San Francisco’s summer music season came to an end tonight, Aug. 22, with the Merola Opera Program’s Grand Finale in the War Memorial Opera House. (The fall season opens on Sept. 11, with Verdi’s “Luisa Miller,” Merola/Adler alumna Leah Crocetto in the title role.)
As for 58 years before, Merola – one of oldest and largest advanced opera training and performance programs in the world – produced some sensational singing talent, strutting their stuff in a 2 1/2-hour program of opera selections before an audience of some 2,000.
After 10 weeks of intensive coaching, practicing, rehearsing, and attending workshops, the year’s two dozen program participants – selected in worldwide auditions from among some thousand applicants – were in top form.
In the direction of apprentice stage director Mo Zhou, of Nanjing, the evening unfolded with simplicity, speed and continuity perhaps none of the 30 previous grand finales I’ve seen could match: a thoroughly professional job.
Another important asset emerged from the very beginning, Anthony Walker’s splendid (and singer-friendly) conducting of the Opera Orchestra. With his fast, unsentimental presentation of the “Hansel & Gretel” Prelude (often played slow and sugar-coated), Walker served notice of what the evening will be like, and he followed through – supporting the singers and bringing nuance and colors from the orchestral texture. Examples included two excerpts from Jake Heggie’s “Moby-Dick,” rich layers of the music coming to the surface.
Among the many notable performances in 18 excerpts, especially impressive voices stood out in the Santuzza-Alfio duet from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana,” Raehann Bryce-Davis, a mezzo from Texas, and South Korean baritone Kihun Yoon not only filling the enormous War Memorial, but imbuing the roles with power and excitement.
From Yoon, who has only a few lines in the scene, it was a special introduction, making an instant hit. Bryce-Davis’ passion and soaring voice matched Yoon’s, rock solid throughout.
New Zealand soprano Amina Edris sang the love duet from Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” with Ohio tenor Christopher Bozeka, giving the scene a special musical and emotional quality. Lyrical tenors of great promise included Alasdair Kent from Australia, with Fenton’s aria from Nicolai’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
Also South Korean Soonchan Kwon, as Faust from the Gounod opera (with Michigan bass-baritone Zachary Elmassian as Méphistophéles); and Michael Papincak, from Pittsburgh, PA, as Captain Ahab in “Moby-Dick” and Manrico in “Il Trovatore,” playing second fiddle to Kansas City mezzo Tara Curtis’ Azucena.
The evening concluded with a trio and ensemble scenes from Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” featuring the entire Merola Class of 2015.