19 Mar 2012

Metropolitan Opera National Council Grand Finals Concert

A major part of the rejuvenation of opera in the 21st century is the cultivation of young singers.

There are a variety of organizations that use different methods to ensure that the next generation of singers is equipped with the experience they need to have a fruitful career in an extremely competitive environment.

Last year, for instance, Juliard’s opera department teamed up with the Met for their first annual co-production. In this case, Smetna’s The Bartered Bride allowed young singers to acquire stage experience as well as to work with big name officials such as James Levine. Other organizations such as Virginia’s Wolf Trap Opera Company dedicate themselves to cultivating new singers by designing entire seasons around them.

Still, the most popular method is the Evergreen Vocal Competition. The Met’s National Council Auditions are a fine example of such a vocal competition. Each March, less than ten finalists, selected from across America, are flown to New York for a concert, hosted by a famous singer and conducted by a well-known conductor. The concert also includes a surprise guest. The event, open to the public, is designed in such a way as to grant participants an invaluable experience while at the same time allowing the audience a sneak peek at upcoming talent. For the five chosen winners, the prize is $15,000 each and the opportunity to join in the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.

This year, the Grand Finals Concert of the National Council Auditions took place on Sunday, March 18th. It was hosted by bass-baritone Eric Owens, who has been making waves in the role of Albrecht in the Met’s new Robert Lepage Ring cycle. Owens also fulfilled the role of guest artist. The five winners were baritone Anthony Clark Evans, tenor Matthew Grills, mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa, soprano Janai Brugger, and countertenor Andrey Nemzer. The Metropolitan Opera orchestra was led adroitly by Andrew Davis.

All the participants, regardless of whether they won or lost, should congratulate themselves on making the concert an extremely close competition. In past years, there were clearly defined winners and losers. This wasn’t the case this year. Anthony Clark Evans sang magnificently. Both his arias, “Si puo? Si puo?” from Pagliacci, and “Hai gia vinta la causa,” from Le Nozze di Figaro, proved that despite the lack of such baritones as Sherrill Milnes, true Italianate singing is thankfully not dead. Although, it must be said that his portrayal of the angry yet risible count in the latter case came up a little short.

Despite the extraneous vibrato in her rendition of “O ma lyre immortelle,” from Gounod’s Sappho, Margaret Mezzacappa was able to showcase her warm chest tones. Also, her rendition of “Hence, Iris, hence away!” from Handel’s Semele, showcased her adaptability with baroque ornamentation. Countertenor Andrey Nemzer showcased his ability as a fine-singing actor in Giulio Cesare’s “Domero la tua firezza,” while his interpretation of “Ratmir’s Aria,” from Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila, was an utter joy to hear.

Soprano Janai Brugger, a crowd favorite, is clearly someone to watch. In both her arias, the famous “Depuis le jour,” from Louise, and Die Zauberflote’s “Ach, ich fuhl’s,” demonstrated warm tone and command of legato and ornamentation. The highlight of Matthew Grills’ two performances was the always-popular, “Ah! mes amis!” from La Fille Du Regiment. It was eye-opening; so many tenors go for the champagne aspect of the aria, a la Pavarotti, but his interpretation had a more day-dreamlike quality. His Tonio was definitely thrilled with his amorous success, but was lost in daydreams of love, as opposed to pouring forth ebullient expressions of joy.

The joy of this concert was that so many of those who didn’t win deserved compensations for their performances. Soprano Lauren Snouffer sang excellently in her second aria, “Air du Feu,” from Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortileges. However, I was very impressed with her ability to handle the seemingly endless recitative of “Padre, germani, addio!” from Mozart’s Idomeneo. Kevin Ray proved himself versatile, both as a Helden tenor in “Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater,” from Walk├╝re, and as an Italianate singer in “Durch die Walder,” from Weber’s Der Freischutz.

Michael Sumuel was a superb actor in Leporello’s catalogue aria, yet he was also moving in Aleko’s cavatina from Rachmaninoff’s Aleko. Despite the concert’s short duration, Andrew Davis and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra can congratulate themselves on splendidly navigating a wide range of repertoire that extended from Handel to John Adams, and along the way, incorporated seldom-performed composers such as Rachmaninoff and Weber. Eric Owens sang splendidly in King Philip’s showpiece, “Ella giammai m’amo,” from Verdi’s Don Carlo. His adept ability at phrasing was especially noteworthy during the repetitions of “Amore, per me non ha” (She never loved me).

Lastly, the audience was blessed with an appearance by Peter Gelb as Eric Owens was getting ready to sing. As he spoke, he reminded the audience that even if a certain singer didn’t win, it did not mean that they would not be seen again on the Metropolitan Opera stage. After all, it is important to keep in mind that such singers as Richard Tucker, Patricia Racette, and Joyce DiDonato did not win. Still, I am happy to say that all of them deserved to be there, regardless of whether or not they won. I look forward to seeing them all on the Met stage again.

Greg Moomjy