09 November 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Richard Tucker Music Foundation Gala 2023 (B. Bliss, S. Costello, S. Howard, Q. Kelsey, F. Lombardi, A. Meade, A. Pérez, S. M. Plumb, L. Redpath, B. Wagorn, H. Watkins; Carnegie Hall, 29 October 2023)

IN REVIEW: bronze bust of American tenor RICHARD TUCKER by Milton Hebald, Richard Tucker Park at 66th Street and Columbus Avenue, New York City; 30 October 2023 [Photograph by Joseph Newsome, © by Joseph Newsome / Voix des Arts]GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), ABROISE THOMAS (1811 – 1896), GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901), GEORGES BIZET (1838 – 1875), ALFREDO CATALANI (1854 – 1893), GERÓNIMO GIMÉNEZ (1854 – 1923), GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924), MANUEL PONCE (1882 – 1948), FREDERICK LOEWE (1901 – 1988), and RAY CHARLES (1930 – 2004): Richard Tucker Music Foundation Gala 2023Federica Lombardi, Angela Meade, Ailyn Pérez, and Liv Redpath, sopranos; Ben Bliss and Stephen Costello, tenors; Quinn Kelsey and Sean Michael Plumb, baritones; Soloman Howard, bass; Bryan Wagorn and Howard Watkins, piano [Richard Tucker Music Foundation, Carnegie Hall, New York City, USA; Sunday, 29 October 2023]

Nearly a half-century has passed since, on a solemn day in January 1975, the immense stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House was occupied not by lavish costumes, scenery, and sets but by the simple coffin of one of that company’s best-loved singers, tenor Richard Tucker. Heard between his 1945 début as Enzo Grimaldo in Ponchielli’s La gioconda and his final MET performance, thirty-six days before his death, as Canio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in an array of parts encompassing the Verdi and Puccini rôles for which he was most renowned, Mozart’s Ferrando (Così fan tutte) and Tamino (Die Zauberflöte), and French protagonists including Bizet’s Don José (Carmen), Offenbach’s Hoffmann, and Saint-Saëns’s Samson, Tucker thrilled audiences, first at the MET’s inaugural home at 39th and Broadway and later in the new house at Lincoln Center, with a voice that was truly worthy of those spaces. A native New Yorker who devoted three quarters of his operatic career to the MET, Tucker epitomized the American opera singer for generations of listeners, forging a legacy that continues to fascinate, inspire, and nurture new ranks of opera lovers and emerging singers.

Since its inception in 1975, the Richard Tucker Music Foundation has honored its namesake’s legacy by recognizing and supporting the work of American singers whose efforts advance the ideals advocated by Tucker, perhaps the most significant of which is indefatigable championing of opera in the United States. Like many Arts organizations, RTMF continues to battle the financial woes exacerbated but by no means solely begotten by the global COVID pandemic. Having sung at the MET for three decades, during some of the most turbulent economic and social periods of the Twentieth Century, Tucker was unquestionably adept in the art of adaptation. Especially in times of upheaval, uncertainty, and scarce resources, when Art can provide glimmers of hope that are otherwise elusive, Tucker would likely have been among the most fervent adherents to the adage that, by whatever means are necessary, the show must go on.

Aside from the fiscal inability to award the foundation’s customary prizes and grants in 2023, the most dispiriting manifestation of the financial hardship being endured by RTMF was the substitution of piano for the chorus and orchestra typically engaged for Tucker Galas, yet, as the sequence of performances progressed, the artistic benefit of this seeming deficiency became apparent. In years past, particularly when the Galas were televised, analyses of whose designs participating singers were wearing sometimes seemed to garner more attention than considerations of whose music was being performed. For the 2023 Gala, collaborative pianists Bryan Wagorn and Howard Watkins supplied musical settings for each selection that rendered the absense of larger forces inconsequential and focused attention on the music. Both gentlemen played superbly, their technical prowess meeting every challenge of the musical arrangements, and their collective artistry unified power with poetry. Gala performances are rarely events of profound emotional depth, but Wagorn and Watkins effected abundant moments of poignant engagement.

In Spring 2022, baritone Sean Michael Plumb had the exhilarating but daunting distinction of débuting at the MET as Harlekin in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos opposite Lise Davidsen. That he made a brilliant, lasting impression in such formidable company is a testament to his stagecraft. Honored with RTMF grants in 2015 and 2022, he opened the 2023 Gala with another unenviable task: taking the stage following the playing of a 1951 recording of Tucker singing the aria ‘Sound an alarm’ from Händel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. Following Tucker’s electrifying performance with ‘Largo al factotum’ from Act One of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia was slightly jarring, but Plumb sang the familiar music with charm and a laudable avoidance of comedic excess. Occasional lapses in accuracy notwithstanding, the patter was deftly handled. The lyricism of Zurga’s lines in the duet ‘Au fond du temple saint’ from Act One of Georges Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles was better suited to the natural amplitude and timbre of Plumb’s voice, and he sang handsomely, extending the line with innate grasp of the style and centering his tones on the vowels of the text.

