Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Merola Grand Finale 2016
The Merola Program, San Francisco's summer opera boot camp for aspiring young professionals from around the globe, wrapped up its season with their annual Grand Finale concert at the San Francisco Opera House last Saturday. 23 vocalists sang arias and duets over a professional orchestra, and as usual the event felt like it went as long as Wagner's Götterdämmerung, but at least it was a fun Götterdämmerung. The talents onstage ranged from the good to the not-quite-up-to-snuff to the spectacularly talented, and half the fun was making up your mind which was which, a completely subjective endeavour. Following are a few of my favorite people. (All photos by Kristen Loken.)
Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen gave a ravishingly beautiful account of Orfeo's scena with Eurydice (the lovely soprano Teresa Castillo) when he unfortunately looks back during Gluck's Orfeo ed Eurice. Cohen has a great future ahead of him in the odd repertory for male sopranos that includes early music and contemporary operas.
New Zealand tenor Amitai Pati, as he demonstrated during his wonderful performance as Ferrando in Cosi Fan Tutte earlier this summer, has a smallish, exquisitely on-pitch tenor that is unforced and beautiful. The selections for the various performers are always weird, a mixture of old chestnuts and total obscurities like the scene from Berlioz's Beatrice et Benedict above with Pati and mezzo soprano Alexandra Schenck as the quarreling Shakespearean lovers.
Pati returned for one of those old chestnuts with baritone Andrew G. Manea, singing the famous bromance duet, Au fond du temple saint from Bizet's Les Pecheurs de Perles. There is certain operatic music that benefits from young, unhardened voices while others profit from an older, more developed edge, and the Bizet duet turned out to be a perfect vehicle for the former. This was the most beautiful rendition of the duet I have ever heard live, and much of the reason was the sense of innocence and the sheer beauty of Pati's voice and phrasing.
Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven and soprano Mary Evelyn Hangley sang a long scena from Donizetti's Anna Bolena, and this was a case of an opera that profits from older, more seasoned singers. I liked the voices of both sopranos very much, especially during an earlier Schwabacher concert, but this difficult piece didn't particularly bring out the best in either of them.
Soprano Yelena Dyachek with tenor Brian-Michael Moore sang a duet from Flotow's Martha, which was depressing because Dyachek has one of the most extraordinary young voices I have ever heard and Martha, at least from the evidence of this scene, is dreck. She was also in the earlier Merola production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, in the lead role of Fiordiligi, a performance that reminded me of Carol Vaness in her early 20s singing Vitellia in Mozart's La Clemenza de Tito. What both performances shared was an ability to sing fiendishly difficult music as simply and naturally as if one was warbling to oneself before breakfast. I envy everyone at the Houston Opera, where Dyachek is headed to join their young artist program, because she has what can be called a porno voice. There are plenty of singers with pretty voices and plenty of singers with huge voices, but they very rarely coincide in the same person. Dyachek is one of those special combos, and her musical instincts are good besides.
Tenor Kyle van Schoohoven sang a huge aria from Wagner's early opera Rienzi, and though he's not quite ready for heldentenor prime time, he's just about there. Plus, the student stage director Aria Umezawa gave him six supernumerary women with candles to do fun movement around him, and it worked well as did most of the rest of her staging with minimal props, schtick or sets.
Baritone Cody Quattlebaum sang Guglielmo in that already legendary Merola Cosi Fan Tutte this summer with Dyechka and Pati. In the Grand Finale, he sang There's a law, a weird, sexist aria from Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti that he managed to fill with charm. He arrived onstage with a manbun and halfway through pulled out the restraints and let his long hair down. Quattlebaum has a lovely baritone and stage charisma to burn.