I ran for Charles the 2012 Richard Tucker opera gala, an annual event in Tucker’s home town of New York City, sponsored by his descendants as part of their ongoing project to find and help launch the careers of new opera singers. This year the Tucker Award winner was an interesting soprano named Ailyn Pérez (though on hearing her first name announced by host Audra McDonald I assumed it was spelled the conventional way, “Eileen”) who happens to be married to the 2009 Tucker Award winner, tenor Stephen Costello — and naturally the producers of this program made a big to-do about that, giving the two lovebirds a lot of duets, including the Cherry Duet from Mascagni’s second best-known opera, L’Amico Fritz (I couldn’t help but notice the irony that the first complete recording of L’Amico Fritz, made in Italy for Cetra during World War II and conducted by Mascagni himself, also starred a tenor and soprano who were husband and wife: Ferruccio Tagliavini and Pia Tassinari) and the “Libiamo” from Verdi’s La Traviata. I remember having seen at least one of the Tucker galas on PBS before and not being particularly impressed:
I … watch[ed] a video I’d recorded two or three months ago on PBS: a show called the Richard Tucker All-Italian Opera Gala (a title which proved to be a misnomer, since there was one non-Italian “ringer” in the music: the revival scene from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, sung by bass Samuel Ramey — ironic to see the singer I’m most familiar with in the title role of Boïto’s Mefistofele as a Fundamentalist minister!), followed by a New York City Opera broadcast of Verdi’s La Traviata. There was a long explanatory program before the opera began — ironically, Terrence McNally was one of the “authorities” (I guess his main qualification for that was being Gay and having written a play called The Lisbon Traviata, in which one member of a Gay male couple in the process of splitting up torments and eventually murders the other while they’re listening to, and arguing over who gets to keep, the Maria Callas Traviata album that gives the play its title) — which featured clips from an earlier New York City Opera Traviata, this one starring Beverly Sills (a beautiful and intelligent singer, but not really capable of the vocal and emotional depths a soprano needs to be a truly great Violetta).
The Tucker Gala was a disappointing program. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore was introduced as the winner of the 1994 Tucker Award (set up by the late tenor’s estate to foster young American singers), but in her opening number — the “Mira, o Norma” duet from Bellini’s Norma, with Larmore as Adalgisa and Carol Vaness as Norma, Larmore seemed a bit wobbly vocally and uncertain dramatically (Vaness outsang her, though admittedly not by much). The other young singers on the program weren’t that much better — tenor Kristjan Johannsson was a welcome change for the stentorian efforts of Pavarotti et al. in Calaf’s “Non piangere, Liù” from Act I of Puccini’s Turandot, but he hasn’t yet developed real authority; and Kallen Esperian, singing Liù in her aria “Signore, ascolta” just before, wobbled very badly. Some great voices from the 1960’s and 1970’s — notably Montserrat Caballé and Sherrill Milnes — made reappearances, and Caballé’s performance in “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi showed that what she has now is only a minor remnant of that incredibly spectacular voice (in particular, her penchant for pianissimo high notes has now become a necessity because she can’t sustain a high pitch at full voice!). Milnes’ voice has weathered the years a bit better; his showing in the great “O sommo Carlo” episode from Verdi’s Ernani is quite a bit weaker than his performance in the same moment with the Met in their live broadcast 12 years ago, and Vladimir Atlantov was properly stentorian in his moment — the third-act finale from Verdi’s Otello — but I’d want to hear him in more of the role before I made judgments. Ironically, the best singing on this 1 1/2-hour program came from Richard Tucker himself, in the company of Risë Stevens on an old (1953) Ed Sullivan Show kinescope of the final scene from Bizet’s Carmen; while the staging was the pits (they never quite explained why the town square in downtown Seville should have, front and center, a fully set lunch table) — the singing on that clip had a passion and commitment missing from the performances in the gala itself. — 6/2/95
Fortunately, the 2012 gala had at least some performances that rose to the dramatic, as well as the musical, demands of the pieces performed — and I give whoever put together the program credit for digging through the operatic repertoire and coming up with some real rarities instead of churning out yet another set of Opera’s Greatest Hits. Yes, there were some numbingly familiar pieces on the program — the Traviata duet (though they also performed the final scene from Act II of Traviata — the one in which Alfredo openly insults Violetta by hurling his gambling winnings at her and saying that he’s paid off the whore in full — which is hardly ever done out of context); “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila (sung by a major star, mezzo Olga Borodina, with impeccable technique but almost none of the air of mystery and seduction the piece needs to work); “La calunnia” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and the Song to the Evening Star from Wagner’s Tannhäuser (one of those bits, like the familiar Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, that’s essentially Wagner for people who hate Wagner — though it’s ironic, to say the least, that a concert named for one of the most committedly Orthodox Jews in all opera should have featured anything by so notoriously anti-Semitic a composer).
