Historical Performances: Ramon Vinay, Raina Kabaivanska Lead Memorable “Falstaff” – San Francisco Opera, November 20, 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 thirteenth of fourteen such observances of performances from the company’s 1966 Fall season.

Ramon Vinay’s Falstaff

In what would be his final career performance at San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House (and the last time I would ever see him perform), Chilean baritone Ramon Vinay made a brilliant impression in the title role of Verdi’s “Falstaff”. Vocally robust, Vinay’s performance delved into the humanity of Shakespeare’s devious character.

Although I was present at his performances as a baritone only as part of San Francisco Opera’s 1964, 1965 and 1965 seasons, I was struck at the what an extraordinary operatic artist he was.

[Below: Sir John Falstaff (Ramon Vinay, right) asks a boy to deliver a message for him; edited image, based on a Margaret Norton photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

Vinay excelled in comedic buffo roles. He sang both Mozart’s and Rossini’s Doctor Bartolo at the San Francisco Opera [Historical Performances: “Barber of Seville” with Meneguzzer, Blankenburg, Vinay, Trama – San Francisco Opera, October 24, 1965] and [Historical Performances: “Nozze di Figaro” with Geraint Evans, Reri Grist, Claire Watson and Thomas Stewart – San Francisco Opera – October 29, 1966]. Up to this point, only two other artists had sung both the Mozart and Rossini Bartolo’s at San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House – Hungarian bass-baritone Andrew Foldi and the celebrated Italian basso buffo Salvatore Baccaloni.

I was not old enough to have seen Vinay in his heldentenor prime. Vinay sang dramatic tenor and heldentenor roles in the three San Francisco seasons (1949 through 1951) in which he first appeared. Fourteen years later, when he returned to San Francisco, he sang such dramatic baritone roles as Dr Schön [Historical Performances: “Lulu” with Evelyn Lear, Ramon Vinay, Richard Lewis – September 25, 1965] and Baron Scarpia [Historical Performances: “Tosca” with Collier, Konya and Vinay – San Francisco Opera, October 16, 1965] and [Historical Performances: “Tosca” with Marie Collier, Jess Thomas and Ramon Vinay – San Francisco Opera, October 21, 1965]. He filled a niche in San Francisco vacant after the death of Italian baritone Ettore Bastianini and the unavailability of Italian baritone Tito Gobbi, both of whom were box office draws in the early 1960s.

[Below: John Falstaff (Ramon Vinay) is tricked into making a fool of himself at the Hearne Oak; edited image, based on a Margaret Norton photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Raina Kabaivanska’s Mistress Ford, Sona Cervena’s Dame Quickly and Janis Martin’s Mistress Page

The role of Mistress Ford was sung by Bulgarian soprano Raina Kabaivanska. She bought a spinto voice to the role, with inherent beauty. She was always an impossing presence.

This was my first opportunity to be present at one of her performances (although four seasons earlier I had the choice of seeing either her or Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles perform the role of Desdemona to James McCracken’s Otello. I chose wisely, because de los Angeles never returned to San Francisco, and, four seasons in the future, I did see Kabiavanska’s Desdemona, who performed again with McCracken).

[Below: Mistress Ford (Raina Kabaivanska, left) schemes with Dame Quickly (Sona Cervena, right); edited image of a Margaret Norton photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives].


Czech mezzo-soprano Sona Cervena was an invaluable member of the San Francisco Opera family, taking on both lead and comprimario roles of the mezzo and contralto repertories, including Verdi’s Quickly. In assessing Cervena’s Quickly, I tried, not always successfully, to avoid comparing her to my first Quickly, the formidable Italian mezzo Giulietta Simionato [Historical Performances: “Falstaff” with Evans, Simionato, Stewart – San Francisco Opera, October 11, 1962], who, at that time for me, was the definition of a Quickly without equal. But Cervena’s performance was solid and enjoyable.

Mistress Page – a comprimario, rather than lead role – was performed by California mezzo-soprano Janis Martin, whom I had admired since I first saw her perform in 1961. As the 1960s progressed, Martin’s roles would move higher into the soprano range and the dramatic power of Martin’s voice would become increasingly evident.

[Below: Janis Martin was Mistress Page; edited image of an historical photograph.]

Lee Venora’s Nanetta, Ottavio Garaventa’s Fenton and Frank Guarrera’s Ford

All the enchantment that the Hearne Oak scene requires, in which children are disguised as elves and pixies, was provided by Connecticut lyric soprano Lee Venora. Her expressive voice and beautifully controlled vibrato had the right touch of musical magic for what is the opera’s most endearing scene.

