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 third of ten observances of performances from the company’s 1963 Fall Opera season.
Fifty years ago, I had a job operating the dishwashing machine and food tray belts at my college residence hall cafeteria. My cafeteria staff supervisor was well aware that I had spent my last two Saturday nights attending performances of the San Francisco Opera.
One Thursday night (September 26 to be exact), as I was preparing for the dinner shift, my supervisor came up to me and said that, in a couple of hours James McCracken would be singing the role of Samson at the Opera and tickets wre available. The cafeteria could get along without us. Why don’t we clock out on our time cards and go to the performance?
I had seen McCracken the previous season as Otello [See 50 Year Anniversaries: McCracken, de los Angeles and Gobbi in “Otello” – San Francisco Opera, October 9, 1962] and had tickets to see him later in the season as Don Alvaro in Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” and as Hermann in Tchiakovsky’s “Queen of Spades”.
I was familiar with the beautiful music of the “Samson et Dalila” second act music and, of course, the Bacchanale, but had never seen any part of the opera performed. I replied to my supervisor, why not?
[Below: Tenor James McCracken was Samson; edited image of a photograph for a Decca Records album cover.]
I dashed off to change into something suitable, met her, and off we went in time to buy our tickets before the 8:30 p.m. curtain. I had paid my college tuition and residence hall fees for the semester, so we splurged and got box seats (as I recall, Box J) for the performance.
(I much prefer watching an opera from the seats near the orchestra pit than from the boxes, but, if you haven’t tried them both, you won’t know which you’d like better. And, if you want to feel elegant and be treated as “special”, the War Memorial Opera House’s attendant staff, and the foyer and entranceways to each box is quite a treat. It was a much different feeling than being in the room that housed our residence hall tray conveyor belts and dishwasher.)
[Below: Mezzo-soprano Sandra Warfield was Dalila; resized image of a promotional photograph.]
James McCracken’s story is well known. He was a comprimario artist, assigned the small roles at the New York Metropolitan Opera. At age 31, he left with Sandra Warfield, his wife, another Met artist, for Europe and achieved success in big roles at the Vienna and Zurich Staatsopers.
Five years later, in 1962, he performed the roles of Otello and Manrico in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” in San Francisco with great acclaim and was re-engaged by the San Francisco Opera for four roles in 1963.
His wife Sandra appeared in two of these four: Dalila to his Samson, and Amneris to McCracken’s Radames in Verdi’s “Aida”.
In the next season, she appeared as Azucena, the mother of McCracken’s Manrico in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” for a single performance, although one that I was to attend.
There are relatively few examples of husband-wife teams in opera that perform together, and among those, even fewer marriages in which opera company impresarios enthusiastically attempt to secure both partners to perform lead roles in their houses (although there are well known examples of the latter).
ln the only two seasons that Warfield sang at the War Memorial, there were only four performances (three in 1963, one in 1964) in which both McCracken and Warfield sang.
There are three main characters in “Samson et Dalila”. The third, the Grand Priest of Dagon, was sung by Belgian baritone Julien Haas. making his American debut this evening.
I did not regard either Warfield or Haas as an exciting a performer as McCracken (although in 1964, I did like McCracken and Warfield paired as Manrico and Azucena and found her Azucena to be a more powerful performance than her Dalila).
My colleague, Arthur Bloomfield in his history, The San Francisco Opera 1922-1978 has recorded his own impressions of the trio of artists. Although he derided the use of an old production, he found “there was nothing dim about the passionate, characterful conducting of [Georges] Prêtre, nor the trumpety Samson of McCracken. . . Warfield . . . [sang] with less magnetism, but . . . [was] making some lovely sounds. The High Priest . . . Haas [was] a baritone with a vibrant, gutty, anti-bel canto style which sometimes forced him out of tune”.
Haas did not return to the San Francisco Opera in subsequent seasons. After Warfield’s single Azucena in 1964 she never returned either.
