Arts & Events

New: Adler Fellows Gala Concert 2016

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Wednesday December 07, 2016 - 10:52:00 AM

In promoting this concert, the San Francisco Opera Center coined the phrase “The Future is Now.” A more apt phrase could hardly be imagined, for this Adler Fellows concert on Friday, December 2, at Herbst Theatre offered singers who seemed ready for great things to come, and whose greatness was already evident in their glorious singing here. This concert opened with the orchestral Prelude to Act III of Wagner’s Lohengrin, which was beautifully performed by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra under the leadership of conductor Jordi Bernàcer.  

The first vocal offering was bass-baritone Matthew Stump as the Dutchman singing “Die Frist ist um” from Wagner’s Die Fliegende Holländer. Stump was a powerful and moving Dutchman, taking the lead from the cellos’ lovely introduction to this aria and anchoring it in the dark realms of a longing for death unless the wandering Dutchman can find a woman to redeem him with perfect love. Following this came a surprise highlight of the concert – the aria “Robert, toi que j”aime” from Meyerbeer’s rarely heard Robert le diable, sung here with consummate vocalism by soprano Amina Edris. Egyptian-born Amina Edris, who excelled as Norina in a 2015 Merola production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, was absolutely stupendous in the role of Isabelle in this difficult aria from Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable. The aria itself was totally unknown to me, but Amina Edris navigated its difficult roulades with utterly amazing vocal agility. This was truly remarkable singing. Incidentally, in a concert that offered quite a few relatively unfamiliar pieces of vocal music, supertitles would have been welcome to give us a sense of what was being sung. In this concert, alas, they were absent. 

Where a young singer’s career seems promising as a work in progress was amply demonstrated by soprano Toni Marie Palmertree, who sang the role of Nedda from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in a duet with baritone Edward Nelson as Silvio. Toni Marie Palmertree does one thing extremely well – she imbues her fortissimo high notes with awesome power and voluptuous tonal coloration. The results are spectacular. However, when she is not singing high notes at full throttle, Ms. Palmertree’s voice fades into the woodwork. None of the emotion, none of the intensity, none of the vocal color comes through when Toni Marie Palmertree isn’t hitting fortissimo high notes. In fact, most of the time, her singing is utterly unremarkable. Listening to Toni Marie Palmertree is like watching a one-trick pony. The trick may be spectacular, but once you’ve seen it all you can do is hope the pony will deliver the same trick a few more times. At this point in her young career, Toni Marie Palmertree might only be suited for the role of Turandot, which requires no feeling whatsoever beyond an ice-princess’s façade. I don’t mean to be harsh. What Toni Marie Palmertree now offers is already something quite spectacular. But if she wants to grow as an interpreter of great operatic roles, Toni Marie Palmertree must find a way to avoid the one-trick pony syndrome. I hope she will. 

Moving on to consider Adler Fellows who have already mastered more than a single trick, let us applaud baritone Edward Nelson, whose voice has developed nicely since his inauspicious portrayal of Don Giovanni in Mozart’s opera in a 2015 Merola production. In this Adler Fellow concert, Nelson admirably partnered Palmertree in a steamy duet from Pagliacci, and he followed this after intermission with a sweet-voiced rendition of Billy Budd’s aria “Look, through the port comes the moonlight astray.” Nelson may never have the dark coloration necessary for the role of Don Giovanni; but judging from his performances in this concert, Edward Nelson seems to have found roles more suited to his lighter type of baritone voice. Moving on, bass-baritone Brad Walker gave a stirring rendition of Count Almaviva’s aria “Hai già vinta la causa!” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Walker’s diction in Italian was especially clear and full-voiced.  

Next came a rather questionable selection from gifted soprano Julie Adams, the aria “Gluck das mir verblieb” from Eric Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. This is a saccharine bit of music hardly capable of showing off the considerable talents of a singer of Julie Adams’ accomplishments. Although Julie Adams sang it well, nothing could help raise this pedestrian music above a mildly entertaining level. Likewise, a duet from Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi offered little opportunity for Chinese mezzo-soprano Nian Wang and Samoan-born, New Zealand-raised tenor Pene Pati to show off their voices. Another in a series of ill-conceived selections came from Latvian mezzo-soprano Zande Švėde, who sang a rather offbeat aria, “Sily potajnye,” from Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina. Despite Ms. Švėde’s fluency in Russian, this aria hardly showcased the voice we heard sing so admirably in the flower duet in San Francisco Opera’s current Madama Butterfly. Next came Toni Marie Palmertree who chose to sing an aria from Verdi’s Don Carlo in the French version that premiered in Paris. Palmertree’s French is not particularly fluent and clear in diction, so why she chose to sing this aria in French is not apparent. Suffice it to say that all the plusses and minuses of Ms. Palmertree’s singing I enumerated earlier in this review were again evident in this selection. Finally, the first half of this concert came to an anticlimactic close with bass Anthony Reed singing a low-keyed aria, “Wie schön ist doch die Musik” from Richard Strauss’s rarely performed Die schweigsame Frau. 

After intermission things picked up considerably, beginning with Julie Adams singing “The trees on the mountain” from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. Adams bit into the emotional turmoil and fear of Susannah’s predicament, accused of being a sinner by Reverend Olin Blitch and his Appalachian parishioners simply because she was seen bathing nude in a secluded mountain stream where she habitually went to bathe. When Reverend Blitch tries to bully Susannah into confessing her sins, Julie Adams’ Susannah was staunch in her refusal to submit. But when Reverend Blitch, here capably sung by bass-baritone Brad Walker, reveals that he’s a lonely man who needs a woman, Julie Adams’ Susannah acquiesced all too easily, it seemed to me, even taking Blitch’s hand and leading him offstage to a sexual tryst – a grave mistake in staging, for it blames the victim in what should be a case of male sexual opportunism against a female too emotionally spent to put up resistance.  

Following Edward Nelson’s sweet-voiced monologue from Britten’s Billy Budd was a delightful comic turn by soprano Amina Edris and tenor Pene Pati, who sang “Quoi? Vous m”aimez?” from Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment. If anyone ever doubted that Amina Edris is not only an exceptional singer but also an outstanding actress, her portrayal of Marie’s vacillating affections for Tonio in this flirtatious duet provided all the proof needed. Along with Pene Pati as Tonio, Amina Edris as Marie was totally in command of this scintillating duet.  

Mezzo-soprano Nian Wang sang “Crude furie degli orridi abissi” from Handel’s Serses/Xerxes; and although she performed this aria competently her voice is a bit thin and rarely projects enough to wow the audience. Next, bass Anthony Reed gave a sterling rendition of the Viking song from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko. Following this number came one of the highlights of the concert – tenor Pene Pati singing “Quando le sere al placido” from Verdi’s Luisa Miller. Pati has a huge voice, and at times he borders on belting everything out at full blast. But in this sublime aria he was in his comfort zone, and the results were thrilling. Likewise, in the next piece, a duet from Massenet’s Cléopatre, mezzo-soprano Zanda Švėde and bass-baritone Matthew Stump were perfectly paired to offer a moving final scene from this opera, in which both Mark-Anthony and Cleopatra die as the opera comes to a close. Finally, the 2016 Adler Fellows Gala Concert closed with an ensemble of singers performing “E scherzo od è follia” from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. Given the consistently high level of singing offered by the 2016 Adler Fellows, it is abundantly clear both that “The Future is Now,” and that these singers have a great future awaiting them.