Historical Performances: A Pleasing “Rigoletto” From Chester Ludgin, Lee Venora, Ottavio Garaventa and Janis Martin, San Francisco Opera, November 5, 1966

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 ninth of fourteen such observances of performances from the company’s 1966 Fall season.

In the mid-20th century, the San Francisco Opera, following the practice of other major opera companies, regularly mounted operas with European casts or cast North American artists whose reputations had been established in Europe. In particular demand were those artists who had gained fame as stars of complete opera recordings that had proliferated in the 1950s after the invention of the “long-playing” vinyl record.

The North American artists who concentrated their careers on their home continent were often at a disadvantage – talented performers not considered for casting in a major operatic role because they seemed to lack the “box office” appeal of those artists who had recording contracts or reputations for successful European careers.

San Francisco Opera’s general director Kurt Herbert Adler, from his assumption of his post in 1954, had taken significant steps to change these attitudes. In 1957 he launched the Merola program to increase the number of and opportunities for American-trained opera singers. In 1961 he launched the Spring Opera Theater [SPOT], that regularly cast American artists, olften in adventuresome repertory. Additionally, and significantly, he hired American artists whose careers emcompassed Broadway, such initiatives as the NBC Opera Theater, and the roster of New York City’s number two opera company, the American-artist friendly New York City Opera. For the “main” season, Adler cast several American singers with experience in musical theater, most notably the Mississippi soprano Leontyne Price (and later New York soprano Reri Grist).

The 1966 San Francisco Opera main season included a three-performance run of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” with Reri Grist co-starring with Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus and British baritone Peter Glossop [Historical Performances – “Rigoletto” with Glossop, Kraus, Grist and Kreppel – San Francisco Opera, October 16, 1966].

Adler scheduled five additional “Rigoletto” performance with an alternative cast from that included bass-baritone Chester Ludgin in the title role and soprano Lee Venora as Gilda, both of whose careers had been centered in the United States. Four of these performances were matinees for students from local schools (another Adler program designed to build future audiences for opera). One of these alternative cast “Rigolettos” was scheduled for the main season’s Saturday night subscription series.

Since I was a regular Saturday night subscriber, even though I had already attended the October 16th performance referenced above, this gave the opportunity to see the production with cast changes for the three principal roles – Rigoletto, the Duke and Gilda – and the two major comprimario roles – Sparafucile and Maddalena..

Chester Ludgin’s Rigoletto

New York baritone Chester Ludgin, who had made his professional opera debut ten years earlier, soon established a reputation based on his contributions to the performance of American operas. At the New York City Opera he participated in a half dozen world premieres of American works, including several that continue to be performed in the 21st century – the lead role of John Proctor in Ward’s “The Crucible”, the First Doctor in Kurka’s “The Good Soldier Schweik” and Sam in Bernstein’s “A Quite Place”.

[Below: Chester Ludgin was Rigoletto; edited image of a YouTube screenshot of the NBC Opera Theater’s production of Menotti’s “Maria Golovin” in which Ludgin performed the role of the Prisoner.]

I found Ludgin’s Rigoletto to be dramatically persuasive and well-sung, just as I had found a previous Ludgin performance as Jack Rance, another iconic Italian dramatic baritone role [Historical Performances: “La Fanciulla del West” with Marie Collier and João Gibin – San Francisco Opera, September 26, 1965].

Ludgin’s relationship with the San Francisco Opera began with Spring Opera Theater [SPOT] performances in 1962, followed by Main season assignments, beginning in 1964. Earlier in the season, Ludgin gave a praiseworthy performance of Boris Godunov [Historical Performances: “Boris Godunov” – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 1966], replacing an ailing George London for the entire performance run.

Lee Venora’s GIlda

Connecticut soprano Lee Venora displayed a shimmering lyric coloratura iin an asffecting portrait of Gilda. Like Ludgin, Venora was a leading artist at the New York City Opera, where she also participated in operatic world premieres. In addition, she participated in New York City’s musical theater, opening on Broadway in the short-lived musical “Happy Town”, and taking part in more successful Lincoln Center productions of “The King and I” and “Kismet”.

[Below: Soprano Lee Venora performed the role of Gilda; edited image of a publicity photograph.]

Venora had made her San Francisco Spring Opera Theater debut in 1963 and her San Francisco Opera main season debut as Blanche de la Force [Historical Performances: “Dialogues of the Carmelites” with Venora, Resnik, Ericsdotter – San Francisco Opera, October 26, 1963]. Other company highlights had included Marzelline in a stellar production of “Fidelio” and as Cherubino in the 1964 and 1966 company revivals of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” [Historical Performances: “Nozze di Figaro” with Geraint Evans, Reri Grist, Claire Watson and Thomas Stewart – San Francisco Opera – October 29, 1966], a role she would perform again 15 hours later for a Sunday matinee “Figaro” performance.

Ottavio Garaventa’s Duca di Mantua

Of the three “Rigoletto” principals, impressive performances by Ludgin and Venora, the New York City Opera-based American singers, outshone a more routine performance from Italian lyric tenor Ottavio Garaventa, a singer with impeccable European credentials. Garaventa failed to match the dramatic intensity of the principals and comprimario atrists with whom he interacted.

[Below: Ottavio Garaventa was the Duke of Mantua; edited image of a publicity photograph for the Glyndebourne Festival.]

Garaventa, who had made his San Francisco Opera debut 11 days earlier as Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, had a busy November, performing the Duke five times (this Saturday night and all the student matinees), all five of the scheduled Pinkertons and all three performances of Verdi’s “Falstaff” in the role of Fenton.

Janis Martin’s Maddalena, Federico Davia’s Sparafucile and other cast members

The villanous, but – invested with some of Verdi’s most delightful music – curiously charming, brother-sister assasin team of Sparafucile and Maddalena were memorably performed by Italian bass Federico Davia and California soprano Janis Martin.

My admiration for Martin – a strong, forceful presence in a role usually sung by mezzo-sopranos – dates back to the famous “Nabucco” performance for which she learned the part of Fenena the prior day and executed it magnificently, replacing an artist who had fallen ill [See Historical Performances: Bastianini’s “Nabucco”, with Tozzi, Cioni and Janis Martin – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 1961

Assaying the role of Sparafucile, a character bound by an “honor among assassins” creed, was Italian bass Federico Davia, in the second week of a San Francisco Opera that would include 13 roles over five seasons between 1966 and 1979.

[Below: Federico Davia as Sparafucile; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]

Australian bass-baritone Clifford Grant was Count Monterone. The other cast members that appeared in the smaller roles in all four 1966 main season performances of “Rigoletto” were L. D. Clements as Borsa, Adib Fazah as Marullo and David Giossi as Count Ceprano. Carol Kirkpatrick was the Countess Ceprano, Donna Petersen was Giovanna, Ann Graber was a page and Colin Harvey was an usher.

Maestro Francesco Molinari-Pradelli conducted. Matthew Farrugio was stage director and Zachary Solov was Choreography. Vincenzo Giannini was Chorus Director.