Review: Richard Tucker Gala 2019

Lisette Oropesa’s Big Night Also Features Star Turns From Ailyn Pérez, Ermonela Jaho, Among Others

By David Salazar
(Credit: Dario Acosta)

Editor’s Note: This review was a collaboration between David & Francisco Salazar. 

The Richard Tucker Gala is one of those nights that you circle on your opera calendar every single year. It’s everything people want from a high-end concert. Big stars in glamorous attire. A hallowed venue. And some of the greatest music ever written.

In the past, this event usually revolved around the winner and then some major superstar dominating the lineup. Last year’s event, despite some incredible music-making was undoubtedly shadowed by the anticipation of hearing superstar Anna Netrebko sing; she made everyone wait until the final moments of the evening. At other times, there might be some uninspired repertory choices that seem completely out of place in this particular event.

The 2019 edition of the famed event featured no such tension, but instead showcased a balanced lineup of stars who each provided one vocal gem after another. And the repertory was fluid with bel canto, verismo, and Verdi dominating; there were three pieces in French and one in Russian to counter-program; there were zero German arias.

The Night’s Main Star

This year’s award winner was Lisette Oropesa, who just one day earlier was essaying “Manon” Live in HD at the Metropolitan Opera. Oropesa’s career has been on the rise for quite some time with the soprano conquering Europe in recent years and now doing much the same on this side of the Atlantic.

Oropesa opened the night offering an aria from Rossini’s “Tancredi.” The aria “Come dolce all’alma mia” features difficult coloratura runs and a chance to show off a soprano’s virtuosic powers and high notes. It is light and playful but it ultimately doesn’t create the impact that other Rossini arias do, particularly for an opening number of a gala. Oropesa sang the aria with delicacy and a fluid coloratura line that showed her mastery of the vocal style. But it wasn’t really the best display of Oropesa’s powers nor what she could ultimately do with her lyrical voice.

She left that for the middle of the program in her “Qui la Voce…Vien diletto” from “I Purtiani.” Here Oropesa started the opening phrase with a piano sound that continuously grew in form and shape with each repetition of “Rendetemi la speme.” The voice grew in size and in expression, showing Elvira’s increasingly agitated state. As the phrase rose to a high note so did Oropesa’s sound, and she eventually descrescendoed to a mere piano that created a haunting effect.

In the cabaletta, the soprano sang with precision and exciting tempi. One particularly exciting moment was the phrases “Vien, o caro, all’amore” as she drove the tempo forward during the roulades, creating an unpredictability and excitement that one rarely hears in this aria. During the repetition, Oropesa opted for the “less is more” philosophy with her ornaments. There were sparkling high notes and interpolations that resounded and showed off the soprano’s glittering top register. But ultimately Oropesa was holding off for the final E flat that was effective and resounded throughout the hall. One thing to take note was that Oropesa also chose to sing through the whole Cabaletta instead of doing the traditional cuts in galas; this really allowed the soprano a chance to show different shades of colors.

Her final showcase was in the sextet of “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Here the ensemble decided to perform from the beginning of the second act scene allowing the performers to showcase their acting abilities. Oropesa got to bring her chemistry with baritone Artur Rucinski, creating a tense moment as she was forced to sign a marriage contract; they were so immersed in the agitation of the moment that the pen flew out of his hands at one point. They showcased raw emotions in their actions and in the famed sextet, it was all about the passionate music. Rucinski and Oropesa’s powerful voices particularly stood out in the ensemble and her final C sharp was impeccable and a great way to cap off the evening.

It was a preview for what is hopefully an eventual “Lucia” at the Metropolitan Opera for both of them.

Some Major Standouts

In a night full of standouts was Lucas Meachem, who came on second in the evening with a scene-stealing rendition of “Largo al factotum.” As Oropesa exited the stage after her own Rossini aria, Gaffigan fired up the orchestra with Rossini’s exuberant opening lines, the volume quite potent. But no singer materialized. The aria’s opening lines are often sung off-stage so it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that the baritone would burst onstage at some point. Instead, his first “La la la la La!” shocked the entire audience with Meachem walking down the aisle on orchestra right. He sang his opening lines right there in front of the audience, his voice radiant and the high Gs soaring effortlessly into the hall. His charismatic interaction with the audience and scenery never let up with the baritone even making himself comfortable with the flower bed stationed at the front of the stage during “Ah che bel vivere.”