But there were also quite a few real rarities: the opening piece was an aria from Handel’s Rinaldo sung (gloriously) by baritone Gerald Finley, who’s most known for his contributions to contemporary opera in general and John Adams’ works in particular; the complete Cours-la-Reine sequence from Massenet’s Manon (showing off Pérez’ vocal beauty and facility in coloratura — though she’s not going to make me forget the spectacular singing Beverly Sills did on this in her “complete”); the spectacular “Take the world, but leave me Italy!” duet from Verdi’s Attila with baritone Quinn Kelsey (who looks like a street person but sings like a demigod) and bass Ildar Abdrazakov; “O mon Fernand” from Donizetti’s La Favorite, sung by the glorious mezzo Janis Barton (who should have been the 2012 Tucker Award winner; she’s a far more exciting singer than Pérez and in the battle of the mezzos she blew the much better known Borodina off the stage — and, praise be, she sung the aria in the original French instead of the slapdash Italian translation usually used); “Ave Signor” from Boïto’s Mefistofele (my choice for the most underrated opera of all time) sung by surprisingly slight German bass Erwin Schrott, whose idea of looking like the devil was dressing in a black leather jacket and putting its collar up; “Vieni! T’affretta” from Verdi’s Macbeth (with Macbeth’s lines in between the cavatina and cabaletta supplied by African-American baritone Brandon Sidell) by a breathtakingly intense dramatic soprano named Ludmilla Menastyrska (I wouldn’t mind seeing or hearing her and Sidell in a “complete” even though Sidell was ill-used in this program — only a brief recitative in between the two halves of this aria and a brief appearance in the Traviata Act II finale); and the Septet from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, in which Janis Barton’s voice soared above the rest — as it did in the Traviata finale as well even though that’s one piece in which the mezzo is definitely not supposed to upstage the star soprano! The Traviata “Brindisi” and the final selection, the “Va, pensiero” chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco — both the chorus and the orchestra were from the Metropolitan Opera and the conductor was Patrick Summers, who frankly was dull through most of the evening; many of the singers had to make their effects in these selections in spite of their conductor and his leaden tempi — were essentially presented as encores.
The evening was a quite spectacular one and offered hope for the future of opera — though less hope for the future of opera conducting; as dissatisfied as I was with some of James Levine’s Met performances (especially in the 1970’s before he settled in as the long-time music director), he’s emerging as a shining light on the podium compared to a lot of the conductors the Met has had since. At least part of the problem is that conducting opera is no longer seen as the stepping-stone to conducting symphonic concerts it used to be, when musicians like Arturo Toscanini and Herbert von Karajan spent long apprenticeships making the rounds of provincial opera houses before they got let anywhere near a symphony orchestra; today a hot-shot conductor like Gustavo Dudamel can get a major berth with a first-rate symphony without ever having to go near an opera house, and if he decides he wants to conduct opera he can do so with his regular orchestra in a concert performance without having to set foot in an opera house or worry about staging. And speaking of staging, some of the music on the Tucker gala actually benefited from the lack of it; the Traviata finale in particular made a much stronger emotional impression on me here than it had on the Met’s recent telecast, partly because Ailyn Pérez is much closer to my ideal voice “type” for Violetta than Natalie Dessay and partly because she and her hubby didn’t have to compete with Willy Decker’s silly production and Wolfgang Gussmann’s even sillier sets and costumes. Despite Summers’ poky conducting, the Traviata scene took off and lived emotionally — as did the Macbeth aria and just about every number involving Janis Barton, who to me is the real star-to-be from this concert!