Review: Richard Tucker Gala 2018

Christian Van Horn Enjoys Big Night As Anna Netrebko, Verdi Dominate Limelight

By David Salazar

Every year, there are a few events in the New York opera scene that occupy top billing in most people’s minds. Among them might be the Metropolitan Opera’s opening season performance, it’s New Year’s showcase, and some new productions littered here and there. For some, the New York City Opera’s productions also continue to hold value. And then some smaller companies are starting to creep into the collective conscious, such as On Site Opera.

But if there’s one event that potentially trumps many of them, if not all, it’s the Richard Tucker Foundation Gala, New York’s opera party. Every year, the gala brings together a plethora of the biggest names in opera to put together a greatest hits playlist. It doesn’t always pay off, as evidenced with last year’s lengthy and unfocused event.

But this year’s edition was quite the opposite with a solid pace, strong repertory choices, and a very good lineup of artists.

The Winner

The gala centered on Christian Van Horn, the bass-baritone destined to dominate the Met Opera’s upcoming revival of Boito’s “Mefistofele.” Yes, I said dominate, because Van Horn is a singer of that quality, as he proved on Sunday evening with two Verdi arias that proved his mettle.

Traditionally, this gala tends to start with an overture of some kind, but the first sounds we heard (aside from Barry Tucker giving his customary speech, a clip of Richard Tucker in “Cielo e mar,” and a massive standing ovation for Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who was in the audience), was Van Horn’s voice blasting out “Oh chi piange” from Verdi’s “Nabucco.” It’s a powerful instrument that resonated in the hall, which was quite perfect for the Chorus-heavy passage from the early Verdi opera. While his management of the legato line was impressive throughout this section, it was even more potent in his second Verdi selection, “Ella giammai m’amò” from “Don Carlo.”

Here Van Horn’s sound took on a more gentle complexion, the sound pulling us toward him and engaging us on a more intimate level. With hushed tones, he colored his voice to portray the broken king, only erupting with volcanic sound at the climactic “Amor no ha per me,” giving that moment an even greater emotional payoff.

Running Hot & Cold

Speaking of volcanic sound, tenor Michael Fabiano was on fire the entire night. He came on third in the program, taking on “Quando le sere al placido” from “Luisa Miller.” Fabiano is known for his passion, but in this particular excerpt, his voice seemed like a fountain with endless resources. His first entrance of the recitativo “Oh! Fede negar potessi agl’occhi miei!” was an explosion of sound that somehow just built and built toward a climactic “Tutto è menzogna, tradimento, inganno!” And then, he found a delicate quality in the aria, his voice melting into each phrase with perfect legato. He managed a glorious vocal arc throughout, climaxing into the cadenza with even greater intensity than he had in the recitativo, capping a riveting performance that was deserving of every bit of applause he received.

He returned later to perform alongside Nadine Sierra in the famed duet from “Manon.” The two don’t quite mesh vocally as Sierra’s voice could find itself overwhelmed by Fabiano’s which is far thicker and more potent than hers, but they still managed strong chemistry onstage.

Sierra played things a bit cheeky throughout the seduction, relying, at times, more on her physicality than the luxurious nature of her voice. It could be a bit distracting at times, but there is no denying that she had everyone spellbound as she sang “N’est-ce plus main” with the most sensual of phrasing. She was seductive in both body and voice, grabbing hold of Fabiano and pulling him toward her, her voice gentle but spicy. But when the orchestra exploded with sound, her sound was virtually washed away; when Fabiano would enter in these passages, that only compounded her challenges. The duet ended in an intense kiss between the two, which Sierra emphasized adamantly during the ensuing applause.

Sierra’s other selection, “Me llaman la primorosa” was a solid selection in a program filled with a lot of Verdi. She faltered on a note early on, but seemed to throw off the romanza with little vocal difficult and a ton of bravura, sharing a fun moment with a woodwind solo at the cadenza. However, her swaying throughout seemed to get a bit distracting at times; she seemed to want to revel in the fun factor of the piece, but her physical involvement was on and off and ultimately didn’t add to her interpretation or the enjoying of her performance.

Christine Goerke also appeared onstage on two separate occasions, though her selections didn’t really do much to help her leave her mark. She sang beautifully during Es gibt ein Reich” from “Ariadne auf Naxos (the only German selection on the night),” though with Strauss you always feel wanting more when pulled out of the context of the entire work. This was the case here.

