Historical Review: San Francisco’s Spring Opera Theater [SPOT]’s “Pagliacci”- June 16, 1967

After the intermission that followed my first ever performance of Mascagni’s one act “Cavalleria Rusticana” [Historical Performances: Ghita Hager Directs Roberto, di Virgilio, Cossa in “Cavalleria Rusticana” – San Francisco Spring Opera Theater [SPOT] – June 16, 1967], I settled back into my seat for my first ever performance of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci”.

Ghita Hager’s intelligent direction strongly underscored the range of emotions felt by the doomed characters in Leoncavallo’s tautly constructed melodrama – Canio’s murderous jealousy, Tonio’s lethal spitefulness, Nedda’s entrapment in an abusive relationship, and her temporart escapes from it into the sympathetic, loving arms of Silvio.

William Olvis’ Canio

The iconic lead tenor role, the “broken-hearted” Canio, was performed by William Olvis, a leading New York City Opera tenor, with Broadway credits that include the principal tenor role in Wright and Forrest’s operetta “Song of Norway”. (The previous SPOT season had its own “Song of Norway” connection. Tenor Frank Porretta who portrayed Frederic in Ambroise Thomas’ “Mignon” performed the same role on Broadway.)

[Below: Canio (William Olvis) prepares for his performance in the pagliacci’s play; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives

Olvis is remembered for another foray into operetta through Stanley Donen’s 1954 MGM film “Deep in My Heart” – performing the Serenade from Romberg’s “The Student Prince”.

Below: Tenor William Olvis, here as Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”; edited image, based on an historical photograph.]

Maralin Niska’s Nedda and Dominic Cossa’s Silvio

New York City Opera star Maralin Niska performed the role of Nedda. Although I was able to see her perform in Los Angeles as part of the New York City Opera’s West Coast tours, her only San Francisco Opera performances were two SPOT performances of “Pagliacci”, one of which occurred four days prior.

[Below: Maralin Niska; edited image from youtube.com.]

Niska projected the range of emotions embedded in composer’s Leoncavallo’s vocal score, including her fear of Canio and her disgust with the lecherous Tonio.

Niska brilliantly performed Nedda’s showpieces her aria Stridono lassu, in which she envies the freedom of birds, and her duet with her lover, Silvio (portrayed by Dominic Cossa).

[Below: Dominic Cossa; edited image of a publicity photograph.]

The Silvio-Nedda duet is the most beautifully composed expression of love in all of verismo opera, even as its heartfelt melodic theme belies the danger of Nedda’s and Silvio’s pursuit of their extramarital affair. For me, this duet was the highlight of Niska’s and Cossa’s appearances at the War Memorial Opera

Seymour Schwartzman’s Tonio and Rico Serbo’s Beppe

The appropriately sinister Tonio was baritone Seymour Schwartzman, a prominent member of the New York City Opera artist roster. Schwartzman was descended from a family of Jewish cantors, and had studied opera performance with the mid-20th century star baritone Robert Weede.

[Below: Baritone Seymour Schwartzman; edited image of a publicity photograph.]

The fourth member of this troupe of pagliacci, after Canio, Nedda and Tonio, is Beppe, played by character tenor Rico Serbo. .

[Below: tenor Rico Serbo, edited image of an historical photograph.]

Serbo was the only member of the cast whose performance history includes multiple roles in the main company. Serbo’s most memorable role in Spring Opera Theater was as Nicklause (normally a mezzo-soprano role) in what would be my next opera to report on, Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann”.