Grand Finale for Merola Opera grads
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Instead of returning to campus this fall, the Merola Opera Program class of 2019 has already graduated from the organization's prestigious "summer school." A recent evening-long "commencement" concert at the War Memorial Opera House presented the 29 young artists, selected from over 800 applicants, in the Merola Grand Finale, the final event of the yearly Summer Festival. The gala, conducted by George Manahan and directed by 2019 Merola Apprentice Stage Director Greg Eldridge, offered the participants a closing opportunity to demonstrate the Program's inestimable worth.
Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (Merola 2016) is a fine example. He was first onstage at the concert, making a heartfelt opening statement about his own experience and thanking his mentors. He gratefully attributes the launch of his rocketing career to the high focus of Merola training.
Framing and flavoring the performance with a Shakespearean theme and some actual quotes, director Eldridge cleverly segued between musical styles. A few awkward stops robbed singers of applause, but the three-hour show moved briskly and looked surprisingly at home on the set of San Francisco Opera's upcoming production of "Billy Budd." The cross-section of HMS Indomitable was a little menacing as the Marschallin's boudoir in the opening segment from R. Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," but mezzo-soprano Cara Collins (Amarillo, TX), fresh from Merola's recent Heggie/Scheer commission "If I Were You," and soprano Anna Dugan (Cranford, NJ) still created an atmosphere of sensuous intimacy.
Scenes taken from Shakespeare adaptations — "Romeo and Juliet" by Bellini and Gounod, "The Merry Wives of Windsor" by Verdi and Nicolai, and Ambroise Thomas' often dismissed "Hamlet" — fit the show's idea well. Mezzo-soprano Brennan Blankenship (Klein, TX) in Gounod's "Romeo and Juliet"; soprano Anne-Marie MacIntosh (British Columbia, Canada), Diana in the Heggie/Scheer opera, in an aria from Bellini's "The Capulets and the Montagues"; and baritone Edward Laurenson (Auckland, New Zealand) and bass-baritone Rafael Porto (Sao Paolo, Brazil) singing a duet from Nicolai's "The Merry Wives of Windsor" added thematic continuity.
Mezzo-soprano Alice Chung (Loma Linda, CA) was an imposing Gertrude, giving sympathy to a difficult role, and baritone Timothy Murray (Whitefish Bay, WI), memorable from "If I Were You," brought matching sensitivity to Hamlet.
A demanding scene from Samuel Barber's passionate "Vanessa" brought Anna Dugan back to affirm her range, with strong-voiced tenor Victor Starsky (Richmond Hill, Queens, NY) equaling her intensity.
Tenor Brandon Scott Russell (Springfield, MO) filled the auditorium with ringing clarity as the Prince in Dvorak's "Rusalka."
Quieter moments resonated, too. An ensemble scene from Poulenc's "Dialogues des Carmelites," featuring lustrous soprano Amber R. Monroe (Youngstown, OH), was touching.
Soprano Chelsea Lehnea (Chattanooga, TN) dazzled again, after her debut in the Merola season's opening Schwabacher Summer Concert, with her portrayal of Elisabetta in Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda."
Two especially well-staged scenes, from Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" and Donizetti's "The Daughter of the Regiment," added cheery good humor to the bill. Soprano Esther Tonea (Buford, GA) and tenor Michael Day (Rockford, IL) paired perfectly in the Mozart. Soprano Elisa Sunshine (San Clemente, CA) charmed in the title role of Donizetti's confection.
The packed program offered too many superior performances to describe. All of the talented participants distinguished themselves throughout the season, and no one is ever there by chance. The annual Merola Grand Finale sets the seal on well-deserved diplomas.
Esther Tonea and Michael Day performed selected scenes in the Merola Opera Program's Merola Grand Finale, Aug. 17 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. Photo: Kristen Loken