Woo Young Yoon and Alice Chung
Competition is fierce in the opera world. Too little money, too many talented singers, too few positions. Opera Index is well known for a fair competition, a devoted membership, and generous awards. The selection of winners is highly anticipated and the 2023 winners have just been announced. However, last night's recital celebrated the artistry and versatility of mezzo-soprano Alice Chung and tenor Woo Young Yoon, winners from last year. Both artists are well known by us and much admired. Watching their respective careers flourishing brings us joy.
Ms. Chung is a powerhouse performer and has a very special gift for drawing us into her vision no matter what character she is inhabiting; it is far more than a portrayal. One lives through the scene with her and you experience the character just as she does. All of her exemplary technique is used in the service of the character and the scene. Of course, one cannot miss the consistency from one end of the register to the other, nor the scintillating vibrato, the impeccable phrasing, the effective dynamic variation, and the linguistic accuracy.
We have written before about her performance of a Korean song by Choi Young-Sup entitled "Longing for GeumGang Mountain" and the reason why South Korea's art song tradition is so recent. Rather than repeat it, we urge you Dear Reader to enter Ms. Chung's name in the search bar. Last night the song was performed as a duet with tenor Woo Young Yoon with verses performed alternatively and then in harmony, to lovely effect.
Ms. Chung's songs in Russian were impeccably sung, as noted by our Russian-speaking companion. Rimsky-Korsakov was the first classical composer we were exposed to as a child and we still find his compositions magically colorful. We heard "When golden cornfields sway" and "Elegy" each given heartfelt involvement. An aria from Tchaikosky's Maid of Orleans went directly to the heart.
The artist's facility in French we could judge for ourself. By a strange coincidence, an aria we hadn't heard in years until last night was also on Ms. Chung's program. "Connais-tu le pays" from Ambroise Thomas' Mignon was performed with full attention to the mixed feelings of longing, nostalgia, regret, and hopefulness.
We knew vaguely about an opera written by Leoncavallo derived from the same Henri Murger stories that Puccini spun into the gold of La Bohême. Leoncavallo's version was rapidly eclipsed by Puccini's. Hearing Ms. Chung sing an aria from the Leoncavallo opera gave us the idea that Leoncavalllo's music was not the reason for the opera's disappearance. Reading the libretto written by the composer himself suggests that his storytelling lacked the emotional weight and continuity of the Illica/Giacosa adaptation. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the music and the performance.
What we enjoyed even more was an American song that we have always found trite and saccharine. Leave it to Ms. Chung to transform "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" from Harold Arlen's Wizard of Oz into a meaningful and highly personal meditation on wistful hopefulness. We will never hear it the same way again!
Our very favorite part of the evening was the "Seguidilla" from Bizet's Carmen which we are sure was directed (and very effectively directed) by the artists themselves. It was unusually exciting to watch Carmen work her wiles on the hapless Don Jose, using every trick in the Book of Seduction. Mr.Yoon was equally effective as her victim, resistant at first and eventually succumbing to Carmen's spell.
Mr. Yoon is a fine tenor with an appealing voice and impressive versatility. As a fan of bel canto, we particularly enjoyed his "A te, o cara", a song about love from Bellini's I Puritani. He was as ardent as a tenor should be, and quite different in performance style from the other characters he portrayed.
His Rodolfo from Puccini's La Bohême was both shy and expansive as he courts his neighbor Mimi in the opening scene. Mr. Yoon conveyed youthful passion in a manner that older singers cannot. Ask any young man who is trying to impress a desirable young woman with bravado whilst also dealing with fear of rejection!
However, his creation of the character of Alfredo in Act II of Verdi's La Traviata was completely different. Here was a young man who has snatched his prize away from the glamorous life in Paris and has her all to himself out in the country where they are experiencing their newfound love with "new relationship energy". He is deluded into believing that their love will last forever, that she will regain her health, and that his bourgeois father will be won over. That's quite a task for a tenor but was successfully conveyed by Mr. Yoon in "Lungi da lei...de miei bollenti spiriti".
We further enjoyed the passionate "Be My Love" from Brodszky's The Toast of New Orleans and were reminded how much clearer English diction is when sung by people whose first language is not English. There was not a moment during the entire evening when we wished for projected titles.
We noticed some lovely spun-out decrescendi in several pieces which gave us a better picture of Mr. Yoon's artistry than his fortissimi in the upper register which seems to be a thing among young tenors. Perhaps it is the enthusiastic applause from the audience that eggs them on, but we personally prefer the planissimi sections that draw us closer rather than blasting us away.
The excellent accompanist for the evening was Yeontaek Oh, whose gifts were most noticeable to us during a contemporary piece by Jake Heggie, in which the vocal line did not engage us as much as his playing. Had the singing not been so arresting we might have paid him more attention during the remainder of the concert.
© meche kroop