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Future stars of the opera stage

by Philip Campbell

Merola Opera Program's Schwabacher Summer Concert featured baritone Xiaomeng Zhang performing the title role in scenes from Mozart's "Don Giovanni." Photo: Kristen Loken
Merola Opera Program's Schwabacher Summer Concert featured baritone Xiaomeng Zhang performing the title role in scenes from Mozart's "Don Giovanni." Photo: Kristen Loken  

In the good old summertime, San Francisco music-lovers can always rely on the Merola Opera program to uphold a celebrated tradition, selecting, training and showcasing young singers. Last week, the newest class of gifted campers got the 61st season off and running with the Schwabacher Summer Concert at SF Conservatory of Music and Stanford's Bing Concert Hall in Palo Alto.

Director Aria Umezawa provided some clever stagecraft to imaginatively stitch together full scenes from a wide range of operas. Galen Till supplied subtle costume designs, and Eric Watkins' lighting design was effective. Conductor Kathleen Kelly led the well-balanced orchestra from behind the playing area, giving the performers rich additional support.

Versatility and ease with contrasting performance styles are important aspects of Merola training. The sheer variety of the recent bill offered an engaging chance to witness the promise of the class of 2018. There were a few unsteady moments and a couple of broken notes along the way, but nothing to detract from the overall feeling of euphoria, or which couldn't be chalked up to opening-night nerves.

Spotting exciting talent and enjoying polished productions are guaranteed, and there are always a few early standouts that prove the enduring success of the program. Audience interest for the two fully staged operas to come and the always thrilling Merola Grand Finale is assured.

Act I, Scene 1 from Samuel Barber's "Vanessa," libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti (his almost-lifelong partner) seemed a rather dark choice to open the concert, but the composer's soaring lines certainly offered a quick introduction to the singers' capabilities.

In the title role, soprano Brittany Nickell (Coral Springs, FL) brought a bright, manic edge to her characterization. She was nicely balanced by mezzo-soprano Megan Grey (Cedar Falls, IA) as Vanessa's niece Erika. She is one of those poised early standouts we delight in. Tenor Brian Michael Moore (Cincinnati, OH) as Anatol, son of Vanessa's long-lost love, also made a strong impression with his ardent and clarion tone. In the smaller role of the Major Domo, bass-baritone Andrew Moore (Point Pleasant, NJ) still managed to alert us to an exceptionally even and rich voice.

Scenes from Puccini's verismo "Il tabarro" really let the singers go full-throttle. There's nothing like a big Italian melodrama to get the vocal chords opened up. If relationships between the characters could only be partially explained in the abbreviated staging, their hot-blooded emotions were molto evidente.

Soprano Marlen Nahhas (Houston, TX) was well-cast as the conflicted Giorgetta, blending sensuality with passion. Megan Grey was back to give endearing insight to the less-complicated Frugola, matched for warmth by Andrew Moore as her husband Talpa. Tenor Christopher Colmenero (Burlington, VT) was convincing as Giorgetta's seducer Luigi, contrasting perfectly with baritone Jaeman Yoon (Seoul, South Korea) as her suspicious husband Michele.

After intermission, selections from all three acts of Bizet's melodious "Les pecheurs de perles" ("The Pearl Fishers") offered highlights that allowed further opportunities for the singers to shine.

Soprano Kendra Berentsen (Portland, OR) was fine as the heroine Leila. Her strong singing in the higher register has a satisfying lower range, and she also shows talent as an actress (another big part of Merola training).

Tenor WooYoung Yoon (Seoul, South Korea) as her true love Nadir, and baritone SeokJong Baek (Jeon-Ju, North Jeolla, South Korea) as his friend Zurga (Leila's intended) paired for a thrilling rendition of the famous duet "Au fond du temple saint" ("At the back of the holy temple"). They offered the kind of power and sheer beauty of tone that signal success. Both are obviously on the brink of big careers.

The long but briskly paced concert closed with Act II, Scene 13 of Mozart's "Don Giovanni." Baritone Xiaomeng Zhang (Wenzhou, Zhejiang, China) was terrific in the title role, and his suitably cowering servant Leporello was amusingly portrayed by Andrew Moore. Both filled the Conservatory Concert Hall to the rafters and beyond with steady and youthful strength.

Jaeman Yoon was back to sing a frightening Commendatore. Brittany Nickell and Marlen Nahhas were excellent as Donna Anna and Donna Elvira. Kendra Berentsen was a sweet Zerlina, and SeokJong Baek got another chance to let his tenor ring as her Masetto. Brian Michael Moore was just right as Don Ottavio.

The moralistic close to the opera itself is also something of a happy ending for the survivors, and the Merolini still left standing by Mozart and his librettist DaPonte assembled for the big finish - with Merola apprentice coaches as game supernumeraries firing confetti guns!

The Merola 2018 season continues with fully staged productions of Mozart's "Il re pastore" and Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" later in July and early August. The Grand Finale at the War Memorial Opera House is Aug. 18. All events offer more opportunities to meet all of this year's participants and the real fun of catching a rising star.


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