S.F. Opera Adler Fellows Flying High

Janos Gereben on December 5, 2016
Pene Pati and Amina Edris charmed the audience in a duet from Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment | Credit: Kristen Loken

Tomorrow is here, indeed. San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellowship, the company’s residency program regularly delivers on promises to its chosen few artists and the audience at its annual “The Future Is Now” gala concert. On Friday, in Herbst Theater, there was brilliant proof of success: All 10 Adler Fellows showed tremendous progress, and the concert telegraphed the near future, when these artists will grace major stages, , including the War Memorial if San Francisco audiences are lucky.

Since the program’s creation in 1977, I have heard most of the Adlers performances and cannot recall one as consistently excellent as Friday’s. The concert was prepared and shaped by prominent faculty members, along with apprentice coach Adler Fellows Ronny Michael Greenberg and Jennifer Szeto.

The program was short on the usual hit parade (not a single Puccini excerpt), and uncommonly generous with rarities, such as the finale of Jules Massenet’s Cléopâtre, the exceptional mezzo Zanda Švede embracing the fatal kiss of the viper with a superb vocal and dramatic performance. Matthew Stump partnered her impressively as the dying Marc Anthony. Švede also sang Marja’s aria from Modest Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, and again was a tower of vocal and dramatic strength.   

Mezzo Nian Wang sang Serse's aria from the Handel opera | Credit: Kristen Loken

In contrast came husband-and-wife Pene Pati and Amina Edris, who flirted charmingly with each other as Marie and Tonio of Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment. With their program-enhanced vocal and dramatic security, they ruled the stage, and Pati was a hit, producing effortless, silvery, and powerful high notes. The tenor also starred in a duet from Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, with Nian Wang’s wonderful Juliet; and knocked Rodolfo’s aria from Verdi’s Luisa Miller out of the ballpark.

Edris dazzled with masterful legato in Isabelle’s aria from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable, and an amazing staccato as Oscar in the program-closing excerpt from Verdi’s A Masked Ball. Wang, who has also used the Adler year to take wing, delivered an affecting aria from Handel’s Serse.

Adler Fellows usually appear in comprimario roles on the company’s mainstage, but those who cover major roles occasionally get their turn in the limelight. Such was the case with soprano Toni Marie Palmertree, whose appearance in the title role of Madama Butterfly heralded a major career in the making. Even against that performance, Palmertree outdid herself at the gala concert as Nedda against the sensational Edward Nelson’s Silvio in a duet from Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci; as Elisabeth in Verdi’s Don Carlos, and Amelia in a Masked Ball excerpt.

Edward Nelson brought down the house with a scene from Britten's Billy Budd | Credit: Kristen Loken

The Pagliacci duet was especially memorable as both singers produced rich, centered voices, secure high notes, in a convincing, dramatic framework. Thalia Moore’s brief cello solo made a major contribution as did concertmaster Kay Stern’s work throughout the evening. The company’s new resident conductor, Jordi Bernàcer, impressed, being at home with a variety of music and staying with the singers.

Nelson was stunning in a long, challenging scene from Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, with warm, unaffected vocal beauty and natural, completely believable, stage presence; he looked just as young and handsome as the wronged sailor he portrayed. He was partnered by Anthony Reed, whose performances also included Sir Morosus’ somnolent “Wie schön ist doch die Musik” (How beautiful is music) from Richard Strauss’ Die Schweigsame Frau, and an aria from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko. 

Julie Adams and Brad Walker in a scene from Floyd's Susannah | Credit: Kristen Loken

The most established talent, with an already burgeoning career, soprano Julie Adams performed heroically and magnificently, against a sore throat impossible to detect (and known only from backstage rumors), her voice soaring freely, her normally flawless diction impacted only slightly. She sang the iconic “Glück das mir verblieb” (Happiness that remains to me) from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, and shone magnificently as Susanna in a scene from Carlisle Floyd’s eponymous opera, with Brad Walker's subtly menacing Reverend Blitch (a role too often made into a caricature, but not here).

Matthew Stump, a bass-baritone destined for stardom, opened and closed the evening, his voice at first outrivaling the orchestra’s (somewhat excessive) Wagnerian storm in “Die Frist ist um” (The term [of seven years] is up) from The Flying Dutchman, and in the finale as Renato in A Masked Ball.