Fitting the Tucker Gala into her busy autumn schedule, a cornerstone of which is her portrayal of Amelia in the MET revival of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, 2011 Tucker Award winner Angela Meade drew from the time-tested soprano concert repertoire a well-known piece from a seldom-performed opera, the aria ‘Ebben? Ne andrò lontana’ from Act One of Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally. The Stern Auditorium acoustic was not congenial for the expansive dimensions of Meade’s spinto sound, obscuring pitch and articulation. There was perceptible connection with the text, however, and the impact of the singer’s tremendous top B could not be diminished.

Lending his talents to the Gala without benefit of extensive preparation, bass Soloman Howard exhibited his still-developing Verdian credentials with a stronly-sung account of Jacopo Fiesco’s scene from the Prologo of Simon Boccanegra. Elegantly phrasing the opening recitative ‘A te l’estremo addio,’ Howard invited the audience into the character’s troubled psyche. In the aria ‘Il lacerato spirito del mesto genitore,’ the vocalism was nearly upstaged by the heart-wrenching delicacy with which Wagorn played the music for the offstage chorus. The organic use of portamento that characterizes the work of the greatest Verdi singers was not yet evident in Howard’s performance, yet the vocal authority required to bring Fiesco to life compellingly was wielded with sonorous suavity.

Débuting at the MET as Oscar in the current season’s staging of Un ballo in maschera, soprano Liv Redpath paid tribute to the high voices that have garnered acclaim in past Tucker Galas with an engrossing, captivatingly-sung traversal of Ophélie’s extended mad scene from Act Four of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet. From the first phrases of ‘A vos jeux, mes amis,’ the clarity of the soprano’s diction was invaluable, transforming the vocal display into charismatic storytelling. ‘Il m’a donné son cœur en échange du mien’ was voiced with grace and poise, though nervousness—not inappropriate in the scene’s dramatic context—seemed to affect excursions in alt. Still, the opalescent sheen of the voice in ‘Partagez-vous mes fleurs!’ was exquisite. Redpath was later partnered by Plumb in a delightfully unpretentious account of ‘Pronta io son,’ the duet for Norina and Malatesta that ends Act One of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Genuinely reacting to one another, soprano and baritone amused without compromising musical integrity, acting with youthful exuberance and singing with bel canto ebullience.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) baritone SEAN MICHAEL PLUMB, soprano LIV REDPATH, tenor STEPHEN COSTELLO, pianist HOWARD WATKINS, soprano FEDERICA LOMBARDI, tenor BEN BLISS, pianist BRYAN WAGORN, soprano ANGELA MEADE, baritone QUINN KELSEY, soprano AILYN PÉREZ, and bass SOLOMAN HOWARD in the Richard Tucker Music Foundation Gala 2023, 29 October 2023 [Photograph by Dario Acosta, © Richard Tucker Music Foundation]Gone to a Gala: (from left to right) baritone Sean Michael Plumb, soprano Liv Redpath, tenor Stephen Costello, pianist Howard Watkins, soprano Federica Lombardi, tenor Ben Bliss, pianist Bryan Wagorn, soprano Angela Meade, baritone Quinn Kelsey, soprano Ailyn Pérez, and bass Soloman Howard, participants in the Richard Tucker Music Foundation Gala 2023, 29 October 2023[Photograph by Dario Acosta, © by Richard Tucker Music Foundation]

Heard in recent MET seasons as Mozart’s Don Ottavio and Tamino and as Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, 2014 and 2016 grants recipient Ben Bliss sang some of Verdi’s most emotionally chameleonic music for tenor, the Duca di Mantova’s scene that launches Act Two of Rigoletto. The irrepressible verve of his declamation of ‘Ella mi fu rapita’ yielded to sweet-toned refinement in ‘Parmi veder le lagrime,’ the interpolated top B♭ an exclamation of awe and yearning. The cabaletta ‘Possente amor mi chiama’ was voiced with rhythmic buoyancy and romantic ardor. Bliss’s encore demonstrated his skill at integrating Classical training with Jazz vibes—an art of which Bliss’s mastery is rare amongst opera singers. His singing of Ray Charles’s 1956 standard ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’ bewitched, the words enunciated with debonair magnetism and the inventive riffs executed dazzlingly.