But her second selection, “Regina Coeli” from “Cavalleria Rusticana,” was rather unfortunate as she basically became a minor character in the choral mass. When she did have solo moments, her phrasing tended to be a bit choppy and heavily accented. Otherwise, her voice was lost in the sea of choral sound (not unexpected of course), and you left feeling like you wanted to hear more from her overall. A few years ago she put on a dazzling performance of “O don fatale” which might have been THE best moment of that particular gala. On this night, you kind of wished she had picked something along those lines that would have given us more of a chance to revel in her powerful voice.

Verdi Reigns

You could have called this the Verdi Gala as well as at one point there were four straight performances of Verdi in a row. Aside from Fabiano and Van Horn, Angela Meade, Yusif Eyvazov, and Quinn Kelsey brought selections from the great master to life from each of his periods.

Meade sang from “I Lombardi,” which she was originally scheduled to perform with the Met this season before it was switched for “Mefistofele” at the last minute. The double aria that kicks off with the passage “O Madre, dal cielo” is a monster of an aria, forcing the soprano to put all of her resources on the line to create an effective performance. Early Verdi was a soprano killer, asking her to switch from a lyric voice with coloratura to a dramatic spinto voice that could essentially blast over a heavy orchestra. He hadn’t quite found that balance as he did in his middle and later period to make life more stable for sopranos (though many might argue he was always challenging them to the end). Meade rose to that challenge.

The singing wasn’t always perfectly in tune, particularly as she ascended into the higher range of her voice, but the fullness of her sound and delicacy with which she phrased gave the aria breadth and life. She has this fascinating way of conjuring up pianissimo high notes out of thin air and she used this phrasing to spellbinding effect, giving the aria a sense of gentle beauty where other singers might look to push out the top notes with all their might.

But it was the ensuing cabaletta where she really brought down the house, earning arguably the most rousing applause of the evening. Here we saw her unleash raw vocal power in its most excited manner, making all the leaps into the soprano stratosphere that Verdi called for. Her sound cut through the choral climax with intensity and brilliance and you couldn’t do anything but smile for her.

Kelsey, who was right after her on the program, had a big act to follow and he made an interesting choice in picking Ford’s monologue from “Falstaff.” It isn’t a “showy” baritone aria in the same way that the two selections flanking his were (Eyvazov picked “Ah, si ben mio” and “Di quella pira”) but it is just as rich, if not more so because of how much emotional landscape is traversed in just a four or five minutes.

We go from incredulity, to fear, to anger, to bitterness, to intense pain and Kelsey took us on the emotional ride all the way through, shading each emotion with a rather expansive palette. Those first words, “E sogno o realta” were soft and quiet, but suddenly grew into a full-fleshed crescendo on “Due rami enormi crescon sul la mia testa,” his sound producing a sharp attack on the high F natural. He played up the contrast beautifully throughout (the furious “e poi li colgo li accoppio” repetitions had this unforgettable, crazed, frantic energy), the final passage blooming into the most luscious phrase; the tragic quality here in the context of everything that came before made you almost felt like you were listening to the haunting similar passage “Dio mi potevi” from “Otello.” It might not have featured a blasting sound over a great choral ensemble, but it was nothing short of breath-taking.

Eyvazov was in top form for the big double arias from “Il Trovatore” and on the balance of his display here and his recent success in “La Fanciulla del West” at the Met, there can be no doubt that he is an important artist. There are times where you might feel that his middle and top don’t connect as well (and some pitches weren’t quite there), but there is a reliable technique at the foundation of his singing and he phrases with clarity of intention. “Ah si ben mio” was sung gently and with a sense of yearning, the overall arc of the aria flowering into an impassioned high B flat at the climax of the aria.

Speaking of high notes, that is one of the most impressive things about Eyvazov – he excels at them. They are always there and he nails them with a sense of strength and conviction; there isn’t a wobble sustaining them, his vibrato focused and rapid.

But he’s more than high notes for sure and “Di quella pira” benefitted from an intense and sparkling reading. He didn’t overdo the accentuation of the phrasing as many tenors would do, but gave it a greater sense of connection from phrase to phrase as Verdi wrote it. The result is that it felt sung instead of barked, which tends to be the case as tenors prepare for the climactic high note at the close of the aria. Eyvazov even repeated the cabaletta (it was a concert of course) and even started that reprisal at a softer dynamic before building back up. On both occasions he threw off a high note on “o teco almeno,” and each time he held them out for all they were worth. It was an impassioned showcase that also brought with it effusive applause.

