The Merola Opera Program announces the cancellation of the 2020 training program and Summer Festival, including all public performances, public master classes, and events scheduled, in accordance with local and global efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This is the first time in 63 years that San Francisco Opera's summer training program for singers, collaborative pianists, and directors has been canceled.
Merola Opera Program
Emily Blair, Hoffman Estates, Illinois
Catherine Goode, Friendswood, Texas
Magdalena Kuźma, New York, New York
Celeste Morales, San Antonio, Texas
Mikayla Sager, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Johanna Will, Dresden, Germany
Gabrielle Barkidjija, River Forest, Illinois
Gabrielle Beteag, Atlanta, Georgia
Jesse Mashburn, Hartselle, Alabama
Nikola Printz, Novato, California
Isabel Signoret, Miami, Florida
Victor Cardamone, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Gabriel Hernandez, Tampa, Florida
Philippe L'Esperance, Grafton, Massachusetts
WooYoung Yoon, Seoul, South Korea
Tianchi Zhang, Huainan, Anhui, China
Thomas Lynch, Lynbrook, New York
Samson McCrady, Tucson, Arizona
Laureano Quant, Barranquilla, Colombia
Ben Brady, Denver, Colorado
Andrew Dwan, Mountain View, California
Seungyun Kim, Cheong-ju, South Korea
Yang Lin, Shanghai, China
Michael McElvain, Chicago, Illinois
Anna Smigelskaya, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Shiyu Tan, Changsha, Hunan, China
Marika Yasuda, Williamsburg, Virginia
Apprentice Stage Director
Audrey Chait, Menlo Park, California
The Merola Opera Program announced participants for 2020, the last for San Francisco Opera Center Director Sheri Greenawald (pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken), who is also the Artistic Director of the program.
The Schwabacher Summer Concert at the Presidio Theatre (99 Moraga Avenue, San Francisco) is on Thursday, July 9 and Saturday, July 11.
The Merola artists perform Postcard from Morocco on Thursday, July 23 and Saturday, July 25 and Le nozze di Figaro on Thursday, August 6 and Saturday, August 8. All of these operas are to be performed at the Presidio Theatre.
The season ends with the participants singing in the annual Merola Grand Finale on Saturday, August 22 at the War Memorial Opera House.
The Merolini arrive June 2, 2020, though the COVID-19 situation is being monitored, and the season may be postponed or canceled as a result.
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.
* Notes *
Merola Opera Program's very first commission, If I Were You, premiered last night at Herbst Theatre. Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's opera certainly shows off the young singers voices but most impressive was Maestra Nicole Paiement at the helm of the orchestra.
The focus of Merola's performances is, of course, very much on the singers in the training program, and the orchestra often sounds less than perfect. Paiement had the musicians in the pit sounding formidable and together, and the shape of Heggie's sweeping lines were apparent.
The music is lyrical and showcased a great many beautiful voices, and the Faustian story fits the youth of the Merola participants (Cara Collins and Michael Day pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken). The main character, Fabian, is a young writer who makes a deal with the demon Brittomara to be able to move from one body to another, taking over other people's memories and selves. It is quite convoluted, and the singers did a fine job embodying the characters. I did not much like the sound of Fabian taking over a new body, it is supposed to be the sound of an electric shock but I couldn't help thinking it was like a big bug zapper killing insects.
From the very beginning mezzo-soprano Cara Collins is a charismatic Brittomara, her deep low notes and sparkling ones are ideal for a shape shifting spirit. Tenor Michael Day is a poignant Fabian, his voice has a lot of different hues and much strength as well.
We see Fabian inhabit six different bodies, from his boss Putnam, played by bass-baritone Rafael Porto to his love interest's best friend Selena, performed by soprano Patricia Westley. There were no weak links, these are all singing actors. It was particularly amusing to see baritone Timothy Murray as the brash, confident Paul. The contrast of "real" Paul with Fabian/Paul is very charming and funny.
Soprano Esther Tonea stood out as Diana. As Fabian's love interest, she starts off pretty mild, her voice has a lovely, pure sound. By Act II she has been through quite a lot, trying to piece together what is going on around her, and her performance is much more dramatic and powerful.
The production, directed by Keturah Stickann, effectively uses vertical space by having stage elements come up and down from the ceiling. The many scenes are seamless because of this and the projected video art that could put us in an auto body repair shop (pictured, photograph by Frank Wing) or book-filled apartment within seconds.
