Even for an ancient habitué, San Francisco Opera’s opening concert Friday night (Sept. 9) was a stunner. The centennial season began with a rich, eclectic program that ran the gamut from Bellini and Verdi to a Samoan haka (war dance) and Freddie Mercury (“Don’t Stop Me Now”).
Music Director Eun Sun Kim conducted the SF Opera Orchestra with her usual compelling precision, the musicians — masked, except for the brass (who were sitting at a distance) — showing mid-season form. This didn’t sound like a first night.
Kim showed her close association with the musicians by joining applause with hugs and even a brief and successful tussle to make acting principal cellist David Kadarauch stand for a solo bow because he is retiring after a long, distinguished career.
Retirements, COVID-time resignations, and such (unaccepted) management proposals as requiring the departure of those over 60 have left the orchestra with an unusually large number of vacancies in permanent positions, and yet the ensemble still functions with excellence — even if neglected in the introductory speeches.
General Director Matthew Shilvock and mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade served as masters of ceremony. Shilvock at one point made a surprise reference to plans to produce Wagner’s Ring Cycle in a few years — big news about opera’s biggest and most expensive project.
The glory of the event was four singers shining bright: tenor Michael Fabiano and three former Merola/Adler participants — soprano Nadine Sierra, tenor Pene Pati, and baritone Lucas Meachem.
Meachem opened the evening with a textually appropriate and vocally resounding Prologue from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, singing, “On with the show! Begin!” Between his Merola years and his remarkable activity during the pandemic, Meachem has established a great career, which he has renewed as a kind of normalcy returns to the music world.
Meachem sang in the duet “Dio, che nell’alma infondere” from Verdi’s Don Carlo with Fabiano and “C’est toi, mon père!” from Jules Massenet’s Thaïs with Sierra. Fabiano also sang “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot.
Sierra was noticed even during her early Merola years, quickly advancing in War Memorial appearances from the short role of Papagena a decade ago to the major role of the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro.
The youngest winner ever of both the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and the Marilyn Horne Foundation Vocal Competition, Sierra also won the Richard Tucker Award in 2017 and has gone on to stardom in some of the world’s biggest opera houses. She even had to cut short an engagement at the Paris Opera in 2015 to rush back to San Francisco and save a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor.
In her latest homecoming, at the centennial opening, Sierra dominated the evening in resounding performances of Heitor Villa-Lobos’s “Melodia Sentimental” and of bel canto’s most demanding composer, Vincenzo Bellini. In the arias “Ah, non credea” (from La sonnambula) and “Vieni, vieni fra queste braccia” (from I puritani) —the latter with Pati — her voice filled the cavernous War Memorial; her breath seemed inexhaustible.
Pati dazzled with the “9-high C” aria “Ah, mes amis!” from Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment, and toward the end of the evening, (un)dressed in traditional Māori garb — bare-chested and barefoot — he performed “A Te Tarakihi,” a native action-chant celebrating the chirping of the cicada. Singer and audience became mesmerized by the performance, and during the responding ovation, Pati seemed too dazed to leave the stage.
Both Pati — born in Samoa and raised in New Zealand — and his Egyptian-New Zealander wife Amina Edris, who stars in the Saturday world premiere of John Adams’s Antony and Cleopatra, spent eventful years in SF Opera’s training programs.
Almost predictably, the pop and fun end of the concert — Texu Kim’s orchestral fffanfare!!, songs from musicals and an Italian film, and more — culminated in the Beach Blanket Babylon finale (and unofficial city anthem) of “San Francisco,” from the eponymous 1936 film. One wished for the ghost of Jeanette MacDonald to make the splendid quartet a quintet.