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YEASS V. Flush of youth: 2022 Jensen Foundation Vocal Competition Finals & 2022 Merola Grand Finale

Bi-coastal tasting notes of this spring-through-summer's young artist harvest!

Jensen and Merola, plus 2009 flashback to Licia & Co.

I. Jensen Foundation Vocal Competition Finals (partial)


Baruch College (Auditorium)

Jonathan Kaufmann, tenor

La bohème: Che gelida manina

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Preislied

Ah: palpable warmth of timbre and presence, generously sunny-toned all the way to an unstrained, ringing C in the romanza della manina!

The immediately ensuing phrase «Or che mi conoscete», Kaufmann rendered «Or che mi conoscete», a rhythmic oddity one hopes he will abandon going forward.

His phrasing in the Wagner was a touch casual: it wanted the firmness uniquely gained by greater linguistic authority, and may young Mr. Kaufmann see fit to pursue that goal!

Voci del passato: The Preislied according to Helge Rosvænge and Lorenz Fehenberger.

Aubry Ballarò, soprano

Lucia di Lammermoor: Regnava nel silenzio

A Streetcar Named Desire: I want magic!

In her efforts to physically dramatize Lucia's anguished utterances (e.g. «ecco su quel margin, ah!»), Ballarò's body language had a contrary «distancing» effect, as if warning the audience of impending cries of unpleasantness. Those notes were (blessedly) no such thing: Ballarò's is a healthy-toned, flexible instrument with easy reach into the top, and one encourages her both to discard such gestures that ill serve her and to really trust the music in her physical presentation.

In the following selection, Blanche DuBois's monologue, Ballarò was more at ease gesturally and linguistically. As she continues through the romantic Italian repertoire, one encourages her to acquire the peculiar eloquence of elocution and phrasing upon which those operas live or die.

The two most experienced singers on the afternoon's program followed:

Alex DeSocio, baritone

Il barbiere di Siviglia: Largo al factotum

Faust: Ô sainte médaille – Avant de quitter ces lieux

DeSocio has a ready-set performance routine for this Grand Rossinian Cliché—verbal dexterity, top tones, gestural vocabulary—just wanting the firm consonants and lucid vowels of the Figaros most at home in the language. Valentin's more expansive musical canvas afforded him to more fully reveal lyricism and timbral appeal.

(In the central marziale section, DeSocio moved just too hastily through syllables, incurring the occasional Francofoible, e.g. «Délivré d'une triste passée [pensée], | j'irai chez chez le [chercher la] gloire».)

Voci del passato: Admittedly impressionistic of pitch yet communicating with his trademark sculpted Tuscan diction, Mario del Monaco: il gran Marione

—Figaro as one of Canio's commedia personas!—

and Lawrence Tibbett of the Grand American Baritonal Legacy.

Nicole Haslett, soprano

Hamlet: A vos jeux, mes amis

The Ballad of Baby Doe: Silver Aria

Even when sensibly abridged as in this performance, Ophélie's mad scene is a tricky number to «sell» in concert setting. Haslett sang with seriousness of purpose, aiming for a round middle register not frequently heard in higher sopranos, eschewing the score's optional extensions past top C-sharp. One would have wanted to see and hear more of the haunting and haunted gravitas of Ophélie's mood swings—after all, her culminating words are «Ah, cruel man, you see my tears! I'm dying for you!»—but thankfully she did not stoop to campery.

Haslett's brightest light is an merriness of spirit which made Baby Doe appealing—for once—and that one would like to see brighten the far corners of the so-called «soubrette» repertoire.

Voce odierna: The same «Silver», albeit transposed down a half-step to A-flat major, recently offered by Anna Netrebko and Malcolm Martineau to the Milanese audience in what very well might have been that aria's Scala premiere!

Shannon Keegan, mezzo-soprano

Der Rosenkavalier: Wie du warst!

Carmen: Séguédille

Giulio Cesare in Egitto: Cara speme

Rare and cherishable is an operatic artist of any experience level for whom song is inextricable from expression. Shannon Keegan is just such an artist, expressing from within the joint invention of composer and librettist and applying character behaviors one witnesses in real life instead of using an elementary grasp of said invention as a breeding ground for self-conscious stage ritual. Not for her the far too common (in several senses of the word) affectations of «machismo» for Octavian, «sexiness» for Carmen, «adolescent pique» for Sesto.

