Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Merola's Intimate Marriage of Figaro

The Merola Opera Program's exile from Herbst Theatre this summer has been a godsend. The annual operatic training program moved their concerts temporarily to the auditorium at Everett Middle School at 16th and Church Streets. It's a beautiful building and the auditorium has unusually good acoustics, along with a slightly larger stage than Herbst or Fort Mason's Cowell theaters. There is no orchestra pit, but you can't have everything, and for orchestral fans sitting in the front row it is almost like being in the middle of the band.

The happiest result of the new hall involved two performances last week of Mozart's opera, The Marriage of Figaro. The San Francisco Opera House is a great venue for grand opera, but Handel and Mozart operas were not meant for huge halls, and productions of their operas often get lost on that big stage. A handsome, expansive production of The Marriage of Figaro by Sonja Frisell with sets and costumes by Zack Brown premiered at the Opera House in 1982, and it's been revived at least eight times over the decades. It's been looking a bit shabby lately, and may need to be replaced, but I have fond memories of some of its starry casts that included Hermann Prey, Lucia Popp, Samuel Ramey, Kiri Te Kanawa, Frederica von Stade, Wolfgang Brendel, Renee Fleming, Bryn Terfel, and so on. However, I don't think I have ever enjoyed that production as much as Merola's last week, partly because a small house is so perfect for this opera.

The individual singers all had their strengths and weaknesses, as students usually do, but the outstanding ensemble work made the whole production much more than the sum of its parts. The performers not only sang together in Mozart's endless array of duets, trios, quartets, and more-tets, but they also acted off each other's cues and body language. Robin Guarino's direction drew a viewer into the complicated plot with all its mistaken identities and hiding behind farcical doors, and made it funny and sad. (In the above production photos by Kristen Loken, the ensemble in no particular order is John Arnold, Maria Valdes, Thomas Richards, Daryl Freedman, Rihab Chaieb, Joseph Lattanzi, Casey Finnigan, Jacqueline Piccolino, Rhys Lloyd Talbot, Matthew Newlin, and Alisa Jordheim.)

The real star of the production was the 40-year-old conductor Xian Zhang above. She took the overture at breakneck speed, and didn't let things go slack for the next three and a half hours. The act two and act four ensembles are some of the most extraordinarily beautiful music Mozart ever wrote, and the singers, orchestra and conductor did themselves proud. I spent most of the fourth act in tears, something that has never happened with this opera in the big house with the big stars. Congratulations, everyone.

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