It takes a rare, special talent to restore magic to an old warhorse. A young soprano did it in the War Memorial Opera House on Saturday night.
The challenge for Amanda Batista, singing in the Grand Finale of the Merola Opera Program’s 65th season, was to bring new thrill to good old Madama Butterfly — and also to soar from “small, modest, quiet” to “vast as the sky” within five lines and a handful of notes:
“Love me, please ... / We are a people used to small, / modest, quiet things, / to a tenderness gently caressing, / yet vast as the sky / and as the waves of the sea.”
It was done and done. In the Act 1 duet with tenor Moisés Salazar’s Pinkerton, Batista brought new appreciation to the work with her note-perfect, musically flawless performance, which exploded properly, shaking the rafters not just with volume but with the kind of elemental power that befits Elektra or Fidelio. Call it “lyric soprano-goes-helden.” (There is precedent: The greatest performance of Butterfly I’ve seen in the War Memorial was by Patricia Racette, also of a “vast as the sky” voice.)
The Merola event saw 26 young singers (supported by four pianists/coaches and one stage director) perform a somewhat shorter concert than the usual three-hour parade of talent — all against the huge sheer floor-to-ceiling background set of Eugene Onegin, part of San Francisco Opera’s centennial season opening next month. The finale’s program had an unusual number of rarities, including an oratorio aria.
After the pandemic hiatus — which forced the Merola Program to skip its 64th season — and the pause between SF Opera’s summer and fall seasons, attendance was understandably low. This could have been a chance to “paper the house” with students and opera newbies — a good idea, difficult to execute.
Conductor Patrick Furrer and the SF Opera Orchestra provided reliable accompaniment but without the driving energy of past Merola finales. 2022 Stage Director Matthew J. Schulz did an admirably restrained job, not interfering with a concert intended to feature voices. Nowhere would regieoper be more inappropriate.
Here, then, are some of the names to look for on the posters of the world’s great opera houses in the near future, along with impressions based on just a few minutes of experiencing the talent of those who made it to the program through the impossible obstacle race of being selected from 1,300 applicants in 650 auditions worldwide:
— Countertenor Cody Bowers’s quiet dignity in presenting “D’un sventurato amante ... Pena tiranna” from Handel’s Amadigi di Gaula
— Soprano Olivia Prendergast, with outstanding projection, and tenor Yunghyun Park’s fine partnering, in “Ange adorable” from Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette
— Tenor Chance Jonas-O’Toole, with comic and musical mastery, in the rarity of “Albert the Good” from Benjamin Britten’s unfortunately neglected Albert Herring
— Soprano Adia Evans and baritone Scott Lee in a brief nod to William Grant Still’s neglected works, here the duet “Listen, Mary, trust me” from Highway 1, USA
— Bass-baritone William Socolof in perhaps the evening’s greatest challenge: the quiet, unshowy aria “Ô misère des rois” from Hector Berlioz’s oratorio L’enfance du Christ. He succeeded, deserving more applause than he received.
— Soprano Maggie Kinabrew and bass-baritone Seungyun Kim returned the energy that was sometimes missing in the hall during the evening with “Quanto amore” from Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore.
— The duet for characters Leïla and Zurga from Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, “Qu’ai-je vu? … Je frémis, je chancelle,” received a splendid performance from soprano Olivia Smith and baritone Andres Cascante.
— Mezzo-soprano Veena Akama-Makia gave what must have been the War Memorial premiere of “I love him” from Jeanine Tesori’s 2016 Blue.
— From an old Merola favorite, Pietro Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz, the duet “Suzel, buon dì” received an excellent lyrical performance by soprano Celeste Morales and tenor Sahel Salam.
— Bass-baritone Le Bu did justice to “O tu, Palermo” from Verdi’s I vespri siciliani.
— When I saw a certain SF Opera commission and premiere, John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, represented on the program, I expected the landmark Act 1 finale, the baritone aria “Batter my heart,” but instead, mezzo-soprano Nikola Adele Printz conquered with “Am I in your light?”