Attending the SF Opera Merola concerts is like opening a box of chocolate: the artists are mostly unknown young aspiring singers, dedicating their summer to the training program, so you never know what you are going to get. Will there be another Netrebko or Hampson? Or won't we hear of them again? And to double the element of surprise, they always select some rather obscure opera for one of the two fully staged shows. Chocolate boxes within boxes, man. This year: l'amico Fritz, by Mascagni.

is a silly story of a man who vows to never marry, only to be defeated by the innocence of a teenage country girl, Suzel. It's a short opera, we were out of the door in two hours including intermission. The singers are all praiseworthy, giving their best, which makes it all the more surprising that it felt a tad stodgy and ponderous. Tenor Nathaniel Peake was Fritz. He is repeating as a Merolini, and we mostly noticed him last year for his skills at cleaning up messy lipstick. On the acting side, he seemed a bit overly concerned about how well glued his postiche'd mustache was, but mostly sang brightly, confidently and with plenty of heft. Suzel was Sara Gartland, a cute soprano who can wear a virginal white dress. Her voice had a metallic twang which we did not enjoy too much (but others did a lot, reserving for her the only yells of "bravo!" during the applause). Her higher notes would soar in a purer manner, and were the most pleasing. Her Rebeca aria was most beautiful, torn between her obedience to the bible and her nascent love. The duet with Fritz where they vow their love to each was hot hot hot.

L'amico Fritz