In 35 years of NYC opera-going, the October 27 extravaganza at Carnegie Hall was my first time attending in the auditorium, though I’ve listened to many of the live radio relays and seen some of the weeks-later TV broadcasts.
Unusually, and most fortunately, all the announced singers appeared and were in good form, perhaps an argument in favor of holding the concert earlier in the fall, before cold and flu season (the award itself was announced months ago).
Sumptuous autumn-toned flowers edged the stage, and a banner displaying head shots of Richard Tucker in costume hung over the orchestra. The narrow parterre aisles were crammed with well dressed attendees who seemed disinclined to stop kibbitzing and take their seats. But once the concert started, things proceded with brisk efficiency—though not too brisk: tempos tended to be on the slow side. James Gaffigen led the overture from Les vêpres siciliennes, and then Lisette Oropesa, in a full-diva navy-and-blue Austin Scarlett gown, demonstrated via an aria from Tancredi why she had earned the Tucker title for 2019. And this after the previous day’s HD performance of Manon.
Then the lights were dimmed and a sound clip of prime career Tucker rang through the hall. Barry Tucker’s brief remarks included a shoutout to “New York’s number one opera fan” Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was in attendance (standing ovation). When Tucker cued the audience to applaud at the end of his acknowledgments, I was struck by ritualistic nature of the event. All evening, in fact, I felt like a guest at a church service. The audience knew the routine was familiar, the music was all familiar, and the audience felt like a big congregation.
Speechifying over, the music began in earnest. Lucas Meachem, bounding in from the back of the auditorium, delivered a charmingly hammy “Largo al factotum,” followed by Angel Blue, splendid in chromium yellow—who else could pull off that color? Her gorgeous, sensual “Depuis le jour” gave me chills. Christian van Horn’s dark and menacing bass almost got swamped at the end of the Tosca “Te Deum,” but the combined forces of the New York Choral Society and the orchestra (mostly members of the Met Orchestra, with organ) did produce a thrilling wall of sound.
Ermonela Jaho’s “Io son l’umile ancella” brought a note of old-world style to the evening. Sophisticated in a crimson velvet sheath and upswept hairdo, the Albanian-born soprano elegantly sculpted each phrase of the ultimate diva aria, both with her voice and with Callas-like hand gestures. Vocal imperfections yielded to the intensity of her humble-brag hymn to art.
This brings us barely halfway through the program, so I’ll simply mention a few highlights: Jamie Barton (2015 Tucker award) took the diva couture (oh, that rainbow-lined pewter gown!) and attitude prize, but her two Eboli arias suggest that despite that glorious voice she should not undertake the role just yet, at least not under such an indulgent conductor. The golden-voiced tenor Stephen Costello (2009 Tucker award) seems to have overcome a mysterious discomfort with performing; his “Flower Song” was ardent, and in his Madama Butterfly duet with Jaho he showed more warmth than I’ve seen from him in years.
Polish baritone Artur Rucinski’s “Il balen” was for me the sleeper hit of the evening; his breath control was nearly the equal of Hvorostovsky, and he sang with both power and sweetness. Having just seen him for the first time as Lescaut, I was very impressed by both his vocal talents and his stage persona.
Michael Fabiano (2014 Tucker award) wowed the crowd with “Kuda, kuda,” impassioned and driven in spite of tempos that were not. Orpesa returned (now in black and white) for a dazzling “Qui la voce…vien diletto” that drew screams of delight. Ailyn Perez (2012 Tucker award) melted hearts in a sensuous Thaïs duet with Lucas Meachem. The Lucia sextet was well sung but superfluous, seemingly programmed to satisfy some requirement to end the evening with a grand ensemble.
I was very happy to have been there, though I still harbored mildly mixed feelings. The gala concert format has never been my favorite: I prefer to hear operatic highlights in context, with the adrenalin that accompanies contributes to their magic. But it was a treat to hear these fine young voices at their best. I spotted no recording mikes in the hall, and the performance was for the first time in many years not live broadcast or streamed. I hope this isn’t a permanent development.