We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Monday, March 20, 2017


2017 Finalists in Met National Council Competition (photo by Fay Fox)

In our eyes and to our ears, these are all winners. Several of them have been followed by us for some time and garnered our appreciation for their growth as artists. Others were new to us at the Semi-Finals.  Of course readers can readily learn which six of the nine semi-finalists the judges chose, but you won't learn that here. Our aim is to share our experience of the actual performances and that is exactly what we will do. Frankly, it felt quite uncomfortable to call six out of nine "winners". The other three are anything but "losers". Some of the nine artists are fully stage-ready.

We have heard tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven perform Peter Grimes' "Mad Scene" from the Britten opera at least twice before we heard it today but this was the first time we heard it with full orchestra. It was disturbing in a very good way; we felt such sympathy for the character's distress; this was a man pushed to the limits.  It was a shattering performance. Mr. van Schoonhoven also performed Rienzi's prayer from the Wagner opera and we could see some Siegfried in his future.

Another artist who is complete in his stage-worthiness is countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, whom we have heard on a couple occasions. His penetrating sound falls nicely on the ear and his dramatic interpretation of the lost refugee from Jonathan Dove's Flight  was chilling and also disturbing. It is significant that these two young singers made such an impression on us, since we have never had much interest in English language opera. It reminds us of a great chef who can cook a dish you usually won't eat and you wind up loving it!  Mr. Cohen's other selection was from Handel's Rodelinda and his plangent quality was enhanced by an affecting messa di voce and some stunning embellishments in the ritornello.

Mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey has a very centered stage presence that allows her beautiful voice to reach out unencumbered by flashy theatrics. She controlled the dynamics and the dramatics equally well in "Parto, parto" from Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito. She built the aria from a quiet place and let loose with a stunning crescendo on "Guardami, guardami".  Her perfect technique carried through in her performance of "Da chas nastal" from Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orleans, making us put this opera on our wish list. She brought this aria to a fiery climax.

Ms. Hankey will be singing this Thursday at the Juilliard Vocal Arts recital along with bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum who impressed us yesterday with his ability to create compelling characters. He was a fine Figaro, ready to match wits with the Count Almaviva in "Se vuol ballare" from the Mozart opera Nozze di Figaro; he exhibited devilish glee in "Vous qui faites l'endormie" from Gounod's Faust. Along with his superb vocal gift, Mr. Quattlebaum's command of the stage and dramatic ability have always impressed us, and we are looking forward to Thursday's recital which you will surely read about here.

Soprano Vanessa Vasquez always turns in a meaningful performance and lets us see the world through her character's eyes. With beautiful tone, she disappeared into Cio-Cio San, wishfully seeing Pinkerton's ship pulling into the harbor in "Un bel di" from Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Her scene from Act I of Verdi's La Traviata was so intense that the audience erupted into applause prematurely. She was unperturbed and shone in the cabaletta.

Soprano Kirsten MacKinnon gave an emotional performance of "Otchego eto prezhde ne znala" ("Why haven't I known this before") from Tchaikovsky's Iolanta, an aria which we have only heard once--onstage at the Met. She sang with lovely tone and a keen control of dynamics. Her second aria was "Ah, je ris de me voir" from Faust and generated considerable excitement, both vocally and dramatically.

Gabriella Reyes de Ramirez performed "Il est doux, il est bon" from Massenet's Herodiade. Her splendid soprano instrument has a fine vibrato and we heard some gorgeous notes at the top of the register. The second aria she chose is not well known but we were fortunate enough to have heard New York City Opera's production of Daniel Catan's compelling opera Florencia en el Amazonas. We thought she did justice (and then some) to "Cristobal, Es esta luz la muerte?"

Soprano Natalie Image has a voice much larger than her petite frame would suggest. She exhibited a nicely focused sound and a winning flirtatious personality in the Snow Maiden's Aria from the Rimsky-Korsakov opera--another opera that is unknown to us but which is also going on our wish list. Ms. Image has the talent for getting a song across, as she also did in her other selection "O luce di quest'anima" from Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix with its dazzling coloratura. We always enjoy a good trill!

Tenor Richard Smagur performed two selections in French with a solid technique. We heard "La fleur que tu m'avais jetee" from Bizet's Carmen and "Pourquoi me reveiller" from Massenet's Werther, which we just heard at the Met with Isabel Leonard and Vittorio Grigolo. Mr. Smagur is like a finely cut gem that needs some polishing to reveal its beauty. The polishing we hope he receives consists of loosening up physically so that his body goes along with the wonderful feeling in his voice.  We want convincing characterizations on the opera stage.

The nine gifted singers we heard were culled from 1200 applicants in 42 cities around the USA, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Gracious and gorgeous superstar Renee Fleming was hostess for the evening and paid tribute to all the volunteers who donate time and funding to make the Met National Council Auditions happen. They surely deserve the credit and the nine finalists who climbed the ladder of selection are destined for fine careers. We wish them all well. The average audience member never realizes just how hard these young artists work to achieve these dizzying heights.

While waiting for the judges to make their decision, we were treated to performances by three winners from ten years ago. Tenor Michael Fabiano sang "Oh! fede negar potesssi...Quando le sere al placido", Rodolfo's lament from Verdi's Luisa Miller.

Soprano Amber Wagner, who will perform a recital at the Morgan Library next Sunday under the auspices of the George London Foundation, sang "Es gibt ein Reich". Her generous instrument seems made for Strauss and we hope we will get more of it next week.

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is simply a force of nature and her unique and powerful instrument always astonishes us. She sounds like no one else; we hope it is not sacrilege to say that we think of a chocolate stout filling our mouth and dizzying our head. She performed an intoxicating version of "Acerba volutta, dolce tortura", sung in Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur by the jealous Princess de Bouillon. WOW!

What an incredible afternoon, thanks to the Metropolitan National Council! Let us also credit Nicola Luisotti for his superb conducting.


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