The opera has a second cast that performs tomorrow and August 6, and it is sure to be interesting to hear other singers in the principal roles. The opening cast returns on August 4.
* Tattling *
One of the people in Row F was convinced I was in his seat but his companion assured him that they needed to keep going.
There was light talking in the middle of Row G, at least one watch alarm marking 8pm, and the person next to me in Seat 108 checked the time on his phone right before the opera ended.
* Notes *
Last night the Merola Opera Program gave its first performance of the year with the Schwabacher Summer Concert at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The singing shows a lot of promise and there were many distinctive voices.
The evening started with Act I of La rondine (Chelsea Lehnea, Anna Dugan, Amber R. Monroe, and Alice Chung pictured; photograph by Kristen Loken). I was impressed how well matched the singers are. Sopranos Chelsea Lehnea (Yvette) and Anna Dugan (Bianca) along with mezzo-soprano Alice Chung (Suzy) made a lovely trio. Tenor Victor Starsky is clear and warm as Prunier, though he struggled with his lowest note at the end of the act, he is charming with the very cute Hyeree Shin as Lisette. Shin's voice, though not perfectly controlled, is perfectly light and bird-like. Best of all was certainly our Magda, soprano Amber R. Monroe, whose voice is icily incisive without a hint of ugliness and warm resonances throughout her range.
Chelsea Lehnea showed that she's another very fine soprano in Act I, Scene 4 of Lucia di Lammermoor. Her voice is very pretty and flexible, and she sang beautifully with the plaintive tenor Salvatore Atti as Edgardo.
After intermission we heard Act II, Scenes 3 and 4 of Die schweigsame Frau, and soprano Hyeree Shin sparkled as Aminta while bass Stefan Egerstrom countered her with much gravity. The banter in German was easy to discern. We also heard Act IV, Scenes 5 through 8 of Faust. The orchestra, particularly the horns, sounded fuzzy here. Conducted by Craig Kier, was as last year, upstage behind the singers, and again there were synchronization issues, most obviously in the Gounod and Puccini. Bass-baritone Andrew Dwan is a very loud and powerful Méphistophélès, while baritone Laureano Quant made for a passionate Valentin.
Merola certainly saved the best for last with an arresting finale of Il trovatore. The orchestra had lovely moments, especially in the strings. Soprano Anna Dugan (Leonora) has a delicate sound, a good contrast to the dastardly Il Conte di Luna of baritone Jeff Byrnes, whose volume is quite intense. Victor Starksy's tenor is bright and lucid, but the singer that really had me on edge and paying attention was mezzo-soprano Alice Chung, whose Azucena is strong and otherworldly.
* Tattling *
The audience very attentive and quiet. We saw at least three former Merolini in the audience, including tenor Pene Pati and soprano Amina Edris.
* Notes *
The first of two operas from the Merola Opera Program this summer is the rarity Il Re Pastore at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on July 19 and 21. The lighthearted production directed by Tara Faircloth suits the early Mozart very well, as do the young singers (pictured left, photograph by Kristen Loken). Maestro Stephen Stubbs conducted with warmth and kept everyone together.
The absurd plot of Il Re Pastore involves Alexander the Great (Alessandro) conquering the kingdom of Sidon, deposing a tyrant named Stratone, and reinstating the rightful heir Aminta, who has lived as a shepherd and has no idea that he is royalty. Alessandro wants the tyrant's daughter Tamiri to marry our titular pastoral king Aminta, but unfortunately he loves shepherdess Elisa, while Tamiri loves Agenore, a Sidonian aristocrat.
The cheery music is unmistakably Mozart's, even if he wrote it when he was only 19. The small orchestra is exposed, and there was a violin out of tune, but the conductor did a fine job keeping the singers and musicians together without being square and dull.
The set is essentially a staircase and two big curved walls covered in greenery on one side and stripes on the other. These were moved by male supernumeraries who were security for Alesssandro. Everything seemed to be mid-century, and the costumes very cunning. There were many sight gags, including topiary sheep, dancing with umbrellas, and throwing petals with deadly seriousness.
The singers, all with high, bright voices, were ebuillent. The part of Aminta was originally cast for a soprano castrato but was played here by female soprano Cheyanne Coss in men's wear. Coss has a clear sound that is well-grounded and her "L'amerò, sarò costante" in Act II was especially beautiful. Her Elisa, soprano Patricia Westley has a very different voice, though also sweet, has a metallic tang, and she both looked and sounded exceedingly girly. Mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh's Tamiri was winsome, her voice is brilliant and crystalline. Her Act II aria ""Se tu di me fai dono," in which she scolds Agenore for giving her away was one of the highlights of the evening.
