cobra-womanThe annual Richard Tucker gala came and went at Avery Fisher Hall with the usual quota of gaffes, wardrobe malfunctions, no-shows, too-much-shows, substitutions and surprise guests (well, guest).  And sandwiched between the routine, the egocentric and the just plain dull were moments of true dementia, the moments that we melomanes live and die for.  Most of those moments were due to the antics of a certain well-known Slavic diva (of whom more later).  But first, the specs.  

The gala, for those unfamiliar with its format, starts early (6:30 p.m.) and runs straight through with no intermission, to make sure the big-gun donors who paid for the post-performance dinner on the Avery Fisher promenade would not have to wait too long to fill their bellies.  At a running time of nearly two hours, this was hard on some audience members, who began to leave on a rush to the bathrooms before the final numbers were sung.  Except for a brief introduction by Tucker’s son, there were mercifully no speeches, and not even any announcements of the singers, so you needed to memorize the program to know who was singing what, or look at it by the light of your cell phone, which most of us did.  Maestro Marco Armiliato conducted members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and the New York Choral Society, in tiered ranks at the back of the stage, lent their massed voices where needed, most notably in the Finale of Act III of La Gioconda, which closed the program.

Most of the singers were known quantities in the full tide of their careers, though a couple of relatively unknown young tenorinos, James Valenti and Pavol Breslik, stepped before the gala audience with the assurance of veterans.  Valenti, winner of the 2010 Richard Tucker award and therefore prominently featured in the gala, is a tall, dark and handsome young man with a sharp profile and a strong, if as yet relatively featureless, lyric tenor voice.  He opened the program with  “E la solita storia del pastore” from Cilea’s L’arlesiana and later sang in the ensembles “Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso” from La Rondine and “Bella figlia dell’amore” from Rigoletto, making a positive, if not overwhelming, impression.

Slovakian tenor Breslik, a photogenic blond with a square jaw and five o’clock shadow that would get him props in a fashion layout, essayed “Una furtiva lagrima” with forward, focused tone and a tight vibrato with an ingratiating ping (we like that in a tenor), if not quite idiomatic in the Donizetti cantilena that can make this aria irresistible in the right hands.  The other gen X (or is it Y? or Z?) representative was lyric soprano Lisette Oropesa, who showed a lot of teeth in “Caro nome” and was fairly accurate in her pitches in the final unaccompanied cadences of this well-known aria (though she didn’t get to do the pianissimo trills of the coda).

Of the more established singers, most showcased familiar strengths and weaknesses.  Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto gave a soulful, if soporific rendering of the little-known aria “Riez! Allez!” from Massenet’s Don Quichotte, then followed up later with the crowd-pleasing “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific, dragging the tempo so insistently that frustrated Maestro Armiliato had all he could do to keep the orchestra together behind him.

Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca, whom the Met is pushing as their new sexpot Carmen, unfortunately has neither the temperament nor the vocal allure to back up her admittedly good looks (memo to Peter Gelb:  opera – it’s about voice and stage presence and, hopefully, acting ability – not pretty faces and slender bodies).  Garanca was dull, dull, dull.  Both of her gala pieces should have been full of Spanish fire – “Carcelaras” from Ruperto Chapi’s zarzuela Las hijas del Zebedeo and the final scene from Bizet’s Carmen – but in both she came across as reserved and impassive.

In particular, her Carmen, opposite Brandon Jovanovich’s Don Jose (with whom she is sharing the Met stage this season in the ugly new Richard Eyre production) was so slack and non-present that she might as well have been in the sound booth phoning in her performance.  Much of that scene has to do with Carmen’s reaction to Don Jose as his pleas turn into threats – her silence has to be alive with contempt, impatience, challenge, anger, triumph, fatalism, something, anything.  But Garanca just stood there with the vacant expression of a miscreant appearing in traffic court with lame excuses.

Jovanovich, another looker who just got featured in the Times as the 40-year-old tenor whose moment has come, didn’t show off to his best.  In the aria, “Freunde! Das Leben ist lebenswert” from Lehar’s Giuditta,  his voice could barely be heard above the orchestra, which made one wonder how loud this cock will crow in the heavier repertory he is now being assigned.  He did however acquit himself decently if unremarkably in the Carmen scene, though with Garanca such a lackluster partner it was hard to judge his performance fairly.

Marcello Giordani, a more seasoned tenor, made a much stronger impression, though his sound, by now quite familiar to New York audiences (he’s the Met’s default tenor for heavy Verdi, Puccini and verismo roles) is neither beautiful nor elegantly produced.  Still, he can knock the high notes out of the park, so no wonder the gala committee gave him “Nessun dorma” for his solo, to which challenge he rose with his usual nasal, pitch-perfect bleat.  Unfortunately, in the middle of the aria, a trickle of blood began to streak down his chin (a shaving accident?), a gaffe to which Maestro Armiliato called his attention during the applause following the aria with lively gestures (“chin” – “blood” –“wipe”).

