Beautiful singing from the Class of 2017
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The Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music was packed last week with friends, colleagues and cheering family members for the Schwabacher Summer Concert. Named in memory of Merola Opera Program's late Chairman James Schwabacher, the annual event also served as a joyous kick-off for Merola's 2017 Summer Festival.
Featuring simply and effectively staged scenes by director David Lefkowich from Mascagni's "Cavalleria rusticana," Douglas Moore's "The Ballad of Baby Doe," Massenet's "Thais," von Weber's "Der Freischuetz," Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia," and Kurt Weill's "Street Scene," the cavalcade satisfied both as an exciting showcase for new talent and also as a really big and well-executed show.
Conductor Anne Manson led a skilled and beautifully prepared orchestra through the highly varied scores, providing a rich and supportive backdrop for the impressive array of young singers, all bursting with energy and eager to perform.
And perform they did, with confidence and thrilling vocal power. The long but fast-moving concert built to fever pitch with impassioned scenes from French and Italian composers in the second half, finished off by an all-American (immigrant) ode to ice cream from "Street Scene," by Langston Hughes, Elmer Rice (lyrics) and Kurt Weill (music). Versatility and ease with contrasting performance styles are important aspects of the Merola training. The sheer variety of the recent bill offered an engaging chance to witness the early promise of the Class of 2017.
Right out of the gate, mezzo-soprano Alice Chung (Loma Linda, CA) dominated Scenes 2 and 3 from Act I of "The Ballad of Baby Doe" with her steady and warmly produced tone. Her bitter reaction to betrayal by her husband (handsome, assured Canadian baritone Dimitri Katotakis) was touchingly convincing. As her errant spouse, Katotakis first sang with ardent eloquence to the titular heroine, soprano Kendra Berentson (Portland, OR). Her rendition of "The Willow Song," was both tender and sweet. The attraction between the pair was easily understood.
Berentson was a more artful coquette in Act II, Scenes 8 and 9 from "Der Freischuetz." Her bright sound was a perfect foil for darker-toned soprano Felicia Moore (Princeton, NJ) as Agathe. Moore won a knockout in the third round, filling the dry acoustics of the Hall with a limpid tone that still bloomed with color.
Soprano Alexandra Razskazoff (New Brighton, MN) was another standout as the title-villainess in Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia." Her coloratura skills were tested and proved in music from Act I, as her character chanced upon her unwitting son Gennaro.
Tenor Andres Acosta (Miami, FL) sang robustly and with intense pathos as the boy faced with the legendary poisoner. Both attractive singers made the potentiality of incest seem a little less repellant â€" only in grand opera with persuasive performers.
After a congenial intermission, the party ramped up for dramatic scenes from Massenet's sensuously perfumed "Thais" and Mascagni's verismo shocker "Cavalleria rusticana." The last time I heard "Thais," legendary and beloved soprano Beverly Sills was tearing up the stage of the War Memorial Opera House. I realize I am aging myself, remembering her indelibly etched late-career portrayal, but I am happy to report, soprano Mathilda Edge (Chandlerville, IL) nailed her own characterization of the doomed courtesan and admittedly, she is more age-appropriate for the part. Edge's confrontation with the tormented monk Athanael (baritone Thomas Glass, Edina, MN) from Act II not only vindicated La Sills', but also my own guilty-pleasure admiration of the work. Massenet's melodic charms are seductive, and Edge added her pure voice and alluring stage presence to create a believable portrait.
Glass sang with strong commitment from his side of the moral divide, to make his vaguely ridiculous character sympathetic.
Choosing the "Easter Sunday" scene from "Cavalleria rusticana" to go next proved a wise decision. Only Mascagni's steamily overheated drama could top the agitated passion of Massenet. Alice Chung returned to center stage as Santuzza, and wowed the rapt audience again with another display of vocal radiance. Chinese tenor Xingwa Hao was a clarion-voiced Turiddu. Alexandra Razskazoff also returned to impress as the sultry Lola. The trio made us long to hear them in the entire score. There was a palpable sense of accomplishment in their excerpted scene, and judging by the tumultuous audience response, everyone felt the same.
Merola affords invaluable "on the job" training for new singers. Celebrated singers like the late-lamented "Bubbles" herself have endorsed the program, and the Schwabacher concert was a great example of its worth.