No: Keegan savored the matching of pitch to text, not throwing away the little clues offered so generously by these master composer-librettist teams, and throughout each moment of performance, meant every utterance. Her Octavian clearly focused in on the (absent) Marschallin, waxing and waning poetic in his need for her. For Carmen Keegan freed up her physicality and embodied the very devil-may-care to which Don José would succomb. (A little extra attention to rhythmic entrances in the concluding «Tralalala» sections would further enhance her interpretation.) And Keegan sang into the rocking motions of Sesto's vocal line, the little keenings of that heartsick youth on the threshold of avenging his father's execution.

Voci del passato: Though best known in other repertoire, two magnetic artists as adventurous Carmens,

Brigitte Fassbaender (with Zachos Terzakis)

and Anna Moffo (with Franco Corelli).

Maureen Brabec, soprano

Tannhäuser: Dich, teure Halle

La fanciulla del West: L'amore è un'altra cosa – Laggiù nel Soledad

Justly rejoicing in a solid tone, Brabec's is a clarion call tempered by warmth. She had the measure of these pieces' range, an easily rich bottom-through-middle complemented by impressive top tones. Well-prepared musically and linguistically, she would do well to trust Puccini's rhythms more: her freedoms were more American casual than Italianate personal.

Voci del passato: The Wartburg Hall of Song greeted respectively by Lotte Lehmann (1930) and Kirsten Flagstad (1935).

Taylor Alexis DuPont, mezzo-soprano

Béatrice et Bénédict: Dieu! que viens-je d'entendre?

Il barbiere di Siviglia: Contro un cor che accende amore

A gem of a performer: DuPont is lithe of voice, joyous of expression, and commands enviable free play in her acuti—lovely messa di voce on the cadential high A of «Contro un cor». In the Berlioz, here sensibly abridged, one would encourage DuPont to more deeply establish Béatrice's romantic bewilderment—thus preparing a stronger contrast for her concluding amorous outbursts. In the Rossini, one would encourage her to gain greater familiarity with authentic Rossinian florid patterns in order to craft more idiomatic variazioni.

Voci del passato: The Barbiere lesson scene between the ever-bewitching Conchita Supervía and Giovanni Manuritta (1928).

Keyboard support was entrusted to that seasoned pianist of the NYC vocal competition circuit and longtime Met staffer Jonathan Kelly, from whose hands the music emerged with easy authority. (Sole quibble: if only he hadn't replaced the final cadence of the Béatrice—a choice moment of Berliozian off-kilter wit—with a banal Dominant to Tonic chord sequence…!)

Aria di sorbetto:

Mention of Mo. Kelly brings to mind another operatic event he'd played ages ago: the 2009 Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation International Vocal Competition Winners Concert at Zankel Hall, as always interleavened by guest cameos of veteran operatic eminences. The emerging singers included Nadine Sierra, blithely caroling «Je veux vivre», Rachele

Gilmore's Olympia vocally impressive yet physically vitiated by awkward robotic poses, Taylor Stayton a veritable toy soldier in «Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!», the «Recondita armonia» of Adam Diegel—whom I seem to recall holding a palette—not quite achieving Puccinian tonal expanse, and Issachah Savage unforcedly generous of voice and temperament as Otello.

(Obligatory voce del passato: Otello role creator Francesco Tamagno in his final agonies.)

Among the eminences were Licia herself, sparing no effort to sing along with the National Anthem; Teresa Stratas generously greathearted in her interaction with Licia; Sherrill Milnes materializing out of the shadows to give terse homage to Licia and then disappearing with the same shadowy ease; original West Side Story leading lady Carol Lawrence's delectable Maria medley; and Albanese's erstwhile protégée Barbara Conrad urging the crowd to «Wade in the water» with irresistible gusto.

