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Merola: Versatile Mezzos, Enduring Sopranos, Promising Tenor

July 22, 2014

Schwabacher concert castHeadlines are by nature selective and limiting: Merola Opera Program's Schwabacher Summer Concert Thursday night had 15 fledgling stars, half the Class of 2014, and not just those mentioned above. This is the full contingent as shown in the adjecent photo: Sahir Nauri, Nian Wang, Maria Fasciano, Talya Lieberman, Shiri Eskandani, Alexander Elliott, Edoardo Barsotti, Blair Salter (front row); Karill Kuzmin, Matthew Stump, Ronny Michael Greenberg, Chong Wang, Mingjie Lei, Anthony Reed, Gideon Dabi (back row).

A Canadian mezzo from an Iranian family, Eskandani dazzled in an amazing transformation from the woebegone Mignon (Ambroise Thomas) to a vibrant Rosina (Barber of Seville). With fine French diction in the former and beguiling presence in the latter, Eskandani exhibited the right and proper vocal approach as well to each of the two very different roles. Although without the same trumpet-like projection, the mezzo brought to mind former Merolina Leah Crocetto's seamless transformations from role to role.

Shirin Eskandani as Mignon and Anthony Reed as Lothario Photos by Kristen LokenShe was well partnered by Alexander Elliott's Figaro in the Rossini; and with Mingjie Lei's Wilhelm, Matthew Stump's Jarno, and Anthony Reed's Lothario in Mignon.

Stage director Roy Rallo's upturned chairs are old hat, but this time he added a senseless revolver to be held by Lei, who — as a man with money to purchase Mignon's freedom — certainly needs no weapons to make his point. Granted that with the SFO orchestra on stage, there is only a narrow strip left for action, but why not have one of the Merolini apprentice stage directors try to introduce something new as a relief from Rallo's routine?

Speaking of the orchestra, it played very well under the baton of Eric Melear, associate music director of the Houston Grand Opera. Orchestral accompaniment was consistent and singer-supporting in the long and varied program of substantial excerpts from Mignon, The Barber of Seville, Verdi's Luisa Miller, Puccini's Madama Butterfly, Rossini's La Cenerentola, Bizet's Carmen ... and a far too long scene from Handel's Semele.

Eskandani as Rosina, with Alexander Elliott as FigaroAs Semele, Talya Lieberman sang and acted with panache and impressive vocal staying power. Lei was the self-effacing Jupiter, trying to protect the ambitious future mother of Dionysus from his fully divine appearance. Nian Wang earned a deeply felt boo-hiss as the jealous Juno, plotting Semele's destruction.

Wang kept impressing in smaller roles like Suzuki to Maria Fasciano's soaring Madame Butterfly, raising expectations for her appearance as Carmen at the end of the program. She met those expectations easily.

As Carmen's lover and killer, Chong Wang sang a very promising Don José; his is a lyric and well-projected voice we should hear more and in many roles.

Elliott and Matthew Stump shone in the Cenerentola duet as Dandini and Don Magnifico as the prince-pretender unmasked himself as a servant, unfit for Magnifico's daughters.

Next up: Don Giovanni.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].