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A Mezzo Reaches for the Sky

May 15, 2007

You may notice her 6-foot-plus height first, but when Kendall Gladen begins to sing, she makes another, far more important impression. Even at an age that's young for a mezzo, and at the beginning of her career, Gladen has the "it" of the It Girl, a certain something, the je ne sais quoi. She had fierce, if collegial, competition Monday night: four excellent singers from the San Francisco Opera Center, at a concert closing the Music at Meyer season in Temple Emanu-El's Martin Meyer Sanctuary. Soprano Heidi Melton has a huge, rafter-shaking voice. Soprano Ji Young Yang's delivery is bright and stunningly agile. A fellow mezzo, Katharine Tier, sings with power and authority. Matthew O'Neill is a tenor born to the stage. And yet, this listener came away from the concert with Gladen's Carmen uppermost in mind.
The mezzo sang the "Card Trio" (with Yang and Tier), conveying perfectly the controlled fear and cool dignity in that fatalistic soliloquy upon seeing her doom in the cards. The evening closed with the final scene of Carmen, with Gladen proudly defying Don José (O'Neill, in his best performance of the evening), shifting from dismissive, unruffled self-assurance to rage that was scary even from the safety of the audience.

Gladen's other appearances were in a scene from Samuel Barber's Vanessa and in the program-opening Lakmé "Flower Duet" by Delibes. Here, her deep, broad, warm voice blended beautifully with Yang's bright, soaring soprano. I would have liked to hear a lot more from the mezzo, now feeling extranostalgic for her previous Merola and Adler performances, especially a hilarious and memorable Baba the Turk in The Rake's Progress and an outstanding Mercédès in a mainstage production of Carmen.
Melton's Progress From Wagner to Strauss
Melton's "Dich, teure Halle," from Wagner's Tannhäuser, was a jaw-dropper, with a big "heldensoprano" sound wedded to a fine legato. She had minor problems in the high notes, one being slightly shrill, the other just a bit flat. Melton went on to two even better performances: a dramatic, moving "Embroidery Aria" from Britten's Peter Grimes, and a majestic Marschallin in the abbreviated "Final Trio" from Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. In the trio, Yang's Sophie and Tier's Octavian were outstanding and well-matched.

Yang, strangely underutilized until now in both the Merola and the Adler programs, had a busy evening. Her "Fire Aria" from Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortilèges and, especially, "Myself I Shall Adore" from Handel's Semele, were fluent and graceful. The silvery quality in her voice was reminiscent of the young Elizabeth Futral's virtuosity as a coloratura soprano.

Tier had an unnecessarily rough start. As she proved later on, she can joke with the audience and win it over, but her first appearance was oddly shy and awkward. She walked out on stage without looking at the audience or making contact. In a small recital venue, that's the wrong body language. Perhaps it was more than a coincidence that it was that first aria, "Parto, parto," from Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, in which Tier made the least impression. In the two Rosenkavalier excerpts, she displayed a strong, well-placed voice, as well as consummate musicality.

In a concert by Adler Fellows from the Opera Center, a training institution with a proud history, lack of anything resembling "production values" was surprising and unfortunate. The program offered no information whatsoever about the music, much less English text for French and German works; tentative and amateurish introductions from the stage were poor substitutes. Lack of preparation and forethought was especially jarring in the few misguided and awkward attempts to turn the concert into a semistaged performance. As you listen to singers standing in front of the piano, feet away from you, the last thing you want to see is the tenor wrestle the mezzo to the ground, especially when she was singing so well.

At least the piano contribution was an important plus from the Center. Instead of the overloud accompaniment for past Adler concerts in the hall (which has been advertised, perhaps ironically, as "acoustically superb"), Monday night offered an excellent, self-effacing, supportive pianist, Lara Bolton. My only other experience with her was not exactly a happy one, in a tiny venue, that she couldn't help overwhelming. But this time, "Brava!" was the only possible verdict. Playing without a page-turner, and staying in the background, Bolton provided flawless accompaniment, performed several excellent but not self-important solos, and paced the young singers as best a "conductor out of sight" can.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].