Saturday night’s Merola Grand Finale performance at War Memorial Opera House gave the public a chance to experience what a summer of intensive training has done for the 23 talented young singers in the prestigious opera book camp. The three hour concert featured a captivating and eclectic mix of 19 demanding opera arias, duets and songs, chosen by the fellows to showcase their voices. The audience, packed with family members, friends, and opera lovers, was so enthusiastic that, twice, it burst into spontaneous applause interrupting a performance in progress. No problem!…all was taken in stride.
Tenor Casey Candebat, from New Orleans, delivered a remarkable and haunting “Porquoi me réveiller,” the third act aria in Massenet’s Werther. Candebat sang with so much feeling that he transported the audience right into Werther’s melody. Candebat’s chemistry with mezzo-soprano, Sarah Mesko, as Charlotte, who sang with passion to match his, was palpable. The duet evoked whoops and cheers all around. Candebat is one of 6 strong lyric tenors in the Merola program this year, quite a feat.
Mezzo Soprano Erin Johnson, from New Jersey, was exceptional in “Their spinning wheel unwinds Dreams,” from Benjamin Britten’s two act chamber opera, The Rape of Lucretia. Her lush and lovely legato, and dramatic stage presence transported us into Lucretia’s world of loss and despair. Johnson’s voice blended beautifully with soprano Rose Sawvel and mezzo-sopranos Sarah Mesko and Carolyn Sproule.
Powerhouse soprano Elizabeth Baldwin wowed me with her sensational voice and commanding presence in the second half of the program. As she sang Medora’s stunning solo from Act 1 of Verdi’s Il Corsaro, I felt chills…caught in the grips of overpowering but doomed love.
Tenor AJ Glueckert, from Portland, Oregon, who left his mark on all who heard him as the Man with the Paint Brush in July’s Merola performance of Postcards from Morocco, closed the first part of the evening with the pleasing and very difficult duet “At Last I’ve Found You,” from Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, performed with soprano Melinda Whittington.
In addition to singing, most of the fellows can act. The program trains them in movement and acting, role preparation and offers several performance opportunities throughout the summer. (See ARThound’s 7.17.2012 article The Merola Opera Program presents Dominick Argento’s rarely performed opera,“Postcard from Morocco,” this Thursday and Saturday, at Cowell Theatre, Fort Mason.) Canadian Bass baritone, Gordon Bintner, who has that “it” factor in spades, along with dashing good looks, lent a natural comedic air and grace to his Belcore in Donizetti’s “Come Paride vezzoso” and to his Taddeo in Rossini’s “Orsù, la tua nipote…Pappataci! Che mai sento!,” from L’Italiana in Algeri which he performed with Tenor Joshua Baum as Lindoro and Bass-baritone Seth Mease Carico as Mustafà. Baritone Joseph Lattanzi doned goggles and hammed it up as Jupiter, a buzzing singing fly in the annoyed ear of soprano Rose Sawvel. The duo were hysterical.
Bass Andrew Kroes, from Wisconsin, delivered Marcel’s moving battle song “Piff, paff,” from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, with great aplomb.
The accompaniment, under the Nicholas McGegan’s apt conducting, was impressive, especially Berlioz’s exhilarating masterpiece overture, “Béatrice et Bénédict,” which opened the evening. In the first song, Lully’s “Il faut asser,” from Alceste, I had trouble hearing the voices over the orchestra, a problem which quickly resolved itself. Adam Luftman’s lush trumpet solo in the program’s second half— “Povero Ernesto!…Cercherò lontana terra” from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale—was divine.
Apprentice stage director Jennifer Williams’ staging was baffling—she went for a minimalistic look, placing a tufted velvet divan on one side of the stage and an antique chair tilted on its side on other side. In between them was a lamp sporting a naked light bulb. All this was against the elegant arched wooden back-drop of the Moby Dick set. A few prop pieces were added here and there to give diversity to the 19 scenes that she was responsible for, but she did not waver from her minimalist approach. It was awful to be in the audience, in a darkened environment, hoping to see the singers’ faces and instead be subject to the intense and unrelenting glare of that blasted bulb.
The evening ended with a glorious “Già che il caso ci unisce…Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso,” from Giacomo Puccini’s opera, La Rondine (The Swallow), bringing most of the fellows on stage. Once again, soprano Elizabeth Baldwin, as Magda, made an impression. Her powerful richly textured voice projected above the others—and with her commanding stage presence—I could not help but circle her name and scrawl beside it several exclamation points. All these singers are going places but she’s on my watch list.
More About Merola: Guided by Sheri Greenawald, San Francisco Opera Center Director and internationally acclaimed soprano, the Merola Opera Program is an independent nonprofit organization which operates in collaboration with the San Francisco Opera. Founded in 1957 and named for San Francisco Opera’s founder, Gaetano Merola, the Program is recognized as one of the most prestigious operatic training programs in the world. The Merola Opera Program typically receives more than 800 applications for approximately 30 positions. Throughout the summer, the Merola artists participate in master classes and private coachings with opera luminaries and go on give several public performances. Participants—who include singers, apprentice coaches and an apprentice stage director—also receive training in operatic repertory, foreign languages, diction, acting and stage movement.
The Summer Olympics in London ended last Sunday and ARThound is back–with dozens of stories to tell. Not only did I attend the games, but I also participated in the London 2012 Festival, part of Britain’s larger Cultural Olympiad, which continues through September 9, 2012, the final day of the Paralympic Games. The London 2012 Festival is actually a countrywide event that features an estimated 12,000 performances including art exhibitions, theatrical performances and classical concerts. What a marvelous time to visit England–when everyone was celebrating and freebies were falling from the skies! Stay tuned to ARThound for interviews with London insiders, celebs, curators, foodies, including Ernst Vegelin, Head of The Courtauld Gallery and Lady Fiona Carnarvon, the down-to-earth duchess who actually lives at Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle).