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Merola Grand Finale 2014 offers little to remember

Mezzo Eliza Bonet strutting her stuff as Offenbach's Duchess of Gérolstein
Mezzo Eliza Bonet strutting her stuff as Offenbach's Duchess of Gérolsteinby Kristen Loken, courtesy of the Merola Opera Program

Following the disappointing performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 527 Don Giovanni at the beginning of this month by the Merola Opera Program 2014 Summer Festival, there was a bit of chatter about this being the summer during which the participating trainees would learn about how to prevail over adverse conditions, particularly those brought about by poor communication with stage directors and conductors. In that context last night’s Merola Grand Finale, performed on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House, was a continuation of that particular aspect of the training experience. It thus seems to be appropriate to identify a few of the participants who distinguished themselves through ways to rise above the prevailing adversity.

Most notable was Eliza Bonet, singing the title role in Jacques Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein in the aria “Ah! Que j’aime la militaire!” (how I love the military). Offenbach had a real knack for making fun of authority in his comic operas, and armed forces made for a favorite target. Backed up by the “army” of all the male Merolini, Bonet belted out this aria’s witty lyrics with the sort of gusto that triggered memories of Ethel Merman. The music may have been little more than a ditty, but it was a ditty that totally sparkled under Bonet’s uninhibited delivery.

Yujin Kim came close to capturing that same spirit in her performance of Marie, the title character of Gaetano Donizetti’s La fille du régiment (the daughter of the regiment). She performed “Au bruit de la guerre” (to the noise of battle), Marie’s duet with Sergeant Sulpice (Scott Russell), the most senior of the regimental “fathers,” who discovered Marie as an infant and raised her collectively into young adulthood. Like Bonet, Kim bubbled like a fountain of pure energy; but that energy was dampened by Omer Ben Seadia’s unimaginative staging that had her repeating the same moves too many times. Fortunately, Kim could rise above such problems with her powerful coloratura voice and her convincing chemistry with Russell.

On the more serious side the most effective scene was “Decidi il mio destin” (decide my fate), the love duet between Nedda (Maria Fasciano) and Silvio (Alexander Elliott) in the first act of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (clowns). Those who saw the Schwabacher Summer Concert may recall the sparks set off by Fasciano and Elliott in their flesh-and-blood account of the scene from Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in which Cio-Cio San scorns the suit of Prince Yamadori. Last night they converted that scene of rejection into one of the uninhibited raw passion of a forbidden encounter, once again bringing lightning bolts to their performance.

Sadly, these three instances were exceptions to an otherwise disappointing evening. This was most evident in the lack of imagination behind the settings and executions of the remaining scenes on the program. However, conductor Ari Pelto offered little to improve the musical side of the situation. He began the evening with a particularly clunky account of Giuseppe Verdi’s overture to his Nabucco opera. That music anticipates the opera’s high point, the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves;” but buries it in a pastiche of rather weak tunes, made even weaker by Pelto’s failure to endow any of them with much shape. Needless to say, this lack of musical sensitivity so evident during the overture did little to compensate for the subsequent uninspired activities taking place on stage.