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San Francisco Conservatory Opera

The Marriage of Figaro

Judith Yan
Richard Harrell

April 6, 2006

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We Appreciate

Mozart by the Young

By Janos Gereben

Instead of the coveted pleasure of reporting young prodigies meeting the greatest prodigy in the history of music on his terms, the task here is to account for fine work by the young ones and to heap praises on their professional guides. Conductor Judith Yan and stage director Richard Harrell did outstanding work when the San Francisco Conservatory Opera Theater took on the daunting task of a fully produced version of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in Fort Mason last weekend.

Paul Murray (Count Almaviva)
Jennie Lister (Susanna)

Previous Conservatory Opera productions — such as Hansel and Gretel and La Cenerentola — were more appropriate for young voices. Music director Andrew Mogrelia had the "kids" attempt to reach beyond their grasp, but when it comes to Mozart, that's an awfully tall order. Some former Conservatory students — such as Elza van den Heever, coincidentally appearing in the Schwabacher Debut Recital on Sunday — have made one sit up and take notice very early in their studies; no similar vocal lightning struck at this performance.

Passionate and precise conductor

Yan's leadership, both passionate and precise, created wonders from the Conservatory student orchestra, with long passages of exceptional playing, squeezed as the musicians were between the stage and the audience in pit-less Cowell Theater. With concertmaster Natasha Makhijani, principal violist Min-Jung Shon, and principal cellist Jia-mo Chen, the 14-member string section — supported by eight winds, four brass, and Stan Munci's discreet timpani — produced a "big sound" (without turning noisy) and played consistently, overcoming an occasional thinning of the music, easy to understand under the circumstances. By the end of Act Two, the elements jelled, and the music poured forth with impressive cohesion.

When Yan has a professional orchestra, as at last year's Merola production of The Rake's Progress, she is easily among the most promising young conductors around. The fact that she got this kind of performance from Conservatory students adds significantly to her credit.

Jennifer Nadig (Cherubino)
Jennie Lister (Susanna)

Photos by
Rory McNamara

Harrell, former head of the S.F. Opera Center, has a great deal of experience working with young artists, and he pulled together a decent stage production, well supported by assistance for sets (Aiyana Trotter), costumes (Kyra), and lighting (Lawrence Bluhm). Cowell being the site of a horrendously ugly Eurotrash-wannabe Mozart production (La Finta Giardiniera) during the previous Opera administration, it was a relief to see a simple and honest staging that did not distract from the music while helping to tell the story.

The brightest voice, even if limited in volume and projection, and most spirited performance came from Jennie Litster as Susanna (the role sung by Sepideh Moafi at other performances of the double-cast opera). Litster went beyond the adequate-to-fair level of singing from Patrycja Poluchowicz's Countess (Elizabeth Amisano in the other cast) and Jennifer Nadig's Cherubino (Kara Masek).

The men generally brought good projection to their roles, with Paul Murray in the title role (Philip Sokolov), Adam Meza as the Count (Justin Smith), and Trey Costerisan as Don Basilio (A.J. Glueckert).

(Janos Gereben is a regular contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice. His e-mail address is [email protected])

©2006 Janos Gereben, all rights reserved