A Night of Winners and Almost Winners
Metropolitan Opera Auditions Select Five Singers
Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Grand Finals This year’s winners, from left: Margaret Mezzacappa, Janai Brugger, Anthony Clark Evans, Matthew Grills and Andrey Nemzer on Sunday at the Met.
By ZACHARY WOOLFE
Published: March 19, 2012
Part of the fascination of singing competitions is the lovely, flawed idea that you can use them to extrapolate the current and future states of opera.
The competitions themselves feed the fire, gleefully dropping the names of past winners who became stars. As Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, noted onstage on Sunday afternoon during the Met’s National Council Auditions Grand Finals Concert, at the most prestigious contests even some losers end up as headliners.
It is impossible to take nine singers, each performing two arias, and project anything accurately. But it is also impossible to resist seeing a group this prominent as a snapshot of the moment. If Sunday’s concert didn’t make you fear for the future of opera, it didn’t make you excited for it, either.
Only one singer inspired me to look forward to a full performance. Janai Brugger sang two lyric soprano standards with poise and style, quiet intensity and superb phrasing.
Her physical performance was reserved in both “Depuis le jour,” from Charpentier’s “Louise,” and “Ach, ich fühl’s,” from Mozart’s “Zauberflöte.” The emotion was in her sound, which projected, with silvery ease, first relaxed but focused bliss in “Depuis le jour” and then haunting melancholy in the Mozart. She met the challenge of the Charpentier, which is to be simultaneously languid and light. Her top notes were clear and secure; she descended from the high A near the end of “Depuis le jour” with lucid beauty.
Though none of the other finalists had Ms. Brugger’s consistent assurance and tonal sheen, Andrey Nemzer, a countertenor, sang with startling volume and, in an aria from Glinka’s “Ruslan and Ludmila,” ardent lyricism. But his tone was edgy.
After a game but flat Catalogue aria from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” Michael Sumuel, a bass-baritone, brought smoky smolder to the moody cavatina from Rachmaninoff’s “Aleko.”
The five winners, announced at the end, included Ms. Brugger and Mr. Nemzer, as well as Margaret Mezzacappa, a mezzo-soprano who had tackled selections from Gounod’s “Sappho” and Handel’s “Semele” with gusto and a wide vibrato.
The others were Matthew Grills, a tenor who hit the high C’s in “Ah, mes amis,” from Donizetti’s “Fille du Régiment,” with solidity if not flair, and Anthony Clark Evans, a baritone who had been similarly bland in arias from Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” and Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro.”
The bass-baritone Eric Owens, who hosted the concert, gave a hint of his own future, singing “Ella giammai m’amo,” Philip II’s crushing monologue from Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” with force and subtlety.
The Met orchestra, under Andrew Davis, responded with characteristic flexibility to the diverse repertory, a kind of season in miniature. But that repertory had its limitations. Only 2 of the 18 selections were written after 1900; only 1 — “Batter My Heart,” from John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic” — was by a living composer.
Competitions like this often feel stuck in an earlier era. Maybe that’s one reason opera in America feels stuck too.