Monday, April 02, 2007

Met Council Finals 2007

Maury did a positive impressions post of this event, so I offer a rundown this time. To my ears there were two clear standouts -- Amber Wagner and Michael Fabiano -- with the other winner's circle spots being up for grabs among pretty much everyone in a very good field. (It was the opposite of last year's mostly uninspiring parity.)

The singers sang two arias at a time on the Act I set of Traviata, in this order:

Keira Duffy, soprano (27)
"Tornami a vegheggiar" (Alcina)
"Caro nome" (Rigoletto)

Matthew Plenk, tenor (24)
"Quanto e bella" (Elisir)
"Here I stand" (Rake's Progress)

Amber L. Wagner, soprano (26)
"Do not utter a word, Anatol" (Vanessa)
"Dich, teure Halle" (Tannhäuser)

Nicholas Pallesen, baritone (28)
"Avant de quitter ces lieux" (Faust)
Largo al factotum (Barber)

Jamie Barton, mezzo (25)
"Priva son d'ogni conforto" (Giulio Cesare)
"Hurr hopp hopp hopp" (Hänsel und Gretel)

Michael Fabiano, tenor (22)
"Torna ai felici di" (Le Villi)
"Kuda, kuda" (Onegin)

Disella Larusdottir, soprano (30)
"Oh! quando volte" (Capuleti)
"Chacun le sait" (Fille du Regiment)


Ryan Smith, tenor (30)
"E la solita storia" (L'Arlesiana)
"Che gelida manina" (Boheme)

Ryan McKinny, baritone (26)
"O du mein holder Abendstern" (Tannhäuser)
"E sogno? o realta?" (Falstaff)

Angela Meade, soprano (29)
"Ach, ich liebte" (Abduction)
"Casta Diva" and cabaletta (Norma)

Alek Shrader, tenor (25)
"Il mio tesoro" (Don Giovanni)
"Ah! mes amis" (Fille du Regiment)

Wagner, Barton, Fabiano, Smith, Meade and Shrader were picked as winners.

Keira Duffy apparently sang from Lulu at the semifinals, but today picked a more traditional pair of arias. The Alcina piece was well-articulated but showed the weakness of her voice below the top. Gilda suited her better, her high notes quite strong and well-integrated though somewhat shout-y at times.

Plenk, the only tenor finalist not to win today, had an instrument at least as appealing as knocked-em-dead Fabiano, with whom he shares a certain sonic coloring. He didn't, however, do anything memorable with it.

In fact the finalists more or less across-the-board offered professional-quality vocal sound. But only the well-named Amber Wagner could become a star on voice alone. Hers is a dark, electric, tangibly broad sound that gave me goosebumps from the first bar. That she also seems to be an enthusiastic and energetic interpreter (particularly of the Vanessa bit, which she's actually sung in full) is just icing. The only quibble I have is that the top doesn't seem as consistently solid as the rest of her voice; it was under control today, but I hope it's an actual strength in the future.

Nicholas Pallesen sang his selections well, and gave quite a lively physical show as Figaro besides. There were some slight technical issues, and he seemed to lag behind the beat from time to time (probably the fault of short rehearsal time), but I wouldn't have been too surprised if he'd been picked as a winner.

Jamie Barton's win, on the other hand, was a surprise. She moved around the stage comfortably, but the voice sounded recessed and made very little impression.

Fabiano, at the ripe old age of 22, is a thoroughly communicative singer in the Italian style. Phrasing, emotional commitment and connection, solid technique -- he has "star" written all over him despite a somewhat ordinary quality to his high notes. (Then again: Domingo, Villazon...)

Larusdottir, who has a starring role in Anne Midgette's Times article, provided an interesting contrast to Keira Duffy. Where Duffy was weak below the top, the Icelander had a lovely bell-like peal in the middle of her voice but petered out unimpressively on high. She was charming enough and is a late starter, but the voice (particularly without an evidenced trill) doesn't seem well set up to sing high coloratura roles. Still, much of the sound was impressive.

Ryan Smith is a work in progress. The L'Arlesiana aria showed off his powerful instrument well, but he nearly came apart in the Puccini, eventually picking his way through without much grace or legato. The Met staff loves this sort of big-voiced project, though, so we may see him in the Lindemann program sooner rather than later.

