The 60th-annual Merola Program came to a delightful conclusion Saturday evening in the War Memorial Opera House with the correctly named Grand Finale. This was the culmination of Merola 2017, which provided an all-expenses-paid, 12-week summer opera-training program in San Francisco for 29 young artists from Canada, Poland, China, Colombia, Mexico, and 14 states.
The three-hour long evening of arias and scenes began on David Hockney’s ancient but still impressive Turandot set, the San Francisco Opera season’s opening production apparently already in place.
Stage director Victoria Crutchfield had a simple and clever idea of notes and flowers passed between exiting and entering singers, which allowed continuity between the largely unrelated opera scenes, with nothing forced and ample time for applause.
Antony Walker conducted the orchestra in a vigorous performance of Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture, and then provided accompaniment to the young singers — with varying success. The strings sounded great, but tempi didn’t always coincide with what was happening on the stage.
In the midst of so much young talent and promise, there was also mature, accomplished artistry as Samantha Hankey became Richard Strauss’s Composer — voice and presence — in an affecting performance. With Jana McIntyre as Zerbinetta, this was a gripping Prelude to Ariadne auf Naxos. This came just days after Hankey also conquered in the title role in the Merola Program’s Cenerentola.
Young as she is, Alice Chung may soon be ready for Wagner, an educated guess from her performance of un-Wagnerian verismo, Musetta’s aria from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s La bohème. Yes, Leoncavallo, not Puccini, among the numerous (and much appreciated) diversions from warhorses in the evening’s programming.
More familiar Leoncavallo came in the evening’s second half, when Alexandra Razskazoff and Dimitri Katotakis sang the Nedda-Silvio duet from I Pagliacci, on another, even more dramatic Hockney Turandot set.
Tenors to the fore: Xingwa Hao sang with lyrical artistry, refraining from belting out Lehár’s “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from the The Land of Smiles, and then returned as Riccardo from Verdi’s The Masked Ball, with Natalie Image as Oscar. Addison Marlor’s lyric tenor impressed in a scene from Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon, with Edith Grossman in the title role.
Also remarkable was Thomas Glass’s Ford from Falstaff, and there was first-class entertainment from Ashley Dixon as Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon, barefoot, clutching one glass slipper, and royal comedy from Andres Acosta singing Beppe’s aria from Donizetti’s Rita.
Merola audience veterans might have expected yet another Rossini finale to end the evening, but in the event, the riotous scene from Il viaggio a Reims turned out to be a joy to experience.