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.