Tenor Charles Sy has a plaintive voice which works for long-suffering Agenore, he is physically attacked in this production by both Elisa and Tamiri. Tenor Zhengyi Bai (Alessandro) also has a pretty voice, but definitely sounds different than Sy, more robust and with a great openness.
* Tattling *
A prominent Bay Area music critic had to be re-seated next to me in J 3 because his original seat was broken. Unfortunately, the people next to him in J 5 and 7 talked to the couple in front of them. He moved to another seat so that he could sit with his date after intermission, but so did the noisy pair that had been next to him.
A man in Row F Seat 101 put an earbud into his ear at some point in Act II and looked at his cellular phone for several minutes.
* Notes *
The Schwabacher Summer Concert at SFCM on Thursday kicked off the 2018 Merola Opera Program's season. This is when we get to hear the more unusual voices selected for this opera training program, the ones that didn't quite fit into the two operas that will be performed in July and August.
The most striking singers were definitely both sopranos. In the first half, soprano Marlen Nahhas gave a passionate account as Giorgetta in some rather passionate scenes from Puccini's Il tabarro. Her voice is searing. Tenor Christopher Colmenero (Luigi) sang "Hai ben ragione" with fire. Baritone Jaeman Yoon was suitably tormented as Michele, the texture of his sound was unsettling.
The star of the second half was certainly soprano Kendra Berentsen as Leila from Les pêcheurs de perles. Of the four operas that were excerpted, the selections from Bizet's opera were most scattered, parts from each act appear. So we got to hear the lovely "Comme autrefois dans la nuit" from Act II in which Leila realizes she loves Nadir and the bit in Act III when she tries to save her love but only angers Zurga. Berentsen really got to show off her emotional range. Both WooYoung Yoon (Nadir) and SeokJong Baek (Zurga) gave perfectly fine performances as well, and it was great to hear the famous duet from them.
The evening started with the first scene of Vanessa and ended with the last one from Don Giovanni. The orchestra, conducted by Kathleen Kelly, was upstage behind the singers, and there were serious synchronization problems, especially by the end. All our young singers are quite loud and in the rather small space. They very gamely put on masks and got up on furniture as directed by Aria Umezawa and the blasts of confetti (pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken) at the end were wonderful fun.
* Tattling *
The audience was attentive but certain people were unable to keep their thoughts to themselves.
Kendra Berentsen, Portland, Oregon
Cheyanne Coss, Eaton Rapids, Michigan
Marlen Nahhas, Houston, Texas
Brittany Nickell, Coral Springs, Florida
Patricia Westley, Santa Barbara, California
Meigui Zhang, Chengdu, China
Megan Grey, Cedar Falls, Iowa
Anne Maguire, Washougal, Washington
Simone McIntosh, Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Alexandra Urquiola, Bergenfield, New Jersey
Zhengyi Bai, Linyi, Shandong, China
Christopher Colmenero, Burlington, Vermont
Addison Marlor, Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Michael Moore, Cincinnati, Ohio
Christopher Oglesby, Woodstock, Georgia
Charles Sy, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
WooYoung Yoon, Seoul, South Korea
SeokJong Baek, Jeon-Ju, South Korea
Jacob Scharfman, Boston, Massachusetts
Jaeman Yoon, Seoul, South Korea
Xiaomeng Zhang, Wenzhou, China
Andrew Moore, Point Pleasant, New Jersey
Ted Pickell, El Dorado Hills, California
Kseniia Polstiankina Barrad, Kyiv, Ukraine
Annie Brooks, Seattle, Washington
Matthew Gemmill, Ames, Iowa
James Maverick, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Thomas Morris, Atlanta, Georgia
Apprentice Stage Director
Marcus Shields, Charleston, South Carolina
The Schwabacher Summer Concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music is on Thursday, July 5 and July 7 at Bing Hall.
The Merola artists perform Mozart's Il re pastore on Thursday, July 19 and Saturday, July 21 and Stravinsky's The Rake’s Progress on Thursday, August 2 and Saturday, August 4. All of these operas are to be performed at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
The season ends with the participants singing in the annual Merola Grand Finale (last year's performance pictured above, photograph by Kristen Loken) on Saturday, August 18 at the War Memorial Opera House.
