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YEASS III. Operalia 2021 Postmortem

Updated: Apr 25

The Operalia 2021 finals' operatic division showcased promising artists from six countries singing mostly in Italian, with two exceptions in French and a lone outlier in his native tongue (Russian). They sang with the vigor of youth, exhibiting an expressivity befitting the occasion's high-stakes festive nature more than their specific characters' dramatic situations — inevitable, perhaps, in this context. Throughout the program there were levels of studied yet emotionally unspecific pronunciation; there was also diction clouded by home-base phonemes yet remaining comprehensible (e.g. gli Yankee vagabondi Nelson and Hoskins) and pronunciation which remained unclear in spite of surprisingly idiomatic accents (e.g. Makarov, Park).

While studying this footage, two eternal questions:

1. How do these singers sound at a distance in the acoustic space where we cannot see them as clearly?

2. How do singers occupy their hands in a non-theatrical performance context?

Edward Nelson, baritone (US, 32)

Rossini Il barbiere di Siviglia: Largo al factotum della città

Evident zest for performing. Solid tone, prompt articulation, agilità, extension up to high A. Persistent bad habit of scooping into acuti, frequently and systematically attacking the pitch a half-step below his arrival note and then flipping into the proper pitch.

Nelson pronounces Italian through a heavy US English filter, thus making harder work of this text-dense piece and hindering him in resolving its vocal challenges:

• /e/ veers towards the US diphthong /eɪ/ right from the opening «La ran la le ra… presto… che bel piacere»

• unstressed /o/ too closed, «bravo» registering as «bravu»

• quick /i/ mispronounced as US «short» /ɪ/ early on in the word «fortunatissimo»

• sustained /i/ blocking the sound, most noticeably in the concluding cadence, where the first high G on the vowel /a/ of «della» is in tune (the onset achieved via scoop) and the following one on the vowel /i/ of «città» rings slightly under

• Italian dental consonants pronounced with a hint of US aspiration («a te fortuna»)

• single consonants too heavy («piacere», «uno») yet double consonants insufficiently clear in the recurring final words «della città»

«Largo al factotum»: Apollo Granforte, 1932 live film

Valery Makarov, tenor (Russia, 20)

Rossini Il turco in Italia: Intesi, ah tutto intesi – Tu seconda il mio disegno

Energetic voice: quick vibrato which intensifies on sustained passaggio notes (various top-of-treble Gs throughout), extension up to high D and E (on the cadenze «Vendetta!»), agilità. Variazioni sound appropriately Rossinian, contrary to many other early career professionals whose variazioni prove stylistically inapposite.

Makarov's verbal comprehensibility took a steep drop between the recitativo and the aria proper. Although his Italianate accent is convincing and he articulates consonants decisively, there's more to diction than that.

«Terra amica» (Zelmira): Rockwell Blake, 1992 Avery Fisher Hall

Emily Pogorelc, soprano (US, 25)

Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor: Regnava nel silenzio – Quando rapito in estasi

Third Prize

A complete rendition of the entire cavatina-cum-cabaletta, retaining the 10-or-12 poco più bars usually cut in performance!

One appreciates Pogorelc's effort towards italianità: she works at diligently enunciating the language and her phrasing bears familiar traces of the tradition. She does have a trill and good pitch; there's room for both to become exceptional, as one can hear in the cabaletta's chromatic scales (legato «che a lui d'accanto» and the picchiettati of the usually cut poco più bars).

Pogorelc and Domingo could together have benefited from further stretching of tempi in the cavatina's concluding D major section, a major arrival point of the aria. She could have enjoyed more time to form her trills at «, pria limpida» (both times) and the traditional rubato with the harpist «di sangue rosseggiò». In the cabaletta, Pogorelc was all too ready to continue singing after end-of-phrase breaths, denying the music and herself literal breathing room. One wanted her to trust that the music would wait for her, take her time and completely let go of her breath. From the reprise of «Quando rapito» to aria's end, accumulated tensions impacted her topmost notes (Bs, Cs, Ds), all of which were attained but lacked the sheen one expected from the rest of her range.

Jusung (Gabriel) Park, bass-baritone (South Korea, 28)

Massenet Don Quichotte: Ça! Vous commettez tous un acte épouvantable! – Riez, allez, riez du pauvre idéologue

Third Prize

Manful timbre, easy projection, steady intonation, fills out every note. Persuasive French accent and conscientious articulation of the language's sounds without guaranteeing that the actual words were clear.

Dissatisfying that Park's contribution to the finals program was this vocally, musically, and interpretatively mild piece, leading to yet leaving unanswered the question What Is the Extent of His Artistic Powers?

