Schwabacher 2011

As we sat in the Herbst Theater on Friday night, waiting for the Schwabacher Summer Concert to begin, Rosine Stoltz stopped leafing through the program, leaned over and quietly said to me " I Capuleti e i Montecchi is going to be on the [San Francisco Opera] schedule next season."

"How do you know that? And who's going to be in it?" I replied.

She answered my first question, but I can't divulge the answer. She couldn't answer the second, nor did she have any further information on what else was coming. Her sources like to keep things to themselves.

 "Do you like Donizetti?" she queried upon further examination of the program.

"I used to think I didn't, but then I kept seeing his operas and I loved them every time- so I realized my supposed dislike of Donizetti had nothing to do with the works themselves, but rather was based on some sort of belief that I should dislike Donizetti. But I don't. In fact I like him a lot."

The lights went down and the conductor, Robert Wood strode onstage and led the orchestra through a somewhat limp, perhaps even flaccid, account of the overture to Rossini's masterpiece L'Italiana in Algeri.  This didn't bother me too much, as no one in attendance had really come to hear the music- tonight was all about the singers. This annual concert is a showcase for Merola Opera Program participants. We were there to get a glimpse of the next generation of opera stars early in their careers.

The format is extended scenes from operas, and the first was from Verdi's Don Carlo, with Scott Quinn in the title role, Guodong Feng as his trusty side-kick Rodrigo, and Joo Won Kang briefly onstage at the beginning to make the most from one or two lines as a monk. Kang's vocals left the greatest impression in this one, as the material seemed to be slightly just beyond the grasp of Quinn and Feng. They both returned for another segment of the same opera in the same roles later in the first half, this time joined by Deborah Nansteel as Princess Eboli. In this latter segment both fared better, with Quinn especially seeming to rise to the occasion with excellent diction, but Nansteel dominated the scene- she appears to be a serious contender to be the next Dolora Zajick, a Merola alum herself.

Between the two segments from Carlo came a scene from Act 1 of Bellini's  I Capuleti e i Montecchi, featuring Elizabeth Zharhoff as Giuletta and Laura Krumm as her Romeo. When Zharhoff, inexplicably listed in the program as a soprano, opened her mouth and began to sing, it was one of those moments you wait for but rarely encounter- I could feel her voice hit me with a physical sensation as if it were a caress. I've never felt something like that, even sitting 15 feet away from Heidi Melton belting it out in full voice. It made me want to see if she could break a glass. She possesses a huge, distinct tone that on repeated listenings would probably be instantly recognizable, despite less her less than perfect diction. She was thrilling. Krumm, inexplicably billed as a mezzo in the program, held her own against Zarhoff's much larger voice by singing in a crystal clear contralto that managed to pierce through Zarhoff's caress like a razor sharp knife. At the close, when they both ended the scene by singing the word amore, it was Krumm's voice that one heard distinctly chiming through. Theirs were the most impressive performances of the evening.

Elisabeth Zharhoff

Laura Krumm

Next was a scene from Donizetti's Lucia, with Cooper Nolan and Joo Wan Kang as the enemies Edgardo and Enrico. Nolan and Kang suffered a bit by comparison coming after Krumm and Zarhoff and I still recall seeing this scene so memorably done a couple of seasons back with Giuseppe Filianoti and Gabriele Viviani tearing it up in the same roles. Such is the peril of using the standard rep in situations such as this. Still, it made me and Rosine wonder how Sheri Greenawald programs the voices of the particpants to the content with such impressive results.

After the intermission came an extended segment of Rigoletto, with Xi Wang as Gilda, Cooper Nolan as the Duke, Joo Wan Kang back onstage in the title role, and Krumm returning as Giovanna.  I would have preferred to hear Krumm as Gilda, just to hear her sing "Caro Nome," but that's just selfishness on my part. Wang gave an impassioned, sincere account and Kang brought forth all of the jester's anguish. Yet the whole didn't quite gel and I'm not sure these major Verdi roles are a good fit for many of these obviously talented singers at this early stage of their career.

The final scene was from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin featuring Marina Boudart Harris as Tatiana and Suchan Kim as Onegin. Onegin sounded strange coming after all that Italian and the melodramatic stage direction was a bit distracting, but the singers gave it everything, especially Kim, whose performance of the cad Onegin was more emotionally vulnerable than I've witnessed before. It would be interesting to see what he would do with the role in its entirety, and I would also like to hear Harris sing the "letter scene" to get a better sense of her voice.

More Merola participants will be performing Rossini's Barber of Seville August 4th -7th at Herbst, and they all take the stage of the War Memorial Opera House  for the Merola Grand Finale on August 20th. You can find  more information about these events and the performers here.