The Metropolitan Opera yesterday afternoon was an uncommonly cozy place, as the auditorium was packed to the rafters with friends and family members of the nine National Council Audition Finalists. For the finalists I’m sure the experience was nerve-wracking but it was heartwarming to see the huge cheering crowds for each finalist.
Winner of the 2007 competition Angela Meade was the amiable host and General Manager Peter Gelb reminded the audience of the Auditons’ illustrious past winners. And with that, the competition was on.
There were nine finalists this year and it was pretty obvious by intermission who the winners would be. In fact, I wrote my predictions in my program and except for the tenor Joseph
Phillips Dennis I guessed correctly.
First up was German mezzo Deniz Uzin, who displayed a pleasantly plummy timbre but also choppy phrasing and awkward vowels in “Cruda sorte.” Her “Seguidille” again had almost phonetic diction. There’s talent there, but the package is unfinished.
Next up was Jared Bybee who sang Count Almaviva’s Act Three rant. He would have won had this been a beauty contest—he was almost ridiculously handsome. But the voice was lean and light and seemed to get lost across the footlights. In the second half he sang Rossini’s “Sois immobile” which again demonstrated that this voice as of now is too lightweight to make much of an impact.
Kathryn Henry sang Marguerite’s Jewel Song and “O mio babbino caro.” Her light, fluttery voice that unfortunately didn’t distinguish itself as special from the zillions of lyric sopranos who also sing this sort of thing. The last non-winner was Allegra de Vita, who sang “Tu preparati a morire” from Ariodante and “All’ afflitto è dolce il pianto” from Roberto Devereux. She has a pleasant timbre, but also a bad case of marble mouth. Her presentation was bland and somewhat unengaging.
Phillips Dennis (the tenor) has an aw-shucks persona that made you like him immediately. Unfortunately he seemed to suffer from a bad case of the nerves in his first selection “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure” and his top sounded strained. After the intermission his voice warmed up with “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz.” It’s still a slender, small instrument and of all the winners perhaps the least impressive. But I know many lyric tenors take time for their voices to grow in amplitude and richness.
French mezzo Virginie Verretz was perhaps the “ringer” of the competition, as she’s already been accepted into the Met’s Lindemann program. Nevertheless she justified her place as a winner with her elegant rendition of “Deh per quest istante solo” from La clemenza di tito and a haunting “Must the winter come so soon” fromVanessa. She’s a total package type—gorgeous woman, very plush lyric mezzo, future looks promising indeed.
Marina Costa-Jackson has an unusual soprano for someone so young—it’s definitely a spinto voice, with a sharp edge that one can see slicing through the orchestra in the heavier Verdi roles. Her aria from Queen of Spades showed off the cut of the voice, but for some reason her second selection was “Si, mi chiamano Mimì” which suited neither her voice nor her personality. That aria requires a bit of simpering and Costa-Johnson is not a simperer. But her impressive voice made enough of an impact to win.
The two voices of the competition came however from perhaps the least physically beautiful singers of the competition. Bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee sang a charming Catalogue Aria but only showed the full power and range of his voice in the aria from Aleko. Though he’s only 25, his voice already has the resonance and richness of a genuine bass-baritone and one can practically see Hans Sachs and Flying Dutchman in his future.
Baritone Reginald Smith was a big, imposing man whose voice really shook the rafters. Make no mistake about it, it’s huge. Ford’s monologue already rocked the house, but it wasn’t until “Oh Lawd, hear my prayer” from The Emperor Jones that we heard Smith’s voice overpower Fabio Luisi’s orchestra in a way that one rarely sees in baritones nowadays. Right now Smith’s instrument is more about brute power and it’ll be interesting to see how it develops, but he has a voice.
While the judges conferred, Meade sang two selections—“Casta diva” and “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana.” Then the winners were announced and the non-winners smiled bravely. There was more basking in success for the winners in the champagne reception afterwards, while the non-winners continued to smile bravely.
But overall this was a heartwarming afternoon for the future of opera. You saw all the family, the friends, the colleagues there in the audience, and you realized how many sacrifices these young singers had to make just to get to this point in their careers. That they’re still willing to make these sacrifices is reason enough to stand up and cheer.
Photo: 2015 National Council Winners Reginald Smith, Jr., Virginie Verrez, Joseph Dennis, Marina Costa-Jackson and Nicholas Brownlee.