There 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