The other Ryan -- McKinny -- is a Cardiff Singer of the World finalist, but didn't distinguish himself from the pack here. In fact I thought his sound, though pleasant, a bit unnatural.

Angela Meade did better with "Casta Diva" than its cabaletta or the Abduction aria, both of which highlighted the lack of integration of her sometimes-squeally highest notes. Still she has a nice basic sound, good breath, and a trill. As with Larusdottir, I'm not sure what she's going to sing: her voice (for now, at least) lacks the impact of a real dramatic coloratura, and lyric sopranos of her body type are at a big disadvantage these days.

Finally, Alek Shrader did well in the lyric aspects of Ottavio's aria. "Ah! mes amis" was OK -- all those Cs were narrow, though dead on solid, and the style less impressive than in the Mozart. A deserving winner who may amount to much, but I'm afraid I don't share Maury's big enthusiasm.

All in all, a very impressive year. I only wish I'd heard some semifinalists as well.

*     *     *

I hate to be the jerk who comes out and says it, but Jamie Barton's out-of-left-field win today (after Katherine Jolly's win last year) should push the Met to ensure that no finals judge is affiliated with a company with which any finalist has strong connection. Is there some other explanation for the result than home cooking by judge Diane Zola (of HGO) for HGO-YAPper-to-be Barton? I absolutely hope so. Maybe she showed a lot more in the semis and rehearsal, or the judges were sitting really close (which, incidentally, is another bad idea), or something else. But frankly, we shouldn't even have to wonder about this. The fact that people even discuss the possibility (and they are, without my help) is bad news for the Met, especially as they're trying to leverage the competition into positive PR. Get some foreigners if necessary!

*     *     *

To end on a slightly happier note, where the heck is Twyla Robinson? I can't forget how she brought down the house with "To This We've Come" five years back. Now she has fancy management and a huge concert career but no opera here, and only a little across the plaza. This has to change: perhaps her SFO summer engagements will get the ball rolling.

UPDATE (4/2): Another judge, Brian Dickie of Chicago Opera Theater, blogged his experience of the event.

UPDATE 2 (3/8/09): Please see the followup post on Ryan Smith.

UPDATE 3 (4/28/09): A post on the documentary of this event is here.


  1. I heard Ms. Robinson's 2002 Met performance three weeks ago and it absolutely blew me away. I've never heard anything like it- she's really quite phenomenal.

    She is currently on her way to Berlin to sing soprano 1 in Mahler 8 (which will be recorded with Deutsch Grammophon). After that she'll be in Paris singing Piccini's Iphegenie en Tauride, and then to San Fran for Elvira in Giovanni.

    True she doesn't sing much opera in the States and when she does, it's Mozart. One of the problems, I think, is that she's still considered too young to sing the rep that will probably become the bread and butter of an American opera career in a couple of years. Roles like the Marschallin (which sounds absolutely exquisite in her voice. The way that she colors the phrases tears at your heart. It's a wonderful role for her) are still "off-limits." SFO has become something of a hub for her, though, since her Adler fellowship and I'm sure that she will continue to sing there, at the very least.

    Buy a plane ticket to San Fran this summer. You won't regret it. She is one of the few artists who really combines musicianship and talent with real integrity.

    Did you see the 2002 Mets in the house? What was it like? I've only heard a recording (listening to it now, actually) and, although it's fabulous, I can only imagine what it must have been like live.

  2. Yes, I was there. In those days the singers each sang one aria at a time, in two cycles with an intermission in between. In the first go-round Robinson sang the last-act Arabella aria, showing both intelligence and the cool-quicksilver Straussian sound that's much missed today. After that everyone knew she was going to win. So the Menotti -- the very last piece of the afternoon -- was almost a bonus. The audience was expecting something impressive, and we got even more, as she really made an occasion of the occasion.

    The "too young" stuff is really absurd. Anyone older than the Marschallin is old enough to sing the Marschallin. I hope you're right, though, and it's not some unreasonable body thing. Robinson's not Kozena, but she's hardly obese.

  3. The "too young" stuff is indeed absurd. The Marschallin is 32. Twyla is 36. Makes no sense. And she sings the shit out of the role.

