S.F. Opera allures with ‘Luisa Miller,’ ‘Sweeney Todd’

On Saturday, a thoroughly bloody affair supplanted Friday’s tragic affair at San Francisco Opera’s first production of “Sweeney Todd.” Unlike the relatively pale staging of the previous evening, the adaptation of the 1979 multiple Tony Award-winning musical thriller was bursting with capillary coloring on its dual-level set that transports viewers back to Victorian London.

Performances, particularly vocal ones, excelled when San Francisco Opera opened its 93rd season with Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” on successive nights.

“Luisa Miller” ushered in the season Friday, the third time San Francisco Opera has presented it since 1974. A revival of director Francesca Zambello’s 2000 production, the work has one of those “only-in-opera” unlikely romantic plots that try the patience of anyone were it not for generous helpings of beautiful music and dramatic flair.

Soprano Leah Crocetto as the title role commoner who falls in love with an aristocrat’s son, was a tad stiff dramatically, but she soared in the vocal department. Crocetto delivered the goods with a big, powerful, yet graceful voice that repeatedly rose to the occasion, most memorably in her Act 2 aria, “Tu puniscimi, O Signore.”

Tenor Michael Fabiano offered a splendid account as Luisa’s lover Rodolfo. Fabiano gave a passionate, dramatically agile performance while alternately wooing and scorning his beloved Tyrolean maiden. Fabiano was superb with his luscious tone, sublime phrasing and outstanding passage work, most notably in his Act 2 aria, “Quando le sere al placido.”

Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk as Duchess Federica and baritone Vitaliy Bilyy as Luisa’s father Miller made promising San Francisco Opera debuts. Semenchuk was vocally entrancing, evoking sympathy as she questioned the hard-to-believe opportunity to marry Rodolfo. Bilyy conveyed his paternal concern with dramatic as well as vocal warmth.

Equally effective were bass Andrea Silvestrelli as the courtier Wurm, who weaves his meddlesome way into Luisa and Rodolfo’s love, and soprano Jacqueline Piccolino as Luisa’s friend Laura. However, as Rodolfo’s father Count Walter, bass Daniel Sumegi was uneven on pitch and on the dry side vocally. Ian Robertson’s opera chorus of villagers pleasantly rounded out the cast. Music director Nicola Luisotti conducted with clarity and strength.

Yet Michael Yeargan’s set design — which included a large metal beam that suspended scene-altering panels over the stage — was less appealing. While symbolically the beam loomed like a Damocles sword over the ill-fated cast, it proved a persistent visual distraction.

David Gockley, who is in his last season as general director, presented Zambello with the San Francisco Opera Medal after the performance.

On Saturday, Lee Blakeley’s production showcased the psychologically twisted drama and offbeat humor that flow from Sondheim’s wonderful “Sweeney Todd” score, brought to life by fine dramatic and vocal performances,

Baritone Brian Mulligan and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe commanded the stage with exceptional accounts of the wronged barber and failing baker who cook up a scheme to kill and recycle unsuspecting customers in order to satiate the vengeful desires of the former and revive the business fortunes of the latter.

Mulligan delivered an arresting performance as Sweeney Todd, dispatching his arias such as “The Barber and His Wife” and “My Friends” as effortlessly as he did his barber chair victims. He was as chilling while going through the motions of slitting throats as he was warmly moving vocally.

Blythe was impressive as Mrs. Lovett, who blithely teams with Todd to convert body parts from his upstairs barbershop into meat pies in her downstairs bakery. Suffusing wit into the sanguinary proceedings, Blythe sang her arias (“Worst Pies in London,” “By the Sea”) with a powerfully resonant voice and an accurate working-class London accent. She also paired marvelously with Mulligan in Act 1’s deliciously suggestive duet “A Little Priest.”

Matthew Grills as Tobias was noteworthy, especially with his beautiful lyricism in the Act 2 aria “Not While I’m Around.” Heidi Stober’s Johanna, Elliot Madore’s Anthony Hope, David Curry’s Pirelli, Elizabeth Futral’s Beggar Woman, Wayne Tigges’ Judge Turpin and AJ Glueckert’s Beadle Bamford provided effective, essential contributions, as did the SFO chorus.

Sound amplification occasionally provided a disconcerting element, as some of the voices were projected in a less than clear fashion. However, conductor Patrick Summers led the orchestra with precision and purpose.

Luisa Miller
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.,
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 16, Sept. 19, Sept. 22, Sept. 25; 2 p.m. Sept. 27
Tickets: $26 to $381
Contact: (415), 864-3330, www.sfopera.com
Note: “Sweeney Todd” performances are at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 15, Sept. 18, Sept. 23, Sept. 26, Sept. 29; 2 p.m. Sept. 20

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