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.

Friday, March 29, 2019


Polixeni Tziouvaras, Sasha Gutiérrez, Hyeree Shin, Kelly Singer, Daniel Rich, Sae Lin Kim, Hannah Friesen,
and Xiaotong Cao

Yesterday eight accomplished singers competed for some mighty generous prize money awarded by the dear Joan Taub Ades, who works tirelessly for Manhattan School of Music and their students, as did her late husband Alan M. Ades who was here honored in the performance space bearing their names.  This was the ninth annual competition and drew a huge crowd of opera lovers.

We heard six of the eight competitors (thanks MTA!) and were rather overwhelmed by the quality of the performances. We tried to imagine a phrase analogous to "rubbing one's eyes in disbelief". Somehow "rubbing one's ears" didn't quite make the journalistic cut; we will just say that so much talent onstage within a couple of hours was most impressive.

It is not our custom to list winners and how much money each one received. In our eyes (ears, once more) they were all winners. All the singers will receive degrees from MSM in May. Nominated by their respective teachers, and selected for the finals by means of audition, yesterday's competition was the last step.

We apologize for missing the performances of soprano Hannah Friesen who was accompanied by Travis Bloom, and that of mezzo-soprano Sae Lin Kim, who was accompanied by Eric Sedgwick. It couldn't be helped. We heard from our seat neighbor that both were excellent. 

The first thing that impressed us was the confidence and clarity with which each singer introduced her/himself. We have been known to complain about singers who mumbled their introductions and the titles of the arias they were about to sing. No such failures here!

The first singer we heard was Colombian soprano Sasha Gutiérrez of whose versatility we got a very clear picture. She performed Dona Elvira's aria "Ah fuggi il traditor" from Mozart's Don Giovanni with suitable angry intensity. The judges requested from her submitted repertory "Il est doux, il est bon" from Jules Massenet's Hérodiade which she sang with a sweet tone and a nicely modulated Gallic line. Mr. Bloom provided excellent support.

Next we heard the aptly named Kelly Singer who used her impressive artistry in two very different arias. She performed "Non, Monsieur mon mari" from Francis Poulenc's satirical operetta Les mamelles de Tirésias. Every gesture and facial expression seemed spontaneous but we are quite sure that she labored mightily to get every one just perfect. It was fine and funny and very French.

The judges asked to hear Händel next. "Piangerò" from Giulio Cesare was a perfect contrast to the Poulenc and gave us an opportunity to appreciate Ms. Singer's coloratura in the vocal fireworks of the middle section.  When the first theme reappeared we enjoyed the lavish embellishments. Cory Battey was her supportive accompanist.

Baritone Daniel Rich, the only male singer in the group, opened with "Avant de quitter ces lieux" from Gounod's Faust, a common choice for baritones in competitions. We enjoyed the depth of protective feeling he expressed for his sister. Gounod's "four-square" writing does not help to elicit a long legato line until the first theme recurs. But Valentin is going off to war so the march-like rhythm works dramatically.

The judges requested "Warm as the autumn light" from Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe. The work is far more melodic than most 20th c. operas and Mr. Rich's clear English diction added to our enjoyment. We didn't miss a single word. Mr. Sedgwick accompanied effectively.

Soprano Hyeree Shin dazzled us with her instrument's lovely resonance and abundant overtones. Ophélie's mad scene "A vos jeux mes amis" from Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet is a true showpiece for which Joan Sutherland was famous, and Ms.Shin gave it a superb performance with great clarity in the coloratura and a killer trill. The various shades of madness were well conveyed from one section to another.

We were completely satisfied at that point but the judges requested a hearing of "Take me back up the hill" from Ned Rorem's Our Town, an opera based upon the Thornton Wilder play which, in our opinion, gained nothing by adding music. However, it gave us a chance to hear Ms. Shin's clear English diction. William Woodard accompanied on the piano.

Mezzo-soprano Polixeni Tziouvaras performed "All'afflitto" from Gaetano Donizetti's Roberto Devereux in which Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, reveals her grief. Although Ms. Tsiouvaras has a mezzo instrument of depth, her top notes soar in a lovely upper extension. The vibrato is consistently appealing.

The judges requested "Wie do warst" from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier and we enjoyed this even more. The delivery was passionate and convincing. Also we became aware of something for the first time--the space between the notes. It is difficult to describe but there was great feeling in the silences. This impressive performance was accompanied by the excellent Jonathan Heaney.

The final performance was by soprano Xiaotong Cao whose performance of "Stridono Lassù", from Ruggiero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, brought to life the songs of the birds that she so envied; the trills received plenty of assistance from pianist Chun-Wei Kang whose delicate hands performed a ballet on the keys of the piano. The tempo seemed a bit accelerated compared to that which we usually hear in this realismo aria. The pair brought the aria to a stunning conclusion.

The judges requested "Come scoglio" from Mozart's Così fan tutte, Fiordiligi's killer aria of determined resistance. Ms. Cao negotiated the wide skips with excellence as well as effectively handling the lower register. The fioritura tickled the ear.

After all that aural pleasure, some gustatory pleasure awaited by means of a reception, serving to distract everyone from the anxiety of waiting for the judges' decision. The judges were Diane Zola, Peter Russell, and superstar soprano Denyce Graves.

(c) meche kroop

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