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tamaraThere was an embarrassment of riches last night at the 2016 Richard Tucker Gala, a concert so exquisite it honored the memory of its namesake. Created in 1975, the foundation is “dedicated to perpetuating the artistic legacy of the great American tenor through support and advancement of the careers of talented American opera singers.” 

This support is most saliently bestowed through the Richard Tucker Award, a generous gift of $50,000 to a “single artist who has reached a high level of artistic accomplishment and who, in the opinion of a conferral panel, is on the threshold of a major international career.” For a bit of context on what this “threshold” implies, past recipients include such luminaries as: Aprile Millo, Deborah Voigt and Stephanie Blythe.

The 2016 recipient is Tamara Wilson, whose past engagements include the Metropolitan Opera, Barcelona, Frankfurt Opera, and English National Opera. More importantly, in this current season she intends to debut at the Bayerische Staatsoper and the Deutsche Oper Berlin. This world class resume speaks to her world class voice, a robust, substantial soprano, suitable for Verdi and Wagner.

Speaking of Wagner, the Gala began with the soprano tossing off a reading of “Dich, teure Halle” with elegant ease. She returned later in the evening to sing Verdi’s “Tu al cui sguardo onnipossente” from I due Foscari, as well as the finale of Act I of Bellini’s Norma (joined by Jamie Barton and Joshua Guerrero), and a soaring “Make Our Garden Grow” (again with Guerrero) from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.

Wilson’s voice is formidable, rich, and expressive. This was the first time I heard her live, and—per the claims of the foundation—it was easy to understand how she might, indeed, be stepping over the “threshold of a major international career.”

As is customary, a roster of high-profile opera stars joined Wilson in this concert, the wattage of which veered dangerously close to short-circuit. The first singer to follow Wilson was probably the most famous Tucker alumna, Renée Fleming (she won in 1990). She sang a heartfelt “Adieu, notre petite table” from Manon, as well as an animated rendition of Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata.”

She was followed by Javier Camarena, whose tenor leaped with athletic gusto through Rossini’s “La danza.” Another highlight from Camarena occurred with “Ah vieni, nel tuo sangue” from Rossini’s Otello; this time he was accompanied by another virtuosic tenor, Lawrence Brownlee (winner of the 2006 Award). The two were well matched, like Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, outshining each other with stratospheric high notes and clean coloratura. And Brownlee was equally charming onstage alone, this time singing Donizetti’s “Suel sur la terre” from Dom Sébastien.

Another standout moment included Anna Netrebko’s “La mamma morta” from Andrea Chénier, which was so gorgeously rich and intuitively musical that that the diva, in response to rapturous ovations, deemed it necessary to offer the audience even more spectacular singing with an impromptu encore, “Io son l’umile ancella” from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur. The final lines of the aria, “Un soffio è la mia voce,/ che al novo di morrà” (My voice is just a whisper, which, with the new day, will die), inspired the soprano to diminuendo until only a silky thread of phonation remained.

Barton, last year’s winner, returned with “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Samson et Dalila, demonstrating the caliber of artistry the award implies. She also appeared again with Joyce DiDonato, singing a sorrowful, hypnotic “Son nata a lagrimar” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare.

DiDonato (2002 Award Winner) also demonstrated her distinct abilities with the aria “Si, son io” from the recent Great Scott by Jake Heggie. The music, while contemporary, did not feel out of place within the traditional repertoire that dominated the program. And Di Donato, as usual, brought a spellbinding depth to her performance, regal and still.

Based upon her work last night, one might easily predict a future Tucker Award winner in Nadine Sierra, whose reliable soprano and star-quality suggested an artist beyond her years. She sang “Regnava nel silenzo” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Bellini’s Vieni fra questa braccia” from I puritani (with Camarena) with poise and grace, her voice caressing each phrase tenderly.

