Danielle Orlando, Latonia Moore, Alice Chung, Titus Muzi, and Ethel Trujillo
One could not have asked for a more satisfying experience than that provided last night at The Greene Space by The Gerda Lissner Foundation, starring singers of the Academy of Vocal Arts, eleven alumni of which are performing this season at the Metropolitan Opera, including some of our very own favorites such as James Morris, Ailyn Perez, and Latonia Moore. There was a warm welcome from Scott Guzielek, Vice President and General Manager of AVA and the ever-delightful Midge Woolsey of WQXR.
As familiar as we are with students at New York City's three conservatories, we have only been introduced to the students of AVA on occasions when they have appeared in competitions. We were happy to have made up somewhat for the lack and quite interested to learn that students at AVA pay no tuition! They must be doing something very special down there in Philadelphia, judging by what we heard tonight.
Soprano Latonia Moore headlined the evening with "Il est doux, il est bon" from Massenet's Herodiade, adding gentle coloring to her sizable voice. What we liked best, aside from the magnificent instrument she possesses, was her total immersion in the character. The vibrato was one of innocent rapture and her gestures limned the character of a young Salome.
We heard her later in the program as Cio-Cio San in Puccini's Madama Butterfly--first (accompanied by mezzo-soprano Alice Chung as Suzuki, about whom more later) in "Scuoti quella fronda di cilegio" in which her voice was colored with joyful anticipation, and later in "Tu, tu piccolo iddio" in which she bids farewell to her beloved son, with sorrow and despair. Having both scenes on the same program gave us a picture of the evolution of character, so necessary to the believability of the story. When singing is so perfect, it is this characterization that makes the difference between talent and artistry.
This quality seems to be a feature of AVA singers. Take, for example, the scenes from Don Pasquale, Donizetti's comic masterpiece. The widow Norina is ambitious and wily and makes a fine team with the shrewd and calculating Dr. Malatesta as they forge a plan to deceive the stingy Don Pasquale. The singers must work hard to get us to like these characters or the opera falls flat. And all this must reflect the commedia del'arte underpinnings of the story.
Soprano Ethel Trujillo and baritone Titus Muzi succeeded admirably at this. In "Quel guardo il cavaliere", Ms. Trujillo reveals Norina's romantic side, using her facility with fioritura and a warm coloration of the voice to put us squarely in her corner. There was an exceptionally clean descending scale and a notably fine trill none of which distracted us from the character she created.
But just watch how she reacted to the plot hatched by Mr. Muzi's Malatesta. His warm baritone was perfect for the role and he created a likeable character whom we could accept as one helping Norina to achieve her dreams, rather than as a wicked manipulator taking advantage of Don Pasquale. The two artists worked very well together as he instructed her in how to play her part in the deception. They are marvelous comic actors as well as singers.
Mr. Muzi created a quite different character, playing Valentin in Gounod's Faust as a sincerely devoted and responsible brother. In the mid-section he revealed the stalwart soldier. It was great to see this other serious side of his artistry.
Ms. Trujillo also had another opportunity to dazzle us. Regular readers know about our passion for zarzuela and the soprano's choice of "Me llaman la primorosa" from Giménez and Nieto's El barbero de Sevilla suited her perfectly. We haven't heard it since New Camerata Opera presented it way back in B.C. (before Covid). The aria gave her a chance to show all kinds of vocal flair and personality. Again we noted the very fine trill and facility with even scale passages. At one point she exchanged phrases with the piano in a most charming fashion.
Mezzo-soprano Alice Chung, whose voice blended so beautifully with Ms. Moore's in the Butterfly duet, had some riveting solos which we found incredibly moving. Perhaps "Voce di donna" is the only aria from Ponchielli's La Gioconda that we remember but Ms. Chung's performance brought the entire opera back to mind and we could just see La Cieca blessing Laura.
Even more remarkable was a Korean art song "Longing for GeunGang Mountain" by Choi Young-Sup, apparently written after the Japanese occupation ended, an historical turn of events which permitted Korea to develop its own art song tradition. In spite of being written in the 20th c. the song is melodic and the confluence of the melody in the music and the melody in the words brought tears to our eyes. It was obvious how deeply the artist related to the song.
Toward the end of this drama-filled evening, Ms. Chung performed a work of brevity and utter simplicity--William Bolcom's "Waitin'", another triumph for this gorgeous voice.
Piano accompaniment was provided by the very gifted Danielle Orlando, whose playing captured our attention during some American folk songs arranged by Clifford Shaw, a most different experience than a piano attempting to replace an entire orchestra. We could really appreciate the writing and the performance.
If you didn't make it into the small Greene Space, perhaps you heard the live stream. In which case, you are welcome to provide your comments below. Please note that the Gerda Lissner Foundation will have a competition at Zankel Hall on May 1st. We advise you to get your tickets now.
© meche kroop