He eventually would make his way up to the stage for the “Pronto a far tutto,” where he upped the ante on his vocal color and word play. “Col la donneta” was delivered with very thin and delicate sound and the following “col cavaliere” countering with a thicker, rounder, and more emphatic quality. This back and forth continued throughout the ensuing phrases all the way to the D, which he held through the next two bars before using a nifty portamento to go down an octave; the ensuing cadenza also showed up Meachem’s solid management of his vibrant upper range. The creative delivery of the aria sustained throughout with the “Figaro” repetitions drawn out and featuring a wide range of fun renderings (he imbued a falsetto high note on the last one). He sang the pattering in the coda very softly, covered up by the orchestra, but then made up for this moment with some thunderous high Gs to close out a truly virsuotic performance.

Last year’s winner Christian Van Horn made a gutsy move with his lone repertory choice – the “Te Deum” from “Tosca.” Carnegie Hall is an incredible hall but it never does vocal soloists favors when they are paired with a large orchestra and chorus blasting out all they’ve got. In the past, decisions to sing the “Regina Coeli” from “Cavalleria Rusticana” or similar ensembles often resulted in the soloist getting completely shelled by the sound coming from behind them. This was Van Horn’s only moment in the entire evening and it would have been unfortunate for him to have been shut down by such an imposing piece.

But the bass-baritone’s choice paid off with a potent interpretation. He remained fixed in his place throughout, his voice firm and stentorian. Never did he flag in his intensity, giving us an imposing Scarpia, rather than reverting to stock physical or vocal gestures to portray his “evilness.” There was elegance in the line, best expressed by a portamento from A sharp into B flat on the “Ah” following “è la più preziosa.” Even as the chorus and orchestra grew in ensuing lines, Van Horn remained audible with no perception of vocal distortion.

Michael Fabiano also got one number on the program, opting for “Kuda, kuda” from “Eugene Onegin.” Fabiano is a scene stealer in these concerts, evidenced by last year where his “Quando la sere al placido” proved one of the big moments of the night. Fabiano’s forte has always been his passionate intensity and he brought that same feeling to the Russian aria. The first two “Kuda, kuda” were contrasted in color, the first one more sonorous and the second a softer and more reflective echo.

The tenor managed this kind of contrast throughout, the opening stanza of the main melody delivered with plush sound that expressed Lensky’s desperation in the moments preceding his death. But the reprisal of the main melody was delivered in stunningly gorgeous piano singing, the voice but a gentle thread that suggested a more subdued and tragic agony. As the aria moved toward its emotional climax, Fabiano delivered a potent crescendo, his sound transitioning into yet another gear that allowed for the line to build before the tenor ended the aria on a breathtaking dimuendo.

Credit: Dario Acosta

Opera D'amore world premiere ft. José Carreras

Baritone Artur Rucinski also impressed in his two selections. As noted in our “Manon” review, he should be getting bigger assignments at the Met. One opera that would probably be perfect for him is the one from which he performed two selections this evening – “Il Trovatore.” With a potent sound, a ringing top, and exquisite sense of phrasing, Rucinski made such a case on this evening.

His opening phrases of “Udiste…” were firm and poised and he maintained this vocal presence throughout the opening section of the duet, contrasted beautifully by Angel Blue’s lush soprano. However, the two did seem a bit overwhelmed at times by the sheer mass and power of the orchestra. It seemed like something could go wrong at some point and it did during “Vivrà! Contende il giubilo.” As Rucinski started his “Fra te che parli?” he seemed a bit off with Gaffigan’s quick tempi, forcing him to stop and wait for the next downbeat to jump back in. It was a strange moment, but Rucinski handled it well and together with Blue, the duo managed to end the passage on a very strong note.

Rucinski would come back for “Il Balen del suo sorriso” where he opted for singing the aria with minimal breaths, connecting four bars at a time. During the first two phrases he seemed to run out of breath at the tail end, the voice losing some of its consistency; during these opening phrases, he sang piano and stretched the tempo, undoubtedly adding to the difficulty.

But after that, he managed the aria with this creative choice quite well; it created a athletic tension for the listener and he rewarded with his virtuosity, all while delivering phrases built on mezza di voce. The choice of minimal breaths brought attention to the expansiveness of Verdi’s lines, replacing immediacy with subtle elegance.

Stephen Costello took on “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” from “Carmen.” His tenor is pure and bright, particularly in the middle register. He sang with clean legato and was very respectful of the rhythm. It was overall a very solid though the buildup of the aria overall seemed stuck in one gear, the emotional swings of the piece never really taking flight.

