BWW Reviews: Thrills and Chills at Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Finals Concert

Long before there was "American Idol" or "The Voice," there were the Metropolitan Opera's National Council Auditions. A 62-year tradition in the opera world, it comes to a head at the National Council Auditions Finals Concert, which took place this year on Sunday afternoon. It was the culmination of a months-long series of competitions at the district, regional and national levels. And while it's not glitzy and not performed before an audience of millions, well, it's at the Met. Enough said.

This year's group of five winners (narrowed down from nine young performers in the concert) showed some stellar talent. They performed two arias apiece, from a variety of composers and a spectrum of styles, from Handel's ARIODANTE to Gruenberg's THE EMPEROR JONES: Alphabetically, they are Nicholas Brownlee, bass-baritone (Western Region: Mobile, Alabama); Marina Costa-Jackson, soprano (Middle Atlantic Region: Salt Lake City, Utah); Joseph Dennis, tenor (Eastern Region: McKinney, Texas); Reginald Smith, Jr., baritone (Southeast Region: Atlanta, Georgia); and Virginie Verrez, mezzo-soprano (Eastern Region: Brive La Gaillarde, France, currently living in New York, New York).

Unlike the televised talent competitions, the spotlight here was solely on the performers--the judges out of sight and the Met orchestra, led sensitively by Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi, in the pit. (And, of course, there were no microphones.)

Perhaps the most shocking part of the performance was how accomplished the singers were for their apparent youth. At the top of anybody's list, certainly, was soprano Costa-Jackson, whose dramatic, burnished voice and subtle acting thrilled in Tchaikovsky's "Uze polnich blizitsa" ("Midnight will soon strike") from THE QUEEN OF SPADES. In the second half of the program, she switched to Puccini, with a charming "Si, mi chiamano Mimi." The senior member of the group (at 30), tenor Dennis, began with an ardent account of Gounod's "Salut! Demeure chaste et pure" from Faust but really tore up the stage with the romantic "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" ("You are my heart's delight") from Lehar's DAS LAND DES LANCHELNS (THE LAND OF SMILES), with his easy top and endearing presence.

In some ways, baritone Smith, only 26, was the biggest surprise, with his imposing voice and size filling out all the corners of Ford's "E sogno? O realta?" ("Is it a dream or reality?") from Verdi's FALSTAFF. He later segued into a little-known aria from THE EMPEROR JONES ("Oh, Lawd Jesus, heah my prayer,") by Louis Gruenberg, based on the Eugene O'Neill play, which had its premiere at the Met in 1933.

Bass-baritone Brownlee gave a rollicking rendition of Leporello's Catalogue Aria ("Madamina. Il catalogo e questo"), puppy-like in his enthusiasm, then moved on to moving, dramatic "Vjes tabor spit," Aleko's Cavatina from Rachmaninov's first opera. Last of the winning group is French mezzo (New York resident) Virginie Verrez, whose stately presence and velvety voice did well with "Deh per questo istante solo" from Mozart's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO and the poignant "Must winter come so soon?" from Barber's VANESSA.

Of the other competitors, I particularly liked soprano Henry's clean coloratura and silvery voice in a pair of warhorses, the Jewel Song from Gounod's FAUST and "O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's GIANNI SCHICCHI. Mezzo Deniz Uzun showed promise with the Rossini showpiece, "Cruda sorte," from L'ITALIANA IN ALGERI and CARMEN's "Pres des remparts de Seville," while bass-baritone Jared Bybee displayed his range with the Count's aria, "Hai gia vinta la causa," from Mozart's LE NOZZE DI FIGARO and Rossini's "Sois immobile" from GUILLAUME TELL. Allegra de Vita, also a mezzo,did fine work with the florid "Tu preparati a morire" from Handel's ARIODANTE and Donizetti's "All'afflitto e dolce il pianto" from ROBERTO DEVEREUX.

At the moment, there are 126 singers on the Met's roster who took part in the auditions process at one point or another, including soprano Angela Meade, who stars in the Met's current run of Verdi's ERNANI and was emcee of the concert. She showed that she's a force of nature, when she finished off the afternoon's program with a powerful performance of Bellini's "Casta diva" from NORMA, which highlighted her wonderful legato phrasing, followed by the familiar "Ebben? Ne andro lontana" from Catalani's LA WALLY. Lucky that they put her on at the end of the afternoon; she was a hard act to follow.

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2015 National Council Winners (from left to right): Baritone Reginald Smith, Jr., Mezzo Virginie Verrez, Tenor Joseph Dennis, Soprano Marina Costa-Jackson, Bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee

Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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