San Francisco Opera 2019-20 Review: Roméo et Juliette
Nadine Sierra & Pene Pati Deliver All You Could Hope ForBy Lois Silverstein
(Credit: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera)
The San Francisco Opera opened its 97th season with Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliette,” reminding us that music is the food of love and that it spills over all the battles we fight and brings them down.
Even though the production was pleasant but not perfect, the evening’s performance brought us into a harmony that resonates beyond the War Memorial Opera House and its myriad of colorful, masked and beplumed guests fresh from Opera Ball 2019.
Soprano Nadine Sierra wore the crown of the evening, her sparkling Juliette as beguiling as any could make it. From her entrance through the throng of guests at her family party, she magnetized attention. Girlish and giddy, her mood shifted purposively east to west as events swirled around her. She gathered more and more attention as she flitted through the well-dressed exuberant Veronese crowd. Then, the appearance of the masked Montague threw her further into happy chaos, as he instantly fell for her, and she him, Juliette continuing to go along with the flirtation – her big eyes rolling, her lips moving coyly and then invitingly. Her presence was winning. In her opening aria, “Je veux vivre” she reminded us of a young Beverly Sills, and, a bit of Natalie Dessay, though Sierra’s voice had less spring and more weight, even in the trills, which she performed with precision.
Throughout the five acts, Sierra sustained her vocal energy and buoyancy, even as her voice shifted to its darker palette when she realizes the Capulet/Montague conflict leaves her apparently powerless in her love. As she stood at the apex of the raked stage, arms to her sides, body immobile, she brought to bear her more courageous side.
Through the marriage and the parting with Romeo by exile, and, ultimately by the tomb scene, she embodied Lucia, but in this case, ready to risk even life for her love. “I am so happy to die with you,” she sang then, in the tomb scene, reaching for Romeo’s hand to wrap hers in and to bring close to her heart. While not heart-wrenching, it was tender and full of “joy,” the paradox of the star-crossed lovers from Shakepeare’s beloved play.
Tenor Pene Pati, as the SFO audience well-knew, replaced tenor Brian Hymel, withdrawing shortly before Opening Night. His sweet and technically expansive voice, added considerable luster to the musical richness of his part. His aria, “Leve-toi” was delivered with finesse and ardor. His third act aria was definitely a show-stopper.
Not always the most dexterous mover on the stage, Pati managed well-enough, however, to convince us he was on the scene full-bodied. He crouched and crawled with manageable grace, he used his sword with dexterity, he stood on the “balcony,” on the bed without a stumble, singing luxuriantly. His voice grew full and grand at times, forceful and ardent, while his trills and breath control was often spectacular. However, his pianos were not always audible, or moving. He became, after the opening scenes, a Romeo to reckon with, convincing us of his love and honor, and a tenor to count on. We believed him body and soul, even as there was room for further passion without watching his back.
Pati also complemented Sierra’s ardor and spontaneity with his own. The two dosey-doed from their first encounter, a kiss drawing them as close as possible after initial contact. That alone reminded us of our youthful sweep of emotions, making the even-handed ways maturity changes such upsurge. The two singers were vocally well-matched from the start, their duets a fine mix.
A Solid Ensemble
Other singers, such as baritone Lucas Meachem, tenor Daniel Montenegro, mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti, Bass James Creswell had their moments and did solid jobs overall. There were two standouts however.
Meachem as Mercutio was witty and amiable, loyal and appealing, and had the strongest of the male voices overall, sometimes singing with more gusto and less of the lightness his mercurial temperament was meant to convey.
The Page, as interpreted by Stephanie Lauricella sang with panache and offered fresh appeal mid the 19th century moralizing that capped Shakespeare’s 16th century Renaissance energy. Thus, we traded the full-blown choleric Tybalt, the nurturing Friar for more prosaic versions, designed to carry righteous behavior, one of the main threads of Gounod’s intention, and although congruent with the overall tone of the opera, seemed tepid.
The orchestra had moments of simple beauty with French-Canadian conductor Yves Abel capitalizing on the score and bringing out the mood variations the ambience required.
Making his American directorial debut, Monte-Carlo director Jean-Louis Grinda brought pointed finesse to the story detail, aiming to keep the original Verona setting as fresh as once upon a time.
The set, done by Eric Chevalier, was dynamic and large-scale. Courtyards, streets, ballrooms, bedrooms, tombs – the works. If anything, it might have been too literal a presentation. As a result, narrative energy took second place to design that while beautiful, seemed extraneous. Fortunately, the tomb scene, and that in Friar Laurence’s cell were short-shrift. This was not the case with the wedding scene, complete with humorous touches by the loving couple, waiting to get out of there and find their bed. It stirred some laughs from the audience.
Lighting done by Roberto Venturi was excellent, and costumes done by Carola Volles were period-appropriate, colorful and creative; both contributed to the overall panache.
At the close the happy couple, once dead and resurrected for their curtain-call, jumped up and down for the bow. Sierra and Pate were pleased and so was the audience, so were the opening night jitters and the gallant mounting of an opera that has its moments, despite being neither Gounod’s “Faust” nor Shakespeare. Ultimately, San Francisco Opera pulled it off, thanks to a group effort and the sparkling talents of its principals, director and conductor who made the evening a success.