Barton glances

I’m giving my age away here by saying that I am unfortunate enough to remember how Rudy Giuliani would sometimes drop by the Met airwaves and claim he was a “huge” opera fan. The most mild inquiries revealed that his knowledge of opera started at La traviata and ended at La bohème. But there is a sizable portion of opera audiences who only like the bread and butter Italian operas, and the annual Richard Tucker Gala is probably the event of the year to indulge your love of verismo staples and can belto screaming.  

The 2015 Richard Tucker Gala was no different. The ostensible occasion for the gala was to celebrate the 2015 winner, mezzo soprano Jamie Barton. She is a worthy winner of this prize—her mezzo soprano is rich and luscious. It definitely stands out among the hordes of slender lyric mezzos that populate the opera scene. Barton had three selections—”Acerba voluttá,” a duet from La Gioconda,with 2001 winner Christine Goerke and “Je vais mourir” from Les Troyens.

Barton is a bit too amiable to really pull off the witchy Adriana aria—this is where Olga Borodina-style side-eye is sorely missed. But the duet with Goerke made me long for a Gioconda revival with these two ladies, and if Didon lacked the wrenching intensity of, say, Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson it showed off an artist ready for the greatest mezzo roles.

A crasser inclusion was Andrea Bocelli. His newest CD ( Cinema ) was taped to the back of each seat in David Geffen Hall, and he was also given three numbers. “M’appari” from Martha,the Lucia di Lammermoor duet with Nadine Sierra, and “O soave fancifulla” with Renée Fleming. When Bocelli sang with Sierra and Fleming you heard the difference between an operatically trained voice and a slender popera tenor.

Fleming and Sierra have soft-grained lyric voices but their voices projected and bloomed. Bocelli’s voice without the microphone had a dead, hollow sound. His phrasing was clipped and choppy. Whatever sweetness he had to his voice is now gone; he sounds like an aged comprimario. Fleming tactfully led him offstage when it was clear that his high C at the end of “O soave fanciulla” was going south.

Otherwise this gala had a good mix of singers. I’ll cover the vets first. Angela Gheorghiu showed up in a provocative, virtually backless black gown and sang “In quelle trine morbide” and “Ebben, ne andró lontana” in that sexy, whispery, bedroom-eyes style that only she can pull off. But she sang with confidence and this along with her feisty performance of Tosca at the Met is sending a strong message that she hasn’t thrown in the towel on her career.

Piotr Beczala ’ s “Nessun dorma” was stylish and displayed his incredibly well-preserved voice. I don’t know that I’d want to hear him as Calaf but as a concert rendition it was fine.The Faust duet with Renée Fleming was a little lethargic but they did end on a blazing high note. Youngsters, take note. Fleming is an old hand at these galas—“Io son l’umile ancella” (sung without the opening recitative) was graceful and her duets with Beczala and Bocelli gave us a chance to hear her in repertoire she’s likely to never sing again onstage.

Isabel Leonard and Lawrence Brownlee were relegated to one solo number each. Leonard sang “Non piu mesta” from Cenerentola. If this were a beauty pageant she’d walk away with the prize—she looked stunning in a purple gown. Alas, Rossini rondos are not her thing. Conductor Eugene Kohn made a big cut for her but Leonard’s coloratura was still bumpy and choppy, with snatched breaths all over the place. Brownlee sang “Terra amica … Cara! eh attendimi” from Zelmira with a smoothness that bordered on nonchalance.

Nadine Sierra just called in “sick” to a Lucia production in San Francisco but sounded healthy enough to these ears. She was the only performer to not get a solo aria, but her two lengthy duets ( Roméo et Juliette ’ s “Va! Je t’ai pardonéé” with Stephen Costello, Lucia with Bocelli) made these ears perk up. Not only is she gorgeous, but her voice has a real shimmery sweetness. Mental note: must see her upcoming Gildas at the Met.

Costello in addition to the duet with Sierra sang Federico’s lament (only at the Richard Tucker can there be three numbers by Cilea…) His voice still has a tendency to bleat under pressure but he looked and sounded less strained than I’ve ever heard him.

Everyone’s new favorite Elektra Christine Goerke predictably raised the roof with her barnstorming rendition of “O don fatale” and her Gioconda duet. Her voice is huge, it’s exciting, you listen to her and you want to stand up and cheer. The “O don fatale” was missing one rather important high note, but the crowd didn’t care. The list of roles I long to hear Goerke sings grows longer by the minute.

The evening ended with the Triumphal Scene from Aida. The announced cast was the decidedly oddball quintet of Goerke (Aida), Barton (Amneris), Bocelli (“Radames”, giggle snort), George Gagnidze (Amonasaro) and Paul Corona (Ramfis). Great, except Gagnidze never showed so they cut a huge chunk of the scene and quickly rushed to the finale. What should have been a thrilling end to the gala was instead a mix of awkward stares on stage and “huh? What just happened” reactions from the audience.

Earlier in the evening Barry Tucker made a speech that his best announcement was that there were “no announcements.” The audience chuckled, as the Tucker Gala in the past has been littered with last minute program changes due to cancellations. I guess Gagnidze either didn’t get that memo or Tucker was just very naive to believe that a singer would show up to a gala with only the Triumphal Scene ensemble in his program.

Anyway, congrats Jamie Barton, 2015 Richard Tucker Award Winner, and onward to what looks to be an amazing career!