Historical Performances: “Queen of Spades” with McCracken, Kirsten, Resnik – San Francisco Opera, October 5, 1963

Two nights after my first live performance ever of Puccini’s “Tosca”, I returned to my regular Saturday night series for the fourth offering of the San Francisco Opera’s 1963 Saturday night series – Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades”.

Only the second Russian opera (after Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” that I had seen presented by the San Francisco Opera, this was the second of the season’s three scheduled performances. {The San Francisco Opera had presented Rimsky-Korsakov”s “Le Coq d’Or” in five seasons, although not since 1955).

Presented in a somewhat abridged version, like “Boris” it was tranlated into English [See 50 Year Anniversaries: An American “Boris Godunov” Starring Tozzi and Dalis – San Francisco Opera, September 21, 1961].

I had seen virtually every member of the cast in earlier San Francisco Opera performances.

McCracken’s Herman and Resnik’s Countess

The leading role, that of the obsessed soldier Ghermann (Hermann in English) was the tenore di forza James McCracken, whose memorable performances of Otello [50 Year Anniversaries: McCracken, de los Angeles and Gobbi in “Otello” – San Francisco Opera, October 9, 1962] and Samson [50 Year Anniversaries: James McCracken is the Star of “Samson et Dalila” – San Francisco Opera, September 26, 1963] had helped establish the reputation of this artist, previously associated with smaller comprimario roles at the New York Metropolitan Opera, as a dramatic tenor of the first rank.

The object of Hermann’s obsession, to whom the opera’s title refers, is the elderly Countess, played by Regina Resnik in one of the most arresting characterizations that has taken place on the War Memorial Opera House stage.

[Below: Regina Resnik as the Countess; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Resnik, whom I had seen as Amneris two weeks prior [50 Year Anniversaries: “Aida” with Price, Konya, Resnik, Shaw and Tozzi – San Francisco Opera, September 21, 1963], had returned to San Francisco Opera after an absence of a decade and a half, during which she shed her soprano repertory (she had sung five soprano roles in San Francisco between 1946 and 1948), re-establishing herself as a mezzo.

The San Francisco Examiner critic and historian of the San Francisco Opera, Arthur Bloomfield (later my friend and colleague on this website), wrote that  “Resnik, a prober of character unsurpassed on the operatic stage, cast a rare spell as the sinister old Countess. Who isn’t chilled by the memory of her drowsy nostalgia as she sat in that high-backed chair, musing over life as it used to be, with Hermann hovering in the shadows?”

Kirsten, Stewart and Other Cast Members

Memorable as were McCracken and Resnik, they were surrounded by a strong cast of English-speaking artists in the other major parts.

The love interest of McCracken’s Hermann was Lisa, portrayed by the incomparable singing actress Dorothy Kirsten, on whose performances of Butterfly and Minnie I had reported previously. [See Madama Butterfly – November 1, 1956 and 50th Birthday Celebrations: Dorothy Kirsten Rides High in “Girl of the Golden West” – San Francisco Opera, October 1, 1960.]

Count Tomsky was portrayed by the wonderful Australian baritone, John Shaw (who had been my first Scarpia in live performance two evenings earlier) and Prince Yeletsky by the equally wonderful Scottish baritone Thomas Stewart.

Utah tenor Glade Peterson was Chekalinsky. California soprano Janis Martin was Paulina and New York baritone Joshua Hecht was Surin.

Stage direction, production design and conducting

The new production was the project of Paul Hager, who from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s assumed the role of resident stage director.

[Below: the men engage in vodka and dancing; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Hager, a close Adler ally, was an important figure in the expansion of the San Francisco Opera repertory [Expanding 1955?s Standard Repertory], that included the first performances in the company’s history of Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” (1956), Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” (1957) and “Die Frau ohne Schatten”, (1959), Berg’s “Wozzeck” and Verdi’s “Nabucco”.

The dark sets by Austrian designer Wolfram Skalicki included images of giant statuary.

[Below: the Wolfram Skalicki sets for “Queen of Spades”, here in the 1975 mounting with Peter Gougaloff as Ghermann, on bench, front center left; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


After the 1963 performances, the production was only seen again in the 1975 season when the opera was presented in Russian. The Skalicki sets were destroyed at the end of the run.

However, many Skalicki productions were prominently featured at San Francisco Opera for the remainder of the 20th century, and his sets for Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus”, owned by S. F. Opera, were recently mounted at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The 1963 performances were onducted by Leopold Ludwig.


For my review of the most recent production of “Queen of Spades” mounted at the San Francisco Opera (by a previous administration), see: Jones the Ripper’s “Queen of Spades” in S.F. – June 12, 2005