San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellows program is famous as a training ground for opera’s next stars. In their year-end concert (“The Future is Now”), the current class of fellows promised to continue that tradition. They were also a testament to the wonderful variety of operatic voices. Three tenors, three sopranos, and three baritones/basses dazzled with their distinctive vocal and dramatic gifts.
For sheer charisma, bass-baritone Brad Walker was the standout. He owned the stage whenever he appeared. His devilish, lopsided smile as Méphistophélès in a duet from Faust was simultaneously winning and chilling. His aria from The Marriage of Figaro left me hoping he’d soon be starring as Figaro in San Francisco. He gave each phrase clear, distinct significance and never hesitated to sacrifice perfect tone to dramatic emphasis.
What the other bass and baritone lacked in acting chops, they made up in vocal polish. In an aria from Les Vêpres Siciliennes, Anthony Reed’s syrupy bass was consistent throughout his range, and he maintained perfect control at all volumes. His legato never wavered — though it seemed to come at the cost of diction, particularly in Italian (as Dulcamara in a duet from L’Elisir d’Amore). Baritone Andrew G. Manea began with an often-inaudible contribution to “Sie woll’n mich heiraten” from Arabella but rallied in the second half with a show-stopping “Il balen del suo sorriso” from Il Trovatore. He excited the audience with soaring top notes, a crackling tone, and commanding resonance.
Tenor Amitai Pati’s strength was the transcendent beauty of his sound. The sweetness and delicacy of his voice shone as he sang an aria from The Pearl Fishers. Soprano Amina Edris also impressed with a smooth, sparkling sound and pleasant lightness singing “O quante volte” from I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Rounding out the family trio, tenor Pene Pati (Amitai’s brother and Amina’s husband) showed off a warm, powerful voice in an obscure selection from Donizetti’s unfinished opera Il Duca d’Alba. It was a good choice, with plenty of the high notes where Pene has such thrilling squillo. An Amina-Pene duet from Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, in contrast, did neither of them any favors.
The audience favorites were surely the largest voices. Soprano Sarah Cambidge’s “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” (Ballo in maschera) rang through the house. The aria highlighted her sweeter, softer tones as well as her resounding loud notes, and it gave her a chance to prove that she carries her vocal power throughout her range. Kyle van Schoonhoven showed us the meaning of “Heldentenor” with a huge, crisply sung “Mein lieber Schwan” from Lohengrin. Toni Marie Palmertree finished off the night with the mad scene from Bellini’s Il Pirata. She attacked the coloratura with punchy energy, maneuvering her big voice with great agility. She also got in some deliciously chesty low notes.
Conductor James Gaffigan shaped the orchestral lines masterfully, while keeping the evening’s focus on the singers (and usually refraining from overwhelming them). Coach and pianist Adler Fellows Jennifer Szeto and John Elam joined the onstage tableau in the second half of the concert, and even gamely sang the choruses during the final aria. So did stage director Aria Umezawa, the force behind the concert’s naturalistic blocking and smooth flow between pieces. We ended where we began, with all the Adler Fellows forming a gold-framed portrait (a clever re-use of a set piece from Girls of the Golden West). This concert marks the end of their tenure in the Adler program for many beloved singers: Pene Pati, Edris, Reed, Palmertree, and Walker. Fortunately, San Francisco Opera has a tradition of casting former Adler Fellows. I hope we’ll hear more from these ones soon.