Historical Performances: “Turandot” with Birgit Nilsson, Franco Tagliavini, Lorengar, Tozzi – San Francisco Opera, October 22, 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 tenth of 13 such observances of performances from the company’s 1964 Fall season.

Having sung two performances as Leonore [see Historical Performances: Birgit Nilsson, Jon Vickers, Geraint Evans in “Fidelio” – San Francisco Opera, October 17, 1964], Swedish dramatic soprano Birgit Nilsson aang three performances in the title role of Puccini’s “Turandot”, the only non-German role Nilsson ever sang at the War Memorial Opera House.

Below: the Empress Turandot (Birgit Nilsson, center, in ornate headdress) prepares for the riddles to destroy yet another suitor, as the Emperor Altoum (Howard Fried, left) and the functionary Ping (Raymond Wolansky, seated below Emperor), look on with horror; edited image, based on an ektachrome by Robert M. Cahen, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Of her three performances  – in the Tuesday night,  Thursday night,  Sunday matinee pattern that soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf had used for her Marschallins in “Rosenkavalier” a few days prior, I attended the Thursday performance.

Her supporting cast was of international rank, even if they lacked Nilsson’s well-received superstar status.  Giorgio Tozzi as Timur and the Liu of Pilar Lorengar were well-received.

Most impressive were the Ping, Pang, Pong of baritone Raymond Wolansky (who would take on important baritone roles at the San Francisco Opera during the mid-1960s), the engaging tenor Andre Montal, and comic genius Raymond Manton.

The Calaf was the Calabrian tenor Franco Tagliavini, whose debut had taken place a few days earlier as Ismaele [Historical Performances: “Nabucco” with Gobbi, Kuchta, Tozzi, Janis Martin – San Francisco Opera, October 15, 1964].

[Below: Conquered by love at last, the Empress Turandot (Birgit Nilsson, left) appears before the populace with her new consort, Prince Calaf (Franco Tagliavini, right); edited image, based on an ektachrome by Robert M. Cahen, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Perhaps General Director’s Kurt Herbert Adler’s scouts, whose past and future successes in identifying young talent were so often on the mark, misled him, but the 30 year old light lyric tenor was not an obvious choice to be singing duets at the War Memorial Opera House with the power-voiced Nilsson.

After the Sunday matinee and performances of Ismaele and Calaf at the Los Angeles Shrine, Tagliavini never returned to the San Francisco Opera.

Harry Horner’s Production

Francesco Molinari-Pradelli was the conductor. Lotfi Mansouri was the stage director.

“Turandot” was ultimately the most popular of several San Francisco Opera productions dating from the 1950s, premiering in 1953 when Kurt Herbert Adler held the position of Chorus Master, and being revived in five subsequent seasons.

The Czech born Horner spent his youth, like Adler, in Vienna. He had become a refuge from Austria 20 years before, when he was part of an Austrian theater group mounting a production of a Kurt Weill work in New York City.

He was 43 when his San Francisco “Turandot” was first mounted,

Horner also created productions for the New York Metropolitan Opera, but his lasting fame is as Hollywood set designer, with Academy awards adorning his mantlepiece for The Heiress (11949) and The Hustler (1961). He was also nominated for an Oscar for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969).