“Genuine article” Yihan Duan.

Cameron Kelsall: For the uninitiated, the Giargiari Bel Canto Competition is held each fall by the Academy of Vocal Arts. A dozen or so of the conservatory’s resident artists vie for two titles: the overall first-place finish, selected by a panel of industry judges; and an audience-favorite award, selected by all in attendance.

The evening’s title is something of a misnomer, in that artists are not limited to the bel canto genre — rather, they can sing whatever they like. It’s also somewhat inaccurate when you consider there’s often as much “can belto” as there is “bel canto” to be heard.

David Fox: How about if we start at the end, since that’s the best news? As happens all too rarely in competition settings, here I felt both that there was a clear winner, and even some sense of unanimity. When soprano Yihan Duan started to sing her aria, you could feel an almost electric charge that something special was happening. The audience, enthusiastic throughout (and no doubt including friends and family of all the singers involved), almost went wild with applause.

And, happily, Duan took home both first prize and the audience favorite awards.  Of course, this is not to say that there weren’t others worthy of note… as well as cautionary tales to be learned from.

Shall we do the round-up, Cameron? Mostly in order of appearance…

Emily Margevich, soprano — “Je veux vivre,” Roméo et Juliette

CK: Musical theater aficionados have probably heard of the “Do Not Sing” list, a compendium of cuts almost guaranteed to tank an audition. (No one wants to hear “On My Own” for the thousandth time.) I propose instituting a similar list for opera competitions, and Juliette’s Waltz should be number one with a bullet.

You could choose it if you possessed sparkling coloratura and precise French diction, neither of which Margevich displayed here. A brand-new resident artist at AVA, this appearance served as her introduction to most of the audience; it was not an auspicious debut.

DF: Agreed about this aria, which I think of as a Miss America Coloratura piece, meaning often used for its showy quality. But it requires real stylistic mastery (my “test point” here are the little grace notes, rather than the runs and acuti) and rhythmic point, both largely absent here. But I will say that Margevich has a nice full tone with a lot of freedom in the upper octave, and she cuts a glamorous stage figure.

Sahel Salam, tenor — “Una furtiva lagrima,” L’elisir d’Amore

CK: Another first-year, another done-to-death aria. Salam’s sound is slightly tenorino, but with a natural elegance that should develop as he continues his studies. (AVA is a training program after all — there’s no reason to expect these artists to be fully formed.) He did a metric ton of recital acting, which I found off-putting.

DF: That last point — the overzealous physical acting — was a problem Salam shared with many other participants. Granted, this kind of competition is a context in which nervousness is a given… and also, that everyone wants to make a memorable impression. But less is more in a concert setting. Let the voice do the acting, and go for poise rather than emoting. That said, I think Salam has an appealing, authentic quality that will serve him well.

Daniel Gallegos, baritone — “Questo amor, vergogna mia,” Edgar

DF: For me, this is where things really started to heat up. I’ve heard Gallegos before (he’s a third-year), but he was especially good here — musical, theatrically focused, with an absolutely lovely and quite distinctive velvety texture to the tone. And what a good aria choice! A marvelous piece that’s not done often enough. He’d have been my choice for second prize.

CK: Yes, Gallegos also made a strong second-place showing in my own personal rankings. It’s a true Verdi and verismo sound, made without oversinging or overselling a manufactured sense of menace. I anticipate a bright future as he wraps up his time in Philadelphia.

Renee Richardson, soprano — “Ch’il bel sogno di Doretta,” La rondine

DF: Richardson, a second-year, has made a positive impression in AVA assignments, and in some ways, she did here, too. She offered poised stage presence and a warm, rounded sound, and clearly was emotionally engaged with the text. But perhaps from nervousness, she lacked a long breath line and didn’t taper phrases ideally — nothing went wrong per se, but it was enough that the aria didn’t weave a magic spell.

CK: Richardson boasts a pleasing but unfinished instrument. Dramatically, I thought she botched this aria. It’s a pretty, plaintive pastiche — she sang it as if it was Brunnhilde’s immolation.

