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.

Thursday, October 31, 2019


Where have you been all my life, Premiere Opera Foundation? Seriously, we love competitions and try to attend all of them; somehow this one escaped our notice but this is only the second annual one and we were highly impressed with the quality of the winners and their performances. There were 400 applicants from which 150 came to New York from all over. From these 150, a distinguished panel of judges chose 20 finalists. There were 10 winners and we were fortunate to hear a magnificent seven of them.

It was a special treat for us to hear several that we have reviewed on frequent occasions and we have a special leaning toward those whose development as artists we have been monitoring. Nonetheless we will make an attempt to rise above our bias and give a fair account of a recital that was thrilling from start to finish.

Mezzo-soprano Xeni Tziouvaras has been on our radar since her student days at Manhattan School of Music. We liked her performances so much that we invited her to sing at our first Around the World in Music; she sang Ravel's Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques which she had translated into Greek. We were so impressed with the sound of the language and how well the text fit into Ravel's melodies. We were even more impressed with Ms. Tziouvaras' stage presence and the dramatic way in which she created a world in a song,

For this recital we got to hear more of Ravel's sensuous and colorful writing. We heard the deeply felt "O, N'antselos eisai matia mou" with its haunting melody, and the frisky "Gelaroumbi"--both delightful. This wonderful artist immerses herself into the song before she even opens her mouth, creating a mood and sustaining it right through to the end.

Her French was as fine as one might wish in "O, ma lyre immortelle" from Gounod's Sapho which is the heroine's "swan song" after her lover has been deceitfully turned against her. Ms. Tsiouvaras' unique timbre served her well and she successfully employed dynamic variation and word coloration to get the tragedy across. There was an effective crescendo bringing the aria to a stunning close.

Another singer we have been watching is baritone Xiaomeng Zhang whom we first heard five years ago at Manhattan School of Music in the role of MacDuff in Ernest Bloch's Macbeth. But we really became aware of his potential at his Master's recital shortly thereafter when he sang in five languages. In his post-graduate stint at Juilliard, he mastered several operatic roles with the most impressive being the lead role in Mozart's Don Giovanni.

He has retained the flexibility he manifested in his many bel canto performances but his voice has expanded to the point that he can wow an audience with his performance of "Vy mne pisali" from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. We attended his coaching session for this role and thought at the time that it suited him very well. 

His phrasing and gesture indicated that he really knew what he was singing about and to whom he was singing. It was impossible to judge his Onegin too harshly. Mr. Zhang created a character who seemed more like a "Dutch Uncle" than a callous cruel man. His instrument has a lovely timbre which he used effectively and the aria built in intensity and swept us along.

He also sang a Chinese song called "Grand River Gone East" by Zhu Qin; although we don't understand the language and there was no translation in the program the emotional content came through loud and clear. We felt the poet's sorrow and sense of loss. We checked it out with Mr. Zhang after the concert and indeed it is about all things passing away, even life.

Another baritone we know well has a different sort of voice; Takaoki Onishi gave a riveting performance of "O Carlo, ascolta...Io morro" which took us back to the time we heard the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the role of Rodrigo, Marquis de Posa in Verdi's Don Carlo. We thought we'd never enjoy that aria sung by anyone else but Mr. Onishi gave us a riveting portrayal of the loyal and selfless friend of Don Carlo. 

The texture of his voice is that of a true Verdi baritone--a singer of power who can combine passionate involvement with beauty of tone. It was interesting to us that he could also sing a tender and romantic love song with a lovely pianissimo, marking him as a singer of versatility. Ivor Novello's "I Can Give You the Starlight" went straight to the heart. If someone had told us that we would enjoy a 20th c. English song, we would not have believed them. We didn't even know who Novello was and were obliged to google him. He was a Welsh actor, singer, and songwriter who wrote "Keep the Homefires Burning". Who knew!

Time for a tenor!  And what a tenorrific artist is Dashuai Chen! What sets him apart from so many other tenors is that he doesn't push his voice. When a tenor goes high and loud we often feel our throat hurt. No such problem bothers Mr. Chen with his easy sound production. As a bitter and miserable Edgardo in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, he performed the lovely legato lines with beauty but never shortchanged the character's pain. He has won a number of competitions with this aria and it just keeps getting better.

A Chinese song "Singing for You" by Yong Chen contrasted well by virtue of it's gentle melody and lyrics. We loved the alternation between major and minor modes. We want to see one more thing from Mr. Chen. We'd like to see him step away from the piano so his gestures can reflect the feeling as effectively as the voice does. Every time he let go of the piano we said in our head "YES!". We enjoyed the performance so much that we invited Mr. Chen to sing in our next Around the World in Song on February 28th.

We have heard mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule only twice--both times thanks to the George London Competition. There was a lovely "Aire des lettres" from Massenet's Werther one time and the other time Aldagisa's Act I prayer from Bellini's Norma. For this concert, she went in a different direction, creating the exuberant character of Octavian in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. The appealing timbre of her voice stood out and she showed an understanding of the character and his situation. Her German was quite good. The only "problem" was that she is a very feminine beautiful woman and without costuming and makeup it was difficult to see her as a young man!

The other selection of this highly versatile artist was "Je vais mourir...Adieu fière cité" from Berlioz' Les Troyens--a very different telling of the tale of Dido and Aeneas than the Purcell. We were very happy to hear this beautiful and moody suicidal aria without dealing with the fatigue of the four preceding acts! There was plenty of variety of dynamics and color as Dido's mood shifts. The pianissimo was gorgeous.

Completely new to us was Armenian soprano Anush Avetisyan, a guest artist who did ample justice to the stirring melody of Rusalka's "Song to the Moon". We heard some superb shaping of Dvorak's phrases, lovely legato (especially considering the consonant-heavy Czech language), and some finely tuned turns. It would not be an exaggeration to say that she wove a spell. We were enchanted.

As a follow up she sang "Kakavik" by the Armenian composer Komitas. We were amazed by the beauty and singability of the language.

Russian mezzo-soprano Anastasiia Sidorova sang the "Seguidilla" from Bizet's Carmen with a beautiful voice and effective coloration; however she did not convince us that she was Carmen trying to seduce a reluctant Don Jose. She did loosen up a bit as the aria progressed, but the role didn't seem to suit her.

We liked her much more in Tchaikovsky's "Otchego" which she sang with Russian passion. Possibly she feels more relaxed in her native language.

Accompanist for the evening was Gerald Martin Moore who has the softest hands and a preternatural ability to support each singer and to tailor his accompaniment to their differential skill set as well as to the demands of the music.

Planning for next year's competition is already underway and we refer you to the website to find out about an interesting partnership that will make the competition even more valuable to the singers who apply.  Go to this URL and click on "Vocal Competition".

© meche kroop

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