Javier Camarena also won the audience’s hearts when he came onstage and recounted how his Barcelona apartment had been broken into and he had been robbed of everything. He noted that he didn’t have the proper attire for the gala and explained the situation to Barry Tucker, who lent him Richard Tucker’s own cufflinks for the performance. Camarena took the moment to thank Tucker and then joked that while he was disappointed about the burglary, what annoyed him most is that the thieves left his latest album behind.

He followed that up with an impassioned reading of an aria from “Florestan” by Garcia (the program, among its many errors, noted that Camarena was to sing two arias). Camarena’s instrument is one of glorious beauty and while it continued to shine with this sublime quality, he was not afraid to transform it into whatever needed to express the anguish and anger explored in the aria. He certainly hit a few epic high notes near the end, but it was the opening recitative passages, brimming with fury and pain, that really set the tone for the entire performance.

During his latter duet with Meade from Rossini’s “Armida,” the tenor displayed suavity and a sense of complete control as he pulled off every passage of the composer’s music with no sign of difficulty. Moreover, Meade and Camarena, whose timbres could not be any more different, perfectly matched one another phrase for phrase, a testament of their brilliant musicianship.

Another duet that showed similar sense of poise and companionship was Kelsey and Van Horn’s “Suoni la tromba,” the two matching one another line for line, though at times seemingly overpowered by the orchestra.

Two Divas Sparkle

Stephanie Blythe practically stole the show again pulling out the same trick that won her all the praise last year.

Let’s contextualize a bit. The program makers seemed a bit confused as to what superstar soprano Anna Netrebko would be singing. In the printed programs, audiences were shown that she would sing from “La Forza del Destino,” but when it came time for her to show up after Meade and Camarena, she didn’t. More than one audience member opened his or her program as Christine Goerke entered for her second selection of the evening. And then after “Suoni la tromba” it was supposed to finally be the Russian diva’s turn.

Then Blythe strode on stage with flowers. She knew what audience members were expecting and played up the tongue-in-cheek aspect of her rendition of the Habanera from “Carmen,” flirting with maestro Marco Armiliato and throwing roses into the audiences. Of course, it all came with some delicious singing, the mezzo’s lush sound ringing into Carnegie Hall with a sense of ease. She just made every note sound easy. She was just having a blast and it was impossible not to engage with her on her terms in this interpretation. She might have done it last year, but she was just as effective this year at pulling off the trick.

She also gave an introspective rendition of “Take Care of this House” which seemed to fit perfectly with the socio-political context of our world, providing the most thought-provoking moment of the night while also paying homage to Bernstein’s Centennial.

So what happened to Anna Netrebko? She came, she sang, she conquered. She didn’t sing the aria, but what she did perform, she did so marvelously. Paired with Eyvazov in “Vicino a te” from “Andrea Chénier, the soprano’s plush voice just glided through each phrase with glorious legato. It was almost unreal how refined her singing was.

She paired beautifully with her husband in the duet, their voices matched in volume, especially in the sections where the orchestra seemed to be doing battle with them to exert itself. Both singers just built and built each phrase together, reacting to one another musically until they just brought the house down with the famed “Viva la morte insieme,” their voices inundating the hall with sound.

A Strange Evening

In the pit, Marco Armiliato had a strange evening. He didn’t seem to have a sense of the balance with the orchestra and the singers, which is undeniably different from an orchestra pit when the ensemble is right on the stage.

There were so many moments where he just let the orchestra rip, to the detriment of the singers who were suddenly overpowered. This was noticeable in the “Manon” duet, the Verdi caballetas,  “Suoni la tromba,” and “Vicino a te.” Then at other times, he seemed to rush ahead of them, as was the case with the Rossini duet. The same could be said for “Suoni la tromba” where he repeatedly undercut his two soloists.

That said, he did show ample flexibility with the artists in other moments, particularly in Meade and Eyvazov’s interpretations of their respective arias; the latter was afforded all the time in the world to hold his high notes and the maestro watched him attentively before giving his cue. Sierra was also afforded great space for a rhapsodic “N’est-ce plus ma main.”

On the whole, it was a fun evening filled with great singing all around. Let’s see what happens next year.


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