Soprano Amina Edris (photograph by Cheshire Isaacs, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)
Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera (SFO) closed out its seven performances of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette with a casting change. The original plan had been that tenor Bryan Hymel would sing the role of Romeo with soprano Nadine Sierra as Juliet. However, when SFO announced Hymel’s withdrawal for personal reasons at the beginning of September, he was replaced by tenor Pene Pati, who had been scheduled to sing the role only at the final performance with soprano Amina Edris as his Juliet. Thus, the first six performances featured Pati and Sierra; and last night Pati sang his originally only scheduled performance with Edris, who happens to be his wife.
Like Pati, Edris held an SFO Adler Fellowship in 2016 and 2017; and the two of them had been preparing their respective roles when rehearsals first began. Pati then went on to develop his approach to the role during the performances with Sierra, and those who attended last night’s performance got to see him bring the fruits of that development back to his work with Edris.
For her part, there was a brief moment at the very beginning of her first appearance during which both pitch and dynamics were uncertain. However, that moment passed almost immediately. For the remainder of the evening, she inhabited the role with all the youthful vigor that Jules Barbier and Michel Carré brought to their French operatic perspective of William Shakespeare, while her vocal skills fit into every character trait displayed on the stage like a perfectly tailored glove. As those aware of her personal relationship may have anticipated, the chemistry between Romeo and Juliet could not have been more convincing.
As is often the case, my “second contact” with the production provided seating that allowed me to take in the activity in the orchestra pit. I had a much clearer sense of Abel’s consistently effective management of the balance between instrumental and vocal resources, particularly in the contentious moments that involve choruses of both Montagues and Capulets. One of the more solemn moments was allocated to a choir of cellos, making it clear that Gounod is often given too little credit for his technical foundations as a composer. I was also struck by how Barbier and Carré managed to distill from Shakespeare a narrative line entirely appropriate to an opera setting while, at the same time, injecting some of the best known text passages from the original source.
Finally, it is worth noting that the screen for titles projection began with an announcement that last night’s performance was dedicated to the memory of Jessye Norman, who died on September 30. I never heard Norman sing anything by Gounod, but I was always blown away whenever she sang a French text. I had the good fortune to encounter her in a public square in Aix-en-Provence the morning after having experienced her interpretation of the role of Phèdre in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie. It was almost impossible to keep from gushing, but she had a keen sense of how to be gracious in the presence of an enthusiastic fan. Last night’s audience gave warm acknowledgement to the dedication; and I, for one, appreciated the gesture.