Esther Tonea, left, and Cara Collins sing in the Pearl cast of Merola Opera Program’s premiere of “If I Were You” at the Herbst Theatre. (Courtesy Kristen Loken)

Up-and-coming opera singers dazzle in devilish premiere

Merola scores with Heggie, Scheer commission ‘If I Were You’

San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program has a winner with its first commissioned work, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s “If I Were You,” a dark, contemporary, magical tale that takes on the universal human question, “Who do you want to be?”

With Heggie’s mostly haunting, not overly melodic, score played by a solid 32-piece orchestra conducted by Nicole Paiment, and Scheer’s appealingly colloquial libretto, the show — which opened Thursday in Herbst Theatre — plays like a Netflix drama. Loosely based on a 1947 French novel by Julien Green, it’s even got a murder mystery of sorts.

Best of all are the dynamic student singers, who rival world-class professional counterparts appearing in the Opera House next door. The opening night “Pearl” cast (alternating with an “Emerald” lineup for the four-performance run) was strong, marvelous and entirely believable as the story’s delightfully, somewhat twisted, crew of shapeshifting characters.

The enticing Faustian plot pits a lost soul Fabian (tenor Michael Day) against the devil, Brittomara (mezzo-soprano Cara Collins), who dons various disguises, including a ghost, bartender and hairdresser, throughout the two-hour, 15-minute work.

In a creepy prologue that takes place behind a scrim, she’s a paramedic in an ambulance, who tells Fabian, laid up on a gurney following a car wreck, “I’m not going to let you die.”

Next, Fabian’s at an auto shop — his mangled vehicle is great set piece in Liliana Duque Pineiro’s design — where he and customer Diana (soprano Esther Tonea) meet cute. She helps him recall that he was running away from something when he drove into a tree, but does not remember him from their college days, though he had a crush on her.

But Fabian, troubled by his gruff publisher boss Putnam (bass-baritone Rafael Porto), takes Brittomania up on her offer when she appears to him as a ghost and tells him he can live forever if he transfers his spirit in someone else’s body simply by chanting a phrase naming Hindu gods. (This oft-repeated phrasing, however, isn’t accompanied by an especially memorable tune.)

Attempting to become the object of Diana’s affection, he does so, setting off a series of transformations. He embodies Putnam, then others in Diana’s circle who hang out at a bar. His new forms also include the seductive but abusive Paul (baritone Timothy Murray, inexplicably wearing nothing but shorts much of the time), who’s party to the fatal shooting of bar patron Rachel (mezzo-soprano Edith Grossman) at his apartment; David (tenor Brandon Scott Russell), a photographer; and even Diana’s best friend Selena (soprano Patricia Westley).

Appealingly, Diana, intrigued by Fabian, goes on her own equally compelling soul-searching and fact-facting journey in the visually striking production directed by Keturah Sticann.

And with meaty parts for many, particularly women, Heggie and Scheer’s composition nicely provides a showcase for many voices as it takes on age-old issues of identity, mortality and belonging — all in an accessible, modern setting.

REVIEW

If I Were You

Presented by Merola Opera Program

Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 2 p.m. Aug. 3-4, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 6

Tickets: $35 to $80

Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.merola.org

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