Monday, July 09, 2012

Merola Singers Make Scenes

Nine of the 23 young opera singers who are part of this summer's Merola Opera training program offered their first public vocal display on Thursday evening at Herbst Theatre in four different extended opera scenes, and they were a uniformly strong voiced bunch. Erin Johnson and Melinda Whittington (above left to right) started the show acting up a storm and singing to the operatic rafters as Jane Seymour and Anna Bolena in the Donizetti opera. It seemed an over-ambitious assignment, since Anna Bolena is one of those roles like Bellini's Norma which you should tackle only when you're at the top of your career. It's rather like asking a young bass to sing Wotan's Farewell as an audition piece.

The same could be said of the title role of Boito's Mefistofole, sung by bass Andrew Kroes above left quite well but far short of what the role requires. Tenor Chuanyue Wang above right as Faust, however, was as good as anyone I have ever heard sing the part. He was the only vocalist of the evening who sounded like he could have walked onstage next door at the San Francisco Opera House without another ounce of seasoning.

Rather confusingly, after the Act I scene where Satan meets Faust, we jumped ahead to The Death of Margherita in Act Three, which was sung by Elizabeth Baldwin ardently in a what looked to be a sleeveless slip that had exploded, one of the most unflattering gowns I have ever seen on a young person. In fact, the costume designer didn't do any of the ladies any favors this evening, which certainly wasn't their fault.

After intermission, we were entertained by seven singers performing much of Act Two of the obscure Bizet opera La Jolie Fille de Perth. This is the Scotland Perth, by the way, not the Australian one, and the libretto takes place in the 14th century from a Sir Walter Scott tale, and makes very little sense. In the Schwabacher staging, which involved a lot of chairs with people slumped in them wearing masks and horrible side-lighting, the scene made even less sense than usual. At least there was a wonderful, bitter drunk aria by Hadleigh Adams above.

The final scene was from Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, where Satan's Nick Shadow comes to collect Tom Rakewell's soul in a graveyard but then somehow loses his own rigged card game. Nick was sung by Seth Mease Carico above, and not only was he perfectly sinister but Carico knows how to move beautifully onstage, creating the first gripping stage drama of the evening even though he was having to wend his way amongst a maze of upside down chairs.

All nine singers joined in for the Epilogue from the same opera, which was a smart, buoyant way to end the evening. The playing of the onstage San Francisco Opera Orchestra conducted by Giuseppe Finzi (above center) was superior all night, and even Donizetti's Roberto Devereaux overture at the beginning, with its God Save The Queen quotations, was great stuff.

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