This was the second opera I had seen this year directed by the Persian-American Director Lotfi Mansouri, whose San Francisco Opera debut was directing “La Sonnambula”, a performance I had attended 12 days earlier.
With a rousing performance of “Samson’s” Bacchanale, it was all in all, even having some reservations, a memorable introduction to a wonderful opera.
“Samson” and the French “Exotics”
Up until this evening, the only live performances of French opera I had seen were Gounod’s “Faust” on a San Francisco Opera tour of San Diego and the San Francisco Opera’ Spring Opera Theater production of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman” (in the traditional presentation that Offenbach would not have recognized, that had held the world’s stages for three quarters of a century).
This was the first of the exotic operas on quasi-Oriental themes that became popular in Paris of the Second French Empire and Third French Republic. San Francisco Opera was to introduce me to more of these, including Bizet’s “Pearlfishers”, and Massenet’s “Esclarmonde”, “Thais” and “Herodiade”, but I had to go to other opera companies to see the French exotic opera that I believe surpasses all of these gems, Delibes’ “Lakme”.
(I don’t see “Lakme” returning to San Francisco in any near-future season, although I don’t believe either the general or musical administration is opposed to mounting the opera if the right cast and production becomes available.)
In praise of “Samson”
The exotic French operas, including “Samson”, have suffered official disdain. Much of that disdain is based on early 20th century criticism from a musicological and dramatic avant-garde who was suspicious of any opera that was both masterfully composed and orchestrated and popular – too academic, too conservative, too pandering to bourgeois tastes.
Ironically, “Samson” was considered so radical and subversive of operatic standards by the conservative Third Republic French opera managements that it took nearly two decades for it to be performed in the major Parisian opera house.
Yet, every part of it is not only unceasingly melodic, but it is always dramatically interesting, be it Samson’s first act declamations and the oratorio-like choral passages, the fright of the messenger and Philistine men, the confrontation of Samson, Dalila and the Old Hebrew, the absorbing conversations between Dalila and the High Priest, Samson’s seduction and capture in the second act, Samson’ solo scene tethered to the millstone, and the Bacchanale and final destruction of the temple to the god Dagon.
[Below: Dalila (Nadia Kresteva, left) in an intimate conversation with the High Priest of Dagon (Anooshah Golesorkhi, right) in a 2013 revival of the San Francisco Opera production in San Diego; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
It’s a great opera to get to know well, and over the decades I’ve come to know it very well.
The Joel-Schmidt production created for Domingo
Seventeen years after McCracken’s “Samson”, the San Francisco Opera (in collaboration with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Gramma Fisher Foundation) did come to invest in what I believe is the greatest production of this opera of all time, originally conceived by the Opera National de Paris’ Nicolas Joel, with sets by Broadway designer Douglas Schmidt and costumes by Carrie Robbins.
That 1980 production with Placido Domingo as Samson, Shirley Verrett as Dalila, and Wolfgang Brendel as the High Priest is a world treasure. A performance I attended was televised and a DVD of the performance is available. In fact, one of the television cameramen sat with the monstrous cameras that existed in 1980 in the seat next to us. Thus, my point of view for the performance is recorded for all time.
Fortunately, that production was somehow immune from the destruction of the great San Francisco Opera productions of the 1970s and 1980s by two of its previous San Francisco Opera general managers (Mansouri and Pamela Rosenberg). It has been gloriously revived four times this century, twice in San Francisco and twice in San Diego.
[For my reviews of three of these revival performances, see: Seductive Denyce Graves Enthralls San Diego in “Samson et Dalila” – February 23, 2007 and Exotic Immersion: “Samson” in S. F. – September 11, 2007 and San Diego Opera Offers Saint-Saens’ Sensuous “Samson and Delilah” – February 16, 2013.]
Two nights’ later, I would be back at the War Memorial, for the first performance of an important new production of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”.