It was an extraordinary evening by circumstances, company preparedness, and – most especially — performance under the baton of Eun Sun Kim in her first appearance as music director of the company.
Returning to what the pandemic interrupted an incomprehensibly long time ago is often an emotional experience, palpably so when the San Francisco Opera’s abbreviated but live 2021-2022 season opened tonight.
In the War Memorial Opera House, closed for 532 days (and nights), the reunion with the company, the orchestra, ushers, and fellow audience members, was celebrated with smiles (under the masks), tears, and in the end, elation. The last SF Opera performance here was the end of the 2019 fall season on Dec. 7, with Hansel and Gretel (Mayor London Breed shut down the Opera House, where the SF Ballet then performed, and other theaters on March 7, 2020.)
“This shutdown of live music has been singular in occurrence and singularly painful in impact,” SF Opera Executive Director Matthew Shilvock said in a note. “We are now at that moment when music is flowing once again, and propulsive energy is returning … Let us find collective reverence for what it means to be surrounded anew by music. Every note propels us forward. Every note marks a new moment of truth that has just been illuminated. Time is no longer stopped.”
Shilvock spoke briefly before the performance, mourning those who passed on during the pandemic, and Michael Morgan, who died yesterday; praised the company, staff, and orchestra for their work in the recovery. He singled out local health professionals, 500 of whom were invited to the 3,000-seat auditorium, which was full for the evening, many wearing their pre-pandemic finest — and masks.
SF Opera did itself proud with the organization of this difficult reopening, sufficient extra staff handling the challenging admission procedure of checking digital tickets, IDs, and Covid vaccination or negative tests.
On the stage: Puccini’s Tosca, in the 2018 production. This is the opera which signaled the birth of the company in 1923 in the Exposition Auditorium, then inaugurated the War Memorial itself in 1932, and in 1997, reopened the house after the post-Loma Prieta quake reconstruction, with designs from that original production. It now serves again in 2021 as the harbinger of new beginnings.
These are not only new and heroic performances, but also both promising and delivering excellence, on par with the best of SF Opera’s glorious 99 years. Delivery on a great promise came from Eun Sun Kim, who led a Tosca of unusual colors and accents, brought the orchestra to the front, but never — not for a moment — handicapping the singers, not even those without Michael Fabiano’s heldentenor delivery of Cavaradossi’s rafter-shaking “Vittoria!”
Kim will be the first to say the sound doesn’t come from the conductor, it’s the product of the orchestra’s musicians as guided by the conductor. What makes Kim’s performances possible are the musicians in the pit, idled and challenged by the pandemic, and yet on opening night sounding as if it was just another mid-season triumph during “peacetime.” The strings sang, the woodwinds thrilled, the brass throbbed, and Kim already, at the beginning, evoked memories of the best early days of her predecessors, Nicola Luisotti and Donald Runnicles.
Fabiano was in top form, his clarion-call sound showing another aspect of the gorgeous lyricism he exhibited here before in a memorable Manon duet with Nadine Sierra in the 2016 Celebrating David [Gockley] event. His stage present was exceptional through the many difficult stages of the role, from lovebird to brave victim of torture.
In the title role, one of the Merola Program’s best-remembered sopranos, who has gone on to an acclaimed international career: Ailyn Pérez. Her consistent performance tonight peaked in a sincere and moving “Vissi d’arte,” and her subsequent slaying of the corrupt tyrant/aspiring rapist Baron Scarpia. Pérez, probably in collaboration with stage director Shawna Lucey, stayed away from playing a self-important diva, portraying a realistic, believable character caught innocently in turmoil and terror.
Alfred Walker is a life-size Scarpia, similarly to Pérez’s Tosca, not an overblown exaggeration. His warm voice helps to “humanize” what is too often presented as a caricature. The interaction, the balance of sound between Walker and the reactivated SF Opera Chorus were amazing, and yet another feather in Eun Sun Kim’s copious cap, and to the credit of the singers and Chorus Director Ian Robertson.
Perhaps not many in the audience recognized the man taking a bow with the Chorus after Act I and the Te Deum, but it was an important moment in the company’s history. The man in “civilian clothes” Robertson, who is retiring after 35 years of leading the Chorus.
Lucey’s direction is to the point (see below) and effective, with a few questionable moments, such as Tosca’s excessively athletic knifing of Scarpia (oops! spoiler) when her fearful shouting of “Mori! Mori!” (die, die) and the dramatic music are more than sufficient.
Lucey’s motivation is to depict “the pervasive corruption endemic to Tosca’s Rome. It is the kind of odious corruption like mold-producing water damage that rots from within until structures collapse. How does a moral, ethical person navigate a world where institutions tasked with protecting the common good have been usurped to serve the nefarious desires of unchecked tyrants?
“Our main three characters become ensnared in the horrible net of treachery, intrigues, lies, moral turpitude, and fraudulence that extinguishes them all. Grand opera means grand tragedies. But in a world where corrupt dealings decay civic institutions, torture is fair and legal, and the Church colludes with tyrants for self-preservation, a woman fights back against her fate and the damning crush of this society. Tosca is a piece for today like almost never before.”
The War Memorial is 88 years old and so were the seats that somehow survived all those years with minor modifications. But this time, with the reopening of the building, nothing was left over inside the Depression Era building.
This season opened with all new seats that are fine, cushions placed three inches higher than the old ones, with excellent “modernized lumbar support,” and most importantly, repositioned so seats are no longer all in a row, they are now staggered for better view. The investment of millions of dollars has had all-around good results, with the single exception that the new narrow, single-person armrests require a peaceful resolution between seatmates of whose arms are to be rested.
While there was some talk about using the chair backs for supertitles, as they are at the Metropolitan Opera and other houses, that was never a likely possibility. Projection of texts on the over-the-proscenium screen strip seems even sharper and better than before, so all is well.