Historical Performances: “Ariadne auf Naxos” with Hillebrecht, Thomas, Grist, Vanni – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 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 twelfth of sixteen such observances of performances from the company’s 1965 Fall season.

The next opera on my Saturday night San Francisco Opera live performance series was the October 23 opening performance of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”, introduced by the company to the United States eight years before [Historical Performances: Young Rysanek Promotes Strauss – “Ariadne auf Naxos” at L. A.’s Shrine Auditorium, San Francisco Opera, November 1, 1957].

The company revived the George Jenkins production seen in San Francisco in 1957 and 1959, but with a cast that consisted of several artists who had successfully performed the opera at the 1965 Salzburg Festival in a Günther Rennert production under the leadership of the legendary Maestro Karl Böhm.

Rennert, one of the important directors associated with the rebuilding of a European Opera infrastructure after the devastation of World War II, had, two years earlier, recreated his famous production of Rossini’s “Barbiere di Siviglia” for the San Francisco Opera [Historical Performances: Grist, Valletti, Prey in “Barbiere di Siviglia” – San Francisco Opera, September 28, 1963].

The Rennert Salzburg “Ariadne” production’s leads, German dramatic soprano Hildegard Hillebrect, New York lyric coloratura soprano Reri Grist and South Dakota heldentenor Jess Thomas – respectively Rennert’s Ariadne, Zerbinetta and Bacchus – were engaged by San Francisco Opera for its 1965 season “Ariadne”.

The principal characters in the the opera “Ariadne auf Naxos” are dual roles. The artists who play Ariadne, Bacchus, Zerbinetta and her commedia dell’arte troupe appear both as the performers themselves and the characters they play. The prologue, in which the egos of the temperamental diva and divo clash with one another and with the Composer, provides a rare opportunity for comedy for artists whose repertories consist mainly of dramatic soprano or heldentenor roles.

Jess Thomas’ Bacchus

Jess Thomas, the Salzburg Bacchus, repeated the role for the San Francisco Opera, the site of his first professional operatic success in smaller roles in the 1957. In the ensuing years, with experience in lead roles in European houses, Thomas was recognized as an international opera star.

For his return to San Francisco after a seven season absence, Thomas was assigned four roles – besides Bacchus the roles of Walther [Historical Performances: Jess Thomas’ Victorious “Die Meistersinger” – San Francisco Opera, September 11, 1965] and Mario Cavaradossi [Historical Performances: “Tosca” with Marie Collier, Jess Thomas and Ramon Vinay – San Francisco Opera, October 21, 1965] and the title role in Wagner’s “Lohengrin”.

In glorious voice for Bacchus, as he had been in the performances I attended of his Walther and Cavaradossi, the 1965 season confirmed Thomas’ ascendancy as the lead tenor in the “German wing” of the San Francisco Opera repertory, a position in which he would be unchallenged for the next decade.

[Below: Hildegard Hillebrecht (left) and Jess Thomas (right) are featured on the cover of the DVD recording of the 1965 Salzburg Festspielhaus production of “Ariadne auf Naxos”; resized image of a Arthaus Musik DVD cover]


Helen Vanni’s Composer

Joining Hillebrecht, Grist and Thomas in San Francisco was mezzo-soprano Helen Vanni, who gave a fine performance as the high-strung Composer. Vanni had previously impressed me as Dorabella in Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” [Historical Performances: “Cosi fan Tutte” with Schwarzkopf, Vanni, Valletti, Prey, Wolovsky, Grist – San Francisco Opera, October 19, 1963], as she would in two other roles at the War Memorial Opera House the next spring – the title role of Thomas’ “Mignon” and Isabella in Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri”.

Reri Grist and the Commedia dell’Arte Troupe

The representative of “grounded” human reality among the opera’s gods, goddesses, and eg0-driven artists is Zerbinetta, the leader of the an improvisational comic dance troupe. Properly played, and Reri Grist performed the role masterfully, it is the character that gains the audience’s sympathy.

Zerbinetta sings one of most taxing of coloratura arias, the lengthy Grossmächtige Prinzessin. Grist’s peerless delivery of the showstopping aria, sung not just to Hillebrecht’s Ariadne, but, at the foot of the stage, directly to the audience, is a lasting memory. [See my interview with her at A Star Among Legends: A Conversation with Coloratura Soprano Reri Grist.]

[Below: Lyric coloratura soprano Reri Grist as Zerbinetta; edited image, based on a Pete Peters photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]


The men in Zerbinetta’s troupe were led by the Arlecchino of Richard Fredricks and the Brighella of British tenor Alexander Young. Fredricks, a lead baritone for the New York City Opera had performed several roles earlier in the decade for the budget-priced San Francisco Opera Spring Opera Theater. During the 1965 main season (the only main season in which he participated) he sang eight roles.

