In its first presentation of Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” in 32 years, San Francisco Opera ushered in its 97th season Friday with Jean-Louis Grinda’s attractive Italian Renaissance-set production featuring an 11th-hour casting change that left the romantic leads anything but star-crossed.
As tenor Bryan Hymel, playing Romeo, withdrew for personal reasons three days before the opening, the main question as the curtain of the Teatro Carlo Felice and Opera de Monte-Carlo co-production debuting in The City rose: How would the chemistry be between Pene Pati, who stepped in for Hymel, and soprano Nadine Sierra’s Juliet? It was quickly apparent that it was a love-at-first-sight match.
Admittedly, Pati was prepared. He was scheduled to make his role debut as Romeo for the Oct. 1 San Francisco Opera performance, in which he and his wife, Amina Edris, will provide a rare husband-and-wife pairing in the title roles.
Yet Pati never before performed with Sierra. On Friday, he brought requisite ardor and gleaming sound to Romeo, melding beautifully with Sierra in all four of their duets. (The duo will reprise the roles in Bordeaux next year.)
Pati impressed even when he wasn’t courting his lover, including a glowing account of the dreamy Act 2 aria “Ah! léve-toi soleil!” and the memorable curtain-dropper to Act 3, Scene 2: Bemoaning his banishment from Verona, he sustained a glorious high C through an unusually long eight measures.
Sierra brought vocal power and expressive grace to her debut as Juliet, the daughter of the Capulet clan, which would turn apoplectic if they found out about her love for Romeo, of the rival Montague family.
Sierra unfurled a buoyant account of her joyful Act 1 waltz aria “Je veux dans ce rêve, qui m’enivre,” polishing off the showpiece with a lovely coloratura flourish. Yet she was dead serious and just as radiant in a riveting offering of the demanding Act 4 “Potion Aria” in which she sounded in her element soaring up to the pair of high Cs.
Baritone Lucas Meachem was a standout as Romeo’s fellow Montague Mercutio, sporting dramatic heft and robust resonance, especially in his Act 1 aria “Mab, la reine des mensonges.”
Bass James Creswell was a stentorian Friar Lawrence, who presides over Romeo and Juliet’s secret nuptials and gives a fateful sleeping potion to Juliet, and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Lauricella was delightful in her SFO debut in the pants role of Romeo’s page Stephano.
Yves Abel dexterously guided the orchestra through the score, while Ian Robertson’s opera chorus’ sang with a plushness matching that of Carola Volles’ period costumes.
Romeo and Juliet
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 13, Sept. 18, Sept. 21, Sept. 24 and Oct. 1; 2 p.m. Sept. 29
Tickets: $26 to $398
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com