Having appeared as Mimì in Franco Zeffirelli’s celebrated Metropolitan Opera production of Puccini’s La bohème on the day prior to the Tucker Gala, Italian soprano Federica Lombardi revealed an altogether different facet of her artistry at Carnegie Hall with a fascinating performance of the final scene of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. The sadness with which she sang ‘Piangete voi’ was palpable. The impeccable breath control demanded by ‘Al dolce guidami castel natio’ was supplied with intrinsic sensitivity, the tone even and alluring throughout the range. The bravura flourishes of the cabaletta ‘Coppia iniqua, l’estrema vendetta’ corruscated with anger and disillusionment, but stylistic integrity was fastidiously maintained. Lombardi’s encore, ‘Me llaman la primorosa’ Gerónimo Giménez’s zarzuela El barbero de Sevilla, was sung with gala-appropriate glamour, the upper register radiant, but even more beguiling was her depiction of Violetta in ‘Parigi, o cara’ from Act Three of La traviata. With Bliss singing Alfredo’s music affectionately, Lombardi surrendered to the solace of the words, and the voice glowed with beauty and tonal purity.

It is unlikely that any attendee of the 2023 Tucker Gala who was unaware of baritone Quinn Kelsey’s preeminence in the field of Verdi singing departed after hearing his performance of ‘Pietà, rispetto, amore’ from Act Four of Macbeth without feeling grateful for having been educated. The dignity of Kelsey’s singing was remarkable, each sentiment of the text communicated with immediacy, and the rugged attractiveness of the timbre glimmered in the aria’s melodic lines. Singing Conte di Luna to Meade’s Leonora in their confrontation from Act Four of Il trovatore, Kelsey reacted to Meade’s frenzied ‘Mira, d’acerbe lagrime’ with insouciant disdain, but sadistic satisfaction resounded in ‘Vivrà! Contende il giubilo,’ voiced with full-throated abandon. Kelsey’s encore, ‘If Ever I Would Leave You’ from Camelot, was an unexpected and sublime change of pace. Truly sung rather than crooned, his performance of the song was touchingly personal. The quiet pensiveness of his delivery of the wistful text was easily interpreted as a plaint for the devastation and suffering in his native Hawai’i.

Winner of the 2009 Tucker Award, tenor Stephen Costello sang Rodolfo opposite Lombardi’s Mimì in the 28 October matinée performance of La bohème, replacing an infirm colleague on very short notice. The vocal security and tonal beauty heard at Lincoln Center on Saturday also distinguished his singing at Carnegie Hall on Sunday. The title character’s romanza ‘Deserto in terra, che più m’avanza’ from Act Two of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Sebastiano, re di Portogallo was sung with the poetic eloquence—an integral tenet of bel canto that is now far too often approximated or altogether neglected—that both the music and the text demand, but there was also excitement befitting the piece’s dramatic context, the top Cs and D♭ all the more thrilling for being wholly in the voice and certain of pitch. The occasion encouraged a few instances of pushing the tone through and above the passaggio, but Costello is unmistakably a singer who is cognizant and respectful of his vocal capabilities. Again called upon to sing in a colleague’s stead, he joined Plumb in the beloved duet from Les pêcheurs de perles. Even in this brief excerpt, his Nadir proved to be as captivating as his Don José, first heard in Dallas in 2018. The top B♭s were voiced with ease, but it was the unassailable legato of Costello’s singing that was most memorable. For his encore, Costello gave a heartfelt, incisively-sung performance of Italian-American composer Salvatore Cardillo’s canzone napoletana ‘Core ’ngrato’ in which notes and words were merged into a stream of pure emotion of the type that Richard Tucker’s singing unabashedly embodied, the upper register projected with exultant freedom.

The evening’s most strikingly expressive singing was offered by soprano Ailyn Pérez, recipient of the 2012 Tucker Award and the first Latinx singer to be so honored. Recently acclaimed for her rôle début as the eponymous heroine of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at Teatro di San Carlo di Napoli, she brought a glimpse of Nagasaki to the Perelman Stage with a momentous, grippingly emotive account of Cio-Cio San’s ‘Un bel dì, vedremo.’ Secure throughout the range, with sterling top ♭s, the voice was voluptuous but successful at imparting Cio-Cio San’s naïveté. Opening in the long-overdue MET première of Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas on 16 November, Pérez rejoiced in her Latin heritage with a magnificent performance of Manuel Ponce’s ‘Estrellita,’ words pronounced with obvious love and tones above the stave suspended sparklingly in air like dewdrops in early-morning sunlight.

The Gala ended with a recording of Tucker singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from Carousel, the inimitable voice cascading into the auditorium with a timely message of reassurance and inclusion. No matter how isolating life’s roads may seem, no one walks alone when there is music.