And presenting the standard rep of “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka, and “Un bel dì vedremo” from Madama Butterfly, Kristine Opalais proved her mettle and expertise. Her high B flat from “Song to the Moon” rang out strongly, though I would have preferred a bit more warmth and emotional engagement during the Puccini.

Maestro Asher Fisch kept things moving briskly, conducting members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He was joined on stage by The New York Choral Society, directed by David Hayes, who began the evening with the majestic “Entrance of the Guests” from Tannhäuser. The chorus also joined Wilson on the Verdi and Bellini.

However, the surprise of the evening was what did not make it to the stage. Yusif Eyvazov was unfortunately absent, due to a foot injury. As such, the audience had to do without the Azerbaijani tenor. But while he was certainly missed, there was more than enough talent to make up for his absence.

Ultimately, the gala concert was a showcase for excellent singing, from both American and international artists, and it offered one the opportunity to hear a rising star at the beginning of her career. It seemed fitting to welcome Wilson into this august company of musicians, a position she more than deserves—a fitting award beyond the financial compensation.

Photo: Dario Acosta

  • Gualtier Maldè

    The printed program indicated that Eyvazov was going to sing the “Improvviso” from “Andrea Chenier” and later was to duet with his wife in “Vicino a te” from the same opera. Netrebko ended up singing “La Mamma Morta” and the “Adriana” aria was offered up as a replacement for the omitted duet with her husband. As for “La Momma Morta”, Netrebko’s voice sounded rich, lush and house filling but she did not quite build the musical and emotional climax of the aria with the necessary sweep and power. I felt that Asher Fisch’s conducting might have been at fault here. The “Io son umile ancella” from “Adriana” was superb with expert phrasing and virtuoso use of dynamics.

    Renée Fleming sounded underpowered and wan in the “Adieu notre petite table” from “Manon”. The sweet quality was there but there is no vocal body behind it. Her rendition of the “Mattinata” by Leoncavallo was musically wayward and often drowned by the orchestra.

    I was pleased by the novel choices of repertory: the Rossini “Otello”, Bellini “I Puritani” and Handel “Giulio Cesare” duets. The Heggie aria from “Great Scott” was an oddity: it was an Italian language pastiche of a bel canto aria. In the story of the opera, Arden Scott has discovered a long lost unperformed bel canto opera in the archives at St. Petersburg. The Heggie sounded like a Rodgers & Hammerstein minor key ballad translated into Italian with added melismas and cadenzas. It was pretty and pretty strange.

    Opalais sounded better than she did last season in “Butterfly” and “Manon Lescaut”. None of the unsteadiness, hollowness, edge or wobble. The “Rusalka” aria was very presentable and attractive -- the slavic brightness of Opalais’ tone suited the piece. The “Un bel di” was decent. Part of me wants to really like her, so I hope she improves.

    I though Wilson’s best outing was in the Lucrezia aria from “I Due Foscari” -- rich, lush, shining, flexible and easy. Totally unfazed by the range and flexibility required.

    Best individual performances: Jamie Barton in Dalila’s aria. John Brownlee in the beautiful “Dom Sebastien” aria and Netrebko’s “Io son umile ancella”.

    Asher Fisch is a pro but the orchestra seemed underrehearsed -- upstairs it sounded too loud and there were passing moments of lack of coordination with the soloists -- Fleming and orchestra seemed on different tracks in the “Mattinata”.

    • PCally

      Barton was incredible, the best I’ve ever heard her. I really think she could sing the role onstage and completely convince

      • Kenneth Conway

        Pray to the gods that The Met is planning a new production of Samson et Dalila for Barton.

        • Porgy Amor

          They have a new production of Samson on the way soon (Michieletto’s, which I found quite bad in its recent Paris video braodcast, despite A-Rach’s worthy Dalila), but Garanca is slated for first crack at it. Maybe a revival.

          • It was a now-standard modern “repressive regime” production that could be used for any number of “repressive regime” plots. Not very exciting. But the musical side was good!