II. Merola Opera Program Grand Finale


San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House

(Artists listed first by voice-type and then by appearance in program)

SOPRANI: Ashley Marie Robillard, Olivia Prendergast, Adia Evans, Maggie Kinabrew, Amanda Batista, Chelsea Lehnea,

(previously mentioned on this blog in reference to her participation in Operalia 2021)

Olivia Smith, Arianna Rodriguez, Celeste Morales

MEZZOSOPRANI: Erin Wagner, Maggie Reneé, Veena Akama-Makia, Nikola Adele Printz


TENORI: Jonghyn Park, Chance Jonas-O'Toole, Moises Salazar, Sahel Salam, Daniel Luis Espinal

BARITONI: Scott Lee, Andres Cascante, Edwin Jhamaal Davis

BASSI / BASSI-BARITONI: William Socolof, Seungyun Kim, Le Bu

I-01. Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro – Ouverture

I-02. Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro – Cinque, dieci… Se a caso Madama (Socolof, Robillard)

I-03. Handel: Amadigi di Gaula – D'un sventurato amante… Pena tiranna (Bowers)

I-04. Gounod: Roméo et Juliette – Ange adorable (Park, Prendergast)

I-05. Britten: Albert Herring – Albert the Good! (Jonas-O'Toole)

I-06. William Grant Still: Highway 1, USA – Listen, Mary, trust me (Lee, Evans)

I-07. Bizet: Carmen – Mêlons! / Coupons! (Prendergast, Wagner, Reneé)

I-08. Berlioz: L'enfance du Christ – Toujours ce rêve!… Ô misère des Rois! (Socolof)

I-09. Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore – Quanto amore! (Kinabrew, Kim)

I-10. Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore – Una furtiva lagrima (Park)

I-11. Puccini: Madama Butterfly – end of Act I beginning at «Vogliatemi bene» (Batista, Salazar)

I-12. Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor – Chi mi frena in tal momento? (Salam, Cascante, Lehnea, Kim, Akama-Makia, Espinal; coro di Merolini)

II-01. R. Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos – end of Prologue beginning at «Sein wir wieder gut!» (Wagner, Lee)

II-02. Bizet: Les pêcheurs de perles – Qu'ai-je vu? (Cascante, Smith)

II-03. Donizetti: Don Pasquale – Tornami a dir che m'ami (Rodriguez, Jonas-O'Toole)

II-04. Verdi: Macbeth – Studia il passo, o mio figlio!… Come dal ciel precipita (Davis)

II-05. Mascagni: L'amico Fritz – Suzel, buon dì (Salam, Morales)

II-06. Tesori: Blue – I love him (Akama-Makia)

II-07. Verdi: I vespri siciliani – O patria!… O tu, Palermo (Bu)

II-08. Adams: Dr. Atomic – Am I in your light? (Printz)

II-09. Gounod: Faust – Alerte! alerte! (Kim, Lehnea, Salazar)

II-10. Puccini: La bohème – end of Act III beginning at «Dunque è proprio finita!» (Espinal, Evans, Cascante, Robillard)

II-11. Verdi: Falstaff – Tutto nel mondo è burla (tutti)

The Merola Opera Program's end-of-season exhibit has long assumed the formula of a gala gently touched by staging, supported by orchestral complex, unfurling upon the War Memorial stage. Impressions of this season's talents must be contoured by the caveats that these artists—known, according to San Francisco Opera tradition, as «the Merolini»—were still working within the strictures of a pre-to-early-professional training program (what the domestic operatic industry refers to as a «YAP», the acronym for Young Artist Program), that their performance choices were shaped and approved by their guiding authorities, and that La Gran Final is better appreciated as a défilé of youthful promise than as a verdict of professional capacity.

(One cannot fail to mention that the Merolini were obliged to exude tone and presence on a bare stage, unaided by the potential acoustic contours of a set: what impact did that have upon what they could hear from the orchestra and their stage partners?)

This evening's chief authority In Person On Site In Real Time was Patrick Furrer, the Swiss conductor whose recent credits include three Met Don Carlos performances this past March. The opening and closing numbers were weakest. Perhaps the orchestra had yet to strike a groove in the former (Figaro ouverture): they seemed to arrive at new musical gestures merely because they were following the page, some technical challenges not quite conquered (the flutes not agile enough of tongue to articulate their chains of eighth-notes with full tone at tempo), and short on the ebullient inevitability that must lead from this cherished highlight's downbeat to its final double bar.

The concluding Falstaff finale was a conflict between two opposing teams, the singers onstage and the orchestra in the pit, each rhythmically consistent among its own ranks but never in sync together. (The orchestra was more restrained-steady and the singers wanted more forward drive: uneasy listening.)

