The applause began long before a note from Puccini’s romantic tragedy “Tosca” was played or sung on the long-awaited opening night of the San Francisco Opera’s 99th season on Saturday, August 21. A fully vaccinated crowd of 2,253 (74% capacity) cheered when the lights at War Memorial Opera House went out shortly after 7:30 p.m.
General manager Matthew Shilvock received a loud reception when he took the stage to make some remarks.
“We have all been looking forward to this moment,” he said. “Tonight, the collective power of opera returns: orchestra, choir, soloists, team, staff, board and you, the audience, united in this glorious and shared expression of humanity. “
There were more huzzahs for it and for his observation, about pandemic performance, that the opening was taking place in “one of the safest cities in the country.”
A historic comeback @sfopera with one of the most glorious Tosca performances I have ever seen! Intense passion and energy, moving forward with our new Music Director Eun Sun Kim and @ailynperezsop Tosca has made it the start of a spectacular new chapter! We are back! pic.twitter.com/09toTDrPT5
– Matthew Shilvock (@MatthewShilvock) August 22, 2021
Shilvock greeted the approximately 500 healthcare workers in attendance who were offered tickets at $ 10 each.
Obviously, the audience was in the mood to celebrate. Beginners and committed opera enthusiasts alike felt palpable pleasure in the resumption of the large-scale live musical drama. It came after a 20-month hiatus – the last pre-COVID performance of the San Francisco Opera at the Opera House was the closing night of “Hansel and Gretel” in December 2019. (The company produced a drive- in “Barber of Seville” this summer at the Marine Center in San Rafael.)
“The beauty of San Francisco is the celebration of music, art, food, community and diversity,” said Jackie Smith of Oakley, who was settling into her 45-minute Dress Circle seat before the curtain. “It’s like coming home.”
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Indeed, the crowd, though masked, looked almost normal as patrons took group photos and selfies in the arched, golden lobby. They filled the restaurants of the Opera for the pre-show dinners. They lined up in bars for sparkling wine and other libations.
Maged Salib and Bassam Kassab, both from San José, were all smiles as they joked about seeing “Tosca” “for the hundredth time”. Salib added: “We are more than excited.”
Micah Archer had bought a top hat for the occasion, while Emily Archer sported puffy faux fur. The couple, who left Massachusetts for San Francisco in January, were attending their first opera. “We wanted to deck ourselves out for that,” Archer said.
While there were a few adornments to be seen – long dresses and off the shoulders, a silver lamé jacket, a few tuxedos – this was, under restrictive circumstances, no gala opening. There were no fancy gift dinners or luxury flower shows. Members of the public showed their vaccination cards to ushers and volunteers outside, received a sticker to show they had been approved for entry, and then entered to have their electronic tickets scanned. Aside from a few long lines on the Grove Street side, the process went smoothly.
During a conversation in his office, Shilvock said he was keen to put audiences back at ease with live performances. A more festive atmosphere is planned for the concert “Live and in Concert: The Homecoming” scheduled for September 10th. The performances will be broadcast simultaneously and free of charge at Oracle Park.
Principal violin Kay Stern was warming up at home three hours before the curtain. Both “nervous and excited and humiliated to come back,” she told The Chronicle over the phone, “I also think it will be nice to play for people other than my cat. “
Estate mistress Lori Harrison relished the backstage tradition of opening night’s ice cream thematically dubbed (the strawberry was “Strawpia,” in honor of villainous “Tosca” Scarpia). “It’s like waking up from hibernation,” she said.
In a production first seen here in 2018, “Tosca” made some powerful impressions. New Music Director Eun Sun Kim took control of the score and led a performance of startling intensity, subtle mood swings and piquant details.
Tenor Michael Fabiano, as the idealistic painter Cavaradossi, unleashed a powerful air praising female beauty. Soprano Ailyn Pérez, voice and allure, was its very embodiment in the title role. The San Francisco Opera Choir shone in the finale of Act 1 against the imposing setting of the church.
Weaknesses appeared later. Baritone Alfred Walker, more pensive than poisonous like Scarpia, lacked vocal weight and dramatic weight. There was static play under the direction of Shawna Lucey. The third act, despite the breathtaking spectacle of Fabiano “E lucevan le stelle”, seemed somewhat studied.
Pérez, making his debut in the role, was the big story. Resembling a Valentine’s Day in her pinkish-red dress, she was from the start flirtatious and playful coquettish, tickling her painter lover and taking on jealous airs, her voice cheerful and luminous. In her fateful second act encounter with Scarpia, she took on a stature that was both meditative (in a dreamily slow and fascinating “Vissi d’arte”) and fiercely, brutally determined.
When the ovation fell on his encore, Pérez looked genuinely moved and almost overwhelmed, burying his face in his hands at one point. As the final curtain fell, she ducked down to wave a few final waves at the crowd, as if she couldn’t stand the end of the night.
Puccini’s “Tosca”: San Francisco Opera performances continue at 7:30 p.m. on August 27 and September 3; 2 p.m. August 29 and September 5. $ 26 to $ 398. War Memorial House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, SF 415-864-3330. sfopera.com