Arianna Rodriguez and Nikola Printz
Arianna Rodriguez and Nikola Printz in the Schwabacher Recital “The Secret Garden” | Credit: Kristen Loken/San Francisco Opera

Like many art-song programs, last week’s Schwabacher Recital featured songs in a half-dozen languages — English, German, French, Spanish, Russian, and Korean — but the lingua franca of the evening was the language of flowers.

Wednesday’s program at the Taube Atrium Theater, “The Secret Garden,” was curated by the noted tenor Nicholas Phan to highlight four singers in their second year in the Adler Fellowship Program, San Francisco Opera’s distinguished residency for advanced young professionals.

The songs, in a number of musical styles, had in common not only their floral imagery but also a grounding in the Romantic metaphor of human life as a flower. Flowers blossom and die; so do our fleeting joys. Accordingly, there were plenty of melancholy moments, punctuated by occasional jollity.

Canadian soprano Olivia Smith brought a winsome expressivity to a set of songs about lilacs (by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ernest Chausson, and Lili Boulanger), visibly and vocally catching the swift changes of mood. In a later set, she delivered a passionate rendition of Richard Strauss’s “Heimliche Aufforderung” (Secret invitation).

Olivia Smith
Olivia Smith with Yang Lin in “The Secret Garden” | Credit: Kristen Loken/San Francisco Opera

Bass-baritone Jongwon Han more than filled the Atrium Theater with his commanding voice and presence, which was especially effective in his rendition of a folk song from his native Korea. In other numbers — as in Franz Schubert’s beautiful and sorrow-infused “Nachtstück” (Night piece) — Han’s strong vocal and dramatic affect left little room for more intimate and varied vocal colorations.

Soprano Arianna Rodriguez gave a playful performance of Aaron Copland’s “Nature, the gentlest mother,” on a text by Emily Dickinson. Rodriguez’s flair for humor also brought an appropriate spark to Henry Purcell’s “Sweeter than Roses” (perhaps you can guess what’s “sweeter”) and blossomed in the witty “The Cherry Blossom Wand” by the British American composer Rebecca Clarke.

The most compelling performances of the evening came from mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz (who uses they/them pronouns and recently starred in Georges Bizet’s Carmen at both Opera San Jose and Festival Opera). With a richly colored and flexible voice, complemented by a powerfully expressive physicality, Printz brought sorrow and passion to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s “Oh, Roses for the Flush of Youth” and to an inspired performance of “Smile O voluptuous cool-breathed earth,” Walt Whitman’s poetry set by contemporary composer Stacy Garrop. Printz’s standout song was Schubert’s “Viola” — an intense drama full of emotional pivots, which ended with Printz on their knees, mourning a lost, abandoned flower.

Curtain call
The curtain call for Yang Lin, Olivia Smith, Jongwon Han, Nikola Printz, and Arianna Rodriguez | Credit: Kristen Loken/San Francisco Opera

All the singers were admirably coached, delivering their material with insightful theatricality and ear-popping diction. Coach and accompanist Yang Lin — also a second-year Adler Fellow — was an excellent collaborative pianist, alternatively supportive and assertive.

Appropriately, actual flowers were part of the drama, fetchingly entwined in the women’s hair and gifted to members of the audience during the surprise encore, “Are You Going to San Francisco?” (If you don’t remember, the next line is “Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.”) The attire was also fetchingly garden-oriented, with Rodriguez in a peach-blossom dress, Smith in forest green, and Printz in a pale blue and lime suit. There was lots of glitter on their shoes as well.

Bravo to the Adler Program for bringing such great musicians to San Francisco and helping them to assemble such an enjoyable garden of delights. The third and final Schwabacher Recital this season will be Wednesday, April 3 in the Atrium Theater, featuring mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey and pianist Carrie-Ann Matheson, artistic director of the SF Opera Center.