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.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
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 Walküre, 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.