Arts & Events

Merola Opera Program’s Grand Finale

James Roy MacBean
Friday August 22, 2014 - 02:57:00 PM

The 57th season of the Merola Opera Program’s eleven week intensive training session culminated Saturday evening, August 16, with the Grand Finale Concert. The 2014 Merola participants, nearly one-third of whom come from outside the USA, per-formed a selection of opera scenes on the big stage of the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. Ari Pelto conducted the orchestra, and Apprentice Director Omer Ben Seadia staged this concert of arias and ensembles. 

Having previously attended the two complete operas in the 2014 Merola Opera Program—André Previn’s A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI — I had already noted several standout young singers. And they did not disappoint. Soprano Amanda Woodbury, who sang Donna Anna in DON GIOVANNI, seemed on first hearing to be a sure-fire hit; and in the Merola Grand Finale she again delivered outstanding singing, this time in a duet, “Vains regrets,” from HAMLET by Ambroise Thomas. Ms. Woodbury’s soprano is gorgeously focused; and her diction, here in French, was excellent. Her partner in this duet was baritone Edward Nelson, who earlier sang the role of Don Giovanni. Here, as Hamlet, Nelson seemed more at ease and his voice sounded fuller than it did as the don. Another soprano, Yujin Kim, had sung the role of Zerlina in DON GIOVANNI; and although I can never forgive her for adding a vocal embellishment to Zerlina’s aria, “Batti, batti, ò bel Masetto,” I had to admit that this pert, diminutive soprano has a fine voice. In the Grand Finale, Yujin Kim was a vocal and dramatic firecracker as Marie from Donizetti’s LA FILLE DU RÉGIMENT. 

Another standout soprano, perhaps the one with the brightest future, was Julie Adams, who excelled in the role of Blanche Dubois in STREETCAR. In the Grand Finale, Julie Adams sang Suzel in the famed “Cherry” duet from Pietro Mascagni’s L’AMICO FRITZ. Ms. Adams has a full, ardently colored soprano and admirable technique. I am sure she has a grand future in store for her. Likewise, tenor Casey Candebat, who partnered Ms. Adams in the “cherry” duet, displayed a finely honed tenor voice with lots of power. He too will go places. Together, Adams and Candebat were incandescent, the highlight of the evening. They brought back fond memories of Merola Opera’s wonder-ful 2009 production of L’AMICO FRITZ featuring excellent tenor Nathaniel Peake and exquisite soprano Sara Gartland. 

In this year’s bumper crop of fine sopranos, Adelaide Boedecker sang the role of Gilda in a scene from the final act of Verdi’s RIGOLETTO. Ms. Boedecker movingly sang of the heartbreak Gilda feels as she overhears the philandering Duke of Mantua woo Maddalena with the same words he used earlier in wooing her. As the Duke, Chinese tenor Chong Wang was a surprise hit, as I had not previously heard him sing. He delivered “La donna è mobile” with loads of power. 

Another surprise, at least for me, was soprano Maria Fasciano, whom I had not heard before. Ms. Fasciano sang the role of Nedda in an ensemble scene from Leoncavallo’s I PAGLIACCI. In this heated duet of love and lust, Maria Fasciano boldly portrayed her mixed feelings: She is physically drawn to Silvio yet evinces some remorse about betraying her husband Canio. As Silvio, baritone Alexander Elliott seemed almost overmatched by Maria Fasciano’s fiery passion. 

Yet another soprano stood out, with one small reservation. Karen Chia-ling Ho from Taiwan, whom I had heard earlier as Donna Elvira in DON GIOVANNI, has an excellent voice and admirable technique. My one reservation is that hers is a much darker soprano than most; and thus it may be ill suited to many of the familiar soprano roles. (This, I felt, was the case where her Donna Elvira was concerned.) Of course, I had earlier praised Nicole Cabell’s Violetta in San Francisco Opera’s LA TRAVIATA in spite of Ms. Cabell’s voice being quite a bit darker than most. So who knows? Where Karen Chia-ling Ho is concerned, I would like to hear her sing Princess Eboli, a mezzo role sometimes sung by sopranos, in Verdi’s DON CARLO. I have a hunch she would bring it off brilliantly. In the Merola Grand Finale, Ms. Ho movingly sang the aria, “L’altra notte in fondo al mare,” from Boito’s MEFISTOFELE. 

One mezzo-soprano deserves top accolades, and that is Shirin Eskandani, whose contribution to the Merola Grand Finale was as the Composer in Richard Strauss’s ARIADNE AUF NAXOS. Ms. Eskandani carried off her part in this ensemble brilliantly, far outshining a rather weak Zerbinetta sung by soprano Talya Lieberman. Another mezzo-soprano, Eliza Bonet, was a dramatic whirlwind but vocally on the weak side as the Duchess in Offenbach’s LA GRANDE DUCHESSE DE GÉROLSTEIN. Likewise, baritone Thomas Gunther, who sang the role of Stanley Kowalski in STREETCAR, was surprisingly weak in his aria from Francis Poulenc’s LES MAMELLES DE TIRÉSIAS. A trio from Mozart’s COSÌ FAN TUTTE featured bass Anthony Reed as a convincing Don Alfonso, while tenor Mingjie Lei and and baritone Rhys Lloyd Talbot were less convincing as Ferrando and Guglielmo. At the close of the Grand Finale, all the Merolini joined together to sing the closing fugue, “Tutto nel mondo è burla,” from Verdi’s FALSTAFF.