Arts & Events

Merola Opera’s 2015 Grand Finale

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Wednesday August 26, 2015 - 02:18:00 PM

The War Memorial Opera House was host on Saturday, August 22, to the 2015 Grand Finale of the Merola Opera Program, this country’s foremost training program for aspiring singers, coaches/accompanists, and stage directors. Conductor Antony Walker led the orchestra, and Mo Zhou from China was the director responsible for staging the mixed program of arias, duets, and ensembles from various Italian, French, German, Russian, and American operas.  

Standout performances came from soprano Kathryn Bowden as Amina in Bellini’s La Sonnambula, mezzo-soprano Tara Curtis as Azucena in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, baritone Alex DeSocio as Starbuck in Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick, soprano Amina Edris as Juliette in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, baritone Sol Jin as Prince Yeletsky in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, soprano Madison Leonard as Gretel in Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel, and a trio of fine singers – soprano Cree Carrico as Antonia, mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon as Voice of the Mother, and bass-baritone Brad Walker as Dr. Miracle -- in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann.  

In Amina’s recitative and aria “Care campagne per me sereno …Sovra il sen la man mi posa” from Bellini’s La Sonnambula, Kathryn Bowden displayed every-thing one could hope for in a Bellini soprano – perfect pitch, an amazing top, and seemingly effortless breath control in negotiating Bellini’s long melodic lines. Only a slight awkwardness in Bowden’s transition from low chest tones to high head tones was noticeable. Mezzo-soprano Tara Curtis was an impressively full-voiced, dramatic Azucena as she sang “Condotta era in ceppi,” her tale of mistakenly throwing her own child into the fire, from Verdi’s Il Trovatore. In a long excerpt from Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick, baritone Alex DeSocio was a compelling Starbuck, singing with great fluency and intensity as he pondered whether to save others’ lives by killing Captain Ahab. As Juliette in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, soprano Amina Edris was superb in the “Nuit d’Hyménée” duet with tenor Christopher Bozeka as an overmatched Roméo. Edris, who was excellent as Norina in Merola’s production earlier in August of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, has plenty of power, a quality that was lacking in Christopher Bozeka’s brittle tone as Roméo. Korean baritone Sol Jin gave a smoothly impressive vocal rendering of Prince Yeletsky’s lovelorn aria from Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. Soprano Madison Leonard was a delightful Gretel paired with mezzo-soprano Nicole Woodward as Hansel in a duet from Humperdick’s Hansel und Gretel. Possessed of a clear, bright soprano, Madison Leonard also displayed fine acting ability. Her fearful facial expressions when lost in the woods at the outset of this duet were entirely believable, and her later smiles of relief came like beautiful rays of sunshine.  

Where staging is concerned, I have one major complaint. What in the world was a birdcage containing only a white candle doing as the sole stage prop for nearly every vocal number in the last half of the program prior to intermission? This bit of staging – the only bit of staging concocted by director Mo Zhou for these five or six numbers – made no sense whatsoever. It was particularly glaring when Toni-Marie Palmertree as Medora in Verdi’s Il Corsaro seemed to pluck the wire ribs of the birdcage while a harp accompanied her aria. On the other hand, bass Scott Russell justly ignored the ubiquitous birdcage as he sang Falstaff’s praise of booze in Nicolai’s Die lustige Weiber von Windsor. However, bass-baritone James Ioelu, who sang an excellent aria, “Ma de’ malvagi invan … Vien, Leonora,” from Donizetti’s La Favorita, toyed with the birdcage and mindlessly extracted the candle from it while he sang. In yet another twist, tenor Michael Papincak, who displayed a strange, cramped vocal tone as Captain Ahab in an aria from Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick, seemed almost flummoxed by the presence of the birdcage. Director Mo Zhou hardly did her singers any favors in this senseless bit of non-staging. 

After intermission, things got off to a good start with Chinese bass Ming Zhao singing King René’s aria “Shto skazhet on? … Gaspod’ moy yesli grishen ya?” from Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. Next, the comic genius of tenor Alasdair Kent upstaged mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon’s rendition of a familiar aria from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Later, Alasdair Kent revealed a more serious side in singing the lilting aria, “Horch! Die Lerche singt im Hain,” from Die lustige Weiber von Windsor by Otto Nicolai. Soprano Meredith Mecum ably sang the aria, “Uzh polnach blizitya” from Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. Mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis was joined by Korean baritone Kihoon Yoon in a duet from Mascangni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. And last but not least, the entire group of Merolini joined in singing “Hélas, mon coeur s’égare encore” from Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, bringing the 2015 Merola Grand Finale to a close.