Those numbers which depend upon steady rhythm Furrer guided efficiently; the great lyrical highlights that live and die upon ebb-and-flow of pulse found their raptures curbed, grandezza shunned in favor of modesty. The results sounded glib: that music and their performers deserved greater generosity of phrasing, stretching and tautening to and from important score points. One wished that

• Reneé's Carmen had been offered more room to unfurl her phrases in her card scene solo,

• the L'enfance du Christ excerpt had been exploited for its dramatic potential as Hérode's insomniac outpouring of anguish instead of being subdued into an orchestral art song,

• Salazar's Pinkerton had been allowed to be more impetuous with rubato,

• Salam's Edgardo and Cascante's Enrico had not been denied Donizetti's own affrettando towards the end of their initial joint statement of the sextet («ingrata, t'amo, t'amo ingrata» / «i rimorsi del mio core» two bars before rehearsal #41),

• Lehnea's Lucia had not been denied Donizetti's own affrettando through the syncopated B-flats and his own calando to the phrase cadence («m'abbandona il pianto ancor») — both times!

• Rodriguez's Norina and Jonas-O'Toole's Ernesto had been accorded such rhythmic pliability which could enhance their moment's tenderness,

• the Faust trio performers had not been carried through the transition between the A major (second «Anges purs») and B major (final «Anges purs») episodes on a waltz tempo,

• throughout the Bohème quartet there had been a firmer communal sense of the tempo fluctuations—when, where, how much to expand and tauten—and greater rhythmic security at all points where tempo must be reestablished.

The four English-language numbers were really sold by their respective performers, whose artistic instincts in their mutual primary language freed up their vocal generosity: Jonas-O'Toole's Herring, Lee and Evans's Highway 1, USA, Akama-Makia's Blue, and Printz's Dr. Atomic.

In the major Continental solos, Bowers revealed a satisfyingly broad-shouldered countertenor tone; Wagner's Komponist grew in command as the piece progressed, though she couldn't resist a Gwyneth Jones-style habit of scooping into pitch onsets; Davis's Banco edged ahead of the beat late in the piece and ended up at rhythmic odds with the orchestra; Bu's Procida was handsome of tone yet placid of inflection—had he been discouraged from applying portamento? Nemorino's familiar romanza sounded fresh anew thanks to Park's pellucid tone and tender phrasing.

Among the major Continental ensembles, the duets from Figaro (Robillard / Socolof), Roméo et Juliette (Prendergast / Park), and Elisir (Kinabrew / Kim) were apt matches of youthfully enthusiastic performers with youthfully enthustiastic situations. (Credit to Kim for sonorously anchoring the Elisir, Lucia, and Faust ensembles.)

In the PdP duet, Smith's Léïla and Cascante's Zurga complemented each other in vocal appeal—his a dark round sound and hers dewey throughout the excerpt's almost-two-full-octave range. In the heat of conflict, Smith indulged in a couple of guttural barks towards Zurga («cruel! va, cruel!»); one would have preferred for them both to harness their temperament towards more incisive and thus more theatrical French enunciation.

From the giovane scuola repertoire, Morales and Salam were hearty-toned if a trifle solemn in the Cherry Duet—one wanted them to bring out the myriad mood shifts of this young not-yet-couple basking in the beauties of springtime—and Batista's «Vogliatemi bene» wafted into the War Memorial on meltingly tawny tone.

E alfine per gli amatori degli acuti — finally for top-tone lovers — one cannot fail to mention

• Park's high As as Roméo («rendez-le moi!»), first ringing and then caressing

• Kinabrew's solid B-natural in Adina's final cadence,

• Batista and Salazar on the slow-burn ascent to the Butterfly joint C climax, a treacherous passage they already perform well and which one expects they'll master further with greater experience and a more voice-friendly conductor,

• Smith's bell-clear B-flats as Léïla,

• Lehnea's syncopated B-flats in the Lucia, palpitations across the beat; Marguerite's upward sweeps throughout the Faust, particularly the concluding high B which she and Salazar thrillingly extended just past the orchestral cut-ff to allow their tones to ring in the house; and the bewitching spin and ring of Lucia's climactic D-flat.

Ultime voci del passato:

L'elisir d'amore «Una furtiva lagrima» (Ferruccio Tagliavini)

L'elisir d'amore «Quanto amore!» (Virginia Zeani and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni)

L'amico Fritz Cherry Duet «Suzel, buon dì»

(Tito Schipa and Mafalda Favero)(Ferruccio Tagliavini and Magda Olivero)

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