Arts & Events

New: Outstanding Singers in Merola 2017 Grand Finale

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday August 29, 2017 - 10:14:00 AM

Throughout the 2017 Merola Opera Program’s season I have been impressed by the uniformly excellent quality of the young singers, having heard thirteen of them in fully staged operas. Well, on Saturday, August 19 at the War Memorial Opera House I heard all twenty-three of this year’s crop of singers in the Merola Grand Finale, and without hesitation I would salute the 2017 Merola singers as the finest annual class in recent memory. In the Grand Finale there wasn’t a mediocre performance anywhere in the program. Every number, whether a solo aria, a duet, or an ensemble, was excellently sung. In reviewing a program chock full of highlights, I intend to give each and every singer their due by addressing every musical number in this concert in order of appearance. 

Conductor Anthony Walker led off the program by conducting the overture from Ruslan und Ludmilla by Glinka. In a deft move by Apprentice Stage Director Victoria Crutchfield, various Merolini strolled onstage as if in a party scene and pretended to help themselves to wine and food from a long table while the orchestra played Glinka’s overture. The same set was then used in different ways in each succeeding musical number, the first being the rarely heard aria “Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo” sung by bass-baritone Daniel Noyola. This magnificent buffo aria was originally written for the character of Guglielmo to sing in Act I of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, but Mozart inserted in its place a more charmingly delicate aria, “Non siate ritrosi.” Daniel Noyola made the most of Mozart’s original choice by delivering a rollicking boastful aria as the fiancés disguised as Albanians gloated over their attempts to woo each other’s fiancées. 

Next came an ensemble from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, “Il primo Giudice.” Soprano Natalie Image exquisitely sang the role of Oscar the page, tenor Xingwa Hao powerfully sang the role of Riccardo, and tenor Addison Marlor ably sang Il primo Giudice. Following this was a real show-stopper, Ford’s aria “È sogno…o realtà?” from Verdi’s Falstaff, robustly sung by baritone Thomas Glass. In an aria full of contradictory feelings of bluster and vulnerability, Thomas Glass made every emotional swing of his character entirely believable. This was one of many highlights of the Grand Finale. It was followed by another outstanding performance, this time by bass-baritone Christian Pursell in the aria Massime così indegne” from Handel’s Rinaldo. Singing with power and conviction, Pursell was ably joined by mezzo-soprano Edith Grossman. Accompaniment was provided by Tuomas Juutilainen on harpsichord. Yet another highlight came with the next number, the duet “Quoi! Vous m’aimez?” from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, sung by soprano Kendra Berentsen as Marie and tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro as Tonio. This flirtatious aria switches tone halfway through when Marie, who has previously scorned Tonio’s protestations of love, suddenly realizes she is in love with him. Berentsen and Ciaramitaro handled this emotional swing with beautiful vocalism and dramatic aplomb.  

Soprano Kelsea Webb next sang “How beautiful it is” from Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. This is a somewhat strange aria in that it starts off wistfully embracing life then shifts suddenly to a desperately haunted obsession. Kelsea Webb captured the dramatic flow of this aria with consummate vocal skill. Next came bass-baritone Andrew Hiers singing “Son lo spirito che nega sempre tutto” from Boito’s Mefistofele. In the role of Mephistopheles, Hiers was histrionic and larger-than-life, leaping onto the table and casting sardonic aspersions on everyone and everything. Vocally, Hiers sang with robust swagger. Following this came an ensemble from Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon featuring mezzo-soprano Edith Grossman as Mignon, tenor Addison Marlor as Wilhelm, and soprano Jana McIntyre as the off-stage voice of Philine. All three singers were excellent, and Jana McIntyre’s ethereal off-stage singing was particularly effective. Mezzo-soprano Alice Chung then sang “È destin….Marcello mio” from Leoncavallo’s La bohème, giving this farewell aria a heartfelt show of conflicted emotion. The final number before intermission featured bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum in Raimbaud’s aria “Dans ce lieu solitaire” from Rossini’s Le comte Ory. Quattlebaum sang robustly, accompanied by a chorus of male Merolini.  

Following intermission the orchestra struck up the introduction to the aria “Dich, teure Halle” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. A new stage-set offered vaguely Asian architecture in colors red and green, though why the Asian look was a question left begging, for it had nothing to do with either the first number after intermission or any other number in the second half of this program. In any case, Dich, teure Halle” was brilliantly sung by soprano Felicia Moore. Then two previously unheard singers came onstage, soprano Alexandra Razskazoff and baritone Dimitri Katotakis, performing the duet “Nedda! Silvio! A quest’ora” from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci. Razskazoff sang with limpid tone and was well matched by Katotakis’s ardent vocalism. Mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon then gave a suave rendition of “Enfin, je suis içi” from Massenet’s Cendrillon. This was followed by a comic turn from tenor Andres Acosta, who sang “Allegro io son” as he flitted from one male embrace to another in a campy gay rendition of this aria, and he even competed with a flute in homage to Lucia di Lammermoor’s mad scene.  

Among countless highlights, the next two numbers stood out for their consummate vocalism. Soprano Natalie Image was superb as Lucia from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and bass-baritone David Weigel was dramatically and vocally effective as her manipulative brother, Raimondo. Physically towering over Natalie Image’s Lucia, Weigel used his sonorous voice masterfully, effectively brow-beating his sister into agreeing to a marriage she definitely doesn’t want. Shaken by her brother’s insistent arguments, Natalie Image’s Lucia eventually gives in, singing beautifully all the while. In almost any other program, this duet by Natalie Image and David Weigel might easily have been the absolute highlight. But in this 2017 Merola Grand Finale it took second place to the next offering, which featured soprano Jana McIntyre as Zerbinetta and mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey as the Composer in “Sie hält ihn für den Todesgott” from Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. I can’t say enough about the outstanding vocalism displayed here by McIntyre and Hankey. McIntyre’s soprano was limpid and ardent, and Hankey’s mezzo was dusky at one moment and brightly radiant at other moments. The musical interchange between McIntyre and Hankey was full of intelligence and passion. These two singers will surely go far in their careers! 

Tenor Xingwa Hao then sang an aria from Das Land des Lächelns by Franz Lehar. Hao’s voice rang out clearly and powerfully. Soprano Mathilda Edge followed with Elena’s aria “Mercè, dilette amiche” from Verdi’s I vespri siciliani. Mathilda Edge sang with lustrous tone and great feeling for her role. There followed an ensemble from Donizetti’s French-language opera La favorite. Featured in this were bass-baritone Szymon Wach as King Alphonse XI, tenor Addison Marlor as Fernand, mezzo Ashley Dixon as Léonor, and tenor Andres Acosta as Don Gaspar. Szymon Wach was particularly effective in this ensemble, singing with power and conviction, while Ashley Dixon was exquisite as a conflicted Léonor, and Addison Marlor gave an ardent account of Fernand’s love for Léonor. The 2017 Merola Grand Finale then came to a boisterous conclusion with all the Merolini joining forces to sing “Ah! A tal colpo inaspettato” from Il viaggio a Reims by Rossini. Congratulations to the Merola Opera Program on this their 60th anniversary season! A glorious season indeed and one capped magnificently by an outstanding Grand Finale!