Monday, February 25, 2008

Met Council Finals 2008

Yesterday was the 2008 edition of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Grand Finals Concert. It again featured nine singers, but the format reverted to the older practice of having one aria from each, an intermission, and then another round of arias. All sang in front of a stage-filling wall (with entrance doors) from the upcoming Peter Grimes production. The order and program was as follows (though Ray, not Karanas, sang last in the second go-round):

René Barbera (tenor, 23)
"Ah! mes amis" (Fille du Regiment)
"Una furtiva lagrima" (Elisir)

Carolina Castells (soprano, 25)
"Oh quante volte" (Capuleti)
"Klänge der Heimat" (Fledermaus)

Christopher Magiera (baritone, 24)
"Hai già vinta la causa?" (Figaro)
"E allor perchè" (Pagliacci)

Jennifer Johnson (mezzo, 23)
"Must the winter come so soon?" (Vanessa)
"Parto, parto" (Clemenza)

Edward Parks (baritone, 24)
"L'orage s'est calmé" (Pearl Fishers)
Pierrot's Tanzlied (Tote Stadt)

Simone Osborne (soprano, 21)
Mařenka's aria (Bartered Bride)
"No word from Tom" (Rake's Progress)

Dominic Armstrong (tenor, 28)
"Ah, la paterna mano" (Macbeth)
"Kuda, kuda" (Onegin)

Stephen A. Ray (baritone, 23)
"Come Paride vezzoso" (Elisir)
"A woman is a sometime thing" (Porgy & Bess)

Daveda Karanas (mezzo, 28?*)
"O prêtres de Baal" (Prophete)
"When I am laid in earth" (Dido & Aeneas)

[* The program listed her as 23, but that seems implausible as she graduated from college and was a Met Council Regional Finalist five years ago, in 2003. I have read that she is 28, though this too may be incorrect.]

Barbera, Johnson, Parks, Osborne, and Karanas were named as winners. The only obvious stand-out, to my ears, was Parks. Everyone else, winners and non-winners alike, had their ups and downs, and one could have made a case for selecting -- or not selecting -- almost any of them.

René Barbera, for example, cleanly and uncomplicatedly produced a nice, pingy tenor sound (though I found the actual timbre undistinguished, it's the sort of thing that can do much in this house). But the Cs in the Fille were, though pleasant, hardly effortless, and he seemed to have not much at all to say in the Elisir.

Carolina Castells started most promisingly with a rapt and musical account of Giulietta's cavatina: well-breathed and well-shaped in Bellini's style, it was the first memorable account of this well-trod piece I can recall in this sort of event. But the Czardas showed her off very poorly, her voice lacking the force and beauty-at-declamatory-volume to make a good impact over Strauss' orchestra. I'm not sure whether dancing around on stage in this second piece helped or hurt.

Like pretty much every other young baritone I can remember, Christopher Magiera failed to make much of the Count's aria, sounding here both vocally and emotionally too small. But the Pagliacci selection was much better, and showed a bit of Italian style.

Jennifer Johnson's warm mezzo was, similarly, not much of a presence in the Barber piece, though the basic sound did appeal. Sesto's aria, however, was fantastic, perhaps the biggest success of the afternoon: precisely felt, shaped, and sung to Met clarinetist Jessica Phillips' accompaniment.

Edward Parks had the best sound of the afternoon -- one not unlike the young Thomas Hampson's. He also showed fine stage and dramatic presence, not by huge gesture but in a natural comfort and rapport with the crowd. An obvious winner, and one to watch.

The only winner who surprised me by the judges' selection was Simone Osborne. Nothing against her exactly -- she has the pieces of a remarkable voice -- but they remain pieces, impressive and unimpressive sounds abutting each other. Similarly, while many of the phrases in her two selections were turned well, she seemed content to sing one after the other, with no musical or dramatic line connecting the whole. At 21, she has the time and raw materials to excel, but isn't there yet.

Although the older tenor and (perhaps) oldest singer in the competition, Dominic Armstrong sounded more the work in progress. He looks like a big, powerful guy and has a virile, baby-dramatic instrument but from the odd vibrato he seems to be pressuring it, particularly in his technically variable top. That said, he showed real lyricism in the Tchaikovsky.

Stephen A. Ray's sound seemed short on overtones and sort of died in the house, though one could hear a nice growl on the bottom. He seems comfortable on stage, if a little hammy.

Daveda Karanas offered the only real unusual selection of the afternoon -- the long and involved Meyerbeer showpiece. She did well technically, showing an appealing medium-weight voice of impressive range, general flexibility, and reserve power. Her fast fioritura wasn't the most precise and her trills were basically faked, but that's nitpicking. Dramatically she's more likely to hold attention by her sonic command, a la Olga Borodina.

*     *     *

On the whole, it was a promising but relatively unexciting year -- no one was bad, but none (perhaps save Park) would have stood out in, say, last year's lineup of finalists.

Incidentally, it seems one of last year's non-winners, tenor Matthew Plenk, is now in the Met's Lindemann Program. Just making it this far seems to do much.

UPDATE (7PM): Maury has some thoughts. Also, I forgot to note conductor Stephen Lord's consistently sensitive and warmly-phrased accompaniments. Is this his first appearance at the Met?

UPDATE (2/26): The Met's press release confirms that Karanas is 28.


  1. I know Ray from down South. He did not have a good day, but is usually more on top of his game.

    Other than that, I think your assessment of the afternoon was fairly correct. Although, I knew 21-year-old Simone Osborne would be selected as a winner because they would want to snatch her right up for the Lindemann Programm. And, rightfully so. She is a young singer with a young sound, and I personally think she did as fabulous a job as possible for someone her age. And, let us not forget that both her pieces were some of the more techincally and musically challenging of the entire afternoon.

    Jennifer Johnson rocked my socks off with both her pieces, especially "Parto, parto." Rene Barbera was fabulous in both his pieces. As was Daveda. She has a voice that is fierce.

    But, you are right. The afternoon belonged (hands down) to Edward Parks. I knew he had it in the back after his Pearl Fishers aria, but he then came back out and melted us all with "Mein Sehnen." And I wouldn't say he sounds like Thomas Hampson. He did not croon anything like Hampson does. Instead, Parks sang!

  2. Have to disagree about the conducting - I thought the maestro did a poor job of helping the Orchestra adjust to the difficult task of playing with voices that are less mature than those they are accustomed to.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Michael. I'm not sure how many bonus points Osborne should get for her age, though -- Oropesa was much more finished when she won at 21, though in an earlier-maturing fach. And all the finalists showed real potential...

    Anon: fair enough on the volume, though I do sort of think "this is the big leagues now".

  4. my top 5 would have been:

    1. Parks
    2. Johnson
    3. Karanas
    4. Barbera
    5. Magiera

    Although, with all the conflicting response I have heard from the others there, I think it must have been very different depending on where you were sitting. Maybe it was that wall they were singing in front of which drastically changed the accoustics of the stage. But I thought these 5 should have been the winners. The rest were overly works in progress, yet all that sang that evening we're very promising and I look forward to what they can do in the future.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.