Last night the War Memorial Opera House hosted the conclusion of this summer’s Merola Opera Program. This is the annual twelve-week program conceived to cultivate the emerging talents of those seeking to make their careers on the opera stage. Through a series of staged performances known as the Summer Festival, the 23 participating vocalists are given several opportunities to present themselves to the general public. The Festival then concludes with a Grand Finale production giving all participants a crack at performing on the same stage as the San Francisco Opera, accompanied by an appropriately sized instrumental ensemble in the orchestra pit led last night by conductor Rory Macdonald. All staging was the work of one of the participating trainees, Apprentice Stage Director Aria Umezawa.
The program itself was a selection of nineteen solo performances and group scenes presenting music composed in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. This usually leads to as much variation in level of performances as in musical content, and last night’s Grand Finale offering was no different from those in the past in this regard. Nevertheless, it was sadly shy of those memorable moments that make the overall variability worth the while. By the time the curtain rang down on Prince Orlofsky’s party in Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, it seemed as if the moments that reverberated most in memory had come from the very beginning, when Macdonald gave a delightfully crisp account of the overture to that operetta.
The problem seemed to be that none of the vocalists ever managed to find a secure comfort zone in any of the selections that were performed. This left memory straining to pick out even a few distinguishing fragments. The most vivid of these was probably that of Jana McIntyre’s account of Blonde reading the riot act to Osmin at the beginning of the second act of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 384 Die Entführung aus dem Serail (the abduction from the seraglio). Unfortunately, her Osmin made a poor match with a voice that was neither strong enough or deep enough. This mean that Blonde’s technique of teasing by imitation never really hit the mark, since what she was teasing never really registered with the audience.
The difficulty may well have been that each of the vocalists was laboring under too much to do. The first priority, clearly, was mustering the strength to project consistently to the entire space of the War Memorial Opera House, no mean feat when compared with the intimacy of the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where all the other public performances took place. Add to that the heavy demands of detail in Umezawa’s direction, so focused on the microlevel that the broader strokes of each scene were never convincingly conveyed, if they were conveyed at all. Finally, the audience was left relatively up in the air, since the projected titles presented all the translations of the texts being sung but never identified opera and composer, as had been done in previous Finale productions. (Lighting was such that the program was not particularly easy to read. The creators of past Merola supertitles int he War Memorial Opera House recognized this and acted accordingly.)
Nevertheless, the audience was a sympathetic one. It seemed as if each selection made enough of an impression for shouts of “Bravo!” on the other side of the proscenium. Style, even if only on a superficial level, managed to prevail over content; and perhaps that is all that matters in an occasion that is primarily celebratory.