He brought a similar nicety to “Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malia” from “Madama Butterfly,” producing a unique contrast with soprano Ermonela Jaho. Where Jaho’s voice was rich in vocal color and range that showcased her experience with the role, Costello’s had an innocent simplicity. Standing in rigid pose throughout, he sang with seemingly singular brightness and connected line where she used every part of her body to give her phrases an exquisite delicacy that had a sense of unpredictability. Her pianissimo singing is undeniably glorious and sublime; few, if any, singers today can deliver the pathos that Jaho delivers every time her voice melts into one of those pianissimo high notes.

Scene Stealers

This was probably even more evident in her initial aria, “Io son l’umile ancella.” Jaho offered an exquisite showcase of musicality, starting the famed Cilea aria with a piano sound that crescendoed into a forte on “Ecco respira appena” before going back to that angelic piano. She sang the aria with delicacy and intimacy connecting each phrase with a pure tone and crescendoing as the line required. This was a committed performance that showcased Jaho luxuriating in each line and what it meant to her character. But it was perhaps the phrase “Che al novo” that was her biggest show-stopping moment as she started pianissimo and rose to an expressive fortissimo that filled the auditorium with sound, leading to a climactic “di morra” that also resonated with power. No note was taken for granted, her phrasing immersing you fully in every moment of her performance – it was bewitching.

Angel Blue’s first piece “Depuis le Jour” showed the soprano sing with lush tone that rang with each extended high note. There were times where she and maestro James Gaffigan didn’t seem together and he often covered parts of her middle voice, but she managed some beautiful legato line, singing each phrase with greater bloom.

Richard Tucker Gala

Credit: Dario Acosta

In her two showcases, Ailyn Pérez brought down the house demonstrating she has one of the best instruments currently performing in the world. Her first aria “Chi il sogno di Doretta” allowed the soprano to display her rich and seductive tone and interacted beautifully with the audience as she walked around the stage glancing at those watching. She extended the phrase “Folle amore! Folle ebbrezza!” with an even tone that blossomed with each note. And then in the second repetition of the phrase, during which Puccini asks the soprano to reach a high C in “Ah! mio sogno! Ah! mia vita,” Pérez expanded each note with brilliant sound. Most impressive was the evenness of her voice as she went from the top to the middle of her registers with the same potency.

But in her final duet from ‘Thaïs,” Pérez brought an expressive quality to her voice that displayed her mastery of the role and which also saw her high Ds resonate effortlessly. She held out each of these climactic notes with incredible confidence. It was impossible to look away as the voice continuously soared in the hall. Her chemistry with Meachem was also impeccable as their voices blended well and they each allowed their passionate lines to flow with lush tones. Like Pérez’s top notes, Meachem also brought a powerful and climactic interpolated high note at the end that was capped off with soaring ovations.

Jamie Barton showed two contrasting arias from Verdi’s “Don Carlo.” Both arias are known for how different and difficult they are and it is sometimes said that those that “breeze through” the first “Nel Giardin del bello,” the coloratura aria, have a difficult time with the more dramatic “O Don Fatale.” The inverse is also true.

On this evening, that was the case. Barton started with “Nel Giardin del bello” with a firm and expressive tone but her negotiations of the treacherous coloratura runs seemed a bit apprehensive and not quite precise. But “O Don Fatale,” sang with that same expressive power that really captivated the audience and which showed her potency throughout her voice. Her low notes were dynamite throughout the aria, providing a rawness and grit that really played up the intensity of the passage. The high notes were quite potent, the mezzo managing to imbue them with a similar edge that expressed Eboli’s torment and rage wrapped into one. It was a true emotional coup.

The Maestro

Leading the orchestra was James Gaffigan who, like most other maestros before him, had an on-and-off night depending on the piece. With the arias, he seemed very in-synch with his soloists; he was less secure in duets, mostly evidenced by the “Trovatore” passage. One might imagine that minimal rehearsal time, topped with having to look at singers’ backs throughout the night undoubtedly affected this particular challenge. The opening selection of the program, the overture from “I Vespri Siciliani” was a bit tepid initially, the first cello solo of the B section not really building in dynamics, but exploded during the ensuing development section with the orchestra on full blast. The recapitulation built off this energy, the violins soaring in their moment with the B-melody and the entire coda sections surged to an energetic ending. There were times where percussion balance with the remainder of the orchestra seemed a bit off and there were other instances where the doubling of strings and winds heavily favored the latter section.

The New York Choral Society sounded quite good in its moments, particularly during the “Te Deum” where it filled Carnegie Hall gloriously.

As usual, the Richard Tucker Gala was a blast to behold and this year’s lineup featured some fantastic singing. Here’s to starting the cycle anew.

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