Ekaterina Semenchuk as Santuzzo. (CORY WEAVER/S.F. OPERA.)

Opera’s most popular double bill, “Cavalleria Rusticana’’ and “Pagliacci,’’ launched San Francisco Opera’s 96th season on Friday in a production new to San Francisco, one of strong musical values and explosive theatrics. Take your pick: “Cav’’ is all about some of the most glorious opera music ever written, or “Pag,’’ a wrenching drama culminating in possibly opera’s best-known aria, “Vesti la giubba,’’ about an aging actor’s lament over lost love.

Composers Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo brought to life, in vivid colors, the village life in Sicily and Calabria in these one-act operas. This is a large serving of “verismo,”  operas of the 1900s described as heart-on-sleeve and with homicidal inclinations, which mirror the tragedies of real life. These similar stories don’t stint on the gritty side of life: illicit affairs in small towns make for dire consequences as betrayal breeds revenge.  

Argentine director and singer José Cura set the opera, directed here by Jose Maria Condemi, in the time of the Italian immigration to Argentina in the 1900s in the seamy seaside  neighborhood of La Boca. Cura joined the two narratives into one story so that figures from one work appear in the other, and during intermission the townspeople gather and play cards in the small town square where the action takes place.  

Cura’s stage designs set the scene in brilliant colors: a small church and a tavern with an apartment above that displays for all to see the affairs of passion that drive the narratives. Cura has the composers appear briefly onstage and opens with a song by the famous Argentine tango singer Carlos Gardel, a nice touch, but the staging is generally straightforward, no tricks or surprises, allowing the focus to be on the lustrous singing and vibrant orchestral playing under the baton of Daniele Callegari in his San Francisco Opera debut. The opera chorus sang superbly through the night.

Russian mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk powered the role of “Cavalleria’s’’ Santuzza, with dark colors and vocal bombast, finding an ideal  match in Italian tenor Roberto Aronica’s rich-toned Turiddu. Theirs was the finest singing of the evening, with both singers fully engaged and strong in their commitment to partner each other in this saga of grief and desperation. Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias sang the role of the cuckolded husband Alfio with a somewhat barky sound; in “Pagliacci’’ he brought smoldering passion to the role of Tonio. Laura Krumm, a former Adler Fellow, was a seductive, plush-voiced Lola.

Italian tenor Marco Berti portrayed the lovesick clown Canio in “Pagliacci’’ with genuine ardor, and gave the audience all it could ask for: a fiery performance at the finale. Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian sang Nedda in gleaming colors; her love duet with Silvio, dashing American baritone David Pershall, illustrated the frustrated passions of a woman hopelessly entrapped. Adler Fellow Amitai Pati was a fetching Beppe.   

It was a memorable opera opening: San Francisco audiences know their opera; they caught the excitement of the performance and responded with a long and loud standing ovation. There will be six more performances of  “Cavalleria Rusticana’’ and “Pagliacci’’ at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House through Sept. 30.

Top photo: Ekaterina Semenchuk as Santuzzo. (Cory Weaver/S.F. Opera)