As another The Merola Grand Finale (pictured left, photograph by Kristen Loken) marked the end of the San Francisco Opera Center's training program this year last night. This is a chance to hear everyone after weeks of work and to speculate on who might be chosen to come back to be part of San Francisco Opera's apprentice program as Adler Fellows in 2016.
As such, it is always fascinating to hear how the voices have developed, but it presupposes, perhaps, a certain amount of knowledge and interest in singers. The singing is strong, these are among the best out there, having gone through tough auditions. It is also when we get to see the apprentice stage director's work, in this case, Mo Zhou.
It is striking that each year this young artists program of people between the ages of 20 to 34 attracts a rather elderly viewership. Many of the younger people seen in the audience for Merola performances seem to be singers or employees of the opera. Of course, this is not lost on the administration of Merola, and there was only recently an outreach event at Chez Poulet in Bernal Heights the previous Thursday.
As described to me, the event was a mixer for people with an interest in opera, there were young opera singers there, drinks, and 80s music. One of the biggest barriers to going to arts events is not having anyone to go with, so certainly this makes sense. However, at the intermission of the Merola Grand Finale, as an aged opera neophyte seated next to me asked if I was able to follow what was going on, it occurred to me this was not the best experience for those without a lot of background in opera already.
Since the program is designed to showcase the voices of the Merola participants, the assortment of pieces is eclectic and we are dropped into different scenes of all sorts of operas in a variety of languages. We heard selections from no less than 15 operas in French, German, Italian, Russian, and English.
Stage director Mo Zhou used what looked to be the set for Sweeney Todd. Her production made much use of umbrellas, a bird cage with a candle in it, and red roses. This did not help much in explaining the action to someone unfamiliar with the operas at hand, but definitely showed her point of view and aesthetic.
The evening was not terribly consistent. There were times when the orchestra and singers became off track entirely, most noticeably in "Vy tak pyechalni... Ya vas lyublyu" from Queen of Spades and "Condotta ella in ceppi" from Il Trovatore. There were many intonation problems from the singers.
On the other hand, there was much singing that impressed. Toni-Marie Palmertree was arresting as Medora in "Non so le tetre immagini" from Verdi's Il Corsaro. Her voice is exquisite and she stood out as the Sandman in a scene from Hansel und Gretel in the second half of the night.
Both Michael Papincak and Alex DeSocio did well with scenes from Jake Heggie's Moby Dick. Papincak seems suited for the role of Ahab, which makes him quite a rarity, given that so few people have this vocal type. DeSocio sounded solid as Starbuck.
The high point of the performance came with Raehann Bryce-Davis (Santuzza) and Kihun Yoon (Alfio) in "Oh, il signore vi manda" from Cavalleria Rusticana. The evocative singing had a palpable reality, both singers utterly present in the moment.
* Tattling *
Surrounded by music critics, there was not much bad behavior in my immediate vicinity, other than the aforementioned confused person in Row L Seat 5, who was vocal and counted in German during "Papagena! Papagena!." There were lots of cellular phone rings heard whenever a particular piece did not have heavy orchestration.