‘Cenerentola’ befits Merola’s golden anniversary 

What training program? The young artists of Merola’s 50th "class" produced a near-flawless, thoroghly professional production of Rossini’s "La Cenerentola" Sunday afternoon in Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater.

There have been many notable Merola productions in the past, but I cannot remember one with more all-around excellence, quite without a weak link. At the heart of this zesty, appealing performance: one of the greatest accompanists of our time, exchanging the piano for a baton. The wondrous Martin Katz radiated cheer; music poured out of him as he accompanied the singers, laying down a velvety path for their triumphal march.

Just ao its the music director, his musicians were also special. With only a few members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in Cowell’s virtual pit (space gained by removing four rows of chairs!), the band having fun with Rossini’s agile-to-agitated music consisted mostly of veterans of the late, beloved Western Opera Theater. Unlisted in the program, the musicians did a terrific job, save for occasional uncertainties in the back of the first violin section.

Merola graduate Jose Maria Condemi was the self-effacing, efficient stage director, operating on Erik Flatmo’s simple, clever set. More opera than buffa in Condemi’s true-to-the-original direction, this version of "Cinderella" (without missing shoes, evil stepmother or a fairy godmother) does not gloss over the heroine’s suffering.

Daniela Mack — a mezzo with a Joyce DiDonato-class performance (we still remember her Merola year a decade ago) and low notes bringing Marilyn Horne to mind — starts out in the role by doing the work of stagehands, then gets pushed around and pummelled a lot, humiliated and made miserable, but through it all, vocally and dramatically, she remains strong, winning.

Her nemeses are the evil old stepfather, Don Magnifico, sung by the young, big-voiced Sam Handley, a bass-baritone on the way to the top; and two vicious-ridiculous stepsisters, sung by soprano Ani Maldjian (Clorinda) and mezzo Daveda Karanas (Tisbe), both outstanding singer-actors, making their caricature characters both funny and believable.

The Prince, Alek Shrader, is tall and handsome and a fine tenor, although squeezing out high notes, perhaps unnecessarily. No such questions in the case of the two baritones — Paul La Rosa’s Dandini (hilarious, vocally ready for everything up to and including Mozart) and Matthew Moore’s Alidoro, the godmother stand-in, a "baritone noble" and a skilled, intelligent singer.

And let’s hear it for Alessandra Cattani, whose Italian coaching contributed significantly to this premature graduation exercise. This, in fact, is just the beginning of the 2007 Merola presentations.

Upcoming San Francisco performances include the free Schwabacher Summer Concert at 2 p.m. July 29 in Yerba Buena Gardens, 701 Mission St.; the world premiere of "The Hotel Casablanca" by Thomas Pasatieri Aug. 3 and 5 at Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center; and the Grand Finale concert conducted by Patrick Summers Aug. 18 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave. For tickets and information, call (415) 565-6427 or visit www.merola.org.

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