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’s Verdi’s bicentenary year and Rolando Villazón has two new CDs to plug — titled somewhat confusingly, ‘Villazón: Verdi’ and ‘Villazón’s Verdi’, the latter a ‘personal selection’ of favourite numbers performed by stars of the past and present.
Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra climbed out of the War Memorial pit, braved the wind whipped bay and held spellbound an audience at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley.
Utterly mad but absolutely right — Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos started the Glyndebourne 2013 season with an explosion. Strauss could hardly have made his intentions more clear. Ariadne auf Naxos is not “about” Greek myth so much as a satire on art and the way art is made.
“Man is an abyss. It makes one dizzy to look into it.” So utters Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, repeating what was also a recurring motif in the playwright’s own letters.
National Opera Company of the Rhine has marked this year’s Benjamin Britten celebration with a remarkably compelling, often gripping new production of the seldom-seen Owen Wingrave.
Once upon a time, Frankfurt Opera had the baddest ass reputation in Germany as “the” cutting edge producer of must-see opera.
Productions of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto can serve as a vehicle for individual singers to make a strong impression and become afterward associated with specific roles in the opera.
Just in case we were not aware that the evening’s programme was ‘themed’, the Britten Sinfonia designed a visual accompaniment to their musical exploration of night, sleep and dreams.
Poor Aida! She never seems to have anything go her way.
Is it possible to upstage Jonas Kaufmann? Kaufmann was brilliant in this Verdi Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, London, but the rest of the cast was so good that he was but first among equals. Don Carlo is a vehicle for stars, but this time the stars were everyone on stage and in the pit. Even the solo arias, glorious as they are, grow organically out of perfect ensemble. This was a performance that brought out the true beauty of Verdi's music.
The big names were absent: Duparc, D’Indy, Debussy, Ravel and while Fauré, Chausson, Roussel and several members of Les Six put in an appearance, in less than familiar guises, this survey of French song of the early 20th century and interwar years deliberately took us on a journey through infrequently travelled terrain.
Composed between 1718 and 1720, Handel’s Esther is sometimes described as the ‘first English Oratorio’, but is in fact a hybrid form, mixing elements of oratorio, masque, pastoral and opera.
Hector Berlioz's légende dramatique, La Damnation de Faust, exists somewhere between cantata and opera. Berlioz's flexible attitude to dramatic form made the piece unworkable on the stages of early 19th century Paris and his music is so vivid that you wonder whether the piece needs staging at all.
St. John’s Smith Square was the site of Elizabeth Connell’s final London concert, intended as a farewell to London on her moving to Australia. It was rendered ultimately final by her unexpected death.
With the building of the Suez Canal, Egypt became more interesting to Western Europeans. Khedive Ismail Pasha wanted a hymn by Verdi for the opening of a new opera house in Cairo, but the composer said he did not write occasional pieces.
Back for its fourth revival, David McVicar’s 2003 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte has much charm, beauty and artistry.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro has a libretto by Lorenzo daPonte based on the French play La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (The Crazy Day or the Marriage of Figaro) by Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799).
For its world class Easter Festival, Baden-Baden mounted a Die Zauberflöte that owed more to the grey penitential doldrums of Lent than to the unbridled jubilance of re-birth.
Once Berkeley Opera, renamed West Edge Opera, this enterprising company offers the Bay Area’s only serious alternative to corporate opera, to wit Bonjour M. Gauguin.
In the first of pianist Julius Drake’s three-part series, ‘Perspectives’, our gaze was directed at Gustav Mahler’s eclectic musical responses to human experiences: from the trauma and distress of anguished love to the sweet contentment of true friendship, from the agonised introspection of the artist to the diverse dramas of human interaction.
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.