Historical Performances: “Don Giovanni” with Pilar Lorengar’s Donna Anna – San Francisco Opera, October 30, 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 fourteenth of sixteen such observances of performances from the company’s 1965 Fall season.

The final performance of 1965 of my San Francisco Opera subscription series was the season’s third performance of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”.  I had attended the opera’s second performance earlier [Historical Performances: “Don Giovanni” with Leontyne Price’s Donna Anna – San Francisco Opera, October 15, 1965] because of the presence of Leontyne Price, who only in a Mozart opera four times (twice as Donna Elvira, twice as Donna Anna) at San Francisco Opera in her career. That fourth performance turned out to be Price’s last Mozart opera at San Francisco Opera of her career.

Pilar Lorengar

Although this was only my third “Don Giovanni” performance ever, it provided me an opportunity to hear yet another famous mid-20th century soprano – the Spanish soprano Pilar Lorengar as Donna Anna. (My first Donna Anna was an even more famous Spanish soprano, Victoria de los Angeles [Historical Performances: “Don Giovanni” with Tozzi, De Los Angeles, Schwarzkopf, Evans and Lewis in Zeffirelli’s Production – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 1962].

[Below: Soprano Pilar Lorengar, here as Agathe in a Metropolitan Opera presentation of Weber’s “Die Freischutz” (a role she sang at the San Francisco Opera in 1984); edited image, based on a Louis Mélançon photograph for the New York Metropolitan Opera.]

Lorengar, who was noted for a distinctive, but well-controlled and appealing vibrato, was in San Francisco to star in the season’s final new production, Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande”.

General Director Kurt Herbert Adler had cast Lorengar in four roles in the 1964 and three additional roles in 1965. I had particularly admired her performances in repertories as diverse as Mozart [Historical Performances: “Nozze di Figaro” with Geraint Evans, Grist, Lorengar, Waechter – San Francisco Opera, October 3, 1964] and Wagner [Historical Performances: Jess Thomas’ Victorious “Die Meistersinger” – San Francisco Opera, September 11, 1965], but often felt that her lyric weight voice was challenged by San Francisco’s 3200-seat War Memorial Opera House.

Lorengar was a favorite of Decca Records administrator Terry McEwen.  Despite the fact that Lorengar had sung only 16 performances (over seven roles) at the War Memorial Opera House during those two seasons and did not return to San Francisco for the next eight seasons, Decca issued a album commemorating Lorengar’s debut at the San Francisco Opera.

Lorengar returned for a total of eight performances of two roles in the 1974 season. She returned once more during Adler’s tenure, in 1979 for six performances, bringing her total during the Adler years to 30 performances over eight roles during four seasons.

When Decca’s Terry McEwen became San Francisco Opera director in 1982, Lorengar was engaged for all but one of the seasons between 1982 and 1988, for 50 War Memorial Opera HOuse performances over seven roles.

Thomas Stewart

The remaining cast, with the exception of the Leporello (Heinz Blankenburg replacing Ugo Trama), was unchanged.

Scottish baritone Thomas Stewart was a classy Don Giovanni, bringing his strong persona and robust voice to the role.

Stewart performed a total of 134 performances at the War Memorial Opera House consisting of 26 different roles. Stewart was a favorite of both General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, who invited him to San Francisco for the 1962 season, and Adler’s successor, Terry McEwen. He continued to perform at the War Memorial through the 1990 San Francisco Opera season.

[Below: Don Giovanni (Thomas Stewart, left) publically accuses his servant Leporello (here, Ugo Trama) of a misdeed that Don Giovanni himself had committed; edited image, based on a David Galloway photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

Lucine Amara

Stewart’s Don Giovanni matched wits with the Donna Elvira of soprano Lucine Amara. Besides the two Elviras, the only other role that I had seen Amara perform was Maria Amelia [see Historical Performances: “Simon Boccanegra” with Tito Gobbi, Giorgio Tozzi – San Francisco Opera, October 6, 1960].

Unfortunately for my remembrances of Amara’s performances, she was the second artist I had seen perform each of the those two roles. In the case of her Maria Amelia, the artist I had seen previously – and thus inevitably compared her to – was Renata Tebaldi. In fact, Amara was the replacement for Tebaldi when the great Italian soprano – who was often ill – had to withdraw from the entire 1960 season.

In the case of Donna Elvira, the artist I had seen previously – and again compared Amara to – was Elizabeth Schwarzkopf (see hyperlink above).

