For four decades, the Licia Albanese–Puccini Foundation has been awarding money to deserving young singers via its annual voice competition; past top prizewinners include many artists who have gone on to considerable renown in the opera world. On October 26 at the Rose Theater, the Foundation will hold its Fortieth Anniversary Gala concert, presenting its top winners for 2014.
On April 28, I attended the competition finals. "You had to kiss a lot of frogs to get a few princes," murmured one of the judges to the Foundation's administrative/artistic director, Stephen DeMaio, on the way out. It was true: the competition began shakily, with several singers turning up whom I felt should have been granted no money at all. But as the day wore on, things picked up considerably, and there were some dazzling talents on display.
The top prize of $12,500 was justly awarded to tenor Benjamin Bliss, twenty-eight, who sang "Una furtive lagrima" in a lovely, caressing tone. It was a magical performance that was absorbing without becoming lachrymose. The two first prize winners were also completely deserving of the $10,000 award granted to each of them: Rebecca Pedersen, only twenty-two, and a winner in the 2013 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, sang Le Cid's "Pleurez mes yeux" with a big, beautiful sound — she needs only to dig in a bit more emotionally, because she has everything else — and Ryan Speedo Green, twenty-eight, offered a completely satisfying, magnificently finished performance of "Solche hergelaufne Laffen" from Die Entfuhrüng aus dem Serail. He seems ready to perform this role on any stage, anywhere.
Baritone Alexey Lavrov, twenty-eight, took second prize ($7,000) with Edgar's "Questop amor vergogna mia." His voice has a solid core and he's a highly expressive artist. This was one of the most complete performances of the entire day, and I wouldn't have complained even slightly had he won the top prize.
The third prize winners ($5,000 each) also showed up strongly: mezzo Virginie Verrez, twenty-five, with "Deh, per questo," performed with both elegant Mozartean style and dramatic bite; twenty-eight-year-old tenor Mario Chang, another ready-to-go artist, sang "Che gelida manina" with a warm, glowing sound and exciting dramatic involvement; and twenty-three-year-old soprano Courtney Johnson offered La Wally's "Ebben? ne andrò lontana" in the best performance I've yet heard from her. I did not think, however, that Johnson should have placed above the stunning mezzo Shirin Eskandani, thirty, whose "Non più mesta" was extraordinary; her singing is joyous and she seems incapable of making an unmusical phrase. Eskandani took the $3,000 fourth prize, but again, I would have had no quibbles if she had earned the top award. Twenty-seven-year-old tenor Paul Han took fifth prize ($2,500) with an exquisitely phrased and impassioned "Fantaisie aux divins mensonges" from Lakmé that was full of dramatic surprises along the way.
There were ten additional $1,000 grants and nine $500 Encouragement Awards handed out as well. Among these, baritone Norman Garrett, singing "Vision fugitive," was having an off day and didn't show nearly as well as he usually does; soprano Courtney Mills, thirty-two, sang "Pace, pace," once again demonstrating that she has one of the best instruments of any young singer today, though she often seems to falter a bit in competition, as she did here; and mezzo Ewa Plonka, thirty-one, with a highly musical, dramatically pointed rendition of Konchakovna's Aria from Prince Igor. I would like to hear more of soprano Shelley Jackson, whose "Tu, che di gel" showed off a good grasp of Puccini style and a vocal with a distinctive profile. Soprano Jennifer Cherest, twenty-nine, seriously overcalculated her charm with a too-cute-for-words performance of Norina's aria, "Quel guardo il cavaliere," from Don Pasquale. And twenty-six-year-old baritone Jarrett Ott, who offered Die Tote Stadt's Tanzlied, is very talented, but he tends to stand outside the things he sings; he needs to engage emotionally to a greater degree. (In fairness, he was handicapped by being interrupted by one of the judges.)