Zachary Rioux, tenor — “Ed anche Beppe amò,” L’amico Fritz

DF: Also a first-year, Rioux’s nervousness showed, both in his physical deportment and in some hoarse attacks on high notes. I look forward to hearing him in a different context — it’s a good tenor, not a large sound, but one with presence that would benefit from more spin and forward placement. The top of the voice already has an exciting ring.

CK: A promising addition to AVA’s roster, but perhaps not quite ready for prime time. He looked like the kid in a first-grade Christmas pageant who’s always in danger of falling off the stage.

Anne Marie Stanley, mezzo-soprano, “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix,” Samson et Dalila

DF: Let me start by saying that I have no doubt that Stanley, a first-year, will find a very bright future. Her warm mezzo is already has bloom and exceptional evenness across a big range, as well as a good command of dynamics. She’s a striking presence, too — here, in a form-hugging gown, she was truly statuesque. But that’s not really a quality I want in Dalila, and her almost oratorio-like style lacked the sensuality this piece really needs.

CK: This aria is not as overdone as Juliette’s Waltz or “Una furtiva,” but it holds a different problem: Who can hear it without immediately summoning memories of seductive Dalilas past, from Risë Stevens to Rita Gorr? (Not to mention the late, great Jessye Norman, who made this aria a signature recital encore through much of her career.) I wouldn’t have selected it, but I’m eager to hear Stanley again — perhaps in AVA’s upcoming production of La Favorite?

Eric Delagrange, “La calunnia,” Il barbiere di Siviglia

DF: Second-year Delagrange has already done some excellent work at AVA, and was notably a highlight of this summer’s Russian Opera Workshops. Here, while I was able to hear his many positive attributes, I was troubled by what sounds to me like an attempt to over-darken his voice — it is a bass, but he seemed to be trying to sound like Boris Christoff, age 60-plus. And there was a lot of unwelcome, unfunny schtick.

CK: Do basses think they’ll fare better in competitions when they go full buffo? That surely seemed to be Delagrange’s strategy. To me, it eclipsed what I think is a true talent that might have been undeniably apparent in a more staid selection.

Aubry Ballarò, “Je marche sur tous les chemins,” Manon

DF: This is another MAC aria (Miss America Coloratura), but at least Ballarò has the right sense of sparkle in her tone and approach — it’s a good sound for French opera, and she also articulates the language well. I thought she was best in the upper mid-range—the highest notes went in- and out- of phase.

CK: A fine sound, with good stage comportment, but not much specialness — something I think of as a prerequisite for Manon. She was never a serious contender to me.

Kara Mulder, soprano — “Song to the Moon,” Rusalka

CK: Just a few months into her tenure at AVA, Mulder received a plum assignment: the title role in the school’s first-ever production of Rusalka. To my ears, her soprano sounded a size too small for the deceptively complicated part (even with just a piano accompaniment), and it lacked the beguiling spin that standard-bearers like Gabriela Benackova and Renée Fleming brought to the role.

Imagine my surprise, then, to find the voice in finely tuned shape, with real heft and emotional weight here. Mulder gets my vote for Most Improved.

DF: Yes, this was a distinguished performance that made me understand better the confidence AVA has shown in Mulder, who has had some plum assignments, including, as you point out, Rusalka. I’m still waiting to hear how the voice ultimately develops in terms of having a sense of her optimal repertoire —I’m thinking not really Italianate, but a (to use Leontyne Price‘s lovely term) “juicy lyric,” just write for some Slavic and German roles — Tatiana in Eugene Onegin, and Marenka in The Bartered Bride are two that come to mind.

Timothy Murray, baritone — “Avant de quitter,” Faust

CK: Murray made a strong impression in the relatively thankless role of the Huntsman in Rusalka, and here, he continued to show off a true lyric baritone with a refreshingly unconstricted top and a fully individuated color. He turned an aria I’ve come to consider a rather bland showpiece into a gripping moment of narrative thinking. I’m ready to hear him in larger, juicier assignments.

DF: This was one of the best put-together voices of the evening, solid throughout the range, with lovely vibrato that never went out of control. Given that’s still a second-year, his performance here was a very finished and impressive showing.

