With its star-studded concert and post-show dinner, the annual Richard Tucker Gala is one for the New York glitterati. Not only is it a chance to hear this year’s Richard Tucker Award winner, the all-star line-up is also an opportunity to take the temperature of current American operatic talent with a little help from an international ring-in or two. To judge by the offering on display at Carnegie Hall last night, the patient is hale and hearty.Winner of the 2019 Richard Tucker Award, Lisette Oropesa. Photo © Dario Acosta

The Richard Tucker Music Foundation was set up in 1975 following the premature demise of Tucker himself. It dishes out generous grants to support and advance of the careers of American opera singers, bringing opera into the community and heightening the appreciation of the art form by offering free performances in the New York Metropolitan area and supporting music education. The top prize – the annual Richard Tucker Award – has been won in the past by such luminaries as Renée Fleming, Jennifer Larmore, Joyce DiDonato and Nadine Sierra, while previous gala concerts have featured everyone from Caballé and Sutherland to Bernstein and Pavarotti.

This year’s winner is New Orleans-born Lisette Oropesa, a soprano with an incandescent stage presence, who has just completed an acclaimed run as Massenet’s Manon at the Met. With “supporting acts” Jamie Barton (the 2015 Award Winner), Angel Blue (the Met’s current Bess in Porgy and Bess), Stephen Costello (2009’s Award Winner), Michael Fabiano (2014’s Winner and Oropesa’s recent Des Grieux), Ermonela Jaho (the Albanian soprano fast becoming an Opera Australia fixture), Lucas Meachem, Ailyn Pérez (2012’s Award Winner), Artur Ruciński (Oropesa’s Lescaut), and Christian Van Horn (last year’s Award Winner), the vocal bar was set high. Conductor James Gaffigan was on hand to lead the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and New York Choral Society in what was an almost flawless evening of music-making, kicked off by a shapely and exciting account of Verdi’s under-performed Overture to Les Vêpres Siciliennes.

Jamie Barton. Photo © Dario Acosta

Oropesa first. A noted bel canto singer – who has, by the way, also run six marathons! – she’s adept in both the long legato line and coloratura, but as her Manon showed, she’s also a lyric soprano who brings a dramatic intensity to everything she sings. Her two solos were well chosen. Amenaide’s lively Come dolce all’alma mia from Rossini’s underrated Tancredi was a gift, her flexible, open-throated, and especially open-hearted approach connecting singer with audience from the get-go. Hurling herself at the top notes with joyous abandon, it displayed the evenness of a voice that can also dip low with never a hint of ugliness. Elvira in I Puritani is a tricky role, especially launching in mid-mad scene, but Oropesa’s Qui la voce and subsequent cabaletta were stylish, fluent, and demonstrated her ease in the upper register. The Richard Tucker Award is intended to acknowledge a singer on the threshold of a major international career. Tick.

The rest of the female line-up never faltered. Jamie Barton sang Eboli’s two arias from Don Carlos, amply demonstrating a breadth of repertoire that has seen her win recent plaudits in Norma, Orfeo and The Ring. Her rich, burgundy tone was perfect for Verdi’s impassioned princess. She skilfully narrated the tale of infidelity contained in the sly verses of the Song of the Veil while displaying a delicious, teasing way with the arabesque-inflected cadenzas. Returning for O Don fatale in her BBC Proms bi-sexual pride dress was an unexpected choice, but the aria was thrilling. She really tore into the opening, and although the middle section lost a little momentum, she was riveting as she belted out the challenging top notes that can sometimes prove a lower-voiced mezzo’s bête noire.

Angel Blue & Artur Ruciński. Photo © Dario Acosta

Angel Blue’s choices and delivery once again proved why she’s one of the most exciting singers on the current circuit. Depuis le jour from Charpentier’s Louise exhibited her pearly soprano, one that gleams with a luminous inner beauty, to ravishing effect. Her effortless work in the aria’s taxing upper register culminated in a gorgeous ascent to the crowning top note and a quivering, impassioned conclusion. She was equally fearless in Leonora’s duet with the Count di Luna from Il Trovatore. Nimble in the coloratura and a committed actor, she displayed a set of highly impressive Verdi credentials. Polish baritone Artur Ruciński was her partner here, firm and rounded of tone, if a little short on dramatic authority and occasionally covered at the very top.

Ermonela Jaho was perfectly cast as the great diva of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur. From her radiant piano opening phrases to the one hundred percent commitment of the final vocal fling, her Io son l’umile ancella was beautifully crafted. The love duet from Madama Butterfly saw her producing another attractive stream of sound, though her vocal and dramatic mismatch with Stephen Costello’s underpowered Pinkerton meant matters never quite soared as they should (on the whole, it felt like he wouldn’t know what to do with her if he caught her). Ailyn Pérez delivered an idiomatic, firm-toned Chi il bel sogno di Doretta from La Rondine, her velvety voice strident at the top yet never harsh. Her death scene from Thaïs was a masterclass in legato phrasing, though musically Thaïs’s big aria might have been a more satisfying choice.

Ermonela Jaho. Photo © Dario Acosta

If at times it felt a bit of a diva’s night out, the men were far from shabby. Stephen Costello’s Flower Song suited his vocal reserves and ardent manner better than the Butterfly duet, the voice as Don José clean, even and with well-connected top notes. Michael Fabiano delivered Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin with a powerful urgency and bags of inner strength, the piece well-suited to his bronzed tone. Lucas Meachem’s Largo al factotum was both characterful and vocally high-powered with stellar top notes. Entering from the house and lolling on the floral decorations, his performance was brimful of winning schtick. If Artur Ruciński’s Il balen del suo sorriso displayed rock-solid tone, it never quite flowed. That certainly wasn’t the case with Christian Van Horn’s dark, magnificently focussed bass, which proved more than capable of rising to Scarpia’s top notes in a punchy reading of the Te Deum.

Gaffigan’s conducting was mightily impressive, offering plenty of ideas of his own while remaining a sensitive accompanist throughout. If the Met Orchestra strings felt a little scrawny in the opening overture, there were plenty of special touches later on to compensate. An early standing ovation greeted the presence in the crowd of inveterate opera lover Ruth Bader Ginsberg, but to be honest, nine out of ten items on the program deserved as much.

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