            • Porgy Amor

              I agree about the musical side, although Antonenko did not sound out of the woods to me (and never has been that interesting to watch). Rachvelishvili and Jordan/orchestra/chorus were the big stories, and the other male roles were in good hands.

              Besides the general staleness of it, it seemed to me that Michieletto was not interested at all in heroism. Samson was so ineffectual that it was hard to believe his enemies would go to so much trouble to neutralize him. “Arrêtez, ô mes frères” has never rung more hollow; everyone who takes it up and echoes it is dead a couple minutes later. Even the final act of heroism was not achieved because Samson, in his penitence, was restored by divine grace, just because his girlfriend had a change of heart, and happened to have the means at hand for an explosive denouement (is there often gasoline at orgies? Never mind). Samson was practically a bystander.

              Good performance by A-Rach as the conflicted, reluctant Dalila, and to give Michieletto his due, he efficiently directed her so that things like the oath with the Priest had another layer to them, the acquiescence of someone used and beaten down. I am sure Garanca will do well with it too. But should Gelb give this dreary thing a punt, as he did Bondy’s Rigoletto, and get a different S&D or put Garanca and Hymel in a different opera, I would not be disappointed. Not that I expect it to happen.

    • ER

      Fantastic review, Patrick and Gualtier. Agree wholeheartedly. Musically to me this was one of the most satisfying RT galas of the last 10-15 years. Great talent, everyone was having a good night, and unusual variety of music too-- not just the typical chestnuts.

      Tamara Wilson was a gem (esp in the Verdi aria) but for me the highlight was Jamie Barton’s Samson aria. So incredibly plush and gorgeous. The two tenor duet was a riot.
      I agree with Gualtier that for some reason, Netrebko’s mama morta seemed a bit ploddy.

    • Krunoslav

      “John Brownlee in the beautiful “Dom Sebastien” aria “.

      Yes, his “O my Lisbon” in crystal clear English leaves Battistini, Bruson and other foreign singers in the dust.

      • manou

        John?

      • Gualtier Maldè

        We have edit function now -- thank god.

  • Leontiny

    Such a generous review. Thank you. And for those of us unable to attend medici is offering FREE replays for 90 days.
    http://www.medici.tv/#!/richard-tucker-opera-gala

    • Brackweaver

      Thanks for the info. I just watched and listened. Very enjoyable and no political commercials!

  • almavivante

    Will the concert be broadcast soon on QXR? (Or was it already?) I recall in past years when I’ve attended the program gives this info.

    • almavivante

      Ah, I see on Medici’s page they are “exclusively” broadcasting it, so question answered.

    • Gualtier Maldè

      November 19th at 9:00 pm on WQXR per Barry Tucker’s announcement.

  • Cicciabella

    Regarding Opolais’ Song to the Moon, I think this is her way of interpreting the aria: reflective and a less exuberant than we are used to. It occurred to me while watching the gala yesterday the she sang the aria exactly the same way she sings it on the DVD of the Rusalka in the Fritzl basement.

  • Matthew Byrd

    Here is my take.

    I think everyone needs to give Fleming a break. She is 57 and understands that her career is ending. For her age she still sounds pretty good, but I agree the bloom in the voice isn’t much there anymore.

    I cant get into DiDonato. I want to like her voice but I cannot stand it. My voice teacher calls it Voix Blanche singing with straight tone. Which a lot of early music singers choose to use for “stylistic’ reasons. She often times sounds like a 12 year old English boy soprano. Its not a sound that I care to listen to. The Hegge was weird for me as well.

    Opolais sounded great in Dvoark and was flatty flatty 2 x 4 in The Butterfly which is such a pedestrian choice.

    Barton was great but the floated high Bb was weird in the Dalila.

    The tenors were thrilling,

    Netrebko sang a great Io sono but her low voice is too weird for LA Mamma Morta, which can sit low for stretches of time.

    I would of liked a Bass or Baritone.

    Tamara was amazing and a voice that is exciting.

    Just my two cents!!