* Notes *
The second set of opera performances from the Merola Opera Program this year was Rossini's La Cenerentola at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on August 3 and 5. The sugary sweet staging from Chuck Hudson showcased a plethora of fine young singers (pictured left, photograph by Kristen Loken) supported by conductor Mark Morash and a mostly competent orchestra.
The production featured three wardrobes moved around the stage by the male chorus, meant to look like the doors of various edifices. The costumes were slightly baffling, the male chorus members wore moto jeans splattered with paint and none of the women's clothing seemed to have sleeves. The choreography involved a lot of voguing.
But as usual for Merola, the voices were preeminent, and even the smallest roles are filled by very strong talents. Soprano Natalie Image, Clorinda, one of the step-sisters, has an especially gorgeous voice, and one would love to hear her sing more. The trio of bass-baritones were all strong. Szymon Wach sounded lovely as Alidoro, Christian Pursell made for a dashing, pretty voiced Dandini, and Andrew Hiers was a perfectly silly Don Magnifico.
Anthony Ciaramitaro has a sweet-toned tenor suited for Prince Ramiro, contrasting well with mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey's dusky sound. Hankey has a fabulous physicality that Ciaramitaro obviously lacks, she moves in an elastic and adorable way that made the cloying title role much more sympathetic.
* Tattling *
I was so sad to learn that long-time opera supporter John Lindstrom died a few weeks before the performances, which were dedicated to his memory.
* Notes *
The Merola Opera Program presented a triple bill of Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona, Holst's Sāvitri, and Walton's The Bear at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on July 20 and 22. It came off as a deadly boring tragedy sandwiched by cutesy frills, perhaps because of Peter Kazaras' staging. But as always, the singers were almost all great.
La Serva Padrona ("The Servant Turned Mistress") is a light, bubbly piece, only 45 minutes long. Full of sight gags, the production did get a lot of laughs, from the popcorn eating of mute Vespone (played by David Wiegel) at the start to the fake parrot on his shoulder when he pretends to be a very pirate-like Tempesta near the end. Jana McIntyre's Serpina was sassy and stylish, her sound is bright. As Uberto, Daniel Noyola was perfectly hapless, and his voice has a pleasant weight to it.
Sāvitri was staged in a stark, static manner, it dragged a bit for being so short, a mere 40 minutes or so. The title role sounded challenging for Kelsea Webb, though she has a big voice. The men, David Wiegel as Death and Addison Marlor as Satyavān, fared better. Wiegel's sound is deep and grave, and such a stark contrast to his role in the previous opera.
Of the three pieces, The Bear (pictured above, photograph by Kristen Loken) was most successful, though also staged in a silly and quaint way. Daniel Noyola was hardly recognizable as servant Luka. Bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum has an impressive stage presence, and delighted as Smirnov, while mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon was a convincing Popova.
* Tattling *
The audience was fairly quiet, though the person on my right elbowed me many times during the first opera as he took notes (he was left-handed), and I had nowhere to shift away, until the next opera, when the lady next to me was notably absent.
June 11 2017: Merola Opera Program 60th Anniversary Gala & Concert
July 6-9 2017: Schwabacher Summer Concert
July 20-22 2017: La Serva Padrona/ Savitri/ The Bear
August 3-5 2017: La Cenerentola
August 19 2017: Merola Grand Finale
The Merola Opera Opera program announced its 60th anniversary season this afternoon at the John M. Bryan Education Studio in San Francisco.
Merola is commissioning its first work, If I Were You, by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer. The opera, based on the novel by Julien Green, is slated for the 2019 season.
* Notes *
Conrad Susa's Transformations was performed by the Merola Opera Program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last night. Neal Goren conducted the jazz and pop influenced score with aplomb, the music sounded idiomatic. The production from Roy Rallo was very consistent with his style.
The piece is based on ten poems by Anne Sexton, from her book also entitled Transformations. The work consists of re-tellings of Grimm fairy tales, which are already rather dark, and take on an even more sinister meaning here Sexton is wry and very disturbing. Susa's music spreads the lines between eight singers who sing up to thirteen characters a piece. There's a surprising amount of singing together, which is quite nice.
