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A stirring season of opera awaits inside the Wortham Theater.

From Puccini and Bellini to Rossini and Gounod, the Houston Grand Opera Studio Showcase on Sunday, directed by Tomer Zvulun, promised a stirring season full of bright talent.

HGO’s annual Studio Showcase features young opera professionals who make up the HGO Studio, an esteemed training program that Carlisle Floyd founded in 1977. This year welcomes 12 studio artists—nine singers and three pianists who also train as coaches and conductors.

Beginning with scenes from Puccini’s classic La Bohème, the program moved through opera favorites to some relatively lesser-known’s in Houston, like Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and Maurice Ravel’s L’heure espagnole. The shock of intelligent color illuminating each scene (by the clever lighting designer Michael James Clark) and minimal set furniture was a refreshing alternative to the opulent productions we often see in the regular season. Bizet’s Carmen, for example: a hot red backdrop, martini glasses and black cocktail dresses.

I’m sold. 

To those Houston opera-lovers who have had their calendars marked for the fourth and final installment of Richard Wagner’s ring cycle, Götterdämmerung in April 2017 (it’s been a journey), or the return of John Adams’ Nixon in China in January 2017 (a work that HGO premiered in 1987): Rest easy. While your favorite arias might not have been on the program, the lineup guarantees some sensational flair. 

Watch for mezzo-soprano Megan Mikailovna Samarin, an artist with vocal intrigue and acting skill to back it up as she proved as Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi, in this season’s Faust and Nixon in ChinaYelena Dyachek performance of Gounod’s “Anges purs, anges radieux” was the standout in this showcase. You can spot her in First Secretary in Nixon in China and Dominique de Menil in HGOco’s world premiere of Laura Kaminsky and Mark Campbell/Kimberly Reed’s Some Light Emerges.

Baritone Ben Edquist—another familiar face, most notably from the title role of last season’s Prince of Players—is back with reliable sophistication. And look out for another baritone, Sol Jin, as Valentin in Faust. If his performance on Sunday as Lucia di Lammermoor’s Enrico is anything to go by, expect some resonant heft. 

But the final number in the showcase, a scene from Faust, which will open on October 28, sealed Federico De Michelis as the man to hear this season. He has a unique depth to his voice—almost rough, as though there were layers of sound he could chip into if he chose to. It will be exciting to see him in Jake Heggie’s world premiere, It’s a Wonderful Life, in December.

As artistic and music director Patrick Summers noted in between numbers, the studio pianists deserve our applause too. While Dyachek certainly demanded the spotlight during Poulenc’s “Mes filles” in the first half, pianist Peter Walsh held most of my attention. Set off at a Baby Grand stage left, Walsh leaned into Poulenc’s watercolor score, pulling and pushing the keys with delicate expression. While we might not see Walsh on stage during the season, we will certainly hear the reward of his work behind the scenes.

Houston Grand Opera opens its season with Elixir of Love on Oct 21. View the full season here. 510 Preston St. 713- 228-6737. houstongrandopera.org

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