    I think the body stuff is probably part of it, although she has lost weight since 2002 and looks, in my slightly biased opinion, absolutely stunning. She's got a pretty face, great eyes (have you seen her current headshot? It's stunning. And even the proofs that were throw away were gorgeous), and she moves well. There is no reason for the "body thing" to get in the way.

    The other problem that is keeping her from doing much opera here is that her tone is very, very bright and America is, at present, in love with a much darker sound. So for the roles that she's comfortable singing and that she sings well, she's often passed over in favor of something darker.

    She is certainly a wonderful talent, a very intelligent singer who truly loves the music. I don't know if I've met anybody who really loves it like she does, even in spite of all the BS that goes along with it. I'd give my left leg to hear her sing Strauss at the Met or the Lyric. She is certainly capable.

  4. "The other problem that is keeping her from doing much opera here is that her tone is very, very bright and America is, at present, in love with a much darker sound."

    So it is all Renee Fleming's fault! I knew it.


  5. I agree with your assessment of Disella Larusdottir on Sunday - but the three other times I heard her, her top was remarkable. You can hear her performance in the semifinals on the video on the Times website - see what you think.

  6. ALM: You may be right. I've also been told that Angela Meade underperformed in the final. Of course, she won anyway.

    Larusdottir's high notes seem full and clear enough in the clip, but because the issue was a fading-out and not some big change in tone, it's hard to tell from the edited bits offered (and with piano no less).

    I wouldn't mind hearing her again, anyway. Nor would I be surprised to have that opportunity.

  7. I am a little late to post, but I am so glad that more people are pointing out today the gross unfairness of having administrators sit on judging panels for artists who are their students or apprentices!! It is difficult enough to make an appearance before a panel that will already carry specific, personal tastes and expectations but it is unreasonable to also have to fight against the additional prejudice judges will have for contestants they have worked with and that reflect on their program!

  8. Jamie Barton wasn't in the HGO Studio yet at the time of this competition. She just started there this past fall. (2007) At the time of this competition, she was still auditioning to be in the studio. If it were to be a biased situation, you would have seen Ryan McKinny win the Met competition as he was in the HGO Studio at the time of the Met Competition (2007).

  9. "At the time of this competition, she was still auditioning to be in the studio."

    At the time of the initial rounds, perhaps, but she had already accepted HGO at the time of the finals.

    Dickie's blog suggests that the problem may largely have been one of prejudging Barton a "winner" before the finals concert revealed her to be inaudible in a real opera situation, but the influence of outside factors in this prejudgment can't be ruled out.

  10. I just saw The Audition movie broadcast in HD at the theaters today of this bunch. I have to say I was pretty unimpressed overall with the quality of the singing--but I am generally that way also at most professional pruductions also. I think Fabiano has a significant instrument but would agree with the judge's comments about concerns through the passaggio--hope he and Schuman have worked that out since. Alek is just too young physiologically to comment much about on yet. It is tragic that Ryan died of cancer--he had a lot of potential based on the L'Arlesiana aria, particularly in light of a more varied past educationally. I had issues with placement and line with everyone else.

  11. Interestingly, the only singer who sounded on film as in the house was Fabiano in the rehearsal closeup. The actual competition miking (for the movie) was awful.

  12. I've just watched and listened to The Audition and despite the commentators criticisms heard some great singing. But being in the UK perhaps I'm too used to the lower standards offered as opera in our Proms in the Park. If only, for example, Catherine Jenkins could sing as well as those in The Audition. She's beautiful to look at but an opera star she ain't.

  13. I was told by one of his ex-girlfriends that Michael Fabiano is connected with one of the Jersey mafia clans... Whatever the case may be I find him 'molto antipatico'.

  14. What a tragedy that Ryan Smith died. His singing was so musical and full of soul.
    As for Michele Fabiano...nice voice ...awful technique ...could be a great pop singer...but his Russian was appallling.

  15. Is there anywhere I can find a recording of Robinson singing "To this we've come"? I heard a girl a few years older than me do it last year (at my school's opera scenes performance) and I absolutely loved it. I would love to hear Robinson sing it, you described it as being so incredible =)


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.