Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Met Council Finals 2012

After a year of leaving the pleasure to correspondents, I attended Sunday's edition of the Met's annual 30-and-below singers' competition myself. The program is above, comments follow below.

Anthony Clark Evans (27, baritone, Kentucky) has a coherent and ingratiating baritone voice that could be used to good effect. I found his actual use thereof, however, less than engaging all around. A project.

Lauren Snouffer (23, soprano, Texas) was a terrific contrast to Evans, making much more lively work of her selections -- even the introductory recit of the Mozart. Unfortunately it occurred to me rather early on that hers is the exact sort of voice that doesn't win Met Finals. Everything works, is pleasant to hear, and includes even a real trill... it's just not a big/juicy tone, but a more idiosyncratic instrument of the type that Gelb seems to hire from Eastern Europe and not America.

Did Matthew Grills (25, tenor, Connecticut) win because he nailed "Ah! mes amis"? Oh, probably. But it was the best version I've heard at one of these audition events. Besides the Cs he has a nice sense of phrase, a pleasant lyric tenor sound (though grainier than, say, Polenzani, that's not really a fair comparison for most), and good comfort on stage. Good prospect.

Margaret Mezzacappa (24, mezzo, Ohio) has a spaciously-scaled instrument, the blessing of AVA, and well-schooled ideas on phrasing and the like. Unfortunately at this point she also has a broader and more pronounced vibrato than many will be comfortable hearing -- including me. Her slow Gounod selection really brought this issue to the fore, and though the Handel made a better impression, her current sound is her current sound.

Michael Sumuel (26, bass-baritone, Texas) had not only a more bassy but a more defined and impressively outlined sound than the other men... and yet it somehow didn't make the impact one felt it should have. If it fills out, watch out.

Heldentenor Kevin Ray (26, New York) -- wait, a heldentenor!? Yes, he really sang Siegmund's sword bit and Max's aria -- and not badly, either. Putting him after Sumuel did him no favors, for though Ray has an unsurprisingly growly heldentenor timbre, he doesn't have the full chest underpinnings one might expect as accompaniment. That said, given that next season's Siegmunds are being sung by a guy (Simon O'Neill) who actually sounded pretty bad at his Met Finals appearance (yes, I understand he's improved since), Ray is in a pretty good place at 26.

Janai Brugger (29, soprano, Illinois), to put it simply, has exactly the sort of voice that does win Met Council Finals. School of Fleming (in the best way) lyric soprano instrument with star written all over it. Most promising (perhaps only to my idiosyncratic ear, though) for her big-house future were the hints of underlying muscle in her (nevertheless) lovely high note production.

Will Liverman (23, baritone, Virginia) used his lyric baritone well, though it did seem pushed to its limits at the climaxes of the Adams. In fact, much of the time he had it seeming more impressive than Evans' and Sumuel's instruments... which I'm pretty sure is not actually the case.

Andrey Nemzer (29, countertenor, Russia) was quite impressive... for a countertenor. Most interesting to me was his not-infrequent interjection of "chest tones" (that is, I believe, non-falsetto sounds) to liven up the inherently limited color palette of the countertenor voice. I do think that the two-aria format is rather biased in favor of countertenors, though, as that's about the point where the fatigue of the aforementioned limited sound-color sets in.

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I thought Brugger the obvious standout, and I wouldn't have minded picking any of the others as well besides Evans and Mezzacappa. The judges, of course, picked Brugger, Nemzer, Grills... and Evans and Mezzacappa. The Met does love its projects. I myself would much rather hear Snouffer again than either of these.

The question, I suppose, is about the future, and I doubt any of the participants -- official "winners" or no -- will lack for opportunities. How big will Brugger get? Well, the recent past had two similarly spectacular lyric-soprano sonic successes: Latonia Moore (2000) and Susanna Phillips (2005). Moore has had a nice career since that win, but real stardom has not -- for whatever reason (perhaps a move into heavier roles?) -- yet been her lot. Had I known about her surprise Met debut as Aida, I'd certainly have seen it myself, but Maury does offer a thorough report... perhaps the broadcast is to be a launching pad. Phillips, meanwhile, has stuck to the lyric repertoire, won the 2010 Beverly Sills award (the Met stamp of approval) and is the Met's only Donna Anna next season. (She's also still only about a year older than Brugger, so my sense that the Met took a while to hire her -- she debuted three-and-a-half years ago -- is probably off.) It's a much more crowded field than the dramatic coloratura specialty in which Angela Meade could go from Finals to cover debut to lead in nearly-successive seasons, though, so those wanting to hear more Brugger may have to be patient.


