For well over half a century, the San Francisco Opera Merola Program has produced major talent, but the sheer number of ready-for-big-time singers heard Saturday night is probably unprecedented.
Among the 23 singers at the 10-week training program's finale in the War Memorial Opera House, there were outstanding sopranos and mezzos, but the great number of what is normally in short supply - tenors - was stunning.
Issachah Savage brought the house down with his personal best for all his impressive appearances this summer: "Mein lieber Schwann" from "Lohengrin" was heldentenor par excellence - trumpetlike, clear, open-throated, powerful.
Pene Pati, my favorite, with a strong, beautiful lyrical tenor, sang a memorable Des Grieux, but Maria Valdes' Manon (a complete combination of voice and acting) nearly overshadowed Pati. The scene, ending the first act, received great ovation that's rather rare during the regular opera season. Valdes and Pati are ready for anything, anywhere, right now.
Unlike Lohengrin and Des Grieux, Captain Vere in Britten's "Billy Budd" is not a tenor showcase role, but nobody told Robert Watson, who sang hell out of the climactic scene of the opera, with Alex DeSocio's appealing Budd and Thomas Richards' sonorous, scary John Claggart.
Tenors kept coming: Casey Finnegan with Max's aria from "Der Freischütz"; Matthew Newlin as a hilarious Paris to Kate Allen's seductive Hélene in "La belle Hélene."
It was a daring choice for the Zanda Svede to sing an aria from Gounod's little-known "Sapho," the rather gloomy "Où suis-je?... O ma lyre immortelle," but the Latvian mezzo with huge voice and range made it work stunningly well.
Among sopranos, Linda Barnett impressed in the title role of "Vanessa" in the "Is it still snowing?" scene, with Rihab Chaieb's strong Erika; like Svede, Alisa Jordheim gave a winning performance in another rarity: an aria from Mozart's "Ascanio in Alba"; Aviva Fortunata was a glowing Elsa in a "Lohengrin" duet with Daryl Freedman's Ortrud; Jacqueline Piccolino sang "O mio babbino caro."
The evening concluded with Pati and Valdes leading the entire Class of 2013 in "Make our garden grow" from "Candide." Although the Opera Orchestra did well most of the evening, John DeMain's tempi at times threatened to bring the proceedings to a halt; and his program-opening "Flying Dutchman" Overture was hesitant, noisy, and labored. In general and even if it were better performed, it never makes sense to waste time with the orchestra at an event all about hearing young singers.
Merola apprentice director George Cederquist's minimalist and funny staging on an acoustically advantageous "Falstaff" set served both singers and the audience. There were some strange changes in lighting... but with such great talent on stage, it didn't matter much. It will be fun to follow these Merolini through the beginning of their careers in opera houses around the world.