Review: Merola’s opera program ends summer with an exciting array of future stars
Even before the first note sounded, there was a palpable air of exultation throughout the War Memorial Opera House on Saturday, August 20. Francisco Opera – had finally gone home.
It’s been three years since Bay Area opera-goers last gathered at the War Memorial for this venerable ritual. Last year’s event was both stripped down and outdoorsy, and the year before – well, you remember the dark days of 2020.
But now we were there again, watching and listening to a parade of 31 young artists (singers, coaches and a director) show an audience all they were capable of. It was, as before, a highlight of the summer music calendar.
And that would have been true even if the three-hour program hadn’t been so filled with lyrical delights. There is always something fascinating about witnessing the first real launch of a singer’s career, with its promise of a future day when one can say of an international opera notable: “Oh sure , I heard them when they were in Merola.”
We could even say it using the pronouns they/them in this way, if we are talking about the mezzo-soprano Nikola Adele Printz. Printz lit up the second half of the program with their tender and harmonious rendition of “Am I in Your Light?” the tune of “Doctor Atomic” by John Adams that I had been waiting for a long time to become a staple of the repertoire.
Or we could speak in the direct plural as we recall the brilliant and powerful tale of the love duet from Act 1 of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” delivered by soprano Amanda Batista and tenor Moisés Salazar shortly before intermission. . From the restrained but resonant opening of the number, there was no telling how expressive the music was about to get, as the two singers pushed each other to ever greater heights of full-throated ardor.
In what could have been the most moving moment of the evening, tenor Jonghyun Park delivered a ravishing and pitch-perfect rendition of “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love.” It is a standard tune, very often played, but it is rare to hear it sung with this degree of tonal purity, technical mastery and painful pathos.
Were there other moments of triumph? There certainly were. I was overwhelmed, not once but twice, by the poise and musical brilliance of soprano Adia Evans, who was a nimble partner to baritone Scott Lee in an excerpt from William Grant’s beguiling 1942 opera Still “Highway 1, USA” then tenor Daniel Luis Espinal in the duet of act 3 of “La Bohème” by Puccini.
Bass Edwin Jhamaal Davis brought an aura of foreboding to Banquo’s aria from Verdi’s “Macbeth,” and bass-baritone Le Bu matched his Verdian technique in an eloquent aria from “I Vespri Siciliani.” Tenor Chance Jonas-O’Toole delivered a deft comedic part of Britten’s “Albert Herring” and later returned to join soprano Arianna Rodriguez in a crystal-clear duet of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale.” Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ sextet and later a ferocious flurry of Gounod’s ‘Faust’ featured Chelsea’s powerful soprano Lehnea.
Conductor Patrick Furrer didn’t always provide as much support as these developing artists demanded – several of the sets sounded a bit ragged – but the orchestra was plenty there when needed. Director Mathew J. Schulz deftly helped his compatriot Merolini negotiate the vast spaces of the War Memorial scene.
All in all, it was an enriching event, not only for the pleasures of the moment, but also for its omens of future success. Keep an eye out for these young artists – they’re going far.