Historical Performances: “La Fanciulla del West” with Marie Collier and João Gibin – San Francisco Opera, September 26, 1965

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 sixth of sixteen such observances of performances from the company’s 1965 Fall season.

Even pursuing college courses, I had managed to see five performances of the San Francisco Opera so far in the month of September, three on my own Saturday night series and a couple on the Thursday night series. Having attended my own 12th row orchestra series on Saturday night for my first performance of Berg’s “Lulu”, I return to the War Memorial the next afternoon to join my friend Nelmarie in her first row seats on the center aisle for Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” (my third opera in four days).

This was the second time that I experienced one of my favorite Italian operas, having been present five years earlier to see Dorothy Kirsten, Sandor Konya and Tito Gobbi celebrate the opera’s 50th anniversary [see 50th Birthday Celebrations: Dorothy Kirsten Rides High in “Girl of the Golden West” – San Francisco Opera, October 1, 1960.]

This year the Golden West girl was the spectacular Australian dramatic actress Marie Collier, whose great success in introducing a Shostakovich heroine to San Francisco Opera audiences the year before [50 Year Anniversaries: Shostakovich’s “Katerina Ismailova” with Marie Collier, Jon Vickers – San Francisco Opera, October 31, 1964] resulted in an invitation to return.

In the 1965 season I was to see her in two of the biggest Puccini roles for dramatic soprano – Minnie (and a few days later, Tosca). With a large and expressive voice, attractive appearance and demonstrable acting skill, she conveyed a believable Minnie – toughened by her environment, but empathetic to the lonely miners around her.

[Below: Marie Collier as Minnie, the Girl of the Golden West in the 1965 San Francisco Opera production of Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West”; edited image, based on a Carolyn Mason Jones photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Collier’s Dick Johnson was to have been Italian superstar tenor Franco Corelli, who had to withdraw for most of the season (not just “Fanciulla” but “Andrea Chenier” as well) as a result of an injury.

After one performance (that I could not schedule) at season’s end, Corelli would never return to the San Francisco Opera. As a result, I never saw him in live performance.

To replace Corelli, Adler first obtained Richard Tucker, who had taken on the opening night and second performance of “Chenier”. Once Tucker left for previous commitments, Adler turned to the Brazilian tenor João Gibin.

Gibin had earlier replaced Corelli as Dick Johnson on a new recording of “Fanciulla” for EMI (named Angel Records in the United States).

[Below: Brazilian tenor João Gibin was Dick Johnson; edited image, based on a photograph from Facebook/Joao Gibin.]


That recording originally was planned, not just for Corelli, but for Maria Callas as Minnie and Tito Gobbi as Rance.

The final product was Gibin, Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson (in a role with which she was not associated), both teamed with a little-known baritone.

However, the recording, even if some regarded it as ill-starred, does document Gibin’s pleasing spinto delivery. As I will report in one of the next observances of the 1965 season, I found him especially effective as Andrea Chenier, with its four big arias for the title character.

Arthur Bloomfield, the San Francisco Examiner music critic and the historian of the first 55 seasons of the San Francisco Opera (and later a contributor to the operawarhorses.com website) had high praise for Collier and Gibin in “Fanciulla” in a season in which he was unenthusiastic about much of what was offered.

He remarked that [t]he tall, handsome Gibin made a commanding Dick Johnson, singing with a grand old-fashioned tenor . .  . [that] soared gloriously on top”.

Chester Ludgin’s Jack Rance

The Jack Rance was baritone Chester Ludgin, who, in addition to being a stalwart at the New York City Opera (NYCO), appeared in principal and character roles at the War Memorial Opera House for both the San Francisco Opera’s regular season and its budget-priced Spring Opera Theater (SPOT).

[Below: Chester Ludgin as Sheriff Jack Rance in the 1965 San Francisco Opera production of Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West”; edited image, based on a Carolyn Mason Jones photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Ludgin, like such other members of San Francisco Opera’s 1965 roster as Reri Grist, Mary Costa and Clara Mae Turner, had Broadway experience, Ludgin having appeared in the premiere casts of Menotti’s “The Saint of Bleeker Street” and at a later date, in Bernstein’s last opera “A Quiet Place”.

At NYCO he had created such important roles as John Proctor in the world premiere of Ward’s “The Crucible” and was a principal artist in Kurka’s “The Good Soldier Schweik”.

Of all the roles in which I saw him perform in San Francisco, it was his Jack Rance in “Fanciulla” that was my personal favorite.

Conductor and Stage Director

Francesco Molinari-Pradelli was the conductor, as in 1960, when the opera was last seen in San Francisco in 1960. Lotfi Mansouri was the stage director.

[Below: Marie Collier (center) in costume as Minnie in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” confers with San Francisco Opera General Director Kurt Herbert Adler; stage director Lotfi Mansouri is in the background at right; edited image, based on a Carolyn Mason Jones photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


This was the second time that I had seen “Fanciulla”, both times at the War Memorial Opera House. Since in the entire history of the San Francisco Opera from its beginnings in 1922 through 1978, it was performed a total only six times in San Francisco (the 1965 tour took it to Los Angeles and San Diego), I had been present at a third of all the company’s San Francisco-based performances ever.

The opera was revived by the company in 1979 for soprano Carol Neblett and tenor Placido Domingo in Harold Prince’s famous production (later produced for Domingo by the Los Angeles Opera) and in 2010 in San Francisco for the opera’s centenary celebrations for Deborah Voigt and Salvatore Licitra.

Unabashedly melodramatic, it is one of towering accomplishments of Italian verismo, one of my favorite Italian operas.

Enjoying the opera, that Sunday matinee in 1965, in the first row seat next to Maestro Molinari-Pradelli finally convinced me to request that my subscription seats be moved from the Saturday night series to the new Sunday matinee, a wish which the San Francisco Opera graciously granted. My subscription seats have been located there on the Sunday series ever since.

“Fanciulla” will open the Summer 2016 Santa Fe Opera festival with Patricia Racette in the title role. I am scheduled to report on its opening night.