modern times. However, I am waiting for the emergence of artists that can match the Otellos of Mario Del Monaco, James McCracken and Placido Domingo, each of whom were incomparable in live performance.