French composer Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet’’ opened the fall San Francisco Opera season this month.
A late cancellation by Brian Hymel, the Romeo, brought excitement to the scene because it meant finding another tenor to take on the role. In the old days it might have meant flying Leontyne Price in for a last-minute Aida or persuading Placido Domingo to leave Mexico and take over for an ailing Otello.
But there was a tenor in the wings: Pene Pati as the cover for Hymel had never before performed the role, but was slated to appear in the final performance.
Everyone takes a good love story to heart, and the kind of singing Pati delivered in his first performances earned him rapturous applause from the audience, who recognized in this voice, radiant and muscular, warm and multicolored, a remarkable talent.
Pati sounded subdued initially, as if he wanted his Juliet, soprano Nadine Sierra, to star, and star she did.
Gounod gives them four duets from the first meeting to the last in their brief time together, and French-Canadian conductor Yves Abel was with them at every turn and drawing a well detailed, rich performance from the opera orchestra.
Sierra’s portrayal was well fleshed out, her supple voice effervescent as the free-spirited Juliet, darker in the long potion scene when she hesitates before committing to the drink that will put her into a deathlike state.
Some of the writing by librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré is labored. In the pair’s last night together, for example, a lengthy discussion of whether it was the lark heralding the day or whether the lovers had some time left had the audience chuckling; but Pati brought it off with authoritative vocal theatrics.
Gounod’s 1876 opera is a somewhat pale stepsister of the Shakespeare play on which it is based, primarily because the feud between the two families of Verona that sets the scene and brings about the eventual tragedy is placed on the back burner. The scene in which Romeo’s pal Mercutio is killed seems like an afterthought: this great figure with some of the all-time dramatic lines, meets his fate late in Act III. It seems a faded-back story.
Lucas Meachem was especially vibrant in his Mercutio moment, though; one longed for more from this artist who we have heard here as Eugene Onegin and Don Giovanni, to mention just two of his memorable portrayals.
Also impressive were James Creswell as the Friar, Eve Gigliotti, appropriately randy as Juliet’s nurse, and mezzo Stephanie Lauricella, in her company debut, bright and spirited as Romeo’s page Stephano.
Jean-Louis Grinda’s production (sets by Eric Chevalier), first staged in 2012 and co-produced by opera houses in Genoa and Monte Carlo, zeroes in handsomely on Renaissance splendor.
There are several more performances of the opera at the War Memorial Opera House through Oct.1.In the final performance, Pati’s wife, Amina Edris, takes the role of Juliet.
For more details and show performance times, please visit sfopera.com.