Historical Performances: Joan Sutherland, Ilosfalvy, Waechter in “La Traviata” – San Francisco Opera, November 5, 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 last of 13 such observances of performances from the company’s 1964 Fall season.

My final performance of the 1964 San Francisco Opera season was Verdi’s “La Traviata” starring superstar soprano Joan Sutherland. I had to scramble to get a ticket, because none of three scheduled performances were on my Saturday night series.

[Below: Australian Soprano Joan Sutherland as Violetta in the 1964 San Francisco Opera production of Verdi’s “La Traviata”; resized image of a production photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Finally, a ticket materialized, in the back row of the highest balcony. It was my first time sitting in the top balcony, much less in the farthest row from the stage.

Although many people swear that the sound is better at that point in the War Memorial Opera House, my impression was that- to use the jargon from “high fidelity” recordings and sound systems – the sound was “monaural” whereas the closer one got to the stage the more “stereophonic” or even “quadraphonic” the sound.

In the front rows of the orchestra section I get and appreciate a clear sense of the spatial location and sonic balance of the orchestra’s component instruments. That’s what I like. Others like the blended sound. The War Memorial Opera House’s acoustics accommodate different tastes.

Joan Sutherland’s Violetta

Joan Sutherland in the 1960s was a phenomenon. I had first seen her the season before as Amina, a role that gives a great coloratura room to run [50 Year Anniversaries: Sutherland, Cioni in Bellini’s “Sonnambula” – San Francisco Opera, September 14, 1963.] Over the years I would see her in operas with great lyric coloratura roles – Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”, “Maria Stuarda” and “Anna Bolena”, Bellini’s “I Puritani” and “Norma” and Massenet’s “Esclarmonde”.

The role of Violetta does include some challenging coloratura passages in the aria Sempre Libera, but most of the music is written for a lyric soprano.  Sutherland sang the lyric passages beautifully, but there were many artists who would be excellent Violettas that could not perform the roles requiring a dazzling and sustained coloratura in which Sutherland excelled.

On the other hand, to paraphrase an opera company general director’s remarks about a contemporary artist, “Whatever Sutherland wants, she gets”. Obviously, she intended to bring her Violetta to the War Memorial Opera House and to the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium for an additional two performances on the San Francisco Opera November tour.

Whether her 1962 Decca recording of the complete “La Traviata” was a consideration, I am not aware, but I do know that Decca records promoted its Sutherland recordings in cities in which she sang.

Robert Ilosfalvy’s Alfredo Germont

The success of Hungarian tenor Sandor Konya may have encouraged to Adler to introduce another Hungarian to San Francisco audiences, undoubtedly vetted by Sutherland and Richard Bonynge, “La Traviata’s” conductor  (and Joan Sutherland’s husband).

Robert Ilosfalvy’s American debut as Alfredo was only the first of several roles at the San Francisco Opera. His lyric voice, full of passion, is heard in good form in the title role of Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux”, as part of Beverly Sills’ “Tudor Trilogy” of Donizetti recordings.

[Below: Hungarian tenor Robert Ilosfalvy; resized image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


 Eberhard Waechter’s Giorgio Germont

The November 5th performance was the last day of the 1964 season at the War Memorial Opera House. Eberhard Waechter, who had sung Amfortas on the season’s second night [Historical Performances: Konya, Dalis, Waechter, Tozzi in “Parsifal” – San Francisco Opera, September 12, 1964], and appeared also as Barak [Historical Performances: Ella Lee, Dalis, Kuchta, Waechter, Martell in “Frau ohne Schatten” – San Francisco Opera, September 26, 1964] and Count Almaviva [Historical Performances: “Nozze di Figaro” with Geraint Evans, Grist, Lorengar, Waechter – San Francisco Opera, October 3, 1964] might provide a challenge to the company’s archivists to determine whether any other artist sang roles by Mozart, Wagner, Verdi and Richard Strauss at the War Memorial Opera House in a two month period.

Yet, despite his impressive acting and stylish singing – a true Central European star –  this final “Traviata” performance marked the Austrian baritone’s last opera performance ever at the War Memorial Opera House.

[Below: Austrian baritone Eberhard Waechter was the Elder Germont; resized image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Zachary Solov’s Choreography

Several of the operas of the 1964 season had dance sequences. For the 1964 and 1965 seasons the San Francisco Opera engaged Zachary Solov,  a choreographer with extensive experience in both opera and musical theater.

Of the operas I saw that season, Solov designed the dance numbers for “Carmen”, “Marriage of Figaro” and “Turandot” (as well as the more extensive scenes in an opera that I did not see, Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride”.)

[Below: Choreographer Zachary Solov; edited image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera]


“La Traviata’s” first act provides the opportunity for the guests to dance, while its third act specifies an elaborate ballet sequence including a mock bullfight.  Many had regarded the San Francisco Opera as lacking real depth in dance, and Solov’s engagement was a major step in addressing this deficiency.

Final Thoughts on the 1964 season

The 1964 season was notable as being the final season in which Tito Gobbi and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf performed in a San Francisco Opera production, and the only season in which Eberhard Waechter, Ella Lee and Gladys Kuchta performed.

[Below: the cover for each of the 1964 programs of the operas being presented; edited image of photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

1964 PROGRAM (400)

It was notable for the return of Birgit Nilsson, absent for eight seasons, and for the debut of Marie Collier in the  American premiere of Shostakovich’s “Katerina Ismailova”. Set designer Wolfram Skalicki provided the sets for the new productions of “Parsifal”, “Fidelio” and “Katerina Ismailova”

Sandor Konya, James McCracken and Jon Vickers continued to share the lead tenor duties, and Joan Sutherland was back for her third season.