Cher Public

Monday in the park with mike

From up close, the miked opera singer can be a bit tough to take. Awkward out of her comfort zone and used to throwing her voice forward, she must scale back her sound and sauce it up in just the right places. She must act big for the back row, but sing for the cabaret. One overly harsh or bullying high note, and she’s the tuba in the library. 

When amplified for a free concert in Central Park—as three promising young singers were last night to kick off the Met’s annual Summer Recital Series at SummerStage—the considerations kick into high gear, because now they’re battling potato chips for sound space. Yet against the odds, neither heat, nor mozzarella stick, nor beer-battered spectator could keep Susanna Phillips, Elizabeth DeShong, and Petr Nekoranec from delivering a top-tier young artist program to the unpaying masses.

Mostly, they pulled from the songbook. Phillips opened the show with an understated but timely “Summertime”—always a crowd favorite, with those plain, naked chords that have allowed so many ingenues to unveil the voice unobstructed. Hers is a soprano that the Met has wisely made its Musetta of late. Girlish and tapering, it is not flashy, and can grow thin and insecure at the top of her range, but it is quite fair, especially when offset by an able tenor, or else when appearing as Clémence in L’Amour de Loin, as Phillips did for the Met last season.

Czech tenor Nekoranec, a standout member of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program who will appear in Parsifal later this year, stepped in for an apparently unwell Stephen Costello and delivered a program that left me longing to hear him sing more chanson. He is slight (think Neil Patrick Harris) and his voice crooning, with that same old-timey, plaintive hue we’ve been hearing so much of lately from the likes of Calleja and Beczala.

He dispatched an oddly introverted, non-pinging “La donna è mobile,” which felt wrong. But in the French repertoire, Nekoranec excelled, delivering a very creamy “Je crois entendre encore” from Pêcheurs that gave Bizet’s barcarolle the kind of intimacy—those floating wisps of erotic longing—the aria needs to captivate. His selections from Fille du Régiment and La Belle Hélène were well chosen for the venue, and delivered a suitable range of characters and affects.

DeShong (pictured) wowed the audience with her mezzo-coloratura, and unleashed some running passages that made the audience cool it with the quinoa for a second. Her acting was stagey and exciting to watch: I particularly loved her take on “Cruda sorte!” from L’Italiana in Algeri—that sly cavatina Isabella sings about how stupidly the same all pirates are—as well as her colorful “Non più mesta” from Cenerentola (she’s played the title role with the Vienna State Opera). Too bad the latter aria was nearly upstaged by a loud, late-night helicopter over the park. (Run, Melania!) I look forward to hearing DeShong’s Arsace at the Met, as we will next season.

There were a few hiccupy moments when the “young” of “young artist” began to overwhelm. Phillips had her greenhorn acting tics, the odd foot stomp to show her vexation during “Come scoglio,” for instance. As evidenced by her “Song to the Moon” (can we please give this long-winded aria a rest already?), she is also of the “solemnly searching the horizon” school of emoting. Nekoranec sang out the side of his mouth a little and DeShong delivered a mushy “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from behind a music stand.

Yet when the singing sparkled, it lit up the sky. This recital gave us four duets that were all a pleasure to watch, from Semiramide, L’Amico Fritz, Hoffmann, and Bohème. That last one also gave us a glimpse of Phillips’ vivid Mimi, who was a little too largo in her aria but moving in the build-up.

For their encores, the singers brought us Broadway. DeShong’s “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” was a beauty (that modulation destroys me every time). Nekoranec took us to “Granada.” And the evening closed with Phillips’ account of “I Could Have Danced All Night,” a giddy little trifle that may twirl a good many outdoor diners out of the Park and into the Met’s next lineup next Friday.

  • Daniel Swick

    Are Phillips and DeShong REALLY young artists still?

    • PCally

      Phillips has had countless opportunities to prove herself.
      I really was quite impressed by her Clemence but I haven’t really found much of her standard repertoire performances to be all that special, including the Musetta (I’d personally would love to have her try out Mimi and see how that goes).

      DeShong I’ve only seen in Lulu and the fact that she managed to stand out in what are arguably the only roles in the opera to genuinely qualify as thankless is pretty impressive. I’m very much looking forward to seeing her opposite Didonato next season.

      • Rick

        Opposite Ms DiDonato where, dear PCally? At the Met it is Ms Meade who is scheduled for Semiramide.

        • PCally

          Hmm my bad, I guess I had forgotten and was thinking back to met rumors pages from a while ago. Kind of have trouble remembering much of what’s to come next season tbh. But I’ll correct my comment. I’ve never seen the opera live though so I’m still looking forward to it.

          • CKurwenal

            I wish we were getting Meade in this opera in London, rather than DiDonato. Can’t decide whether to see it, or bank on a fairly rapid revival with somebody else in the title role. Being a co-production, that might not be all that likely.

            • PCally

              Tastes differ, I don’t unconditionally love Didonato but i find her much easier to take than Meade, who is already sounding worse for wear based on the last couple of time I’ve heard her and whose voice is as unruly as Didonato’s with any of her control over it

            • Bill

              PCally -- I have seen Meade as Norma and then in Ernani -- she seems to be (vocally)
              a very uneven singer. For the future I probably will avoid performances in which she is featured unless it is a must-see opera or there are other compensations (other star singers) in the performance. Perhaps I saw
              Meade on off nights but she seems (to my
              mind) to have a reasonable voice but is somewhat sloppy in execution and on the two occasions that I recall seeing her she sang
              (particularly in the Ernani) flat some of the time.

