Every year the Richard Tucker Foundation awards a promising young American opera singer with the annual Richard Tucker Award. The award comes with a star-studded gala that showcases the victorious artist alongside some of the greatest singers in the world, many of which are also previous winners.
This year Nadine Sierra was given the award and headlined the gala at Carnegie Hall. Like every year the gala had some artists call in sick-making for last-minute switches in the program. Javier Camarena and Sir Bryn Terfel were the absentees.
The result was a gala with mixed results and a conductor who could not cope with the diverse repertoire.
Sierra opened the evening with a rendition of “Caro Nome” from “Rigoletto,” an aria she has performed numerous times. While she sang with a gorgeous tone her nerves came to the fore, making her high notes sound strained and her trills gain a coarse timbre. It didn’t help that the tempo was languid and it took away from the youthful qualities that Sierra imbued.
Her second selection “Ah Forse Lui-Sempre Libera” from “La Traviata” showcased Sierra’s strong middle voice that rang throughout the theater. It was the first time she was ever performing the aria and as a result, there was a lack of nuance. While the aria was sung with perfect intonation and each phrase was elegant, it still felt like a work in progress. But her “Sempre Libera” was showstopping. Here audiences got to see Sierra’s virtuosic powers as she dispatched each coloratura run with ease and the C sharps rang with vibrancy. Whatever was missing from the “Ah Forse Lui” was made up by the energetic and youthful “Sempre Libera.” The result was a standing ovation that surprised Sierra as she greeted the audience.
Her final selection “Tonight” from “West Side Story” was sung alongside Grigolo and they both showed a palpable stage chemistry even if their voices were not always the right fit. While Grigolo’s diction was noticeably lacking, Sierra’s stunning middle voice shone through and gave a reason for this work to be presented at the Met.
While it was Sierra’s big night there were a few singers who had equally potent evenings. Stephanie Blythe arguably stole the show with her seductive “Habanera” from “Carmen.” Her gigantic voice rose to the occasion as she blazed through Carmen’s irresistible text and danced about the stage attempting to seduce conductor Nicola Luisotti, putting her hands on him and winking at the first violinist. She even stopped the music only to smile at him. The result was laughter from the audience but once she sang the final note the audience rose to their feet with enthusiastic applause.
Blythe’s first selection was also a scene stealer as she sang “Aure, deh per pieta” from “Giulio Cesare.” The piece gave the mezzo-soprano a chance to display her smooth legato phrasing and her dynamic range as she easily went from a piano to a mezzo forte.
The other star of the night was soprano Ailyn Pérez who gave the audience another taste of her ever-expanding repertoire. Her first selection “Ebben? ne andro lontana” exuded a sense of despair. The opening lines were sung with a lush pianissmo that eventually grew to a chilling fortissmo. Her “Un Bel di vedremo” also showed Perez’s affinity for verismo as she brought out a tender vocal quality throughout the middle section. When the aria went to it climactic B flat, Perez’s voice grew richer and more devastating.
Tara Erraught was also mesmerizing in “Naqui all’Affanno” from “La Cenerentola.” She sang with vocal agility interpolating high note after high note with ease and even holding some of them out. Her coloratura runs were also spot on and she gave each run enough flare to express the joy of the aria.
Ekaterina Semenchuk had a rough start with “O Mio Fernando.” Part of it was Luisotti’s unstable tempo and the fact that he was not following Semenchuk’s pace. Still if one looked past the inadequate conductor, one could see a mezzo in complete control of the piece. From her yearning aria, in which she expressed the pain in Leonora, to her fierce cabaletta, which was a virtuosic display of vocal fireworks, one saw a mezzo who is clearly one of the best in the world.
And in her duet with Tamara Wilson from “Aida,” Semenchuck not only brought the vocal goods but the dramatic weight. With all due respect to Wilson, Semenchuk was the commanding presence as she always looked in control of the scene, never facing away from her partner. She moved about releasing the strength in her voice and displaying her powerful low notes. In the climax of the duet, Semenchuk’s high range beamed through leaving quite an impact. Next to Semenchuk, Wilson was regrettably no match.
Anthony Roth Costanzo also had a good night. While it got off to an awkward start due to the fact that there was no seat or stand for the mandolin player, Costanzo easily played it off with laughter. Soon after one forgot the moment as Costanzo performed his aria “Rompo I Lacci” with vocal fireworks. Each run perfectly placed as he moved with energy about the stage and during his B section, Costanzo gave the aria delicacy that was often missing throughout the evening.
Vittorio Grigolo is a showman and with his “Vesti La Giubba,” there was none of that missing. He came out with his face painted and a chair. He acted throughout the aria looking about the audience and moving from one side to the other. However, the acting overpowered any type of vocal qualities. He sang with a powerful timbre but in the end, it all felt exaggerated.
Wilson had an off night after a stunning Tucker gala last year. Her “In Questa Reggia” started off with a strong middle voice but that was it. The aria never seemed to sparkle and the high notes sounded strained. Perhaps it was the lack of strong support from the orchestra. However, it was a disappointing display of a great voice. And the Aida duet also lacked the commanding presence from last year. Her final “Numi Pieta” was sung with choppy phrases and lacked the Verdi legati that was required. It was also surprising to see that she barely interacted with her stage partner Semenchuk who was clearly involved in the scene.
Anthony Clark Evans sang adequately and at times riveting. However, his performance was marred by the orchestra who covered him at the climax of “Si Puo” from “Pagliacci.” Pene Pati was making his New York debut and he sang with a beautiful tone in “La Donna e mobile.” Rachel Willis-Sorenson gave a careful reading of the Czardas from “Die Fledermaus.” While she tried to elicit excitement through comic gestures and her vocal accents, the final portion seemed undersung and it was apparent that she ran out air as her hands were held close to her chest, almost for support. Perhaps it was due to the fact that she was a last minute replacement and did not get a chance to rehearse.
But if there is one person to blame for the shortcomings of the singers it was Nicola Luisotti. With so much Italian in the program, it would seem like the conductor would have a better sense of the style. However, each piece sounded exactly the same. His “Nabucco” overture, while filled with quick and energetic tempi, was a bombastic display of circus music. In the Leoncavallo and Puccini selections, Luisotti chose to blast the orchestra with full power, covering the singers with ease. And his Bel Canto readings of Donizetti and Rossini were filled with languid tempi. As noted in the “O Mio Fernando,” Luisotti never followed the singer, leaving Semenchuk many times by herself. The most disappointing and obvious miscue came in the opening lines as the horns seemed out of sync with the entire piece playing out of tune at some key moments. And when it was time for the cabalettas, Luisotti would take speedy tempo, once again forgetting his singers.
All in all, this was a night to celebrate a rising star and while it had some less than memorable moments, Sierra is a singer that shows promise and one that should be on everyone’s radar.