|A magical night at Carnegie Hall|
Barry Tucker sure knows how to honor his father, the late and great Richard Tucker; he also knows how to put on a great show, one that all of the citizens of Planet Opera must attend. Rarely are so many superstars gathered under one roof and Carnegie Hall is the perfect venue for us to appreciate their gifts, thanks to its formidable acoustics.
Onstage we had the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Nicola Luisotti; they got the festivities off to a great start with the rousing overture to Verdi's Nabucco, one of the themes of which we would hear later, performed by the incomparable New York Choral Society--"Va pensiero".
Headlining the program was the stunning soprano Nadine Sierra, whom we have always called "the diva next door". Rarely is so much beauty, glamour, artistry, and wholesomeness found in one person. The Richard Tucker Foundation awarded her top prize this year and they could not have made a better choice.
We have often thrilled to her performance of Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto, a role she imbues with all the innocence it requires. In "Caro nome", Gilda has just fallen in love with the Duke, whom she believes to be a poor student. Verdi's writing here manifests all the excitement of first love and Ms. Sierra provided ample embellishments without ever betraying the innocence of the character. The a capella section is a high wire act and this artist never missed a step.
What always astonishes us is how a great artist makes a great aria seem completely natural and effortless. Of course we are aware of how much study and practice it takes to make something appear effortless! The greatest astonishment of the evening was her performance of Violetta's scena from Act I of Verdi's La Traviata.
In this aria, Violetta is reflecting upon the new man who has been devoted to her for some time but only just arrived on her doorstep, so to speak. Violetta, in her way, is as innocent of love as Gilda is, but she is also worldly. She lives a life devoted to carefree pleasures as a well-kept mistress; but something deep inside has been awakened by the promise of love. In this scena she considers both options. Verdi's music and Ms. Sierra's delivery told us everything we need to know about this complex woman. Here, her fioritura was suitably feverish and florid. The standing ovation was well deserved.
The other standing ovation of the evening was earned by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe (1999 Award winner) who performed the most unusual version of the Habanera from Bizet's Carmen we have ever witnessed. The uniqueness of her sound, paired with a very over the top piece of acting brought out appreciative giggles and torrents of applause. She was having a great time onstage, interacting with the conductor and the concertmaster.
We got to hear a more traditional aria from her also--"Aure, deh, per pietà" from Handel's Giulio Cesare, accompanied by what appeared to be a theorbo. We felt like our ears had tastebuds and we were drinking thick rich hot chocolate. No one sounds like Ms. Blythe!
Another remarkable performance was delivered by tenor Vittorio Grigolo who actually transformed himself into Canio from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci before our very eyes, so completely did he immerse himself in the role. He milked it for all it was worth and we gained an understanding of Canio's pain that seemed to go deeper than jealousy. The tearful vibrato in his voice seemed absolutely right.
In the role of Tonio who performs the Prologue to Pagliacci, "Si può", we heard baritone Anthony Clark Evans We loved the way he created a believable character, miming the movements of an itinerant performer about to face a new audience. We also loved the waves of rich sound he produced. We are so glad that the foundation has been nurturing his career with a Study Grant in 2014 and a Career Grant this year.
Dramatic soprano Tamara Wilson (last year's Tucker Award winner), accompanied by the massive chorus, gave a compelling performance of "In questa reggia" from Puccini's Turandot. In an original masterstroke, she interpolated the tenor's line, right before the high C, as explained by our friend the pianist Michael Fennelly. We were impressed by the modulated quality she achieved without the oft heard shouting.
She also performed the role of Aida in a duet with Amneris (mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk). In "Fu la sorte dell'armi" she gets tricked by her rival for Radames' affection into exposing her love for him. There is a gross imbalance of power, but an excellent balance of voices!
Ms. Semenchuk also sang "O mio Fernando" from Donizetti's La Favorita, accompanied by our new favorite instrumental combination--harp and horn.
Counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo performed "Rompo i lacci" from Handel's Flavio. For this stunning performance, the orchestra was joined by a baroque guitar. There were plenty of fireworks in the A section, delivered with the rapid-fire precision for which Mr. Costanzo is famous, but we were more interested in the largo B section in which we could appreciate the long legato lines.
Soprano Ailyn Pèrez (the 2012 Tucker award winner) never fails to delight and delight she did with "Ebben! Ne andrò lontana" from Catalani's rarely performed verismo opera La Wally. There was a memorably graceful portamento in this heartfelt aria and Ms. Pèrez brought it to a thrilling climax. Even better was her performance of "Un bel di" from Puccini's Madama Butterfly in which the pathos is punctuated by the percussion in the orchestra.
Soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen, who has won two grants from the foundation, reprised the performance we so enjoyed at The Greene Space--the "Czardas" from Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus. In this aria, Frau Eisenstein pretends to be a Hungarian Countess to trick her wayward husband. The purposeful overacting brought fun to us and, we hope, to her as well.
Mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught produced some vocal fireworks in the well known bel canto aria which closes Rossini's La cenerentola--"Nacqui all'affanno...Non più mesta". We liked the way she paced it, giving herself room to expand the runs and trills which Rossini produced in cascades.
Tenor Peni Pati sang "La donna è mobile" from Verdi's Rigoletto with a rather covered sound. We liked the variety of dynamics.
Ms. Sierra and Mr. Grigolo made quite a pair in "Tonight" from Bernstein's West Side Story. You may disagree but we see this as an American Opera. All it needs to graduate from Broadway to the opera stage is topnotch unamplified voices.
The dazzling evening closed with the final scene from Verdi's final opera Falstaff. This elaborate fugue is endlessly inventive and unremittingly delightful.
It was a long evening, 2 1/2 hours without intermission, but it flew by with not a single longueur. As we said, Barry Tucker knows how to throw a party!