Monday, August 24, 2009
Merola Opera Grand Finale 2009
The Merola Opera program wrapped up its twelve-week summer training program with a grand finale concert featuring its 24 graduates in scenes and arias from all over the repertory. (The onstage photos are by Kristen Loken Anstey Photography.)
Thanks to "apprentice stage director" Fernando Parra Borti (above), this was the best staged version of the annual concert I've seen. There were a few complaints that there wasn't enough movement in the various scenes, but I appreciated the lack of gimmicks and overacting that tend to pop up at these concerts. Plus, the stage-within-a-stage was not only beautiful but versatile enough to make for seamless entrances and exits for the succession of scenes that had nothing to do with each other. The only real clunkiness involved announcements over a loudspeaker by the stage manager with the names of who was going to be singing in the next installment. This wasn't Borti's fault, as it seemed the program insert listing the musical selections and their singers had gone missing in a storage room overnight, probably stolen by the Phantom of the Opera.
The concert started with one of the best all-purpose introductions imaginable with baritone Alexsey Bodanov (above) singing Tonio's Prologue in Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" where he introduces the audience to the performers with the line: "Evo piuttosto che le nostre povere gabbane" (Ah, think then, sweet people, when you behold us clad in our motley)." The performers were certainly a motley crew, ranging from a contralto to a countertenor, and for the most part they were very good and sometimes even splendid.
Definitely in the latter category was contralto Suzanne Hendrix (above left) who sang an aria from Handel's "Giulio Cesare" with an absolutely beautiful voice. She was followed by a duet from Strauss' "Arabella" with Susanna Biller (above right) singing Zdenka and Lori Guilbeau as Arabella. Though I'm not a big fan of the opera, the two of them sounded great and easily soared over the huge Strauss orchestra. Hendrix and Biller also teamed up with mezzo Maya Lahyani (above middle) for a scene from Berlioz' rarely done "Beatrice et Benedict," an opera I would love to see performed some day.
Lahyani also performed as Carmen with Brian Jagde as Don Jose (above). Her voice, stage deportment, and physical beauty are good enough that she's probably at risk of being typecast in that role for the rest of her career.
Because of the Merola program's structure, with its two staged operas at Fort Mason and two concerts with operatic scenes, some singers receive a lot of exposure and others get relatively little. This year it seemed that tenor Eleazar Rodriguez (above) was getting the shaft, with a tiny part in "L'Amico Fritz" and nothing more than a walk-on in the final ensemble. However, somebody must have decided this wasn't right, and he was a surprise addition to the program, singing a solo aria from Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio" that was fiendishly difficult. Though the performance was imperfect, Rodriguez's voice is special and his rendition was impressively beautiful.
I have to confess I'm not a big fan of countertenor voices with a few exceptions like Brian Asawa and David Daniels. Ryan Belongie (above), singing a florid aria from Handel's "Xerxes," joins that exceptional group with an honestly lovely voice.
The evening's biggest problem was that it went on too long at over three hours, and I wasn't exactly looking forward to the penultimate number, which was that old bore Alidoro's aria from "La Cenerentola" being sung to Ellie Jarrett. However, Michael Sumuel (above) turned out to have one of the most exciting voices of the entire concert. There aren't that many baritones in the world who can sing the ornamented music of Rossini convincingly, and Sumuel is one of them. In fact, he sounds ready to sing in any opera house in the world.
The evening ended brilliantly with the entire ensemble singing the finale from Verdi's "Falstaff," telling us that everything in the world is a jest. It was so well performed and conducted by Antony Walker that it made me want to see the whole opera immediately, a feeling shared by Janos Gereben (click here). I wonder if the San Francisco Opera still has that wonderful Jean-Pierre Ponelle production, or if it's gone the way of all old sets.