Merola Grand Finale showcases talent
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San Francisco's Merola Opera Program, known for selecting and intensively training some of the most promising young talent in the world, recently finished its 2018 Summer Festival with a Grand Finale at the War Memorial Opera House. The famous organization's 61st season welcomed 23 singers, five apprentice coaches and an apprentice stage director to the encampment, kicking off for audiences with the annual Schwabacher Summer Concert, followed by two fully-staged operas, including a Mozart rarity and Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
The Merola Grand Finale feels like a deluxe commencement ceremony, with the astonishing graduates singing for their diplomas. It isn't a competition, but considering the success of prior grads, it's difficult not to handicap the talent, wondering who will go on to become Adler Fellows and win parts in San Francisco Opera productions, or make their debuts with other professional companies.
A case in point is Romanian-American baritone and second-year Adler Fellow Andrew G. Manea. He was a 2016 Merola participant and has two SFO roles already under his belt. He will soon perform in "Roberto Devereux," replacing an injured Artur Rucinski as the Duke of Nottingham. Merolini gain not only prestige from their training, but also some valuable experience, which adds to their prospects.
Performing on the unit set from "Roberto Devereux," the fresh and confident group sang arias, duets and ensembles by a variety of composers. Fluidly positioned by apprentice stage director Marcus Shields, the wide range of musical genres, from Baroque to bel canto and 20th century, melded better than might have been expected.
Conductor Dean Williamson, known for his work with American companies, quickly warmed the musicians with a sparkling Rossini Overture to "L'Italiana in Algeri." A duet from Mascagni's "L'amico Fritz" featured two congenial standouts from the Schwabacher Concert, tenor Brian Michael Moore (Cincinnati, OH) and mezzo-soprano Megan Grey (Cedar Falls, IA). Another charming duet from Berlioz's "Beatrice et Benedict" followed, with mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh (Vancouver, British Columbia) and Tenor Zhengyi Bai (Shandong, China) singing the title roles.
Soprano Patricia Westley (Santa Barbara, CA) impressed in a challenging aria from Bellini's "La Sonnambula." She returned later for a delightful duet with bass-baritone Andrew Moore (Point Pleasant, NJ) from Mozart's "The Magic Flute." They have resonant tone, even when going for laughs.
An ensemble from Puccini's operetta-like "La Rondine" cheered the audience with the famous tune "Chi Il Bel Sogno" (Doretta's Aria), sung first by Zhengyi Bai, then reprised gorgeously and in full by soprano Brittany Nickell (Coral Springs, FL). Her appearance in the Schwabacher Concert was memorable, but her voice has become richer.
Nickell joined tenor Christopher Oglesby (Woodstock, GA) for music from Richard Strauss' "Capriccio." With the orchestra sumptuously supporting them, each displayed the worth of Merola coaching. Oglesby was a bright-toned Tom Rakewell in "The Rake's Progress." His voice is also big enough to ride over the musicians in the Opera House pit.
The first half included a romp by South Korean tenor WooYoung Yoon through Tonio's aria "Ah, mes amis!" from Donizetti's "La fille du regiment." He tossed off flawless high Cs with impish glee.
Another exciting new voice coming from Seoul, baritone Jaeman Yoon was a strong Rigoletto with Chinese soprano Meigui Zhang (excellent as Anne Trulove in "The Rake's Progress") portraying his daughter Gilda with a delicate and clear tone. Also from South Korea, baritone SeokJong Baek sailed through his aria from Leoncavallo's "Zaza." Like his compatriots, he has a big voice that fills the auditorium.
Mezzo-soprano Alexandra Urquiola was moving in her urgent and sensitive "I was standing in a garden," from "Trouble in Tahiti" by Leonard Bernstein.
Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur," with mezzo-soprano Anne Maguire (Washougal, WA) as La principessa and apprentice coach Annie Brooks (Seattle, WA) accompanying her on celeste, added a bright vignette. Soprano Marlen Nahhas (Houston, TX) and tenor Christopher Colmenero (Burlington, VT) were darker but effectively dramatic in their duet from Verdi's "Don Carlo."
Remarkable soloists appeared in quick succession after intermission. Soprano Kendra Berentsen (Portland, OR) was in beautiful voice in the title role of the aging courtesan "Thais." Tenor Charles Sy (Ontario, Canada) made an impassioned Rodrigo in Rossini's "Otello," and Chinese baritone Xiaomeng Zhang sang a stirring aria from Monteverdi's "Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria" with apprentices Matthew Gemmill (Ames, IA) and James Maverick (Baton Rouge, LA) on harpsichords, and Annie Brooks on organ.
Tenor Addison Marlor (Salt Lake City, UT) breezed through a deceptively simple aria from "The Bartered Bride," and bass-baritone Ted Allen Pickell (El Dorado Hills, CA), a sympathetic Father Trulove in "Rake's Progress," showed his more passionate side as the tortured monk Athanael in "Thais."
A perfectly done little comedy duet from Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" proved Merola participants wouldn't be there if they didn't deserve it. Soprano Cheyanne Coss (Eaton Rapids, MI) as Norina and baritone Jacob Scharfman (Boston, MA) as Malatesta showed timing and finesse equal to veteran professionals.
Welcome to the theatre, Class of 2018.
Brian Michael Moore (front), Jacob Scharfman, Zhengyi Bai, Ted Allen Pickell, Charles Sy in the Merola Grand Finale, presented at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. Photo: Kristen Loken