Historical Performances: Birgit Nilsson, Jon Vickers, Geraint Evans in “Fidelio” – San Francisco Opera, October 17, 1964

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 ninth of 13 such observances of performances from the company’s 1964 Fall season.

The next offering on my Saturday subscription series to the San Francisco Opera was Beethoven’s “Fidelio”, which marked the return of Swedish superstar soprano Birgit Nilsson to the War Memorial Opera House stage.

I had seen Nilsson once before as a young teenager in her American debut season with the San Francisco Opera. It was the first German opera I had ever seen. It took place at the mammoth-sized Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles [See Historical Performances: Die Walküre with Nilsson, Hotter, Rysanek, Suthaus and Rankin, San Francisco Opera in Los Angeles, November 4, 1956.]

What I had not realized at the time is the performance i saw (that boasted the incomparable cast of Austrian soprano Leonie Rysanek as Sieglinde, Nell Rankin as Fricka, Ludwig Suthaus as Siegmund and Hans Hotter as Wotan) is that this was only Nilsson’s third performance with the San Francisco Opera. She had only appeared in two performances at the War Memorial prior to that performance at the Shrine.

After the 1956 season, she was absent from the San Francisco Opera for seven seasons, returning for a new production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and in the lead role of Puccini’s “Turandot”. She sang the role of Leonore in  “Fidelio” twice. My attendance of her second and last Leonore was only her fourth performance in the War Memorial Opera House ever.

She would appear three more times in the 1964 War Memorial Opera House season as Turandot, which I will report on soon, but then was absent from the War Memorial for another five seasons.

Her fellow principals in “Fidelio” were Jon Vickers as Florestan, Geraint Evans as Don Pizarro, Lee Venora as Marzelline and Glade Peterson as Jacquino.

[Below: Florestan (Jon Vickers, left) is reunited with his wife, Leonore (Birgit Nilsson, second from left); edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


For the new “Fidelio” production the stage director (Paul Hager) and conductor (Leopold Ludwig) returned from the previous production seen in 1961 [50 Year Anniversaries: Brouwenstijn, Uhl, Schoeffler, Horne, in “Fidelio” at the War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, October 5, 1961].

Over two decades later, Nilsson participated in a Living History project in which she stated that she always thought of the San Francisco Opera as a “German house” because of the presence of the Austrian-born General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, the prominent roles that German director Paul Hager had in staging San Francisco Opera productions, and the prominence of Conductor Ludwig.

[Below: German stage director Paul Hager; edited image of a Pete Peters photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Since, with the exception of Turandot, all of Nilsson’s roles in San Francisco were from the German repertory, it is not illogical that for her appearances in works of Beethoven, Wagner and Richard Strauss, that artists from Germany and Austria should be participants in the mounting of these works.

Yet, it can also be demonstrated – to take just a couple of the numerous examples that could be offered – that Adler proved a strong advocate for the bel canto works, nor has any mid-20th century impresario been more avid in championing the works of Massenet, whose Manon, Esclarmonde, Werther  and Le Cid all had new productions in the 1970s.

However, “Fidelio” proved a triumph, sung by a Swedish Leonore, performing with a Canadian Florestan, a Welsh Don Pizarro, and Americans for Marzelline and Jacquino, was triumphant, with Beethoven’s great orchestral passages under the German Ludwig’s formidable conducting.

[Below: German conductor Leopold Ludwig; edited image, based on a Carolyn Mason Jones photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


One personal note. Two evenings before I sat in one of the box seats located in the center of the War Memorial Opera House’s elegant tier of boxes. The luxury of the foyer for those with box seat tickets is a rare experience, but with decades of experience attending performances at the War Memorial Opera House, it’s not where I like to sit.

Comfortable in my 12th row orchestra seat on the center aisle, I kept receiving invitations from a friend whose orchestra seat was in the front row. She sat next to a woman who always left before the final act of whatever opera was playing.

I liked the location of my regular seat and, because I was a college student and college students always know these things, I knew the sound was better where I sat.

Finally, I was persuaded by my friend to come down and join her for the last act of “Fidelio”. Experiencing the two scenes of the last act in the imposing new production by Wolfram Skalicki, with Nilsson, Evans and Vickers just a few feet from you, and Ludwig leading the San Francisco Opera orchestra in the Leonore #3 Overture, was a transformative experience.

(To complete my education in the near-to and distant-from the stage seating at the War Memorial, in a couple of weeks I had to accept the only seat available for sale at the War Memorial – in the last row of the highest balcony – if I were to see any of the three performances of Joan Sutherland in Verdi’s “La Traviata”.)

The next season San Francisco Opera offered a new series  and I asked for and was given two seats on the center aisle by the conductor. I’ve had them every season since.

I also sit in other parts of the opera house. I am certainly aware that its sight lines and acoustics are wonderful from most everywhere in the opera house, and that not everyone would wish to sit so close to the action, but I know what I like.