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, October 27, 2014


The glorious assemblage of prizewinners of the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation's 2014 International Vocal Competition (photo by Ania Farysej)

Although lost to this world,  Signora Albanese might have been smiling down at the proceedings onstage at the Rose Hall of Lincoln Center.  The 40th anniversary of the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation's inception reminds us all of the long term generosity that has provided awards, scholarships, study grants and master classes to young artists.  With Brian Kellow as host, tributes were paid and honors bestowed. New York's opera lovers packed the house to hear this year's crop of winners.

Additionally, winners from prior years returned for their Distinguished Artists Achievement Awards and to share their artistry, serving to demonstrate how wisely the foundation bestows its gifts.  Lyric soprano Lisette Oropesa, a winner from 2007, opened the program with "Prendi!" from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, an aria as lovely as the artist; she has a pleasing vibrato and effortless fioritura.  We enjoyed the final high note with its precipitous but gentle descent.

Tenor John Matz, a 2001 winner, sang "Lamento di Federico" from Francesco Cilea's L'Arlesiana; he exhibited a powerful tenor that is also capable of tenderness. Dramatic soprano Lori Phillips, a 1995 winner, sang Minnie's Act I aria from Puccini's La Fanciulla del West.  We cannot believe how much time has passed since we thrilled to her singing with her sister Mary at a Marilyn Horne recital.  Time has only enhanced her luster.  

The above guest artists were accompanied on the piano by Arlene Shrut and Jonathan C. Kelly.  For the 2014 award winners, Maestra Eve Queler mounted the podium and wielded her formidable baton, bringing the Opera Orchestra of New York to a peak of performance.

We have heard most of these young award-winning singers before, either at other competitions or as recitalists, and we have nothing but good things to say about the foundation's choices.  It must have been challenging for the judges to put any one ahead of the others.  We are relieved not to have been put in that position.

First we heard mezzo Ewa Plonka Nino joining forces with baritone Jarrett Ott for the delightful duet from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia--"Dunque io son".  Ms. Nino made a captivating Rosina and Mr. Ott was splendid as the wily Figaro with flexibility of voice and body.  We liked the variety of tempi and enjoyed a few giggles when Rosina produced her note for "Lindoro" from her bosom, thus astonishing and outdoing Figaro's craftiness.

We do love duets and were pleased to hear the beautiful Alexandra Schenck make comedy and harmony with the firm-voiced baritone Ricardo Rivera in the "Papageno-Papagena Duet" from Die Zauberflote.  We think Mozart would have been as pleased as we were to hear it.  

Another Mozart duet, "La ci darem la mano" from Don Giovanni, was given a fine performance by soprano Marina Costa-Jackson as an all-too-willing Zerlina, and the fine baritone Jared Bybee (whom we admired so much last summer at the Santa Fe Opera) as the Don himself.  

And yet another smashing duet that we all know and love, "Au fond du temple saint" from Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles, was performed by tenor Mingjie Lei and baritone Brian Vu, both of whom sang with clarity and lightness.  The appropriately named Grace Paradise contributed a great deal as harpist and the gorgeously harmonized duet ended in a flourish of winds.

Baritone Kidon Choi exhibited maturity and a sense of authority in his performance of "Si Puo? Si Puo" from Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci.  His storytelling skill matched his vocal beauty.  The contribution from the violins was notable.

The second half of the generous program brought on tenor Paul Han for "Fantaisie aux divins mensonges" from Delibes' Lakme.  He exhibited a marvelous messa di voce and fine Gallic subtlety.  We swooned over his sustained pianissimo.

Capturing our admiration for yet another stellar performance was mezzo Shirin Eskandani who performed "Non piu mesta" from Rossini's La Cenerentola with sparkle to spare and enough vocal fireworks for any Rossini fan to cherish. With such a rich voice and flexibility throughout her range, she has made the role her own.  It didn't hurt that she appeared in a glamorous sequined gown that seemed to have been bestowed by her fairy godmother.

Octavian's first act aria "Wie du warst" from Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier was given a finely polished and passionate performance by mezzo Virginie Verrez, expressing all the wild abandon of the teenage boy she portrayed.  In spite of her feminine beauty, she managed to convince us totally with her excellent phrasing and vocal coloring.

We are always delighted to hear soprano Courtney Johnson who sang Liù's aria "Signore, ascolta" from Puccini's Turandot; Liù is such a wonderful character and Ms. Johnson's angelic voice limned her innocence to the point of breaking our heart.

Baritone Alexey Lavrov used his powerful voice in a well-modulated performance of "Questo amor vergogna mia" from Edgar, Puccini's second opera, one which he later repudiated; he sang Frank's aria with authority,control, and fine phrasing.

We got to hear that lovely harp once more in "Stridono lassu" from Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci, finely sung by Rebecca Pedersen, well on her way to becoming a dramatic soprano of distinction.  Her top notes just rang out and filled up the hall and the vibrato was just right.

We would expect nothing less from bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green who wowed the crowd with the buffo aria "Solche hergelaufne Laffen" from Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  Not only was it perfectly sung but Mr. Green captured all the angry/funny business, a noteworthy performance.

Tenor Benjamin Bliss capped the prizewinners' portion of the afternoon and captured the hearts of the audience with a flawless performance of "Una furtiva lagrima" from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, using his sweet tone to illuminate the character of the hapless Nemorino who finally realizes he has gained Adina's love.

Maestra Queler and her musicians packed up and left with the final performances by the Distinguished Artists to be accompanied by piano. Roberto Iarussi, a 1999 winner used his impressive Italianate tenor in the moving aria "Non piangere, Liù" from Puccini's Turandot.  The program ended with 2008 winner Jan Cornelius, whose lovely lyric soprano was perfect for "In quelle trine morbide" from Puccini's Manon Lescaut, in which Manon confides in Lescaut her disillusionment with her life of wealth.  Ms. Cornelius has great ease in her top notes and a marvelous messa di voce.  We heard an enviable pianissimo, evidence of perfect breath control.

It was a splendid afternoon and we have the highest expectations of all the gifted young artists we heard.  We long to hear them again soon and wish them the very best in their careers.

© meche kroop

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