'The Future is now' - San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows Concert

By Elsa Tranter

What a grand night of singing!  The energy was high in the Opera House for this special concert, the culmination of the year’s work for the Adler Fellows, all rising stars of the opera world.  Kurt Herbert Adler, for whom the program is named, was a long-time General Director of San Francisco Opera; the two-year Adler Fellowships began in 1987 and have graduated many world-renowned artists since then, including Patricia Racette, Ruth Ann Swenson, Brian Jagde, Eugene Brancoveanu, Lucas Meachem, John Relyea and Kenneth Kellogg, among many others.  

The San Francisco Opera orchestra was led, in a brilliant debut, by James Gaffigan, a highly sought-after conductor, who was associate conductor of the San Francisco Symphony from 2006-2009.  He and the orchestra switched styles and composers throughout the evening and kept everyone going commendably.  This orchestra is so steady and reliable!!  The buzz seemed to be that he should come back more often to the Opera House.

On to the singers.  Hard to know where to begin, but the final aria is one place to start.  Soprano Toni Marie Palmertree, a second year Adler, who was a compelling Liu earlier in the season in Turandot at San Francisco Opera, gave a beautiful and moving rendition of an aria from Bellini’s lesser known opera “Il Pirata”.  Her clarity, range, and Bel Canto styling were certainly a highlight of the evening. Earlier she sang, also emotionally and beautifully, Desdemona’s first act aria from Verdi’s “Otello”, opposite tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven.  In that aria the tenor seemed ill-suited to the role, or uncomfortable in Italian, to my ear (I think I always hear Domingo’s voice in that opera).  Later in the evening van Schoonhoven raised the rafters with a rousing ode to the Swan from Wagner’s “Lohengrin” and redeemed himself.  That was another highlight of the evening.

Also a standout was tenor Pene Pati, one of a trio of New Zealand Adlers (the other two being his brother Amitai and Pene’s wife, soprano Amina Edris.  Pene Pati, who along with his wife is also a second-year Adler,  had three superb arias, beginning with a first-act aria from Gounod’s “Faust” (sung with Brad Walker), continuing with an aria from Donizetti’s “Il Duca d’Alba” and ending with a triumphant duet with his wife from “Benvenuto Cellini” by Berlioz.  That one brought down the house and the chemistry was palpable.  Ms Edris’s other aria , Juliet’s lament from “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” by Bellini, was, to me, less successful—but maybe it was the music more than the singer.  She certainly was terrific in her final performance.

Brother Amitai Pati, another tenor, singing from “Les Pecheurs de Perles” by Bizet, was less polished, but gave a more than adequate rendition.  His other aria, a duet with bass Anthony Reed from “L’elisir d’Amore” by Donizetti, was livelier (with excellent piano accompaniment by Jennifer Szeto (also a second-year Adler).  

The aforementioned Brad Walker, a bass-baritone and a fourth second-year Adler, was a menacing Mephistopheles in “Faust”, a humorous and engaging Figaro in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” and a dark and dangerous Renato in a duet with Sarah Cambridge from “Un Ballo in Maschera” by Verdi.  He made the switch from darkness to light in his three arias with great skill.  His Amelia, Canadian Sarah Cambridge, was a good match, more emotionally gripping than in her earlier aria, as Arabella in Richard Strauss’s opera of the same name, opposite baritone Andrew Manea.  Mr. Reed (another second year Adler) and Mr. Manea sang a powerful duet from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” and Mr. Reed sang a moving aria from Verdi’s “Les Vepres Siciliennes”.

Evaluating the performances of each of the singers, there was evidence of stronger performances from most of the second-year fellows, proof indeed that they are ready to move forward into the wider world of auditions and performances; we should cheer them on wherever and whenever we can.  It is certainly gratifying for an opera lover to know that young talent (and so much of it American) keeps coming along and can be nurtured in programs like this one, with brilliant coaches and staff.  This is definitely an enterprise worth supporting.  Yes, the future IS now!

Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years.  She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly.  Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.