Pascale Spinney, mezzo-soprano — “Habanera,” Carmen

CK: In terms of interpretation, this was a Cliff’s Notes Carmen: hands on hips, ripples of laughter, shameless audience flirtation. Spinney seemed to be auditioning for a backwater regional production circa 1974. It’s disappointing she stuck to stock gesturing, because vocally, she’s got the goods — and as a native Montrealer, her French is bell clear. She will surely be singing this role in opera houses sooner rather than later — hopefully by then, she’ll have figured out a fresh take on the character.

DF: A disappointment for me, for sure, since I’ve seen Spinney do some very fine work at AVA, and as you say, she’s absolutely right for this — probably not in a large house, at least not at first, but it’s a Carmen voice and presence. I also think you could tell the imagination was at work here—she found a nicely conversational style, and offered some sly humor. But she undercut herself from the start with too much self-conscious vamping. For me, when Carmen puts her hands on her hips, it’s “game over.”

Oliver Sewell, tenor — “Seul sur la terre,” Dom Sebastien

DF: Sewell had a wonderful start at AVA, including an ardent Alfredo in La Traviata, and he’s been climbing the ranks professionally since then. His appearance here validated many of his good qualities —musicality, good line, and a very plangent sound — but it didn’t feel quite idiomatic. He reminded me of a good British oratorio tenor, and the top notes — excellent in themselves — weren’t wholly integrated into the rest of the voice.

CK: Sewell showed such early promise — that Alfredo was in his first year with AVA — that it’s easy to forget that he still has a way to go in terms of transforming his very appealing voice into a fully integrated instrument. This outing suggests he’s not quite there yet.

Timothy Renner, baritone — “Cruda, funesta smania,” Lucia di Lammermoor

CK: Now in his final season with AVA, Renner has impressed me in a wide array of repertoire, singing everything from Germont in La Traviata to Wotan in Das Rheingold. I even heard him and a colleague perform “A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd at a gala concert, where he displayed more comic panache and musical theater idiom than you might expect from an opera singer. He’s the real deal. So, let’s hope this competition found him on an off night. He looked and sounded awkward and uncomfortable in an aria he should have aced with his eyes closed.

DF: Yes, this was a puzzler and even a bit of a heartbreaker. Renner is an absolute MVP, whose work here even in his first couple of years had the patina of a professional. Had I never heard him before, I would have still thought this a good voice, but it lacked the confident ring and absolute solidity that has been a feature in so much of his singing.

“Stage animal” Brent Michael Smith

Brent Michael Smith, bass — “Sous les pieds d’une femme,” La reine de Saba

CK: For the second straight year, Smith took second prize in the competition. I can hear what people respond to in his sound, although it’s a bit more covered than I usually prefer. He’s good on the words and lithe on stage, and I admire his out-there choice of repertoire. He is clearly not someone content to play it safe, and his strong placement suggests the old maxim of high risk, high reward.

DF: I know what you mean about the tone — it feels almost like a funnel of sound sometimes, though that may be in part a function of how Smith places the French language. He’s clearly a stage animal, and I admire the brio of his performances.

And, saving the best for last… Sometimes—there’s God—so quickly!

Yihan Duan, soprano — “Sola, perduta, abbandonata,” Manon Lescaut

CK: The genuine article. A true spinto, with gorgeous dark coloring, crisp Italianate phrasing, and a supple middle and lower range. She also conveyed Manon Lescaut’s tragic, lonely death without resorting to overacting, by deploying a welcome stillness that allowed her superb vocal interpretation to do most of the work. Duan is in her second year with AVA, and heretofore has only sung small roles — that should change. The company is mounting Ballo in the spring, and they would be crazy not to cast her as Amelia.

DF: Yes to all of that, and although the voice is not huge, there’s a quality of grandeur and majesty to the vocal line that makes one think of major Puccini and Verdi roles. And she made every point here through her voice, truly singing lines like, “Ah, tutto è finito,” which are often pulled apart for dramatic effect.

Everything about Duan’s performance suggested a maturity that was highly distinctive in this context. I won’t be surprised if a decade from now, I’’ll cash in my bragging rights by telling people that I saw her as a beginning artist and AVA, and knew then that she would be a major artist.

And speaking of “Finito,” shall we call it a night, Cameron? “The song is ended, but the memory lingers on,” and all that?

CK: Until next year, at least…

Photos: Don Valentino