Here we are again...

There's a song by the 70's rock band Nazareth called "Telegram" which was a favorite of mine as a teenager. There's a strong sense of nostalgia and ennui permeating the song from start to finish, which is essentially about the life of a performer. After a couple of minutes of driving rock with a percussive piano providing as much of the beat as the drums, the song has a bridge to the Byrds' "So You Wanna be a Rock and Roll Star" that's very reminiscent of what Queen was also doing at that time. At the six minute mark the song's denouement begins- a Beatles-esque final stanza with these lyrics, performed in kind of sing-song, dance hall manner:
Here we are again, singin' the same old songs / Lookin for someone who will sing along / Here we are again playin' the same old scenes / Lookin'for someone who will share our dreams / Here we are again facing the same old sights / Lookin' for someone who will share our nights

The tune entered my mind as Penelope and I gingerly made our way into the small, crowded Press Room of the opera house last night and has been lodged there ever since. Entering the room, there, in the back corner, I espied Axel and Ms. D, wine and snacks in hand. It then struck me that it was two years ago the three of us had attended this very same event and it was that night I met Maria Gostrey. So much has happened since then, and in retrospect that evening seems to be the starting point for two years of lust, desire, madness & passion. After the performance, as Axel, Ms D, the Opera Tattler, Penelope and I were standing on the sidewalk in front of the house discussing the performers, I had a sense of inverted deja vu. This time there would be no blonde descending the steps in a Cavalli gown, yet here we were, once again. It was a palpable sensation which is still lingering.

We were there for the Merola Grand Finale- an evening dedicated to showcasing some of the best aspiring young opera singers in arias and set pieces, concluding a summer of intensive training and career development. The evening began with the SFO Orchestra, led by Johannes Debus, playing the overture to Rossini's Semiramide- an odd choice that didn't really work well as it limped along. Throughout the rest of the evening Debus would lead the orchestra well, though on more than one occasion the young singers struggled to be heard over it and some simply disappeared into the sound altogether. By the concluding number three hours later- again Rossini- everything seemed to be in place.

 Mark Diamond, Scott Quinn, Elizabeth Zharoff, Joo Wan Kang and Cooper Nolan.

Photo by Stefan Cohen

Scott Quinn and Mark Diamond (who was an impressive Figaro in the recent Barber) then performed “Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet's Pearl Fishers, and both men could have benefited by singing with greater volume, though I can only imagine how difficult it is to be in the first slot in such a large house.

Elizabeth Zharoff, who floored me in her Schwabacher performance, toned her volume way down while singing “Suis-je gentille ainsi?…Je marche sur tous les chemins” from Massenet's Manon. If I had one expectation of greatness among the women from this year's group it would be Zharoff, but tonight she seemed like a different performer than when I had heard her previously. She could still clearly be heard, and her voice has a beautiful tone, but when one has that kind of power I want to hear it let loose at full bore and for this piece she didn't.

Next came Guodong Feng's “Zazà, piccolo zingara” from Zazà, a Leoncavallo opera I hope to one day hear somewhere in its entirety but probably never will. Feng sang the brief aria with a burnished tone and it seemed to pass by very quickly, leaving wanting to hear more.

Laura Krumm, who was also impressive at the Schwabacher concert, started off strongly with Bel raggio lusinghier,” from Semiramide, but midway the song flagged, though she recovered her energy nicely by the end.

Phillipe Sly was an excellent King as he sang “Andiam, fidi, al consiglio…Invida sorte avara” from Handel's Ariodante. His was one of the strongest performances of the night.

Singing “Sei tu?…Minacciata è la mia vita” from Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, Renée Rapier and Heath Huberg had difficulty drawing me into their duet. I'm not sure this selection worked to the advantage of either, but thankfully Rapier got a chance to really shine in the evening's conclusion. She looked great in her tux- the best sartorial choice of the evening.

“Vy tak pichalni…Ya vas lubyu”- from Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades,  was beautifully sung by Suchan Kim, though I found myself mesmerized by Zharoff's scapulae as she stood with her back to the audience during the aria.

Next came the one true star turn of the night, as I expected it may be. Jonathan Michie proved his magnificent performance as Figaro a couple of weeks back was no fluke. Singing the gorgeous "Batter My Heart" from Dr. Atomic,  he owned the stage with both presence and vocal excellence. He's truly magnetic and I hope he's going to be an Adler Fellow because he's certainly a singer to watch. Fantastic.

Though Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail is an opera I really have no pleasure in hearing, Suzanne Rigden and Pei Xin Chin were both in excellent form for the comedic duet. Rigden has a wonderful stage presence to match her bright, strong voice and Chen's journeyman-like work ethic and booming bass made him an audience favorite.
Deborah Nansteel didn't own “Divinités du Styx” from Gluck's Alceste as much I thought she might, but here again I found the selection of material not to her advantage. If anyone onstage should have been singing Verdi, Nansteel would be the one.

Xi Wang and Cooper Nolan performed “Lucia, perdona…Sulla tomba che rinserra…Verranno a tefrom Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. I heard Wang sing part of the mad scene from Lucia in a master class, so it seems she's determined to have the role in her rep, but Nolan was the one who really shined in the duet, his voice a perfect fit for the role of Edgardo.
Joo Won Kang, who possesses and extraordinarily lovely baritone, sang “L’orage s’est calmé…O Nadir…” from The Pearl Fishers  to great effect.

Marina Boudart Harris gave a truly memorable performance as Strauss' Arabella, singing “Das war sehr gutgave  Mandryka” with John Maynard. The pair combined to make the sole German work on the bill one the evening's musical highlights.
For all his efforts, I couldn't get past the unintended novelty of Pei Xin Chen performing O patria…O tu Palermo” from Verdi's I vespri siciliani and the sight of him wielding a succession of increasingly absurd firearms during aria caused laughter in the audience. The night's one true misfire.
At this point the night began to flag, not helped by two more Italian arias, neither of which served their singers particularly well, though they sang them with conviction: Daniel Curran's “Tornami a dir che m’ami” from Donizetti's Don Pasquale, and Adam Lau paired with John Maynard in “Il rival salvar tu dêi…Suoni la tromba” from Bellini's I Puritani. More variety in the scheduling, please.

Renee Rapier, Philippe Sly, Cooper Nolan, Suzanne Rigden and Deborah Nansteel. Photo by Stefan Cohen.

The finale was a delight on every level- an extended excerpt from Rossini's L’Italiana in Algeri which was brilliantly choreographed by stage director Ragnar Conde. The stage was full of comedic and visual flair. Rapier was a sexy and vivacious Isabella, Cooper Nolan not only sang Lindoro with aplomb but did it while executing moves that would have made Jackie Gleason proud. Phillipe Sly got in another good turn as Mustafa as did Rigdon as Elvira, and everyone onstage made this come vibrantly alive to close out the evening on a high note.

After it was all over and the OT, Ms D and Axel made their way south down Van Ness, Penelope and I headed north and ended up at the newly opened Jasper's, hopeful they could provide a decent Manhattan to end the evening. Our bartender, a delightful woman named Allison with an amazing head of hair, was not only knowledgeable about bourbon, but has a genuine enthusiasm for it. We took her suggestion to use Blanton's in place of Woodford, though I silently thought the idea of using Blanton's in a mixed drink a bit much. She happily re-made our drinks when we sent them back, requesting a different vermouth than Punta Mes, which is just wrong to use in a Manhattan. The second time she got it right (for us, that is). Some things won't change.