Monday, March 15, 2010

Met Council Finals 2010

Perhaps it was the return of conductor Marco Armiliato: he led the last exciting edition of the Council Finals (the much-seen 2007 version). Perhaps just luck. But yesterday afternoon's event more than made up for the lackluster 2008 and 2009 Metropolitan Opera National Council Grand Finals Concerts. Pretty much all of the participants this year were impressive, some extremely so. But more than that -- and more than in previous years when just one or two singers electrified the house on their own -- they all, particularly in the second half of the show, seemed to feel and feed off of the occasion, delivering a string of frankly inspired performances that made this an event I'll long remember.

Although the singers sang one aria each in both halves of the program, I'll list and consider both together below. The order of the singers remained the same.

Haeran Hong (soprano, 28)
"Je suis encore tout étourdie" (Manon)
"Deh vieni" (Figaro)
Hong is a very good version of the cute soprano, charming of form, manner, and voice, though the sound has a bit more meat than ethereality for her particular type. The Juilliard grad is well-schooled musically as well, and only lacked a bit of... magic, for want of a better word.

Maya Lahyani (mezzo, 27)
"Deh! proteggimi" (Norma)
"Près des remparts de Séville" (Carmen)
I really liked what I saw from this Israeli mezzo. Her firm & even instrument is pleasing in a standard sort of way, but at the service of her wonderful musical sense (and/or ability to follow Armiliato -- does it matter which?) and intense seriousness it's quite something. Lahyani may have hurt herself with her aria choices, though -- the Adalgisa scene is a revealing slow selection but lacks a contrasting cabaletta, and though the Carmen bit showed off her rhythmic facility it's still short and not hugely ambitious.

Rena Harms (soprano, 25)
Nedda's bird song (Pagliacci)
"Tu che di gel sei cinta" (Turandot)
I found Harms' voice uneven, and unsatisfactory when tested at the bottom in Nedda's aria. She did do well in delivering Liu's aria, though.

Nathaniel Peake (tenor, 28)
"Ah, la paterna mano" (Macbeth)
"O paradis" (L'Africaine)
Hear Peake sing one note and you're pleased and impressed: he has real force and some money notes. Hear him sing a series of notes and you wince: he puts them out one by one with little apparent sense of line or phrase, and with a really unstylish bit-by-bit overemphasis in the Verdi. He's got the sound production, but isn't 28 a bit late to start becoming a musician? The big YAPs he's done -- with, incidentally, companies (SFO, Houston) represented on the judging panel -- don't seem to have helped.

Lori Guilbeau (soprano, 24)
"Toi qui sus le néant" (Don Carlos)
"Give me some music" (Antony and Cleopatra)
Guilbeau managed to bore for 3/4 of Elisabetta's heart-rending aria (in French!), but woke up for a rousing end. Barber's languorous music for Cleopatra was a better fit for this young singer, alive from start to finish and more satisfying, I think, than Lauren Flanigan's effort in the full concert version last year. Guilbeau's voice is strong, compact, and focused though not, at this young age, quite expansive. Very interested to see what it becomes in ten or so years.

Hyo Na Kim (mezzo, 27)
"Smanie implacabili" (Cosi)
"O mon Fernand" (La Favorite)
The rendition of the Dorabella aria was one of the two most impressive performances of the day (the other being also from Cosi -- see below). Kim has a voice to savor: flexible, of course, but more naturally and effortlessly large-limbed and expansive than any other of the day, the sort of sound that loves a big house and vice versa. And though she doesn't seem a natural actress (at least as Dorabella -- the tragic grandeur of Leonore seemed an easier fit) Kim did show well-developed musical understanding in both pieces, with an excellent sense for phrase and line. You can see her as Dorabella in full with Mannes May 6 and 7, but she should really be singing big parts at big houses.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen (soprano, 25)
"Einsam in trüben Tagen" (Lohengrin)
"Come scoglio" (Mozart)
Willis-Sørensen has a hint of a quick vibrato underlying her voice, less audible at top, more audible -- and helpful in making an impact -- at the bottom. It's an interesting, effective sound that should work for many parts. She took a bit to warm up to the interpretive side of Elsa, but when she came back for the second half in Fiordiligi's aria she really seized the moment. The voice has character, yes, but it also passes all of Mozart's cruel tests: strong through the range, surprising in flexibility, and (not least because of its character) very effective at conveying strong emotion. Willis-Sørensen went all-out, offering not only virtuosity and gripping seriousness but flashes of humor, and though she nearly ran out of gas on the last high notes it worked: the audience rightly wouldn't stop clapping even long after she'd gone offstage, though a competition like this certainly won't allow a curtain call.

