‘Cavalleria Rusticana,’ ‘Pagliacci’ stir emotions at War Memorial Opera House

San Francisco Opera unveiled its 96th season Friday with a satisfying production, new to the War Memorial Opera House, of the traditionally paired Italian verismo staples, Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.”

The staging for both, reminiscent of a quaint Italian neighborhood, looked like San Francisco’s North Beach, except that Spanish (including the word “tango” on one storefront) was a hint that the operas actually were set in a working-class neighborhood of director Jose Maria Condemi and set designer José Cura’s native Buenos Aires, Argentina. Argentine touches were apparent throughout both operas, which were stitched together as one continuous narrative.

Jealousy sauced by infidelity are central to the plots in both “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci.” None of the characters in either are particularly sympathetic, although generally good performances by the singers did help make up for the character flaws.

“Cavalleria Rusticana” opens with the clear-voiced tenor Roberto Aronica as Turiddu, who has returned from military service to his village and promptly ruffled its social fabric by seducing Santuzza, the impressive and brooding mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semanchuk. Turiddu takes up with Santuzza to spur jealousy in his former lover Lola, portrayed by the suave soprano Laura Krumm. Lola, impatient with Turiddu’s return, married Alfio, the smoldering baritone Dimitri Platanias, who was making his SFO debut.

Not surprisingly, the love quadrangle ends badly and devastates its survivors as well as cause collateral damage, notably upon Turiddu’s pitiful mother Mamma Lucia (the agreeable soprano Jill Grove). However, the scandalous proceedings do have one alluring outcome when character doubles of Lola and Turiddu (San Francisco Opera Corps dancers Alexandra FitzGibbon and Jekyns Peláez, respectively) slow-dance a tango to the opera’s lush Intermezzo under suggestive red lighting.

Marco Berti and Lianna Haroutounian head up the cast in “Pagliacci.” (Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

Platanias returns as the composer Leoncavallo (with a fictitious Mascagni looking on) to deliver the Prologue in “Pagliacci,” and Platanias reappears as Tonio, who plays a role in kindling additional marital strife in the ill-fated village. Tonio tries to gain the affection of a disinterested and married Nedda, portrayed by soprano Lianna Haroutounian (who appeared in recent SFO productions of “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly”), offering another winning local performance with vocal beauty and dramatic flair.

Nedda has a soft spot for Silvio, sung by the appealing baritone David Pershall. The affair doesn’t end any better than the last one in the village, as Nedda’s husband Canio will exact the ultimate price upon both for their adultery in a play-within-an-opera that becomes all too real to the horror of a village audience.

As Canio, resonant tenor Marco Berti offered a searing account of his showpiece lament “Vesti la giubba, ridi Pagliaccio.”

In SFO’s first production of “Cav/Pag” in 15 years, conductor Daniele Callegari smoothly guided the orchestra with vigor while Ian Robertson’s chorus provided sonorous life as the village residents.

REVIEW

Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 12, Sept. 19, Sept. 22 and Sept. 28; 2 p.m. Sept. 16 and Sept. 30
Tickets: $26 to $398
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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Marco Berti and Lianna Haroutounian head up the cast in “Pagliacci.” (Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

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