[Below: Ottavio Garaventa (left) is Fenton and Lee Venora (right) is Nanetta; edited image, bassed on a Margaret Norton photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

Venora’s performances in San Francisco in the mid-1960s were intertwined with her appearances in musical theater at New York City’s Lincoln Center, especially the mid-1960s revivals of Wright’s and Forrest’s “Kismet” and Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “The King and I”.

My first opportunity to witness a Venora performance was as Blanche de la Force three seasons earlier [Historical Performances: “Dialogues of the Carmelites” with Venora, Resnik, Ericsdotter – San Francisco Opera, October 26, 1963] which greatly impressed me, as did later performances of Cherubino in two seasons [Historical Performances: “Nozze di Figaro” with Geraint Evans, Reri Grist, Claire Watson and Thomas Stewart – San Francisco Opera – October 29, 1966] and of Gilda [Historical Performances: A Pleasing “Rigoletto” From Chester Ludgin, Lee Venora, Ottavio Garaventa and Janis Martin, San Francisco Opera, November 5, 1966.]

Although Venora was only in her mid-30s, this afternoon performance proved to be her last for the San Francisco Opera, and her operatic and musical theater performances became much rarer as the 1960s progressed.

Nannetta’s love interest, Fenton, was performed by Italian tenor Ottavio Garaventa, a role better suited to Garaventa’s lighter tenor voice than the spinto role of Pinkerton, which I had heard him sing a week earlier [Historical Performances: Dorothy Kirsten Leads “Butterfly” Cast for San Francisco Opera’s New Production, November 13, 1966]

Pennsylvania baritone Frank Guarrera was a serviceable Ford. I had not seen Guarrera perform in the ten years since he sang the lyric baritone role of Guglielmo [Historical Performances: “Cosi Fan Tutte” with Schwarzkopf, Rankin, Munsel, Lewis and Guarrera, San Francisco Opera in San Diego, October 25, 1956]. I would see him for the last time a week later, as Escamillo in Bizet’s “Carmen”.

[Below: Frank Guarrera was Ford; edited image of a publicity photograph.]

Raymond Manton’s Bardolfo, Federico Davia’s Pistola and Colin Harvey’s Innkeeper

Tenor Raymond Manton was Falstaff’s very funny squire Bardolf. Manton was the San Francisco Opera’s reigning character tenor for two decades, performing roles in every one of the seasons between 1955 and 1975.

As impressive Manton’s performance record was, it paled in comparison to English-born California baritone Colin Harvey who in 1939, then General Director Gaetano Merola cast as Prince Yamadori in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”.

Harvey, who has only a few lines to sing as the Innkeeper in “Falstaff” sang in the San Francisco Opera Chorus and continued to perform comprimario roles until the 1981 season, 42 years after his San Francisco Opera debut.

[Below: Falstaff (Ramon Vinay, center) verbally spars with his two henchmen, Bardolfo (Raymond Manton, left, kneeling) and Pistola (Federico Davia, right) as he is served by the Innkeeper (Colin Harvey, standing, second from left); edited image, based on a Margaret Norton photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

The production photograph, above, shows the tall Federico Davia standing. In fact, he had a few days earlier broken his leg, so he sang, sitting at stage right, rather than taking part in the physical stage business. Davia with great comedic timing, made it all work. His Pistola was one of the most memorable parts of the performance.  

Maestro Francesco Molinari-Pradelli and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra was led in a spirited performance by Maestro Francesco Molinari-Pradelli.

As with Vinay and Venora, this was the last time I was to see this artist perform. Molinari-Pradelli’s decade long relationship with the San Francisco Opera would end later that week with a final performance of “Madama Butterfly”.

Molinari-Pradelli had dominated the conductor’s podium for San Francisco Opera’s Italian repertory since 1957, when he conducted my first performances of “Aida” [Historical Performances: Callas Fired, An Opera Changed – San Francisco Opera’s “Aida” at San Diego’s Fox Theater, November 7, 1957] and “Lucia” [Historical Performances: Leyla Gencer’s Stunning “Lucia” at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium – November 10, 1957] on the company’s Southern California tour, He conducted 12 other of my opera “first-times” including, in one of his rare non-Italian assignments, Wagner’s “Lohengrin” [Historical Performances: Sandor Konya, Irene Dalis in “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 27, 1960].

I was to see onr final performance of the San Francisco Opera’s 1966 season one week later – Bizeet’s “Carmen”.