San Francisco Opera’s return to a refurbished War Memorial Opera House after a 20-month-long absence for its 99th season on Saturday with Puccini’s “Tosca” and the inauguration of Eun Sun Kim as music director already had key elements to make for an extra-special evening. But soprano Ailyn Pérez’s impressive debut in the lead of the well-cast production made the night all the more memorable.
“Tosca” has been SFO’s go-to opera for special occasions ever since the company’s birth in 1923 — including its 10th season opener in 1932, its first in the War Memorial Opera House — and Saturday’s performance was a revival of director Shawna Lucey’s appealing production first staged in 2018.
There was a palpable feeling that another red-letter-date “Tosca” was in the offing when SFO General Director Matthew Shilvock stepped onstage before the curtain raiser to welcome everyone back to the Opera House, thank first responders (many in the audience) who have done so much heavy lifting during the pandemic, and offer a tribute to longtime Oakland Symphony conductor Michael Morgan, who died on Friday.
Tenor Michael Fabiano, as the painter Mario Cavaradossi and Floria Tosca’s lover — reprising a role he already performed this year in Paris and Madrid — was endearing in his first American portrayal of the dashing Roman patriot. At first achingly tender, especially to allay Tosca’s jealousy, his performance built to lovely heights in Act 3 with Cavaradossi’s pensive aria “E lucevan le stelle.”
Tosca’s jealousy over whether Cavaradossi is faithful to her when she sees that another woman is the subject of one of his portraits is one of several emotions Pérez deftly shares with just the right intensity and sound. She is as convincingly enamored of Cavaradossi, with a warm, glowing voice that flows with passion for him, as she is clearly disgusted with her tormentor and wannabe lover Baron Scarpia, the steady, chillingly effective bass-baritone Alfred Walker, whose self-analyzing aria “Già mi dicon venal” was authoritative.
Pérez offered a meltingly beautiful account of her Act 2 showpiece aria of grief “Vissi d’arte,” which she unfurls before securing Scarpia’s written guarantee of safe passage out of Rome for her and Cavaradossi. Walker’s Scarpia may be the feared police chief of Rome, but he can’t resist Tosca’s charms, which she conjures up with a steely resolve to get what she wants while making Scarpia mistakenly think, with fatal consequences, he’s going to get what he wants.
Kim conducted the orchestra with well-paced delivery of Puccini’s score and a balance of appropriate sonorities that ranged from softly caressing to dramatically thunderous, while always the proper complement to the singers.
Ian Roberson’s chorus stepped back onstage in fine form as if there had never been a pandemic. The chorus was in its full glory, outfitted with Robert Innes Hopkins’ colorful period costume in the Act 1 “Te deum.”
Michael Clark’s lighting, including elements of chiaroscuro, effectively helped set the contrasting moods as scenes varied in the multi-hued set design, also by Hopkins.
On Saturday, being back inside the War Memorial for a live performance was notably pleasurable not only because it was the first time opera fans could gather at long last. New, ergonomic seats in the orchestra section with additional leg room and improved sightlines made for a particularly commodious and user-friendly experience.
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 27 and Sept. 3; 2 p.m. Aug.29 and Sept. 5
Tickets: $26 to $398
Contact: (415) 864-3330, sfopera.com