«Ноченька» (Ah you, little night, dark night): Feodor Chaliapin, a cappella

1910 E minor & 1907 E-flat minor (rare)

Keymon Murrah, countertenor (US, 31)

Rossini Semiramide: Ah! quel giorno ognor rammento – Oh! come da quel dì

Palpable joy in the act of singing! Murrah's tone is ripe across two-&-a-half octaves from written low G-sharp to high soprano C-sharp, his concluding high Bs freer than his female cohorts' notes in the same pitch zone. He has developed a relationship with this piece over the past few years, and one wants him to conquers its challenges by dint of greater attention to the following details:

• Pitch accuracy, particularly in the scales and gruppetti

• Rhythmic grounding: in the opening andantino Murrah swims through the music's pulse instead of spinning his fioriture over a solid rhythmic foundation

• Note values: for all this style's ad libitum possibilities, Rossini was clear just what note values he set

• Scansion: Murrah occasionally shifts Rossini's syllabic distribution to no clear musical or vocal advantage

• Language: «rapitore» pronounced «rabitore», «schiuse» pronounced «scuse»

• Style of variazioni: in the cabaletta's midway cadenza, Murrah sails up to top C-sharp and descends into order to launch the reprise; a more cogent choice musically, vocally, and stylistically would have been to descend to the low B with which the reprise begins («Oh! come da quel dì»)

«Ah! quel giorno»: Ewa Podleś, 1994 Poznan

Iván Ayón-Rivas, tenor (Peru, 28)

Verdi Il corsaro: Ah sì, ben dite – Tutto parea sorridere – Pronti siate a seguitarmi – Sì, de' Corsari il fulmine

First Prize; Don Plácido Domingo Ferrer Prize of Zarzuela; Rolex Prize of the Audience

Similarities between Spanish and Italian can be a potential pitfall for Hispanohablante singers, one that Ayón-Rivas sidesteps beautifully through idiomatic, sculpted diction. He phrases with feeling, in the andante offering mini-diminuendi on the high G concluding «ogni mio ben ra» (both times) and the high A-flat of the following phrase «più non vedrò risorgere» (both times). A matter of taste: may he rein in his occasional sobs, off-pitch accents, and upward scoops, all of which collectively detract from the appeal of his performance. A matter of technique: on sustained tones from pre-passaggio E-flat (treble staff top space) upwards may he stabilize and center his vibrato which, instead of fleshing out the intended note, oscillates «on the edges of the pitch» (i.e. both above and below the pitch center).

Heart-sinking miscoordination at the end. Following an orchestral diminished-seventh chord (harmonic suspense), the orchestra pauses for Corrado/Ayón-Rivas to call out a cappella «all'armi, all'armi». The following phrase is Corrado's final cadence «all'armi!», during which the orchestra joins him with a dominant-seventh chord at «ar» and tonic resolution at «mi»: classic 5–1 resolution. In accord with the music, Ayón-Rivas sang his a cappella phrase, took the necessary pause, and continued—interpolating a high B-flat on «all'armi!»—only to be left without the proper musical support until too late. He bravely sustained the B-flat but had to finish the phrase, breaking between «all'ar-» and «-mi», only then for conductor Domingo to finally bring in the orchestra on their first chord at the worst possible time, meeting Ayón-Rivas's final note with an onerous harmonic clash. Bravo to Ayón-Rivas for his professionalism throughout.

Victoria Karkacheva, mezzo-soprano (Russia, 31)

Bellini I Capuleti e i Montecchi: Lieto del dolce incarco – Ascolta: se Romeo t'uccise un figlio – La tremenda ultrice spada

First Prize & Birgit Nilsson Prize

Karkacheva's soft-grained instrument acquires importance as it ascends to high A—the tricky Bs of «che alla patria costerà» concluding each cabaletta strophe were marginally shy of vibrancy and pitch—but fades on vocal lines heading towards the bottom of the staff, most noticeably on the unaccompanied arpeggio to G below middle C («il sottosol») «e piange ancora».

In the cabaletta her applications of pettosità (chestiness) slightly boosted her projection but at the expense of stiff tone—in both verses «Ma v'accusi al ciel irato» (Ds right below treble staff) and after the cabaletta second verse, in the stringendo sempre section, the first «ricada il sangue» (Ds and Es).

Further passages in that stringendo sempre exposed that Karkacheva has not found a secure coordination for moving between bottom and middle registers. On the second «ricada il sangue» she interpolated an ascending D major arpeggio in which the D was chest, the F-sharp an awkward registral shift, and the A was middle voice. And in both statements of the ascending A minor arpeggio «che alla patria», she resorted to unItalianate glottal stops between vowels in order to bridge the voice across registers—«che» on treble staff bottom line E neither quite chest nor head, failure to connect the vowels /e/ and /a/, «alla» on treble staff second space A initiated by a glottal stop.

