Arts & Events

Merola Opera Launches Its Summer Season

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday July 06, 2018 - 03:09:00 PM

Opening with the Schwabacher Summer Concert, Merola Opera launched its 2018 Summer Season with two performances, Thursday, July 5, at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Saturday, July 7, at Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall. I attended the Thursday evening performance, which was a sold-out affair, though I saw a few empty seats. Featured on the program were extended excerpts, often whole scenes, from Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, Giacomo Puccini’s Il Tabarro, Georges Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The Orchestra was conducted by Kathleen Kelly, who was an apprentice coach for Merola back in 1991-92. The minimal staging was provided by Aria Umezawa.  

Samuel Barber’s Vanessa is an opera I’ve only heard once and am not likely to hear again, partly because it’s rarely performed, and also because its plot involving a high-strung, hysterical woman who waits 20 years for a beau to return, only to find it’s his son who returns, strikes me as quite preposterous. This said, soprano Brittany Nickell sang the role of Vanessa with appropriately hysterical overtones, especially on her frequent high notes. Ms. Nickell has a huge voice that promises a Brunnhilde in-the-making. The real star, however, was mezzo-soprano Megan Grey in the role of Erika, Vanessa’s niece. Megan Grey has a rich, sumptuous voice with plenty of color and range. The highlight of this Samuel Barber excerpt was Megan Grey’s rendition of the aria “Must Winter come so soon?” In brief roles, tenor Brian Michael Moore was an able Anatol, and baritone Andrew Moore capably sang the role of the Major Domo. Director Aria Umezawa staged it around a long dinner table set for a long-awaited guest who never arrives, although his son does. The son, however, is less interested in aging Vanessa than in her young niece, whom he quickly seduces. So much for Vanessa. 

Next came Acts 1 and 3 of Puccini’s Il Tabarro, a lurid tale sung in Italian of fading love and a new but disastrous passion aboard the narrow confines of a barge plying the River Seine in France. Moored alongside a Paris quay, Giorgetta, the young wife of Michele, the barge owner, chats with her friend Frugola, who talks of nothing but her cat. Giorgetta is here sung by soprano Marlen Nahhas, and Frugola is sung by mezzo-soprano Megan Grey. Frugola’s husband, Talpa, is sung here by baritone Andrew Moore. Two deckhands appear, young Tinca, sung by tenor Brian Michael Moore, and Luigi, sung by baritone Christopher Colmenero. Tinca wants only to get drunk, but Luigi, it soon becomes clear, is having a passionate affair with Giorgetta, his boss’s wife. Michele, who agrees to keep Luigi on board, is brilliantly sung by South Korean baritone Jaeman Yoon. Christopher Colmenero’s Luigi is equally brilliant, while Marlen Nahhas as Giorgetta runs hot and cold, the former with her new lover Luigi and the latter with her husband. Parisian local color is provided by a young couple of lovers passing by on the quais sung here by soprano Kendra Berentsen and tenor WooYoung Yoon. 

After intermission, the first offering included three excerpts from Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles. Set in what is now Sri Lanka, this opera involves two male friends who fall for the same woman, a virgin priestess of the Hindu village temple. Singing in French, the men, Nadir and Zurga, pledge eternal friendship and agree to forsake their mutual love for Leila. Nadir is here sung by tenor WooYoung Yoon, and Zurga is sung by baritone SeokJong Baek. In the famous duet, “Au fond du temple saint,” they recall the moment they both laid eyes on Leila. In the refrain, “Oui, c’est elle. C’est la déesse, » WooYoung Yoon repeatedly mispronounced the word «déesse,» making it sound like «diesse.» Leila was beautifully sung by soprano Kendra Berentsen, whose lush voice resounded full of passion in her forbidden love for Nadir. When Nadir sneaks into the sacred temple precinct, she rushes to him and embraces him passionately, but she also warns him that they face death if caught. Zurga, now the village headman, catches the lovers and is furious at this double betrayal. Nadir has broken his vow and Leila, for her part, loves Nadir instead of Zurga. For this, Zurga angrily resolves to have them both killed ; and in the role of Zurga baritone SeokJong Baek sang with power and convincing anger. Director Aria Umezawa made use of the long dinner table as a temple platform where Leila received her illicit lover Nadir. Oh, and by the way, Umezawa used throughout the entire concert a gimmicky habit of having singers enter and exit wearing white Carnival masks, a totally gratuitous effect until we came to the final offering, the closing scene of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.  

In the role of Don Giovanni, Chinese baritone Xiaomeng Zhang sang with consummate artistry, while his sidekick Leporello was sung in the usual buffoonish manner by baritone Andrew Moore. The Commendatore was brilliantly sung by stentorian baritone Jaeman Yoon, and the Commendatore’s daughter, Donna Anna, was sung by Brittany Nickell. The role of Donna Elvira was ably delivered by soprano Marlen Nahhas, and Zerlina was pertly sung by soprano Kendra Berentsen. Tenor Brian Michael Moore was a convincing Don Ottavio, and baritone SeokJong Baek made the best of the few opportunities for Masetto in this final act of Don Giovanni.  

Throughout this concert, conductor Kathleen Kelly led the orchestra with a firm hand. Costumes were by Galen Till, and Lighting was by Eric Watkins. Merola Opera’s Summer Season continues with Mozart’s Il Re Pastore on July 19 and 21 in San Francisco, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress on August 2 and 4 in the city, and the Merola Grand Finale on August 18 at the Opera House.