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Summer concert introduces opera stars

by Philip Campbell

(L-R) Chelsea Lehnea (Soprano) and Alice Chung (Mezzo-soprano) performing selections of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" in Merola Opera Program's Schwabacher Summer Concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Photo: Kristen Loken
(L-R) Chelsea Lehnea (Soprano) and Alice Chung (Mezzo-soprano) performing selections of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" in Merola Opera Program's Schwabacher Summer Concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Photo: Kristen Loken  

Fresh faces, big voices, and an enthusiastic audience charged the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last week at the 62nd season opener of the Merola Opera Program. The high-status springboard for promising opera talent showcased selected participants in the annual Schwabacher Summer Concert. Full semi-staged scenes from the operatic repertoire offered a fine first encounter with singers we will get to know better throughout the summer.

Twenty-nine Merola artists, chosen from over 800 contenders, coming from Brazil, South Korea, New Zealand, and Colombia, but mostly from across the U.S., are participating in master classes and coaching with the industry's best singers, conductors, and directors. Between production of the first opera commissioned in the Program's 62-year history, the world premiere of "If I Were You" by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, Aug. 1-6; and the concluding Merola Grand Finale, Aug. 17, participants will receive free training in repertory, languages and acting. Only Merola graduates are considered for the San Francisco Opera Adler Fellowship Program, which is a guarantee of mainstage roles with the Company.

It is a high-stakes game, but with little need for ongoing competition. No one appearing at the Schwabacher concert was there by luck. Becoming a Merolini is already a big win. Director Jose Maria Condemi wisely made sure everyone appearing in the Schwabacher Summer Concert got their own chance to validate his or her place at the table.

Quickly setting the mood, conductor Craig Kier got the beautifully prepared orchestra in synch with the ensemble of 11 chosen vocalists for the complete first act of Puccini's molto Italiano take on Viennese operetta, "La rondine." The recurring theme of the gorgeous aria "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" is instant ear-candy, and the audience settled in for a long but swift moving concert of highlights from great operas.

Soprano Amber R. Monroe (Youngstown, OH), as the Parisian courtesan Magda, took center stage to give a lovely rendition of the famously memorable tune. Tenor Victor Starsky (Richmond Hill, Queens, NY), as poet Prunier, gives her the song to begin with. He coupled later with Magda's saucy maid Lisette, soprano Hyeree Shin (Cheon-an, South Korea), for a charmingly flirtatious duet.

The first half ended with Act I, Scene 4 of Donizetti's bel canto masterpiece "Lucia di Lammermoor." Soprano Chelsea Lehnea (Chattanooga, TN) was spectacular in the challenging coloratura of the title role. Tenor Salvatore Atti (Buffalo, NY) as Lucia's secret lover Edgardo, and mezzo-soprano Alice Chung (Loma Linda, CA) as her companion Alisa, supported Lehnea's star turn with admirable contributions of their own.

The evening's lone misfire could not be blamed on the singers. Act II, Scenes 3 & 4 from "Die schweigsame Frau" ("The Silent Woman") by Richard Strauss ended unsatisfactorily, something of a bleeding chunk from an organically seamless score. Still, bass Stefan Egerstrom (Brooklyn Center, MN) as Morosus, a rapidly aging retired naval officer, was heartfelt and moving (though nowhere near old enough) in his expression of longing for Hyeree Shin, who convincingly portrayed the deceitful Aminta, pretending to be a more demure Timidia. It's complicated, but if you know the plot of Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" you will appreciate the kinder treatment Strauss gives the hoodwinked Morosus. He certainly gives him some soulful music.

Act IV, Scenes 5-8 from Gounod's "Faust" allowed baritone Laureano Quant (Barraquilla, Colombia) and bass-baritone Andrew Dwan (Mountain View, CA) ample opportunity to impress the receptive audience, and they ran with it. Quant was thrilling in full voice as Valentin, angrily cursing his cruelly ravished sister Marguerite, soprano Anna Dugan (Cranford, NJ), before dying at the hand of Salvatore Atti's Faust. Dwan was alternately droll and malicious in his mock serenade, with rich and flexible tone and convincing acting.

Act IV, Scene 2, to the end of opera from Verdi's classic "Il trovatore" (the "pot-boiler where every tune is a hit") proved a passionate if rather dark way to end an exhilarating night. Soprano Anna Dugan changed from Marguerite in "Faust" to a strong and heartbreaking Leonora, who poisons herself to escape the clutches of Il Conte di Luna, forcefully portrayed by baritone Jeff Byrnes (Baton Rouge, LA). They couldn't avoid being upstaged somewhat by Victor Starsky's powerful Manrico (Leonora's beloved) and Alice Chung's startling transformation to Manrico's mother, the alleged witch Azucena. It is all in the libretto and Verdi's over-the-top melodies. Starsky and Chung filled the dry acoustic of the Conservatory with enough sound to carry over to the War Memorial Opera House.

For more info on coming Merola events, Heggie and Scheer's "If I Were You" and the rest of the summer season:


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