Historical Review: Nicholas di Virgilio, Simon Estes Lead Impressive Cast in “Tales of Hoffmann” San Francisco Opera’s Spring Opera Theater [SPOT] – June 23, 1967

Four Spring Opera Theater seasons after my first-ever “Tales of Hoffmann”, I attended my second SPOT “Hoffmann” mounting, the second of its two scheduled performances.

The “Hoffmann” performance’s praiseworthy cast and crew were symbolic of the San Francisco Opera’s mid-1960s progress in its commitment to the American opera, and to the operatic careers of American singers, conductors, directors and production designers. Members of the cast included winners of national singing competitions, newly established young artists program graduates and artists who performed at the New York City Opera and for regional opera companies.

Nicholas di Virgilio’s Hoffmann

The title role was sung by New York City Opera tenor Nicholas di Virgilio, who represented the operatic talent based at the New York City Opera who were available for SPOT’s June seasons. This was the third role that I would see di Virgilio perform at SPOT.

I had previously praised his performances of Edgardo [Historical Performances: San Francisco Spring Opera’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” – May 31, 1966] and Turiddu [Historical Performances: Ghita Hager Directs Roberto, di Virgilio, Cossa in “Cavalleria Rusticana” – San Francisco Spring Opera Theater [SPOT] – June 16, 1967].

[Below: tenor Nicholas di Virgilio; edited image, based on a headshot from the Herbert Barrett Management.]

Each of his performances were vocally and dramatically impactful.

Simon Estes’ Lindorf, Coppelius, Dappertutto and Doctor Miracle

Looking back on the “Hoffmann” of SPOT 1967 from the perspective of decades, the most important casting decision was the selection of Iowa bass-baritone Simon Estes in the role of the opera’s four villains. He proved a vocally strong, mesmerizing performer in each of the villain roles.

[Below: Iowa bass Simon Estes; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]

I would next see Estes a few months later when he made his San Francisco Opera main season debut in Schuller’s “The Visitation”, That same season, he took on the role of Colline in Puccini’s “La Boheme” in the production that marked Luciano Pavarotti’s San Francisco Opera debut.

Between 1967 and 1981 Estes was a co-principal with such important artists as Pavarotti in Verdi’s “Aida”. The “Aida” run included a legendary performance in which Leontyne Price was persuaded to perform the role of Aida, replacing an ailing colleague. That performance not only was legendary because of the very rare pairing of Price and Pavarotti, but, according to Mme. Price, established an emotional rapport between herself and Estes.

In 1979, Estes sang the lead role in the revival of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s famous production of Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman”. He was Don Pedro to Placido Domingo’s Vasco da Gama and Shirley Verrett’s Selika in Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine”; King Marke in 1980’s production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” to Wolfgang Windgassen’s Tristan and Birgit Nilsson’s Isolde and Escamillo to Teresa Berganza’s Carmen in a new Ponnelle production of Bizet’s “Carmen”.

Carol Toscano’s Olympia, Carol Kirkpatrick’s Giulietta and Sylvia David’s Antonia

Nine years earlier, as a mechanism for training American singers for operatic careers, General Director Kurt Herbert Adler created the Merola Young Artists’ program. He also coaxed several artists who had successful careers on Broadway or had performed in operas on television to join the San Francisco Operea

Pennsylvania coloratura soprano Carol Toscano had sung the role of Olympia in the 1963 SPOT “Hoffmann” production on which I had reported previously [Historical Perfomances: SPOT’s “Tales of Hoffmann” – San Francisco Opera, May 3, 1963]. This was the last time I saw her perform, although she would return for the 1971 SPOT season as Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto”.

Previously, I had reported on Soprano Carol Kirkpatrick’s dozen or so appearances in small roles during San Francisco Opera’s SPOT and main seasons of 1966. She was rewarded with principal roles in the 1967 SPOT season, including Lola [see the hyperlink to “Cavalleria Rusticana”, above.]

An even more important role than Lola, was that of the courtesan Giulietta, the largest role Kirkpatrick performed with the San Francisco Opera. Kirkpatrick had several small roles in the 1967 main season, none of which approached Giulietta (or even Lola) in importance.

The Antonia was soprano Kentucky soprano Sylvia David, who was an early participant in the San Francisco Opera’s Merola program. and who later would tour with the company’s Western Opera Theater. This was only her second, but also her last performance ever at the War Memorial OPera House and my only opportunity to see (and hear) her perform.

[Below: Soprano Sylvia David as Papagena in Mozart’s “Magic Flute”; edited image, based on a production photograph for the San Francisco Opera’s Western Opera Theater.]

Rico Serbo’s Niklausse and other Cast Members

In a departure from normal practice, the role of Hoffmann’s muse, Niklausse, rather than being sung by a mezzo-soprano, was sung by California tenor Rico Serbo, the Beppe from the previous week’s SPOT performance of “Pagliacci”.

Four of the character tenor roles – Andrès, Cochenille, Pittichinaccio and Franz – were sung by character tenor Robert Glover, who was an ever-present comprimario artist in both SPOT and main season performances between 1965 and 1969.

Donna Petersen, whose San Francisco Opera career as a comprimario artist spanned from 1953 to 1985 was a Courtesan and the Voice of Antonia’s mother.

Martin Kelbe was Spalanzani, David Giosso was Schlemiel, Colin Harvey was Luther, Winther Andersen was Hermann, Delbert Silva was Nathaniel and Illana de Heurtaumont was Stella.

Maestro Herbert Grossman, Director Byron Ringland, Production designer Vincent Porcaro and Thomas L. Colangelo, Jr and Choreographer Carlos Carvajal

Maestro Herbert Grossman’s San Francisco Opera legacy includes leading the company premieres (all in SPOT) of four 21st century works – Floyd’s “Susannah”, Ward’s “The Crucible”, Moore’s “Carry Nation” [Historical Performances: Douglas Moore’s “Carry Nation” with Wolff, Faull, Smith and Fredricks – San Francisco Spring Opera, June 13, 1966] and Britten’s “Turn of the Screw”. Of operas in the core performance repertoire, I had reported on his previous week’s conducting of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci”.

Grossman’s San Francisco Opera main season performances would, a few weeks after this performance of “Tales of Hoffmann” include my first ever performance of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”.

SPOT’s revival of “Hoffmann” used the 1963 sets of SPOT’s prolific designer, Vincent Procuro, in association with Thomas L. Colangelo, Jr. The 1967 revival’s director, hailing from San Francisco’s famed American Conservatory Theater, was Byron Ringland. The choreographer was the San Francisco-born dancer of FIlipino heritage, Carlos Carvajal, who was at the beginning of an illustrious career of both classical and ethnic ballet.

I would not see “Hoffmann” again at the War Memorial Opera House, for another two decades, when a new production for the main season was created for tenor Placido Domingo.