Monday, November 7, 2011

Udite, udite: Richard Tucker Foundation Gala

In his opening remarks on Sunday evening, Barry Tucker thanked the loyal audiences of the Richard Tucker Foundation Gala who made the concert a tradition. From the comparatively cheap seats, I enjoyed it for the first time, (upgrading from the Foundation's free citywide concerts.) The all-star lineup had undergone some serious shuffling in the weeks and even days preceding, but I had no reason to complain of the final results. Angela Meade was feted as the Tucker Award winner, and surrounded by colleagues of international stature (Opera Chic provides additional background.) The chosen selections relied more on star power than subtlety for their success, but the latter was not wholly lacking, and the former was often a delight. Members of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra provided sensitive support, playing with fine energy throughout under the leadership of Emmanuel Villaume. Their opening bacchanal from Samson et Dalilah was played with panache, employing sensual rubato in the woodwinds and embracing the clashing of brass and cymbal with gusto. After this orchestral prologue, the evening was turned over to the singers. The program seemed to be organized more around the singers' need for rest than around shared themes in the selections, with occasionally curious results. The overall quality, however, was high.

Meade, clad regally in taffeta, opened the evening with an authoritative "Santo di patria." She sounded rather as though she wanted to kill something whether singing about fighting Attila or trying to find her fiance, but that's Odabella for you. The aria allowed her to show off the impressive size, range, and agility of her voice, a rich soprano with a prominent vibrato. We skipped ahead a few decades in Verdi's career for Željko Lučić's "Eri tu." Lučić had excellent diction, if not the full range of expression a Renato can command. Still, I'm a sucker for the aria and Lučić's muscular sound.

Then Bryn Terfel strolled on stage carrying the largest bottle of Guinness I've ever seen. His Dulcamara was vocally assured, utterly charming, and charmingly brazen. Exaggeratedly beckoning in latecomers as he invited attention, he offered his nostrums to rigid matrons and would-be gallants with enthusiastic flair, and more than a hint of slyness. To general hilarity, he also punctuated the aria by producing a series of beer bottles out of his (and the conductor's) pockets. Hardly had he finished proving the merits of his wares by downing a lager (!) when Jonas Kaufmann entered, to give us a Turiddu far more sympathetic than that careless youth deserves to be, with the first piano singing of the evening. In "Mamma, quel vino" he appeared genuinely horror-stricken, and just as genuinely passionate despite that. It didn't fully strike home, for me, but that may have been because I was still getting my breath from laughing at/with Dulcamara.

Stephanie Blythe contributed gorgeously fluid singing in "Connais-tu le pays?" but I wasn't sure that it showed off her voice to its best advantage. I'm not sure whether her French diction or the German in my head was responsible for me not catching all the words, but her voice just seemed a bit outsized for the vulnerable Mignon (or my idea of her.) Dolora Zajick, who is apparently ageless, succeeded her, with a passionate rendering of "Tsar vishnikh sil" from Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orleans. I can't comment on her Russian, but her phrasing was fluid, her tone rich, and the New York Choral Society supported her powerfully. Yonghoon Lee sang "Ô Souverain, Ô Juge, Ô Père" with beautiful, warm tone, if perhaps less dynamic variation or emotional precision than I could have wished.

Frank Porretta's agreement to stand in for Marcello Giordani (whose mother, sadly, is ill) struck me as all the more generous since Pollione is such a cad. He, Zajick, and Meade gave the Act I finale from Norma, blending well, and showing fine command of Bellini's vocal demands. That the psychological subtlety of the trio was not fully explored is perhaps an inevitable casualty of the concert setting. "Dio che nell'alma infondere" was one of the highlights of the evening. Terfel and Kaufmann's voices complemented each other gorgeously, and to have two artists so sensitive to emotional subtlety together was a treat. Terfel positively caressed the text of the introduction, and things continued at the same high level, with Kaufmann's "Ei sua la fè" sickened and terrifying. Keith Miller was great as the friar, with admirable diction enabling words as well as stentorian sound to carry.

Maria Guleghina's "Vissi d'arte" was a strangely disorienting experience. Phrasing and emphasis were alike erratic; there was curious dropping off at the end of a few phrases, and more emphasis on "agli altar" than either "dolore" or "agli astri, al ciel." The pace was lugubrious, and "così" was held beyond all emotional sense. It was a diva's performance, but I didn't understand it. More drama was to follow, with "Tu qui, Santuzza" for Lee and Zajick. Lee's Italian proved better than his French, and he sang strongly, though Zajick's passionate Santuzza could probably have taken him in a fight. Her curse was satisfyingly visceral. Still more drama between ex-lovers came in the final scene from Carmen, an odd choice for concert, perhaps, but when you have Jonas Kaufmann's Don José...! I couldn't even see him half the time, and I was still scared. Anita Rachvelishvili sang passionately, if with somewhat muddy French. Kaufmann's José is a broken man, but the performance was  irresistibly compelling. Singing "Ma Carmen adorée" for an entire hall and making it sound as though you're murmuring it into a woman's hair is a significant talent. To cheer everyone up, Bryn Terfel and Co. cheerfully proclaimed that life is, in the end, a comedy, with the final fugue from Falstaff (Un coro e terminiam la scena.) Fine vocal work was finely blended in "Tutto nel mondo è burla," and we were sent out with a smile.


  1. So glad you went, saw, and enjoyed! Thanks for the glowing description.

  2. I'm picturing Terfel and beer bottles, and it's making me laugh. I hope someone got a clip for YouTube.

  3. @ivisbohlen Good times were had by all, and I grinned like crazy.

    @Christie I survived a particularly exhausting day of teaching on Monday thanks to that mental image. Unfortunately the bag police at Avery Fisher are very strict about cameras, and the gala audience didn't strike me as the bootlegged-recordings-on-smartphones type. There was at least an official photographer, but the Foundation website hasn't been updated with photos yet.


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