The Merola Opera summer training program presented an ambitious triple bill of one-act operas last weekend at the SF Conservatory of Music, and the highlight was the quality of the aspiring professional singers themselves. First up was Pergolesi's 1733 comedy La Serva Padrona about a female servant's maneuvers to have her boss marry her so she can become mistress of the household. Pictured above are David Weigel as a mute servant, soprano Jana McIntyre as the scheming Serpina, and bass-baritone Daniel Noloya as the dim Uberto. Both McIntyre and Noloya have terrific voices, moved well onstage, and made you realize why the trivial La Serva Padrona has been popular for centuries, with one great tune after another.
David Weigel returned with a rich, bottomless bass-baritone as Death in the second opera, Gustav Holst's wondrously spare chamber opera, the 1908 Savitri. Taken from an episode in the Mahābhārata, the simple tale has Death taking away the woodcutter Satyavan (tenor Addison Marlor above sounding splendid) and his wife Savitri's successful plea for Death to spare his life. The director decided on a concept production that took place in England during World War One where the piece was premiered in 1916, which didn't make a lot of sense, particularly with the anachronistic flapper dress on soprano Kelsea Webb. Festival Opera presented the piece in Oakland a couple of years ago and it was deeply moving, but the staging here was static and dull.
The final opera was William Walton's 1966 adaptation of a short Chekhov play (which he referred to as a vaudeville), The Bear. The score is closer to Facade, the parody pastiche that Walton composed in the 1920s to Edith Sitwells's poems than his more "serious" works that followed, and it was a treat to see it for the first time. Mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon was delightful as a recent Russian widow whose ostentatious mourning is interrupted by bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum as a misogynist neighbor who is owed money by her late husband. There is a quarrel which leads to a thwarted duel which leads to a kiss which leads to humping on the floor in this production. Quattlebaum was wild, woolly and sounded great, and Daniel Noyola returned to play the old servant who is trying to encourage his mistress to get out of the house.
The conducting by Christopher Ocasek (above right) was lively all afternoon, and particularly good in the Walton. The direction by Peter Kazaras (above left) was not so fine, with La Serva Padrona and The Bear overstuffed with shtick when they should both be comic souffles. The performers managed to overcome much of the nonsense through sheer charm.