Elliot Madore (baritone, 22)
"Batter my heart" (Doctor Atomic)
Largo al factotum (Barber of Seville)
Curtis student Madore is an energetic and game performer, and though I can't help sensing something a bit put-together in both his sound and stage manner, they're both very impressive and well-developed for a 22-year-old.

Leah Crocetto (soprano, 30)
"Ernani involami" (Ernani)
"Ch'il bel sogno di Doretta" (Rondine)
Yes she can, in fact, sing "Ernani involami" -- impressively well, too. She can even sing the cabaletta, which the audience didn't expect -- again, pretty well and with some big top notes. How many sopranos can say that? Crocetto has a big figure, but not as big as Angela Meade (the last notable dramatic coloratura in this event) and perhaps her large head helps with the on-stage thing. The voice, though full top to bottom and more excitingly dramatic-coloraturaish than Meade's, isn't quite finished: Crocetto's vibrato can get away from her at times, particularly at the end of phrases, and she unfortunately only fakes a trill. And Madga's aria was a mistake: the final high notes are impressive, but for all its flexibility Crocetto's instrument hits for power, not finesse and romantic wistfulness.

*     *     *

After the finalists had sung, there was a bit of a nostalgic interlude. Met legend Frederica von Stade has only been a Gala presence since the 2000-01 run of the Merry Widow, but she called an official end to her singing here with a couple of arias. Her voice has, of course, aged much in the 40 years since her company debut, but here she didn't at all embarrass herself in reprising the Werther aria that helped her in this very competition before even that. She gave a short speech, finished her part with a lighter selection from Offenbach's "La Perichole", and accepted praise and a first edition of Cendrillon from Peter Gelb. Brief but touching.

*     *     *

Unfortunately, an event headlined by two mezzo legends (Marilyn Horne emceed in place of the stuck-in-London-due-to-weather mezzo great Joyce DiDonato) finished with both worthy mezzo-sopranos getting the short end of the stick as Peake, Guilbeau, Willis-Sørensen, Madore, and Crocetto were selected as the official winners. The sopranos certainly impressed, but I would have selected both mezzos before the men and certainly Kim over Peake.

That said, time will tell, and all who sang yesterday will surely get their chances.


  1. Compared to the powerhouse set of singers in 2007, this year didn't really bring any singers to the table that I would pay to see. Although they are in the middle of their development (and some towards the end), I would've liked to see more put-togetherness in their musicianship especially. I was completely shocked with Elliot Madore's win especially after he blew the "G" at the end of "Largo al factotum". The voice sounded uneven, especially in the Doctor Atomic aria and even sounded back in the throat at times. I have a feeling that he was attempting to produce too many colors for the aria, which I feel wasn't a great rep choice on his part. I would've liked to hear something more lyrical in his voice. But overall, I felt that the women most definitely outshined the men and I would've chosen the mezzo, Kim as a winner.

  2. Elliot Madore winning was a bit of surprise for me as well. Perhaps the judges felt that at the age of 22, his instrument could still be developed and fine-tuned.

    It's unfortunate that Kim and Hong did not place. They were both impressive.
    Hong "Deh vieni" was wonderful. Her lower, middle and upper register were all clear and strong. She definitely spends a lot of time on her scales.

    Kim's voice was you said, "expansive". It filled the house effortlessly.

  3. There reigns a misconception among big-house leadership today that louder is better. The fact is that for most of Opera's history the houses were about half the size of today's cavernous barns we call the Met or Memorial Opera house in SF. The age of Bel-canto flourished at a time when the opera houses were built with the limits of the human singing voice in mind. Visit the old European Opera houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries and you'll see what I mean. A singer could sing as if singing a lullaby and still be heard. Such a huge contrast to what's happening today; forced voices, wild, out of control vibratos. It's no wonder that beautiful singing is rarely heard at opera houses anymore and that power and volume is triumphing over beauty and finesse at these competitions/screaming contests.

  4. Willis-Sorensen has now won two divisions of the Belvedere and will sing the Countess at Covent Garden in 2012.



Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.