Why do opera tenors hold their noses when they sing?
While debuts and galas are catnip for many opera-goers, the Met’s season premiere of Rigoletto on November 10 followed three nights later by the return of the annual Richard Tucker Prize celebration which proved irresistible.
Bartlett Sher’s Inept and Brilliant Weimar Republic Rigoletto which premiered on New Year’s Eve 2021 is now clearly described as “influenced by Art Deco”. He’s back, and a solid cast and lively direction have once again made Verdi’s masterpiece a Met staple.
Rosa Feola and Quinn Kelsey as Gilda and Rigoletto are the main holdovers from last season’s premiere, and they’ve deepened their already masterful performances. As an overprotected girl whose reckless love for the seducer Duke leads to her death, the radiant Italian soprano once again emotionally embodies the young girl’s ardent desire for love. This time around, she may have simplified the difficult coloratura moments at the end of “Caro nome” that had given her trouble before, but otherwise she was in superb shape, especially during her three remarkably touching duets. with Kelsey.
For this revival, the chillingly intense baritone added even darker colors to his gripping characterization, more gritty when taunting Ceprano and Monterone in the first act, more destroyed when causing the destruction of his daughter. With a sovereign voice, Kelsey almost eased the demanding role of Rigoletto. He and Feola were sensitively accompanied by Speranza Scappucci in her electrifying company debut. From the gently disturbing chords of the prelude, the conductor hinted that she brought a breathless intensity to Verdi. She and Kelsey conspired for an incredibly fast opener for “Cortigiani” before slowing down for her heartbreaking plea that concludes the tune. Scappucci’s touch was crisply lively throughout and the orchestra and choir responded enthusiastically. A female conductor at the Met is still rare, so her initial entrance was met with a raucous welcome. She amply rewarded the public’s enthusiasm with what should be the first of many appearances with the company.
The audience had to wait until the final scene of the opera to meet Aigul Akhmetshina, another of the evening’s debutantes, in the role of Maddalena, the vigorous sister of the assassin Sparafucile. The Russian singer may not have shown herself to her advantage in a role that requires a more piquant bass. In her brief lyrical moments, she revealed a lush, captivating mezzo probably better suited to less dramatic music. His amoral brother, however, was expertly played by veteran John Relyea whose pitch-black bass-baritone dripped with evil intentions.
However, most of the excitement of the evening revolved around the long-awaited debut of French tenor Benjamin Bernheim as a duke. The global pandemic prevented his originally scheduled first Met appearance in spring 2020 as Gounod’s Romeo, a poetic role likely better suited to his gifts than Verdi’s heartless seducer.
Her opener “Questa o quella” was pitched mirthlessly. and he didn’t show much pleasure in Rigoletto’s barbed comments. Her jaded duke suggested a man who’s done it too many times. His wooing of Gilda seemed routine rather than sincere; his momentary regret during superficial “Ella mi fu rapita”. Bernheim was at his peak, manhandling Akhmetshina’s Maddalena in the final act.
Familiar from his two beautiful solo recital CDs on Deutsche Grammophon, the brilliant big tenor from Bernheim was slow to acclimatize to the vast expanses of the Met. Often he would push his highest notes harder than necessary, holding them to dramatic effect. Otherwise, he displayed a bold manly sound that became more appealing when he sang lyrically.
Whether it was nerves or ill health, throughout the opening performance Bernheim displayed a most distracting tic: before singing, he would pinch his nose. I first noticed it before “Questa o quella” and didn’t think about it. But it came up so often that it was hard to ignore. Video posted by the Met of the Duke’s familiar ‘La donna è mobile’ during dress rehearsal shows him doing it three times in just two minutes; at the first performance it was four!
The nose-pinching phenomenon can be a tenor thing as I noticed Michael Spyres does it from time to time and Michael Fabiano indulged in it once or twice during his Richard Tucker Gala appearances a few nights later. However, this did not distract from an ardent Faust duet with Christian Van Horn and L’Arlesienne aria, two of the highlights of the event’s return for the first time since 2019.
Opera galas may strike some as silly parades of big stars performing their best tunes to the cheers of fans. While the Met only schedules them for special occasions, the Richard Tucker Foundation has been relied on for years to present its annual two-hour orgy of wonderful (and sometimes not-so-wonderful) singing, and I wouldn’t miss it. The traditional Sunday night edition hailed Angel Blue, winner of the $50,000 Richard Tucker Prize for 2022.
The evening was particularly special as it took place in Lincoln Center’s newly renovated Wu Tsai Theater at David Geffen Hall. The welcoming warmth and intimacy of the reconfigured auditorium has been tempered somewhat by spectacularly ugly seat upholstery. Fortunately, the solo voices were flattered by the improved acoustics and the Met Orchestra, once again led by the dynamic Scappucci, sounded splendid.
While Blue boasts one of the most magnificent soprano voices in front of audiences today, she rarely got a chance to shine on Sunday, November 13. “Vissi d’arte” by Tosca. Although delightful, her brief letter as a duet of The Marriage of Figaro starring Renée Fleming was a downright odd choice, and Blue could barely be heard amid the clipped voice roar. Aida second act finale. However, she and Ryan Speedo Green threatened to set fire to the brand new scene with duo Crown-Bess of Porgy and Bess, but we have all heard it before in this music. Blue’s local fans will have to wait until March for something new when she performs her local debut La Traviata at the Met.
Seven other Tucker winners were on the gala list; it would have been eight if Nadine Sierra hadn’t retired, maybe tired of his Meet traviata the night before. Eleonora Buratto intervened to interpret two excerpts from Miss Butterfly, his beautiful soprano sounding twice as big as she did at the Met in Don Carlo, especially in the full-throated love duet with Stephen Costello. Angela Meade at Buratto don carlo substitute, sang Donizetti’s grand finale Roberto Devereux. Although she produced a huge and exciting sound, Meade made distressingly few words in “Vivi ingrato” and its sequel. cabalette, but its superb high-pitched D-natural at the conclusion inspired many onlookers to stand up and shout “brava”!
Keeping up with her was an unenviable task, but Russell Thomas proved more than up to it. His beautifully imposing rendition of Alvaro de The Forza of Destino reminded us how much we have missed since this opera has been absent from the Met for almost fifteen years. Thomas is clearly Alvaro’s tenor now if the Met ever succeeds in producing this Verdi gem.
His fiercest competition for first divo of the night was Sir Bryn Terfel in a rare New York appearance. His light step in an air of Boito Mefistofele (filled with deafening whistles) was followed by a largely humorous “If I Were a Rich Man” by Violin on the roof. He was clearly having as good a time as the audience.
Tucker’s galas rarely venture beyond the French and Italian operas of the 19e at early-20e centuries, but Joyce DiDonato demanded a powerful tune from Gluck Ezio. Unfortunately. her overworked dramatic engagement may have caused her to overlook her singing which was uncharacteristically temperamental, often high-pitched and hollow.
No Tucker Gala would be complete without a “had to be there” moment. At the end of Escamillo’s “Song of the Toreador” Carmen, Frasquita, Mércèdes and finally Carmen sing “Love” to seduce the strutting bullfighter. As Speedo Green neared the end of his muscular performance, the door to the stage opened and first Fleming, then Blue and finally Di Donato entered, each eager to “more sensual” the other: an instant classic of camp !