[Below: Leporello (here, Ugo Trama, right) gives Donna Elvira (Lucine Amara, left) some perspective on the object of her affections; edited image, based on a Dennis Galloway photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

I suspect if I had other opportunities to judge Amara performances, I might have different memories. However, once Amara’s international career was established (at age 22, she had sung the small bridesmaids’ roles in Wagner’s “Lohengrin” in  the 1946 season under her birthname Lucy Armaganian), she performed in at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House only for 13 performances total between 1959 and 1965 with one additional performance in 1969.

Four of those performances were in roles that she sang only one time at the War Memorial. In fact, it was only the role of Donna Elvira that she sang as many as three times at the War Memorial, and I happened to be at two of them. (An even more striking personal statistic is that Amara sang only nine performances at the War Memorial between 1960 and 1965 and I was at three of those nine.)

The single San Francisco Amara performance in 1969 does have some historical significance. After a run of Puccini’s “La Boheme” earlier in that season for Luciano Pavarotti and Dorothy Kirsten, a couple of late season “Boheme” performances were scheduled, including a single performance in which Amara’s Mimi was paired with a young tenor who would be important to the company’s future. Lucine Amara’s last San Francisco Opera staged performance was the first and only appearance of tenor Placido Domingo in 1969, his debut season at the War Memorial Opera House.

 Richard Lewis

The Don Ottavio in all three of the “Don Giovanni’s” that I had seen to date was the British tenor Richard Lewis (of Welsh parentage). Lewis was a particular favorite of General Director Adler (and of myself!). His artistry and vocal control were remarkable. His pianissimo repeat of the primary theme of Ottavio’s Dalla sua pace is still a vivid memory.

[Below: Tenor Richard Lewis was the Don Ottavio; edited image of an historic photograph.]

 [Historical Performances: “Cosi Fan Tutte” with Schwarzkopf, Rankin, Munsel, Lewis and Guarrera, San Francisco Opera in San Diego, October 25, 1956] and Bacchus [Historical Performances: Young Rysanek Promotes Strauss – “Ariadne auf Naxos” at L. A.’s Shrine Auditorium, San Francisco Opera, November 1, 1957], both of which I experienced as a young teenager on the San Francisco Opera’s Southern California tours.

He was the first tenor that I heard perform the roles of the Captain [Historical Performances: Geraint Evans, Marilyn Horne, Richard Lewis in “Wozzeck” at San Francisco Opera – September 15, 1962], Eisenstein [Historical Performances: “Die Fledermaus” with Mary Costa, Richard Lewis, Reri Grist – San Francisco Opera, September 18, 1965] and Alwa [Historical Performances: “Lulu” with Evelyn Lear, Ramon Vinay, Richard Lewis – September 25, 1965]. He would later become my first Herod in Richard Strauss’ “Salome” and my first Captain Edward Fairfax Vere in Britten’s “Billy Budd”.

At the War Memorial Opera House, Lewis sang a total of 60 performances consisting of 16 different roles over 11 seasons between 1955 and 1981 at the War Memorial Opera House. Significantly, Lewis first appearance was just after Adler had been appointed to the general directorship of the San Francisco Opera and Lewis’ last appearance was during Adler’s farewell season.

Rounding out the cast were Jolanda Meneguzzer as Zerlina [see A Conversation with Lyric-Leggiero Soprano Jolanda Meneguzzer] and John West as Masetto. Timothy O’Leary was the Commendatore.

Paul Hager’s direction and Oliver Smith’s production

Paul Hager, Adler’s principal stage director, staged the opera. The sets were by Broadway designer Oliver Smith.

Oliver Smith designed sets for many of the most important mid-20th century musicals including Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot”, Bernstein’s “West Side Story” and Herman’s “Hello, Dolly”. He also was prominent in designing movie sets, including the film versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music.

[Below: Oliver Smith’s sets for the peasant wedding; edited image, based on a Dennis Galloway photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

In 1965, the 47 year old Smith created two productions for the War Memorial Opera House, “Fledermaus” and “Don Giovanni” (see hyperlinks above). Both were repeated in later San Francisco Opera seasons, “Fledermaus” in 1973 (for Joan Sutherland) and again in 1983.

[Below: Leporello (here, Ugo Trama, left, informs Donna Elvira (Lucina Amara, right) that she’s not the only one; edited image, based on a Dennis Galloway photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera archives.]

Smith’s sets incorporated the idea of structures that moved like “chess pieces”. Apparently, the sets never did work as Smith envisioned. On the production’s only revival in 1968 (for basso Cesare Siepi as Don Giovanni) the structures were spaced farther apart and the idea of the set consisting of moving chess pieces was abandoned.