Last night's Merola Grand Finale showcased a variety of strong voices from the set of San Francisco Opera's upcoming Billy Budd. The stage direction certainly had a ton of ideas and I especially enjoyed hearing the singers cast in the contemporary opera this summer sing more standard repertoire.
Apprentice stage director Greg Eldridge started the evening with different singers as the opening chorus of Shakespeare's Henry V. He did a lot to connect one aria or ensemble to another by having singers enter before their scene or linger afterward. The most successful example of this was having baritone Edward Laurenson in drag come out with the Merola ladies for Dialogues des Carmélites (Esther Tonea, Anne-Marie MacIntosh, Elisa Sunshine, Patricia Westley, and Amber R. Monroe pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken). Laurenson hides in the back, and when the women exit, he launches into Don Alfonso's "Non son cattivo comico" from Così fan tutte.
Soprano Esther Tonea returns shortly after to sing "L'abito di Ferrando" and her clear, clean sound was gorgeous. I really liked hearing her sing Diana in Jake Heggie's If I Were You, and it was nice to hear that she can sing Mozart so well also. The same goes for her Ferrando, tenor Michael Day, who was Fabian in the opening night cast of the Heggie. Their duet, "Fra gli amplessi," was lovely and very consistent.
Another strong moment of the evening followed directly after, a scene from Donizetti's Maria Stuarda (pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken). Soprano Chelsea Lehnea gave a regal and bloodthirsty portrayal of Elisabetta in "E pensi? e tardi" and tenor Salvatore Atti gave an impassioned, plaintive performance as Conte di Leicester while bass-baritone Rafael Porto was deliciously evil as Lord Cecil. Lehnea certainly has some great high notes.
The second half of the program started with a charming scene from La fille du régiment, bass-baritone Andrew Dwan as a funny Sulpice with the very aptly named soprano Elisa Sunshine as a bright, sparkly Marie.
It was amusing to hear "In einen Wäschkorb?...Wie freu' ich mich" from Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, Laurenson (Fluth) and Porto (Falstaff) were cute and their German diction was easy to understand.
One of the best performances of the evening came from mezzo-soprano Alice Chung (pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken) as Gertrude in Thomas' Hamlet. Her voice is simply vivid and I loved hearing her sing "Hamlet, ma douleur est immense." Baritone Tim Murray held up well as Hamlet, their interaction seemed genuine.
Before the finale from Verdi's Falstaff, which ended the evening, Shakespeare reared his head again, this time Puck's closing lines of Midsummer Night's Dream.
* Tattling *
We sat in Row E of the orchestra level, which is rather close to the stage. Most of the audience members were quiet, though I did hear a cellular phone directly behind me, during Verdi's La traviata, right before intermission and an alarm at a quiet moment of Hamlet.
I was also challenged to a duel by a classical music critic, who asked "Swords or pistols?" after I expressed my love of Gounod's Faust.