Future opera stars performing now
by Philip Campbell
The 2016 Merola Opera Summer Festival opened last week with a beautifully prepared Schwabacher Summer Concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Ten Merola young artists selected from the 23 chosen from the US and four other countries to participate in the prestigious Opera Program made a terrific first impression on a large and enthusiastic audience.
Performing extended scenes from six stylistically varied operas, the young singers made good on their promise with substantial vocal assurance and surprising acting skills. Simply and cleverly directed by Omer Ben Seadia, with a design team including subtly coordinated costumes by Christopher Verdosci, effective lighting by Jax Messenger, and hair/wigs and makeup by Marcello Donari, the physical production could not have run smoother.
Staged with only two set pieces – a tree for the first half, and a bed for the second – the show moved effortlessly through scenes ranging from the florid Baroque of Handel's Serse to the astringent Neoclassicism of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, the Wagnerian Romanticism of Lohengrin and the death-defying coloratura of Rossini's farcical Le Comte Ory . Conductor Eric Weimer showed a confident capability with wide-ranging repertoire, discreetly supporting the singers while producing a rich and detailed orchestral sound.
After a sparkling Overture from Serse , Brooklyn countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen immediately grabbed attention with a pitch-perfect rendition of the famous opening aria "Ombra mai fu." Act I, Scenes 1-6 of the Handel score also introduced other singers who would reappear throughout the concert, but Cohen rightfully seized the spotlight with his one big opportunity to shine. Many find the countertenor voice an acquired taste; the young New Yorker, with his strong and vibratoless tone, should help win new fans.
Canadian tenor Josh Lovell, bass-baritone Nicholas Boragno (Newport Beach, CA) and Kansas City, MO mezzo-soprano Tara Curtis were offered more appearances throughout the night, and they got off to a fine start with Act II, Scenes 1 & 3 from the dryly cynical Stravinsky set. Lovell proved a vocally pleasing and comedically adept Tom Rakewell. The attractive young singer appeared to even greater effect in the title role of Le Comte Ory later in the show. Fresh and energetic, he made an indelible mark.
Likewise, Nicholas Boragno used his good looks and resonant voice to impress as the devil Nick Shadow. Sardonic and cool, he was memorable and recognizable even as he shifted gears in several smaller roles in other scenes.
Good sport Tara Curtis wore a beard as Baba the Turk and allowed the Rake to humiliate her as she prattled on in character. The talented mezzo-soprano got her casting revenge later, giving a stunning tour de force portrayal of the tortured Mother Superior in Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites.
Soprano Mary Evelyn Hangley (Long Beach, NY) got her star moment as the titular Arabella by Richard Strauss. Her focused tone and graceful stage presence made her reflective aria from Act I a special highlight.
Arguably, the biggest guns were brought out for Act III, Scene 2 of Wagner's Lohengrin. Opening the second half of the bill, Canadian soprano Sarah Cambidge (Elsa) and tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven (Lohengrin) from Lockport, NY filled their taxing responsibilities with apparent ease. Powerful force and heroic lyricism are a difficult pairing, but van Schoonhoven seemed unfazed by the dry acoustic of the Conservatory auditorium, and he thrilled with his full-throated and sweet tone. Cambidge matched him with a bright voice, free of shrillness and charged with emotion.
The evening's finale sparkled with the technique and comic abandon required by Rossini's Le Comte Ory, Act II, Nos. 11 & 12. After singing smaller parts earlier in the concert, soprano Jana McIntyre (Santa Barbara, CA) engaged in a tug of war for vocal supremacy, with Josh Lovell playing the title character. Let's call it a draw. Both drew hearty cheers from the audience and they were equally charming, even if McIntyre's agility was truly breathtaking.
Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven from Fayetteville, NC, also joined in the romp and made other notable contributions throughout the show. Her first appearance in Serse was especially fine, and her pleasing tone has a nice edge.
The wealth of talent on display certainly validated the legendary Merola Program's worth, and it also affords a lot of fun, getting an early look at future stars. Some famous alums (in no particular order) include the likes of Patricia Racette, Leona Mitchell, Carol Vaness, Rolando Villazon, Dolora Zajick, Anna Netrebko, Joyce DiDonato and the late lamented countertenor Brian Asawa.
Next up in the Summer Festival lineup is gay composer Conrad Susa's setting of poet Anne Sexton's take on the Brothers Grimm, Transformations . Susa's writing is self-described as ranging from Bach and Samuel Barber to Bossa Nova. Performers from the 2016 Merola Program not heard in the Schwabacher Concert will sing in the intriguing work being staged at the SF Conservatory July 21 & 23.
Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte will be fully staged Aug. 4 & 6 at the Conservatory, and the whole ambitious season ends with the Merola Grand Finale at the War Memorial Opera House on Aug. 20. San Francisco has always been an opera town, and the performers found and nurtured by the Merola Opera Program are wonderful insurance of a bright future.