Time was when the Palm Beach Opera held a singing contest in April, inviting young opera performers from around the world to be heard in front of an elite panel of judges and a full orchestra.
The contest is gone (though it may someday return), and with it the chance to hear a wide variety of new voices and not incidentally a broad sampling of repertoire that one will surely never see on the Palm Beach Opera mainstage. Both of those returned in some fashion Tuesday night as the company opened its new season with a concert featuring the company’s troupe of singing interns: the Benenson Young Artists and the Apprentice Artists.
With the full opera orchestra in attendance on the Kravis Center stage, under the direction of chorus master Greg Ritchey, a modest but very enthusiastic house heard the eight singers in the Benenson program (the 10 apprentices serving as the occasional chorus) joined by the eminent American mezzo Denyce Graves, last seen as the Old Lady in the previous season’s production of Bernstein’s Candide.
Graves was filling in for an ailing Stephanie Blythe, who is down to play Orlofsky this March in Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, and she took over the proceedings splendidly, with two selections from Carmen, three Gershwin songs and a song from Broadway’s Frederick Loewe.
But first, the members of the Benenson Young Artists. General Director Daniel Biaggi announced Tuesday night in opening remarks that the young artist program’s chief benefactor, Gladys Benenson, had just made another $1 million gift to the company to continue its work, a wonderful piece of news and one that further establishes the company as an educational training ground. Indeed, the playbill showed that each of the Benenson Artists featured Tuesday hold master’s degrees from fine institutions, and throughout the concert their superb training was clearly in evidence. Their teachers and mentors should be proud.
All of the singers – three sopranos, a mezzo, two tenors, a baritone and a bass-baritone – were generally excellent and impressive, with that great mixture of youth and enthusiasm that freshens tried-and-true repertoire, and enough vocal variety to suggest which singers might be best suited for certain roles. It’s hard to imagine any of the nation’s opera companies not wanting to have one or more of these singers on staff.
Of the four women, I particularly liked Sylvia D’Eramo, a Texas soprano whose work as Zdenka in the duet “Aber der Richtige” from Richard Strauss’s Arabella and as Marietta in the aria “Glück, das mir verlieb” from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt demonstrated an ability to float long-breathed, lustrous lines above giant assemblages of orchestral instruments. Aside from the sheer joy of getting to hear this repertoire, it was most satisfying to hear someone who doesn’t sound like she has to compete with the orchestra but can soar within and above it, and as a huge crescendo in the last bars of the Korngold aria showed, still has plenty of power to spare.
Soprano Emily Blair of suburban Chicago, who sang a lovely Arabella to D’Eramo’s Zdenka, also showed off a large, steely instrument with coloratura flourishes in the Czardas (“Klänge der Heimat”) from Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus. Blair deserves extra kudos for singing it as well as she did despite an atrocious English translation, no doubt because Palm Beach Opera, thinking of the dialogue, will do it that way in March. We should have heard it in the original German, but Blair sang it with forcefulness and swagger regardless.
New Jersey soprano Joanna Latini was perhaps the most immediately ready for the main stage of the three sopranos; her Violetta in the duet “Parigi, o cara” from Verdi’s La Traviata was warm and passionate, and her voice had a mature color that added veracity to her character’s plight. She followed that with a tender, tasteful “Piangerò la sorte mia” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare (which, sadly, we’re unlikely to hear at Palm Beach Opera); her vocal acrobatics in the fast section could have used some more lightness.
South Florida’s own Natalie Rose Havens, a mezzo from Pompano Beach, got a huge response from the audience for her intense reading of Santuzza’s aria (“Voi lo sapete, o Mamma”) from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. This aria gives the singer a chance to emote on a grand and tortured scale, and Havens went for it, bringing a dark, compelling sound to Santuzza’s misery. Here is a young singer who also knows how to act, which should make her that much more valuable.
Of the four men, the most distinctive voice was that of the bass-baritone Ted Allen Pickell, a tall, gangly Californian with a really big sound who had the audience in the palm of his hand with the song “If Ever I Would Leave You,” from Lerner and Loewe’s musical Camelot. This 1960 pop hit is nevertheless closer in style to Loewe’s true musical cousins, Lehar, Friml and Romberg, but Loewe is a much finer melodist than any of them. And so Pickell was able to slide easily over the contours of this tune with his huge sound and make a vocal splash despite some confusion about Lerner’s lyrics.
The baritone Ben Schaefer, an Iowan who will appear next at the Glimmerglass Festival (as will Latini) pulled out that most familiar of baritone arias, the “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s Barber of Seville, for his solo spot. And he was excellent: Coming in impishly from the wings, he seized the audience’s attention and held it throughout, making a good show of exasperation with the constant demands on Figaro’s time, and shifting vocal registers in the “Figaro, Figaro” sequence rather than shrieking or screaming, which worked very well and drew authentic laughter.
Brian Wallin, a Minnesota tenor and the lone second-year Benenson artist on the program (and who also will be at Glimmerglass), offered a vivid reading of Rinuccio’s apostrophe to Florence and a local fix-it guy in his aria (“Firenze è come un albero foirito”) from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, another opera that would be welcome at the Kravis. Wallin has a good lyric tenor sound, but his Rinuccio needs to be a little more exuberant. This is an aria that lies high in the tenor register, and Wallin managed the last B-flat with care, cutting it off rather than risk a crack.
Robert Stahley, a tenor from Massachusetts, made a good partner for Latini as Alfredo in their Traviata duet, unrolling an attractive Italianate sound that blended well with hers and announced a sympathetic character. His solo appearance was devoted to Tamino’s “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” from Mozart’s Magic Flute, a song that gave him a chance to show his skill at smooth legato tone production; some more identification with Tamino’s astonishment would have brought out some additional color.
As for Graves, she was a delightful Carmen in the “Habanera” and the Act II quintet, “Nous avons en tête une affaire,” which also featured D’Eramo, Havens, Wallin and Schaefer in Bizet’s tongue-twisting setting. She also sang three George Gershwin songs — “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Embraceable You” and “Somebody Loves Me” — with Ritchey at the piano. Graves’s deep, thick voice gave these American Songbook classics a luxurious touch, while Ritchey’s elaborate accompaniments were too often far too full of cocktail-style lollipops, and needed to be dialed back.
The orchestra was in good form, despite a somewhat messy, uneven overture from Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila to open the evening, and the whole company of young vocalists sounded splendid in the celebrated sextet (and chorus) from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, “Chi mi frena in tal momento.” They closed out the night in similar fashion with more Loewe, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” from My Fair Lady, with special lyrics to beg the audience not to ask for an encore and to celebrate the “bliss” of being able to sing.
It was a charming and encouraging way to start the season for Palm Beach Opera, and introduced the audience to some exciting new voices. And it brought back the buffet joys of the much-missed singing contest while at the same time giving patrons a wider sense of the magnificence that can be found in the world of opera.