Butch but sensitive barihunk Simon Keenlyside gave an impassioned, richly intoned rendition of Massenet’s “Vision fugitive” from Hérodiade, marred however by a prop he had brought with him onstage, a clear plastic cup half-filled with some dark liquid that he kept nervously passing from hand to hand throughout the aria, as if he were dealing three-card monte.

Beloved diva Deborah Voigt made one of the most highly anticipated appearances.  The formerly overweight dramatic soprano is now, in her slimmed-down, post-bariatric surgery incarnation, the Met’s new babelicious diva; she is prominently featured, decked out with curly auburn tresses and a haughty glare, in the Met’s publicity stills for the new Robert LePage production of Die Walküre, in which she sings her first Brunnhildes next April.  She showed up at the gala, looking glamorous in a black strapless gown, to sing “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.

Now, I’m a huge fan of Mme. Voigt, and can only applaud her reaching her goal of fitting into the little black dress that caused such a scandal a few seasons back at Covent Garden (look it up if you don’t know).  But the voice is another matter.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to notice that her voice, which used to be plush velvet on a core of steel and could reach to the back of the house with seemingly effortless freedom, seems now to have lost that core as well as a bit of the plush.  She used to be indomitable, singing with an ineffable combination of power and sweetness; now one worries, not so much about the climactic notes, as about all the rest of them.  I worry about your upcoming Brunnhildes, Debbie.  Prove that I worry in vain.  Please.

The no-shows, for the record, were the Slavic baritones Zeljko Lucic and Mariusz Kwiecen.  The surprise guest was mezzo Susan Graham (“I just ran into her on the street yesterday,” said Maestro Armiliato in his charmingly accented English, “and she agreed to perform for you tonight.”)  Instead of announcing her aria, Graham, an audience favorite,  simply said “you’ll know this tune,” before launching into Handel’s Largo, “Ombra mai fu,” from Xerxes, whose long legato lines she sang with elegantly shaded inflections, and without repeats.  (Whenever I hear this aria, I can’t listen to the text, “Ombra mai fu, di vegetabile, cara ed amabile, soave più,” without thinking of the words Bunthorne sings in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience: “If he’s content with a vegetable love, which would certainly not suit me, why what a most particularly pure young man this pure young man must be.”)

The true standouts of the evening were two sopranos, one up-and-coming, the other at the top of her career and her craft.  The up-and-comer was Angela Meade, a young lyric spinto with vocal heft and impeccable agility in passaggio, a killer combination.  Her Norma at Caramoor this summer was a revelation, and needs to be unveiled at the Met, the sooner the better.  For the gala she sang “Era desso il figlio mio,” the final scena from Lucrezia Borgia, with stunning ornaments and rapidissimo scales so clean you could see daylight between the notes.  To polish it off, she ended with a powerful high E flat true as an arrow, thrilling as a kiss in the dark.  It didn’t hurt that she looked wonderful, an ample woman with an abundant bosom that filled out her black gown with sparkles over the breast, and wearing pendant earrings of drooping brilliants so oversized it looked like she had stolen the chandeliers from the Paris Opéra and hung them on her ears.

But the pièce de résistance of the evening’s entertainment was, hands down, Anna Netrebko.  This wildly popular Russian diva is the real goods – an accomplished musician and a total and utterly shameless stage animal.  There is nothing she will not do to make an effect, as anyone who has seen her Elvira, Lucia and Violetta can attest.  When she puts her hands on her hips, you had better run for cover.  Just as in the carnival barker’s description of Little Egypt, “She shimmies, she shakes, she crawls on her belly like a rep-tile.”

First of all, she showed up in an electric blue clinging satin gown, with a huge Lady Gaga bow tilted upwards from her right breast as if it were trying to hail a taxi (the bow, not the breast). Then she launched into a frenzied account of Emmerich Kalman’s Magyar revel “Heia in den Bergen” from Die Csardasfürstin, which she accompanied with such raucus stamping and whirling, that when she whipped around to face the chorus, her jewels flew off and had to be recovered by the concertmaster.

But that was nothing to what happened later, when she joined Giordani in a sizzling account of the St. Sulpice scene (“N’est-ce plus ma main?”) from Massenet’s Manon.  He looked visibly shaken as Netrebko vamped, slithered and curled around him like ivy on a tree.  She seemed to be channeling Ursula the Sea-Witch (“Never underestimate the power of body language!”), Maria Montez in Cobra Woman and Divine in Pink Flamingos all at once.  To top it off, she ended the duet by embracing poor sweating Giordani (no doubt his chin started bleeding again) in a lock-lip clinch that lasted at least 30 seconds.

The reaction in the audience was electric, with the kind of whistles and screams usually heard at a rock concert.  And this was from a gala audience, most of whom were on the shady side of sixty.  Of course, all this would have been of little account if she had not been delivering the vocal goods as well; but her soprano, which has matured into a plummy, multi-hued instrument, not only managed to negotiate all the notes with accuracy and subtle intonation, but was fully engaged in her acting, so that her visual shenanigans and vocal effects supported each other – quite a dazzling cocktail.  The audience didn’t want her to leave the stage.

Now I’d like to see her Carmen.  I can’t wait till her voice is ready for it.