BWW Review: Sierra's the Winner, But Blythe Steals the 2017 Richard Tucker Gala at Carnegie Hall
It was great that the 2017 Richard Tucker Gala was heard live on WQXR.org and WQXR radio on Sunday, but those of us who were in Carnegie Hall had it much better (except for the lack of intermission in the 2 ½ hour concert...). (It's still up there, if you want to catch it.)
This year's winner, soprano Nadine Sierra, sounded wonderful (and looked ravishing, by the way) as she whipped through Verdi's "Caro nome" (RIGOLETTO) and "Ah, forse lui...Sempre libera"), with secure high notes and thoughtful drama, along with a fetching account of Bernstein-Sondheim's "Tonight" (WEST SIDE STORY), paired with tenor Vittorio Grigolo. She's a charming, extremely gifted performer.
But when it came to stopping the show cold, it was an old pro who did it--that (self-proclaimed) "girl singer," mezzo Stephanie Blythe. (She won the Tucker Award in 1999, by the way.) No, it wasn't in "Aure, deh, per pieta" from Handel's FLAVIO (though she did a fine job with it), but with an aria from an opera that one is unlikely to hear her perform in full: The "Habanera" from Bizet's CARMEN. She purred and flirted and just seemed to be having a hell of a time--and so did the audience, which rose from their chairs and cheered when she sang the last note.
Two of the scheduled main attractions were no-shows, which is par for the course for events that count on the health of singers who have committed months in advance. The first was Sir Bryn Terfel, whose cancellation at the Tucker came a few days before he dropped out of the Met's problem-ridden new TOSCA, citing "enforced rest due to vocal fatigue." (He completed a Trifecta of casting replacements: Yoncheva for Opolais, Grigolo for Kaufmann and now Lucic for Terfel, plus Villaume for the suspended, accused sex offender James Levine.) I missed the scheduled "A Little Priest" by Sondheim, with Terfel and Blythe, but c'est la vie. The other loss was tenor Javier Camarena, for undisclosed reasons, and it was a real disappointment.
As for the rest of the concert, well, it was a mixed bag: the good, the bad and the ugly. Some of it, of course, can be chalked up to singers having to come on stage and nail a big aria without having enough time to properly warm up, and deserved the benefit of the doubt.
On the plus side, there was soprano Ailyn Perez, who just finished a run in Massenet's THAIS at the Met. She did a good, dramatic job of "Ebben? Ne andrò lontana" from Catalani's LA WALLY, though it took a bit for her voice to really open up. She improved with "Un bel di" from Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY.
I liked the big, soaring sound of soprano Tamara Wilson (the 2016 Tucker winner) in "In questa reggia" from Puccini's TURANDOT, though "Fu la sorte dell'armi a tuoi funesta" from AIDA, with mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk, made less of an impression. Tenor Pene Pati, making his New York debut, sang beautifully, and had that rare "ping" in his voice, in Verdi's "La donna e mobile" and was an earnest, bonus Alfredo in Sierra's potent "Ah, forse lui...". (I'd like to hear him again.)
As for Grigolo, well, he does best when he has a strong director to hold his hand; there was none in sight at the concert. While his voice sounded fine in "Vesti la giubba" from Leoncavallo's I PAGLIACCI, well, to say he "chewed the scenery" would be a colossal understatement. (He was in better control with Sierra in "Tonight.") On the other end of the spectrum was baritone Anthony Clark Evans, who was in fine voice for the Prologue to PAGLIACCI with a warm, understated performance.
Conductor Nicola Luisotti, who hails from the San Francisco Opera, led an orchestra of musicians from the Met who didn't exactly set the stage on fire and often overpowered the singers. And they really didn't give an indication that they had a firm grasp on the two selections from Verdi's NABUCCO, even though it was on the roster at the Met only last season. Neither the Overture, nor the famous chorus, "Va pensiero," with the New York Choral Society, were memorable, through no fault of the singers.
"Less is more" is a quote attributed to many, though poet Robert Browning and architect Mies van der Rohe are most frequently mentioned. The Tucker Foundation ought to take it to heart when planning next year's gala.