Tucker Foundation gala offers a starry all-American lineup
Avery Fisher Hall paid witness to a more than usually imposing and glammed-up star lineup on Sunday. The Richard Tucker Music Foundation has celebrated and promoted the legacy of Brooklyn’s popular star tenor since his untimely death at 61 in 1975; their gala concerts celebrate the given year’s winner and raise funds for future grants. Each year many past winners and recipients of study grants take part, donating their services; this year, exceptionally, featured only American singers (though, oddly, not a note of American music). Riccardo Frizza solidly led members of the Met Opera Orchestra as well as the excellent, quite massive New York Choral Society.
Barry Tucker, the tenor’s eldest son, announced that the main yearly award would be upped from $30,000 to $50,000. From the program’s fashion designer acknowledgements relating to the spectacular gowns and jewelry sported by Joyce DiDonato (2002), Renée Fleming (1990), Susan Graham (Career Grant 1990), Angela Meade (2011) and Ailyn Pérez (2012), one can imagine how fast that money could disperse once starhood is attained.
This year’s winner, the accomplished and already established-at-the-Met Juilliard-trained mezzo Isabel Leonard, also “made an effort” not only fashion-wise but in terms of professionalism: she had sung Rosina at San Francisco Opera the night before. Other Tucker Award winners taking part included Stephanie Blythe (1999), Matthew Polenzani (2004), Stephen Costello (2009). Two others, Patricia Racette (1998) and Christine Goerke (2001)—both of whom had performed exhausting roles (Tosca and Strauss’s Dyer’s Wife, respectively) at the Met the previous day—sent word of indisposition and regrets. Other participants, including Jennifer Johnson Cano, Eric Owens, Brandon Cedel and Andrew Stenson, have won various other study grants from the Foundation.
The only “ringer” from outside the Tucker circle seemed to be sturdy bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, who joined the capacious-voiced Blythe in a vehement if not especially Gallic reading of Samson et Dalila‘s Vengeance Duet. Besides the Saint-Saëns, other works associated with Tucker himself were represented: the Forza del destino overture (always tuneful, always tempting fate), Faust’s “Salut, demeure” (neatly done by Costello, whose interpretive and dynamic palette seems to be increasing); a rousing, well-judged “Legend of Kleinzach” (from Contes d’Hoffmann) delivered by Polenzani; and Owens’ steady, artfully modulated, unstentorian “Va, Tosca”.
Over the years the Tucker folks have allowed a stylistic expansion of material, so that offerings now go beyond the once frequent traversals of popular audition book arias and endless Don Pasquale and Pearl Fishers duets. David Daniels’ 1997 win opened the door for baroque works, and here Isabel Leonard pushed the envelope back to Vivaldi with a fine, limber-voiced traversal of “Ombre vane” from Griselda, which she sang (opposite Daniels, in fact) in Santa Fe two summers ago.
This summer’s Santa Fe season bore fruit on the evening’s program: Susan Graham’s “cougar camp” but good-hearted and good-sounding “J’aime les militaires”, with four uniformed and choreographed extras attending Gérolstein’s grand duchess; and Joyce DiDonato’s truly breathtaking performance of “Tanti affetti”, the rondo finale of La donna del lago. The Kansan mezzo held the audience spellbound with the precision of her trills, attacks and descending scales.
DiDonato’s two displays of bel canto chops (she entered theatrically with Romeo’s opening scena from Bellini’s Capuleti) outshone Pérez and Costello’s pleasant but over-shticky Elisir d’amore duet: the over-busy “business” did not compensate for a certain generic quality in the singing.
Angela Meade, however, set her considerable powers on “Montserrat Caballe-like stun” and unleashed a wonderful store of piano shadings and fortisssimo interpolations in Lucrezia’s great first act scene from Verdi’s I due Foscari: very exciting vocalism. By contrast Pérez seemed owerawed by Charpentier’s “Depuis le jour” and eschewed any loud dynamics whatsoever.
Costello and Cano took the honors in the stirring ensemble finale from Guillaume Tell, unheard at the Met since 1931. Longtime comrades-in-art Fleming and Graham sounded lovely combining their timbres in Lakmé’s Flower Duet. In solo lines and in her other numbers Fleming concentrated on manipulating her trademark creamy sound rather than articulating line or text. One noted with little astonishment that Fleming’s 1935 Refice song “Ombra di nube”–although deliberately antiquated in style, and it might have been in Urdu for all a listener could tell—was the only piece performed at The Tucker Gala “Mach 2013” to have been written after World War One.
This performance was filmed for PBS’s Live from Lincoln Center for national airing January 10th.
David Shengold has written for Opera News, Opera (UK), Theater Journal and Time Out New York among many venues. He has contributed program essays to the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Covent Garden and Washington National Opera programs and lectured for NYCO and Glimmerglass Festival and Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre. He has taught opera, literature and cultural history at Oberlin, Mount Holyoke and Williams Colleges.