United States 2017 Richard Tucker Gala: Various soloists, New York Choral Society, Members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra / Nicola Luisotti (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York, 10.12.2017. (RP)
The annual Richard Tucker Gala is billed as New York City’s opera event of the year. Hype or not, it is certainly a much anticipated evening that draws a full house of opera lovers and generates an enormous amount of good will for all concerned. Stars share the stage with young talent, most of whom have received financial support from The Richard Tucker Music Foundation, Inc. The Tucker Foundation’s top prize, the $50,000 Richard Tucker Award, is bestowed annually to an American singer ‘on the threshold of a major international career’.
Soprano Nadine Sierra, who has already made impressive debuts with the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala and other important houses, was the 2017 winner. With this award, Sierra completed an operatic trifecta of sorts having already been the youngest winner of both the Marilyn Horne Foundation Vocal Competition and the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. It was her night and she seized it.
Sierra sang an endearing ‘Caro nome’ from Rigoletto, brimming with joy, pinpoint-accurate coloratura and trills to die for, as well as an impressive ‘Ah, fors’ è lui…Sempre libera’ from La traviata. Singing Violetta may be a dream at this point, but her solid vocal technique and dramatic intensity clearly indicate that the role is in the cards. Sierra exudes style and her three gowns — teal blue, glittering gold and royal purple — coupled with her brilliant singing made her the jewel of the evening.
The 2016 awardee, Tamara Wilson, also knocked one out of the park, nailing Turandot’s ‘In questa reggia’. Her high notes not only blazed like white light, but she also captured the soft, feminine side of Puccini’s Ice Princess. (As with Sierra and Violetta, one hopes that Wilson puts this role on the back burner for a while.) She later paired with Ekaterina Semenchuk in ‘Fu la sort dell’armi’ from Aida. Earlier, the Russian mezzo-soprano had barreled her way through ‘O mio Fernando’ from Donizetti’s La favorita to the audience’s delight. Her name is on New York opera lovers’ lips at the moment following her success in the Met’s recent run of Verdi Requiems; Semenchuk was one of the evening’s stars.
Verismo honors went to Ailyn Pérez, the 2012 award recipient. Her rich-hued voice throbbed with emotion in ‘Ebben? Ne andrò lontana’ from Catalani’s La Wally and ‘Un bel di’ from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Moreover, she was Sierra’s only real rival in the battle of the dresses, black being her color. Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught is simply a delight. Her buoyant ‘Nacqui all’ affanno…non più mesta’ from Rossini’s Cenerentola took flight, soaring on her rich voice, effortless coloratura and spunk. With more than her share of awards, including grants from the Tucker Foundation, soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen was a last minute addition to the program, singing a passionate, gutsy ‘Czardas’ that bubbled like champagne.
The grand dame of the evening was Stephanie Blythe, who was awarded the top prize in 1999. At this stage of her career she is monumental in every sense of the word, a status that she obviously relishes. (She had to have taken photos of Renata Tebaldi or Zinka Milanov with towering Sixties coifs to her hair dresser and declared, ‘Supersize it!’) ‘Aure, deh, per pietà’, Cesare’s aria from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, was sung with expansive tone and authority, while her ‘Habanera’ brought down the house. Her ripe Carmen is a close cousin to Gilbert & Sullivan’s Katisha, and like the latter’s right elbow, Blythe has a fascination that is hard to resist, although conductor and concertmaster did their best to concentrate on the music.
The ranks of the male singers were depleted by illness as both Javier Camarena and Sir Bryn Terfel were no shows. When Barry Tucker, the tenor’s son and the Tucker Foundation’s President, made the announcement, there were only a few murmurs of disappointment. Such is the nature of this special audience and also the Foundation’s ability to surprise. New Zealand tenor Pene Pati, who recently sang the Duke di Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto with the San Francisco Opera under Nicola Luisotti, helped fill the breach. His ‘La donna è mobile’ revealed a gleaming tenor with effortless high notes. No wonder he has an array of awards and prizes that would be the envy of any young opera singer.
In a different world, the story of Anthony Clark Evans would be front page news, but dreams, hard work and success just do not sell these days. The baritone from Kentucky had dropped out of college, married and was working as a car salesman when he won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2012. With his handsome, virile baritone he mined the romance, tragedy and illusion of the Prologue from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. At the other end of the spectrum was countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo, who graduated Magna Cum Laude and was Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton University. With his singular dramatic presence and a voice to match, he did battle with a young, vindictive king’s tempestuous, conflicted emotions in ‘Rompo i lacci’ from Handel’s Flavio.
Nicola Luisotti presided over the affair with ease and efficiency. Members of the Metropolitan Orchestra were once again on hand and played with their expected authority in this repertoire, apart from some jarring, blurry entrances from the horns. And as they have every year since 1993, The New York Choral Society sang with sumptuous sound and dramatic urgency. In particular, the chorus added energy and excitement to Erraught’s ‘Non più mesta’, and had their moment to shine in ‘Va, pensiero’ from Verdi’s Nabucco. Luisotti opened the concert with the overture to the same opera that had stilled the audience, and then moved them with a measured, intense reading of this beloved chorus.
And of course there was a star tenor on hand, Vittorio Grigolo, who sang a searing ‘Vesta la giubba’ from Pagliacci, wearing the white face of the tragic clown. His matinee-idol looks made him the perfect Tony to Sierra’s Marie. And when he sang, ‘Tonight, tonight, It all began tonight’ from Bernstein’s West Side Story, you just had to believe him.