    • aulus agerius

      Was that only a Bb vrom Barton?! Sounded as weird as an Yma Sumac note.

    • Wouldn’t a bass or baritone in La Mamma Morta be even weirder than Anna N.?

  • aulus agerius

    I thought AN was awesome. Not musically perfect but the tone she can emit is so gorgeously complex with overtones -- like Gheorghiu at her best but so much more of it!! Goosebumps both songs.:-) She’s hitting her stride going from strength to strength.

  • QuantoPainyFakor

    This Tucker Gala was really fine in every way. For those of you who can find the video of the new Hamburg Opera production of DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE staged by the amazing Jette Stekel, you’re in for many surprises. The young Turkish tenor Dovlet Nurgeldiyev is a real find. There are effects in this production by set and lighting designer that I have never seen before used this well in an opera. ARTE still has iton their website: http://concert.arte.tv/de/die-zauberfloete-staatsoper-hamburg

  • steveac10

    Despite the cool Nordic colors of Wilson’s voice, I found her much more persuasive in the Italian selections. She really dug in to the Verdi in particular. That said, girl really needs to find a new dress maker. Those were three of the most unflattering gowns I have ever seen, particularly that bizarre pastel scrunchy she wore for the Verdi. Maybe the foundation could try a bit of cross promotion next time around and hire a designer who enjoys creating glamorous looks for all body types like Siriano or Shoji to do all of the women’s gowns. Press in multiple locations guaranteed.

    • Bluecabochon

      She should consult Jamie Barton’s designer -- she always looks wonderful.

    • ER

      Steveac-- thanks for bringing both points up. Your characterization about having a more nordic sounding voice, yet sounding more at home in the Verdi rung true to me as well. It’s a big, yet soft-grained voice.

      As for gowns, the first one (green) was quite nice I thought but the pastel pink one was absolutely awful.

    • DonCarloFanatic

      Was it pink? There was one swathed and draped thing that made me long for the beaded caftans of the late 1960s, which while boring did not distract from the event at hand. Pieces of fabric going this way and that; a mess.

      Girl has an awesome voice, but how many really large people do you see who live to enjoy old age? Maybe a short life doesn’t matter to people who’re on a career path that generally lasts only a couple decades at the top. Except for Placido Domingo, of course, who intends to outlive us all--and go out as a star.

  • chicagoing

    The New York Times chose to feature Kristine Opolais, rather than award winner Tamara Wilson, in the photo accompanying their review of the Tucker gala in today’s paper.

    • DonCarloFanatic

      I noticed. She also was not prominently mentioned at the beginning of the article, yet SHE’S THE WINNER. If that isn’t discrimination, I don’t know what is.

    • Williams

      Not to be contrary but I could have done without Opolais’ assay of the Rusalka piece. Her somewhat hard and hollow product (we were in center dress circle) was without any of the shimmer and vulnerability generally associated with the song. She certainly didn’t come to grief but It was interesting that she got comparitavely muted applause for it. Considering that she appeared not long after La Voce Fleming for whom this aria is a signature I suppose my hopes were too high.

      • chicagoing

        Your comment even more interesting now in light of the recent speculation following a posted blind item.

        • Armerjacquino

          It got kind of lost during the BOHEME chat, but since that blind item (48hrs ago, in fact) the Met has sent out an email ad for RUSALKA with Opolais’ name in the header and a massive great photo of her. If they are on the verge of letting her go, nobody has told the marketing department.

          • southerndoc1

            They’ve also put up rehearsal video on the website where she sounds pretty much like she always does. She’s been singing a lot at the Met this season, so if she were in vocal extremis, they would have picked up on it before now.

  • fantasia2000

    Regarding Asher Fisch’s conducting, I wonder if anybody can comment on how different was his conducting Tristan compared to Simon Rattle? I saw the last performance last week (10/27) and I found his conducting to be swift and exciting, and he got great cheers from the audience. I noticed that the review above also used the adjective “briskly” as well.