Merola 2012: still smoking

Elizabeth Baldwin, soprano.

This year's Merola Grand Finale featured 23 singers performing selections from 19 operas over the course of  nearly 3 hours. Despite the mammoth proportions, the concert felt largely seamless and for the most part flew by. Credit that to the abundant talent on the stage, a consistently engaged performance by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra under conductor Nicholas McGegan, and especially the mostly thoughtful staging of it all by director Jennifer Williams, which looked great on the set of San Francisco Opera's upcoming production of Moby Dick.

The first stand-out performance of the night was Erin Johnson's clear, bright turn as the Female Chorus in "Their spinning wheel unwinds dreams" from Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, but then Sarah Mesko and Casey Candebat performed "Ah! Mon courage m'abondonne..." from Massenet's Werther and a greater intensity began to emanate from the stage. Both singers projected an air of being ready for the War Memorial stage, and while Candebat may have gotten the slightly larger amount of the first sustained applause of the night, I thought Mesko burned a bit brighter. Either way, it was an impressive pairing, as were Jennifer Cherest (in an arresting gown) and Andrew Stenson who immediately followed them in "Mein Freund. Vrenunft!" from Lehar's Die lustige Witwe, though this could have been even better if Stenson spent more of his time singing to Cherest rather than the audience.

The second half of the concert got off to a very strong start with Suzanne Rigden (showing off a pair of fantastic shoes) and Aviva Fortunata sounding beautiful together in "Ich danke Fraulein..." from Struass' Arabella. Theo Lebow joined Cherest to impress the audience in "Voglio amar e disamar" from Handel's Alcina- the soprano's second marvelous turn of the night, accompanied by a memorable cello solo from the pit.

Joshua Baum, Seth Mease Carico and Gordon Bitner succeeded with the "Pappataci" number from Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri,  working well as an ensemble to nail the song's comedic elements. Chuanyue Wang, perhaps the most gifted tenor in this year's group, impressed with Donizetti's "Povero Ernesto!" from Don Pasquale, though one suspects he could have done even more with a stronger selection. He was followed by Elizabeth Baldwin's turn as Medora singing "Egli non riede ancora!" from Verdi's Il Corsaro in arguably the best vocal performance of the evening. Baldwin brought it all- a large, clear voice, great diction, and stage presence. Expect big things from her.

She was followed by the most delightful pairing of the evening: spunky and bright-voiced Rose Sawvel and Joseph Lattanzi in a sexy, bawdy, laughter-inducing performance of the "ZZZ Song," or more properly known as the "Duo de la mouche" from Offenbach's Orphee aux Enfers.

"Bevo al tuo fresco" from Puccini's La Rondine closed the evening and featured the entire group in the chorus (it was a nice touch to include the non-singing participants from the program here)- a perfect, elegant choice.

The only sour note was the decision to have singers smoking cigarettes during at least three of numbers, which is just ridiculous and lazy stage direction in the year 2012. Surely there are more interesting ways of illustrating a character than this? Rather than say anything about the character, all it does is pull the audience out of the moment, screaming that the singers themselves are showing a character, not portraying one, because not one could convince a single soul they do indeed, smoke. So stop the smoking onstage already- it's an outdated, overused cliche that works against the singer's performance. And it looks stupid.