        • JR

          I know it’s not PC to say this, but the Norma a few years ago with Meade and Barton was wonderful. Thought Meade’s Elvira was forgettable.

          • PCally

            That was last good thing I remember from her. I thought there was lots of lovely singing and I do think bel canto brings out a thrust and sheen in her voice than some of the denser Verdi. But I still thought she had her fair share of struggles, was generally unimaginative in terms of phrasing and dynamics, and practically was non existent as an interpretation. My Norma list is her and rad and Meade was accomplished but hardly unforgettable (imo).

            I thought the star of that run was Barton, who was spectacular in every way. I remember really being blown away at the beauty of the tone and how effortless she sounded. And unlike Meade, I thought that despite not being the most inherently glamorous figure or the most detailed actress, she had a charisma and commitment and ultimately really did convey a pretty complete character.

            • Porgy Amor

              The phrase “convey a pretty complete character” gets at one reason I could never prefer Meade to DiDonato. With DiDonato, I always feel I am seeing and hearing real artistry in the interpretation, knowledge of what the musical gestures outlined on the page mean and how they can add up to a statement. DiDonato’s work has poise, breadth, imagination. With Meade, even though she is years removed from her competition-phenom days, it’s as though she is still trying to impress judges.

              The only time I’ve really thought she loosened up and was liberated from “earnestness” was in the Carsen Falstaff, which of course is such a charming ensemble production (and opera) that some of the pressure was lifted. That said, I cannot claim to have sought her out often.

            • Antikitschychick

              I totally agree that DiDonato is in a league of her own in terms of artistry and interpretation. She does have certain vocal limitations but what she can still do in spite of them is pretty amazing.

              Meade I think is kind of the opposite. From a technical standpoint, there is a lot to admire in Meade’s singing. When she’s good she reaches a level of virtuosity that few are able to come close to, in terms of meeting the vocal demands of the music. Plus she doesn’t make compromising grimaces or facial contortions when she is singing that makes her look caricaturesque, unlike some other singers.

              Having said that, she is not a natural tragedian (I think those performances of Falstaff served as a good indication that she is better suited to more upbeat/comical roles) so while her singing is technically very accomplished it lacks pathos and melancholy, which is pretty essential to many Italian soprano roles. Moreover, she does seem to still be developing as an artist (and as a human being), and has been doing so in the limelight for quite some time. That comes with a certain amount of pressure that is difficult to deal with and I think this is partly why she comes across as uneven. I have yet to see/hear her live so I can’t confirm or deny this, but I do agree with PCally that in bel canto roles, and in Norma in particular she has a lot to offer in terms of the singing, though I do agree she needs to deepen her interpretation of the role and offer more than just virtuosic singing. Of course there does come a time in which an artist has to come into their own and she has been singing professionally for 10 years now, so it’s reasonable to expect to see/hear a fully formed performance rather than just impressive singing at this point. I hope she does realize her full potential and is able to have a successful international opera career, if that is what she wants of course.

              Jamie is someone who I think has that winning combination of a great voice and keen dramatic instincts, which make her an overall compelling performer. As an added bonus she is hilarious on social media.

  • Rick

    Thanks for the review, Joel.
    I do find the following a wee bit puzzling:
    ” Hers is a soprano that the Met has wisely made its Musetta of late. Girlish and tapering, it is not flashy, and can grow thin and insecure at the top of her range”
    Surely, the role of Musetta calls exactly for what Ms Phillips isn’t/hasn’t according to this quote: Second Act calls out for flashyness in the part of Musetta -- and both second and third act calls for big and secure high notes.
    Or am I totally wrong here in that one looks for a plain sounding soprano with thin and insecure high bites when casting Musetta????

    • Joel R.

      Great catch, Rick — you’re right to be puzzled and I should have been more clear. I think I meant that, Clémence aside, Phillips seems to have a voice for second-fiddle soprano roles. (Although for reasons I’ll never understand, there have been plenty of thin, insecure Musettas on record…)

      • Rick

        Thanks. The casting of Musetta, at least at The Met, remains a puzzle. Sometimes it’s artists of the first calibre (“stars”), like Ms Scotto almost forty years ago or Ms Perez more recently -- but often it is -- well -- not stars, at least.
        I can imagine that first rate sopranos will rather sing Mimi -- but Musetta is also a great part.

        • fletcher

          Sort of an aside, but Ellie Dehn delivered a lovely Musetta last weekend in San Francisco that stole the show from Erika Grimaldi’s Mimi. It was so nice to hear a star turn from Musetta. (Last year in LA we heard Jannai Brugger who is also great.)

          • Did you notice that Ellie Dehn is the Anne Truelove on my post this week of “The Rake’s Progress?” She is totally radiant in the company of Rainer Trost and James Morris.

  • “Cool it with the quinoa” is the new “Will you shut up with your damn coughing”. :)

    Thanks for the review, Joel. “Song to the moon” ranks only after “O mio babino caro” in the list top 20 arias I don’t need to hear out of context again for a looong time.