Historical Performances: “Ballo in Maschera” with Leontyne Price and Sandor Konya – October 31, 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 fifteenth of sixteen such observances of performances from the company’s 1965 Fall season.

The 1965 season ended with two new productions, one of Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera”, the other of Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande”. First came the “Ballo”, with a cast of artists with whom I was very familiar, none of whom had ever disappointed me. Spinto tenor Sandor Konya was Riccardo, spinto soprano Leontyne Price was Amelia, lyric-leggiero coloratura soprano Reri Grist was Oscar, baritone Raymond Wolansky was Renato, and mezzo-soprano Claramae Turner was Ulrica.

Lloyd Burlingame’s Sets

The new production set the opera’s action in Boston, in accordance with Verdi’s reluctant instructions after the censors forbade him to set the opera in the court of Swedish King Gustav III. The Swedish court was the setting for the loosely history-based drama on which “Ballo” is based.

[Below: Sandor Konya (left center, front) as Riccardo, Duke of Boston; edited image, based on a Carolyn Mason Jones photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

By the mid-20th century the idea of a masked ball in Puritan Boston and the experience of the host of contemporary productions set in the Swedish court had made the Boston “Ballo” unfashionable, and assured controversy, including some negative comments from critics.

Yet, I was not bothered by the Lloyd Burlingame’s Boston sets at all. The solidity of the production, that seemed carved from mahagony, was impressive, as was the  concept of a great wall map with images of ships. So was the image of giant moon shining through clouds in the gibbet scene. Every scene had a theatricality that was “operatic”.

[Below: Renato (Raymond Wolansky, right) warns Riccardo (Sandor Konya, left, seated) of conspiracies against him; edited image, based on a Carolyn Mason Jones photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

It was a grand setting for great voices, and Price, Konya, Wolansky, Turner and Grist delivered. (The previous San Francisco Opera “Ballo” cast, four seasons earlier, had also been memorable [Historical Performances: Brouwenstijn, Bastianini, Zampieri in “Ballo in Maschera” – San Francisco Opera, October 12, 1961], and it is an opera that historically San Francisco Opera has done very, very well.

[Below: Claramae Turner as Ulrica; edited image, based on a Carolyn Mason Jones photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Apart from its part in contributing to a bloody good “Ballo”, the new production had special significance for the history of opera performance in California. It was the first opera to be staged at the Los Angeles Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The opening of the Chandler Pavilion meant the end of San Francisco Opera’s Southern California tours (that had actually made money for San Francisco Opera when it previously performed in Los Angeles’ mammoth Shrine Auditorium.)

It would still be a while before the Los Angeles Opera was up and running, and the opera company visiting Los Angeles for the next several years would be the New York City Opera.

Sandor Konya and the Changing of the Tenor Guard

In retrospect, I regard Burlingame’s Boston “Ballo” as significant in that it was constituted Sandor Konya’s last scheduled performances at San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House.

During the first half of the 1960s, Konya was a mainstay of the tenor “bench” in San Francisco. During this period there he performed six roles in operas that I was seeing for the first time – the title roles of  Wagner’s “Lohengrin” and “Parsifal” and Verdi’s “Don Carlo”, as well as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s “Tosca” and Dick Johnson in Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West”.

The emergence of Jess Thomas the same season was evidence that such jugenlicher Wagnerian roles as Lohengrin and Parsifal would be offered to Thomas, rather than to Konya. Over the next four seasons tenors Alfredo Kraus, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo would debut, followed by both Giacomo Aragall and Jose Carreras in 1973. These five tenors would soon become major box office draws.

[Below: Renato (Raymond Wolansky, center, right) is mortified that his wife Amelia (Leontyne Price, center left) has been discovered in a compromising situation at a time and place that is inexplicable; edited image, based on a Carolyn Mason Jones photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

(This Sunday matinee performance was Konya’s last War Memorial appearance, except for a 1973 matinee performance of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, with Pilar Lorengar, in which he graciously substituted for an ailing tenor. That “Butterfly” was on my subscription series, so I saw his last two performances eight seasons apart.)

Leontyne Price and the Long-Play Link

I have previously noted that RCA Victor recording star Leontyne Price routinely made herself available (or was made available by her recording company) to Kurt Herbert Adler and the San Francisco Opera for roles that she had recently recorded or was about to record as complete operas. It proved to be a very beneficial arrangement for all concerned.

[Below: Amelia (Leontyne Price, center front) attempts to warn Riccardo (Sandor Konya, left) of the plot to assassinate him; edited image, based on a Carolyn Mason Jones photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

It, of course, allowed me and other Price fans the opportunity to see her in a range of roles during the many years when she was at the very height of formidable vocal powers – her Butterfly [Historical Performances: Leontyne Price, Sandor Konya in “Madama Butterfly”: San Francisco Opera, September 28, 1961], her Tosca [Historical Performances: Leontyne Price, Konya, Shaw in “Tosca” – San Francisco Opera, October 3, 1963] her “Forza” Leonora [Historical Performances: “Forza del Destino” with Leontyne Price, James McCracken – San Francisco Opera, October 24, 1963] and [Historical Performances: “Ballo in Maschera” with Leontyne Price and Sandor Konya – October 31, 1965] and her Donna Anna [Historical Performances: “Don Giovanni” with Leontyne Price’s Donna Anna – San Francisco Opera, October 15, 1965].

This was the first performance that I was to see Price from what would become my regular subscription seats, the first row orchestra seats by the conductor.

Even though I was a Saturday evening subscriber (having worked myself up to Orchestra Row E on the aisle, a friend had arranged for me to have the seat next to her two Sundays in a row.

The conductors for the Sunday matinees that I had were two prominent Italian conductors, Piero Bellugi and Francesco Molinari-Pradelli. Although Bellugi only conducted at the San Francisco Opera in the 1965 season, Molinari-Pradelli had been the principal Italian conductor during the decade between 1957 and 1966.

This was the 22nd performance that I had attended conducted by him, that included 12 different operas from the core 19th century Italian repertory as well as Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Wagner’s “Lohengrin”.

The seat had been offered me for as my regular seat for future subscriptions and I was making up my mind. Leontyne Price and company and the proximity to the conductor’s podium helped make the decision an easy one.