Rallo's production is not, as far as I could tell, in a psychiatric hospital, its normal setting. Act I used only the downstage, everything else hidden behind a white curtain, and looked to be someone's living room with white Rococo style couch and cabinet, with a pink kitchen area stage left. In Act II a cave of grey plastic is revealed, and the couch turned around. As in Rallo's 2011 Barbiere for Merola, there was a lot of tinsel used. Tinsel stands in for Rapunzel's hair and for Rumpelstiltskin's straw spun into gold. The direction had a fair amount of slap-stick to it, a whole apple held in the mouth of Snow White to signify the apple stuck in her throat (pictured above, photograph by Kristen Loken) and straw thrown at the head of the miller's daughter.
The chamber format of the opera and its many parts makes it a good fit for Merola. Unfortunately lead soprano Shannon Jennings, who plays Anne Sexton, was ill. She did remarkably well in Act I, though sang with some strain. Her part was taken over in the pit by Mary Evelyn Hangley, but Jennings continued on stage, acting and mouthing the words.
Soprano Teresa Castillo was a game Princess and Gretel. Mezzo Chelsey Geeting as a plush, lovely sound as the Good Fairy and Witch. Tenor Boris Van Druff was very creepy as Rumpelstiltskin. Also impressive was baritone Andrew G. Manea as Iron Hans.
* Tattling *
The audience was fairly quiet. There was noticeable attrition after the intermission.
Adelaide Boedecker, Sarasota, Florida
Sarah Cambidge, Vancouver, Canada
Teresa Castillo, Denver, Colorado
Yelena Dyachek, Vinnytsya, Ukraine
Mary Evelyn Hangley, Long Beach, New York
Shannon Jennings, Orlando, Florida
Jana McIntyre, Santa Barbara, California
Tara Curtis, Kansas City, Missouri
Chelsey Geeting, Portland, Maine
Taylor Raven, Fayetteville, North Carolina
Alexandra Schenck, Long Beach, California
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, Brooklyn, New York
Isaac Frishman, Omaha, Nebraska
Josh Lovell, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Brian Michael Moore, Cincinnati, Ohio
Amitai Pati, Auckland, New Zealand
Boris Van Druff, Olean, New York
Kyle van Schoonhoven, Lockport, New York
Andrew G. Manea, Troy, Michigan
Nicholas Boragno, Newport Beach, California
Cody Quattlebaum, Ellicott City, Maryland
Josh Quinn, Tampa, Florida
Matthew Anchel, New York, New York
Jonathan Brandani, Lucca, Italy
John Elam, Cleburne, Texas
Noah Palmer, Baltimore, Maryland
Nicolò Sbuelz, Udine, Italy
Jennifer Szeto, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Apprentice Stage Director
Aria Umezawa, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
The Schwabacher Summer Concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music is on Thursday, July 7. The free outdoor afternoon Schwabacher will be held at Yerba Buena Gardens on Saturday, July 9.
The Merola artists perform Conrad Susa's Transformations on Thursday, July 21 and Saturday, July 23 and Mozart's Così fan tutte on Thursday, August 4 and Saturday, August 6. All of these operas are to be performed at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
The season ends with the participants singing in the annual Merola Grand Finale on Saturday, August 20 at the War Memorial Opera House.
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.
* Notes *
Don Pasquale was performed by the Merola Opera Program at Cowell Theater recently. Warren Jones conducted a swift and lively performance on Saturday afternoon. The production from Nic Muni was entertaining but not entirely coherent.
Muni's direction involved the action taking place on a film set, complete with tempestuous starlet and mollifying director that appear between scenes in the middle of Act I. The author of the screenplay is Ernesto, while Norina is a cleaning lady behind the scenes.
In Act II, for some reason Norina takes the leading role while the starlet, director, and others observe. The garden scene of Act III has many of the extra characters dressed in green, with green stockings over their faces. This does not connect to the earlier action in a meaningful way, though it was amusing.
Of course the main attraction of any Merola performance is the singing, which was impressive and rather loud. Soprano Amina Edris (Norina) has a voice as clear as a bell, and she was able to characterize her part as Sofronia with a distinctive shrill sound. Tenor Soonchan Kwon makes for an endearing Ernesto, but seemed to struggle with intonation during Act III. Baritone Alex DeSocio was a robust and funny Dr. Malatesta. Bass-baritone James Ioulu likewise was strong in the title role and did a fine job with the patter.
* Tattling *
There were squeaking electronics for much of the first half, but this was resolved for the second. As usual there were seagulls heard. Also audible was a small child fishing with his father just outside the theater.