  1. Perhaps I am slightly biased in favor of Evans because I know his "story" better than the others. I found his victory to be extremely refreshing considering that he had very little formal training and no connection to the NY opera scene. He hasn't had a lesson in several yeas and dropped out of music school to work on cars. But all that aside, to my ears he had the most "true" sound of the lot. His phrasing was simple and honest and the sound had none of the typical young-person-trying-to-sound-like-an-opera-singer affectations to it. His sound is much more colorful than most of the pro baritones (Hampson, Hvorostovsky) I've heard there this season. I hope he chooses wisely and doesn't spoil that voice, because the voice is golden and resonance seems to be sorely lacking on the MET stage these days.

    I definitely heard Brugger's musicality, but the sound occasionally got jittery to my ears and she had most definitely listened to Fleming's interpretation of "Depuis le Jour" many times. I commend her for making it through the Charpentier one piece and at least attempting to make music out of that treacherous aria. On the other hand, I found her Pamina to be anodyne.

    Mezzacappe was the only one whose winning slightly annoyed me. The voice is a skosh wobbly as you pointed out (and she's awfully young to be walking down that path) and I felt that she did nothing interpretatively with either of her selections. It seemed that after the Sapho aria, the audience was cheering for the piece more than her actual performance. But it seems that if you're at AVA, what you actually do on the stage doesn't matter. It's a bullet train to success after admission. Some of their big stars (Meade, Costello, etc.) have left me decidedly unmoved this season.

    I found the other baritones to be rather generic in sound and interpretation. Good instruments, but a rather throaty production. Sumuel gave a dull reading of the oft done "Madamina and Liverman was far beyond his artistic resources in that Dr. Atomic aria. Though as was the case with Mezzacappe's Gounod, Adams got a nice ovation for his thrilling music.

    Nezmer was accurate, but the tip top seemed incredibly forced to me.
    But to be fair I am not fond of countertenors. The sound just doesn't excite me.

    Kevin Ray has a good instrument, but was straining. After a short while he was difficult to listen to.

    Matthew Grilles had a nice clear sound. I would put him in second after the Evans in terms of sheer voice. I'm more than a little over the 9 high Cs thing, but he did negotiate the aria very successfully and his voice was well coordinated.

    Snouffer has an accurate soprano with a nice extension, but the sound had no "spin" to my ears. I don't think it's about size either, I think the voice isn't being produced ideally. There are many light voices who can kick it to the back of that house (where my friends and I were listening intently in the family circle).

    In short, I wasn't mad about the choices, with the exception of the mezzo. And honestly, the first baritone was my favorite. I don't really see the point of doling out 15 grand to singers who are already affiliated with major opera houses (Snouffer and Sumuel were with HGO, Brugger with LA Opera, and Liverman is about to enter the Ryan Center at the Chicago Lyric Opera) and the selection fo Evans reassured me that the business is about more than who you know if you can actually deliver the goods.


  2. The only winner I didn't agree with was Mezzacappa. Let's go on to your comments about Evans, I don't know what Finals concert you attended but the only true opera singer was Evans. Tell me the last time you heard Si, Puo sound like that. Wait, when have you heard a baritone sound like that in the past 10. 15, 20 years??? We literally got to hear probably what was closest to Leonard Warren your ever gonna hear and from recordings I don't think I heard them hold the Ab as long as he held it. The voice was true and quite frankly seeing and hearing that the opera world doesn't want a voice like that on the stage, really scares me for its future. It really makes me wonder if Pavarotti would have had a career in these "modern" times. Also you said Will Liverman had the most impressive instrument well obviously you weren't sitting in the balcony. And makes me wonder if your a Julliard groupy, lets keep in mind of why some students even make it to the finals.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.