I would see Young as Almaviva on the next afternoon’s Sunday matinee of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”.

[Below: Zerbinetta (Reri Grist, left) dances with Brighella (Alexander Young, right); edited image, based on a Pete Peters photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]


(The Sunday afternoon’s “Barber” Rosina – Italian lyric soprano Jolanda Meneguzzer – was also in the Saturday evening “Ariadne” cast, singing the role of Naiad, in the trio that consisted also of Annamaria Bessel’s Dryad and Gwen Curatilo’s Echo.)

Zerbinetta’s troupe was rounded out with bass John West as Truffaldino and tenor Raymond Manton as Scaramuccio.

[Below: Zerbinetta (Reri Grist, center, second from right) dances with Scaramuccio (Raymond Manton, far left, facing away from camera), Truffaldino (John West, second from left) and Brighella (Alexander Young, right); edited image, based on a Pete Peters photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]


Raymond Manton “owned” the part of Scaramuccio during the first four seasons (1957, 1959, 1965 and 1969) in which “Ariadne auf Naxos” was performed in San Francisco. Manton’s San Francisco Opera career spanned the 1955 through 1978 main seasons.

[Below: Raymond Manton as Scaramuccio; edited image, based on a Pete Peters photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]


Hildegard Hillebrecht and the San Francisco Opera

Hildegard Hillebrecht’s San Francisco Opera debut occurred on the Los Angeles tour in November 1964, when she replaced Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” with a performance that reportedly “saved the show”.

Subsequently, Hillebrecht replaced another famous artist, Christa Ludwig, as Ariadne in Günther Rennert’s production of the Strauss work for the 1965 Salzburg Festival, led by the legendary conductor Karl Böhm. In Rennert’s production, Thomas and Grist, the artists in the roles of Bacchus and Zerbinetta – whose quite different interventions transform Ariadne’s life on Naxos – both had notable ties to the San Francisco Opera.

[Below: German soprano Hildegard Hillebrecht; edited image, based on a historical photograph.]


Hillebrecht and Thonas were both scheduled together in assignments at the San Francisco Opera – two performances as Elsa and Lohengrin in  Wagner’s “Lohengrin”, opening October 8, as well as the two performances as Ariadne and Bacchus, beginning with the October 23 performance on my series.

However, Hillebrecht, the artist who “rescued” San Francisco Opera’s “Rosenkavalier” on its 1964 Los Angeles tour and “rescued” the Salzburg production was indisposed the day of the opening “Lohengrin”, creating one of the most stressful days in the history of the San Francisco Opera.

It was not her fault, of course. Artists cannot or should not perform if afflicted with one of the series of “showstopping” illnesses. Her indisposition revealed, however, that San Francisco Opera did not have a cover to sing Elsa in the event of Hillebrecht’s unavailability.

It’s traditional for opera companies to include on its tickets a phrase like “cast and opera subject to change”. As a teenager, I had tickets to a performance of a San Francisco Opera production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” for whom Maria Callas was the announced star, but when she was fired by the opera company, the company substituted Verdi’s “Aida”. However, there were many days between Callas’ firing and the “Aida” performance, so no one was shocked by a Nile Scene instead of a Mad Scene.

But San Francisco Opera’s solution was to switch two performances. Although “Barber of Seville” was performed October 7 and was scheduled for October 11, the “Barber” cast was persuaded to perform October 8 without the customary rest between performances and the opening “Lohengrin” was moved to October 12 with its repeat taking place on October 14 (thus with only a day’s rest between two Wagner performances, rather than the four day’s rest originally scheduled).

This solved the problem of the company’s obligation to perform an opera on the evening of October 8th, even if the cast and opera differed from what the patron expected. The public relations aspect of the change was mitigated somewhat by the fact that in those days the opera “subscribers” had performances on each Tuesday and Friday night of the season so shifting which operas were performed on a given Tuesday or Friday night would not have been a major issue for many subscribers.

But the subscribers constitute only part of the audience, and one suspects that among those who bought tickets to the Wagner performance and to the Rossini performance, were interested in, say, “Lohengrin” and not “Barber” and vice versa.

I have only attended one Hillebrecht performance, that being the Saturday night “Ariadne” on October 23rd, and I found her to be an excellent Ariadne in good voice. For whatever reason (and I suspect October’s high drama may have been the reason) she never returned to the San Francisco Opera after the 1965 season.

Other cast members and crew

The performance was the San Francisco Opera debut of German conductor Horst Stein. The opera was staged by German director Paul Hager.

Chester Ludgin was the Music Master, Scott Beach the Major Domo, Howard Fried the Wigmaker and William Whitesides the Dancing Master.