Karkacheva's Russian-filtered Italian requires serious work. In the cavatina, her native language trait of аканье (ákanje: the unstressed /o/ vowel is «reduced» and pronounced as /a/) marred the sustained masculine endings of «Romeo», «figlio», «altro», and «mio». In the cabaletta, her back-of-mouth enunciation compounded her efforts to keep on top of the marziale rhythms.

«Газовая косынка» – music Boris Prozorovsky, lyrics Mikhail Kozyrev:

Rosa Ponselle (1953, Villa Pace)

Jonah Hoskins, tenor (US, 24)

Donizetti La fille du régiment: Ah! mes amis – Pour mon âme

Second Prize

Well-schooled youthful voice, good pitch, unstressed breath reflexes, and a confident top register extending to extra Cs before the final «Pour mon âme» statement («militaire et mari», a variazione that I felt didn't add much to what Donizetti already wrote) and a C/D trill in the extended final cadence («militaire et mari»).

His laudable and comprehensible efforts at French pronunciation remain perfectibles — they could stand improvement — both in accuracy (pronouncing the correct sounds) and consistency (that even in different words the same sounds match):

• /u/ «sous», «pou

• /o/ «drapeaux», «héros»

• /œ/ «bonheur», «cœu

• clearer articulation of the final consonant of «bonheur», «cœur», «jour»

Obvious relish for performing: lo Yankee vagabondo showmanship right from his entrance, delayed until after the orchestra struck up the introduction, then wandering onstage looking around in awe. Hoskins's showmanship would be fortified by greater body awareness: standing centered instead of angling his body, dispensing with jejune manifestations of character enthusiasm (in this aria young US tenors default towards playing Tonio as a giddy yokel), and attention to his habit of shutting his eyes for the majority of his top tones (default setting for almost every B-flat, C, and D he emitted).

«Ah! mes amis»: Alfredo Kraus mere week s before his 57th birthday,

1983 Met (footage taken from the wings)

Mané Galoyan, soprano (Armenia, 28)

Verdi La traviata: È strano! – Ah, fors'è lui – Sempre libera

Second Prize; Pepita Embil Prize of Zarzuela; Rolex Prize of the Audience

(Was she unwell?)

Vocal, musical, and gestural choices seem «set», as if she's been performing this piece a certain way for a period of time.

Fundamental question: does she ever fully release her breath? Galoyan's attempts at mezzavoce finessing—the A-flats «solinga ne' tumulti» / «de' suoi colori occulti» and the F immediately preceding the cadenza «delizia al cor»—did not match her more straightforward singing, the finessed notes noticeably quicker and shallower of vibrato.

Gutsier tones—E-natural crescendo «destandomi all'amor», G «di volut perir», sustained high A-flat after Alfredo's first interruption «Follie! Gioir!»—developed a beat (insistent pulse on the same pitch but alternating degrees of loudness) which stressed her vibrato's tendency to oscillate under the pitch.

In the «Ah, fors'è lui» cadenza she shaded the high B-flat piano. The ensuing coloratura on «Gioir!» proved far less comfortable, the D-flat shaded by catarrh, Galoyan making fists and raising hands to will out the pitches in this tessitura. The numerous Cs and D-flats in the remainder of the piece lacked free play, the pitches amplified by tensing vibrato; she wisely eschewed the E-flat interpolation.

«Follie! follie!»: Virginia Zeani, 1965 Romania

Bekhzod Davronov, tenor (Uzbekistan, 27)

Puccini La bohème: Che gelida manina

Second Prize

Dark lyric timbre, immediately available top tones, unstressed breath reflexes, and clear Italian. Early in the piece he relied upon ascending scoops, to the A-flat and G-flat of «cercar che giova» and (oddly) in the descending line «al buio non si trova», falling past the destination pitch and edging back upwards.

Davronov's continuous arm motions seemed to seek a fluidity he was trying to achieve in his singing; was that a byproduct of trying to sustain Domingo's slow tempi and sluggish coordination reflexes?

Dmitry Cheblykov, baritone (Russia, 32)

Rachmaninoff Aleko: Весь табор спит

Third Prize

Aleko's cavatina being a soliloquy whose vocal line is rooted in Russian speech patterns and carried by a rich and active orchestra, it plays to Cheblykov's expressive strengths. Not much can be gleaned about the full span of his vocal capacity—range, legato / cantabile / sostenuto, agilità, foreign languages remain questions unasked—but sustained notes from central-register G (bass clef top space) upwards betray a marked increase in vibrato intensity and pitch, oscillating «on the edges of the pitch» (both above and below the intended pitch center). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the three sustained Cs of the concluding meno mosso, the first pair on the repeated «Земфира неверна!» followed by «Моя Земфира охладела!», a crescendo in which the pitch skews so sharp that one wonders if Cheblykov had shifted pitch to match the orchestra's rising phrases.

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