July 15, 2019
The music peaked, sound permeated the hall, rapt attention gripped the audience, murder and revenge unfolded on stage: Anna Dugan’s noble Leonora collapsed, Jeff Byrnes’s vicious Count di Luna stabbed Victor Starsky’s heroic if unwise Manrico to death, only to have Alice Chung’s vengeful Azucena destroy him by crying out that he just killed his brother.
Yet moments after this violent action, the four joined the event’s other young singers in receiving thunderous applause and then — in the wings — embraced each other in a group hug.
Ah, the magic of opera. Drama, tragedy, exultation, collegial affection — all real, all at the same time. This was the conclusion of a varied program that introduced marvelous young artists in the 2019 SF Opera Merola Program’s first public performances Thursday and Saturday.
The concerts in the SF Conservatory of Music Concert Hall were like balm for opera fans stuck in the lull between the SF Opera’s summer and fall seasons.
One memorable aspect of the event was that neither the fiery finale nor wonderful performances of three other, popular warhorse excerpts could diminish the effect of an undramatic, but superbly performed duet from one of Richard Strauss’s least-known operas.
Strauss’s 1935 Die schweigsame Frau (The silent woman) has the same story as Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, about a rich man in his dotage — called Morosus, har-har-har — who is fooled by young lovers, enters a sham marriage, and learns his lesson.
In the excerpt at the Merola concert, soprano Hyeree Shin, from Cheon-an, South Korea, sang and impersonated Aminta/Timidia convinclingly as she seduced the old fool — demurely, but still allowing the audience to be in on the joke, and not overdoing the comedy. Shin’s bright timbre, effortless projection, intelligent phrasing, and impressive German diction all marked a young singer already well beyond the stage of “promise.”
Shin was paired exactly right with Stefan Egerstrom’s dramatically/vocally magnificent Morosus. The bass from Minnesota is a rare find for Merola, where his range has rarely been represented in proportion with other voice types.
Part of the responsibility for Shin’s and Egerstrom’s acting restraint and excellence surely belongs to the director of the concert, Jose Maria Condemi, himself an alumnus of the Merola Program. The splendid musical realization of the Strauss scene — as well as the rest of the concert — was to the credit of conductor Craig Kier and the Schwabacher Summer Concert Orchestra, which includes many members from the SF Opera and SF Ballet orchestras.
The concert opened with Act I of Puccini’s charming, operetta-like La rondine (The swallow) in a musical interpretation emphasizing drama over charm. Amber R. Monroe shone as Magda, in a star turn. Shin made her first appearance in the program as the perky maid Lisette; Victor Starsky (Prunier) and Jeff Byrnes (Rambaldo) had the men’s leading roles in the cast, which included much of the 2019 class of Merolini.
Chelsea Lehnea, the Yvette in La rondine, took center stage in the next selection, a scene from Act I of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, singing brilliantly in the title character’s big duet with Edgardo (Salvatore Atti). Chung sang the role of Alisa, Lucia’s companion.
The selection before the concert-closing Il trovatore was Act IV of Gounod’s Faust, with Atti in the title role, Anna Dugan as Marguerite (ready to make a quick change to Leonora next), Chung as Siebel, Laureano Quant as Valentin, and Andrew Dwan as a more-playful-than-mean Méphistophélès.
These Merolini are not in principal roles in the Aug. 1-6 performances of Jake Heggie’s If I Were You, but you can hear them front and center at the Aug. 17 Merola Finale in the Opera House, when everybody will have a solo turn.