By Greg Stepanich
For the Grand Finals of the Palm Beach Opera’s annual vocal competition this year, technical accomplishment appeared to matter most to the panel of four judges.
Baritone Joo Won Kang of Seoul, South Korea, won the top prize in the advanced division (for ages 24-30), and bass-baritone Brandon Cedel, of Hershey, Pa., won the top prize in the junior division (ages 18-23). Both sang somewhat unusual repertoire, and both sang with high technical polish, even if their performances were not as exciting as some others on the program.
A total of 13 singers, in two divisions, sang with a somewhat anemic Palm Beach Opera Orchestra on Sunday afternoon at the Kravis Center in the 42nd edition of this particular contest, which in recent years has added an audience favorite award voted by audience text message. While the audience favorite in last year’s competition and the first-place winner were the same person, this year it was the fourth-place advanced winner, soprano Suzanne Vinnik of Las Vegas, who won the audience award in a landslide, according to general manager Daniel Biaggi.
Interestingly enough, the audience favorite last year (soprano Corrine Winters) and this year sang the same soprano showpiece: the Ah, fors è lui/Sempre libera from Act I of Verdi’s La Traviata. Vinnik demonstrated a strong, capable voice and a high sense of style, especially in the way she sang those falling appoggiaturas toward the end. But by the end of the piece, which was interrupted with warm applause before the Sempre libera, she didn’t have enough power to hold her interpolated high E-flat for much time before coming down.
In the case of Cedel, a 23-year-old who sang Count Rodolfo’s Vi ravviso o luoghi ameni from Act I of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, judges and the audience heard a real bass voice, one that had beautiful coloring throughout its range. His singing had the right sense of longing and regret that the text conveys, and he sang smoothly and cleanly, especially on the tiny cadenza figure at the end.
Kang, 29, sang Vision fugitive, from Act II of Massenet’s Héroidade, a work that rarely gets a staging anymore but from which this aria still survives. Kang has a very fine, attractive voice, and excellent technique, which was in evidence particularly in the transition to the final recurrence of the main melody, which Kang handled deftly. This also was a performance of substantial smoothness and warmth, if not one with high drama.
Cedel and Kang have sizable, but not especially large, voices, and the repertoire they sang, while lovely and important for what it showed the audience about their capabilities, was not especially thrilling, either. For that, the audience Sunday looked to Vinnik and several other singers.
One in particular was the countertenor John Holiday of Rosenberg, Texas, who took fifth place in the advanced division. He sang Crude furie degli orridi abissi, from Handel’s Serse, an “anger aria,” and he made much of it, showing off a big, powerful voice with a marked mezzo-soprano quality. This is potentially a star-quality voice, it seemed to me, even though Holiday didn’t have it fully under control Sunday, oversinging at the end. But he is a singer with a round, fat tone quality, never reedy, and with impressive breath control and capacity.
The audience loved him, as they did R. Kenneth Stavert, who sang the Largo al factotum from Rossini’s Barber of Seville. Stavert, 26, of Fullerton, Calif., has just completed a season as one of the Palm Beach Opera’s Young Artists, and did fine work as Sciarrone in Tosca as well as in workshop versions of Handel’s Ariodante and Federico Torroba’s zarzuela Luisa Fernanda. He sang this very familiar aria in this competition last season, and this time came in seventh in the advanced division.
I thought that was too low, as I did last year when he came in sixth. His performance was funny, lively and well-sung, and while Stavert’s voice is not huge, it’s plenty forceful, and no doubt he would make a good comic on stage. This year and last, I thought he deserved better.
One other especially notable performance came from mezzo Laura Wilde, 25, of Watertown, S.D., who sang, of all things, the composer’s aria (Sein wir wieder gut) from the prologue of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. It was incredibly refreshing to hear Richard Strauss at the Palm Beach Opera, and this was in all truth quite a good reading of this difficult piece. Wilde has a large, dark voice that was able to be clearly heard above Strauss’ busy orchestration, and her voice kept its strength throughout, with a confident high B-flat just before the close. She came in third in the advanced division, though I might have ranked her second, behind Holiday.
Probably the largest voice was that of Margaret Mezzacappa, 24, of Euclid, Ohio, who chose Voce di donna, La Cieca’s aria from Act I of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. She has a huge mezzo sound, rich and full, a possible successor to Dolora Zajick in dramatic Verdi roles. Interpretively, her reading of the aria came off as somewhat tentative and careful; I could have used a little more emotion. She came in second in the advanced division, tribute to her good technique and the sheer size of the voice.
I also enjoyed the singing of baritone Joseph Lattanzi, another return competitor. The Mableton, Ga., 23-year-old came in second in the junior division with his exemplary Ah, per sempre, from Bellini’s I Puritani. Lattanzi has a lovely instrument, perhaps a touch underpowered but delightful to listen to, and he would make a memorable Germont, among other things. I’d have nudged him into first place, ahead of Cedel.
Also worthy of note was Jeanine De Bique, sixth-place winner in the advanced division with Padre, germani, addio, Ilia’s aria from Act I of Mozart’s Idomeneo. A 29-year-old Trinidadian, De Bique has a mature-sounding soprano that seems to me well-suited for opera seria. She sang with taste, care and clarity, and made a good case for the aria.
Palm Beach Opera Chorus master Greg Ritchey led the orchestra, which sounded undermanned and weak for much of the afternoon – atypical for this ensemble – but it followed the singers nicely and it was quite effective in each of the various compositional styles. It was rather ragged in its two solo outings: The Coriolan Overture of Beethoven (shaky unity on those last pizzicati), and the first movement of the Unfinished Symphony (No. 8 in B minor, D. 759) of Franz Schubert.
This last was led by Dreyfoos School for the Arts student Anthony Arcaini, all of 15 years old. He did a capable job, and his precise gestures indicate he’s undergoing a good training regimen.
The judges for the competition were Ken Benson, Lenore Rosenberg, Christina Scheppelmann and Dona D. Vaughan. Sitting with them was Artistic Director Bruno Aprea, who has just signed a new three-year contract with the company, Biaggi said Sunday.
Here is the complete list of winners, plus prize amounts:
Advanced division: Joo Won Kang, baritone ($6,000); Margaret Mezzacappa, mezzo-soprano ($5,500); Laura Wilde, mezzo-soprano ($4,750); Suzanne Vinnik, soprano ($4,000); John Holiday, countertenor ($3,500); Jeanine De Bique ($3,000); R. Kenneth Stavert ($2,500).
Junior division: Brandon Cedel, bass-baritone ($4,500); Joseph Lattanzi ($3,750); Emmett O’Hanlon ($3,250); Betsy Diaz ($3,00); Marco Stefani, tenor ($2,500); Danielle Adams ($1,500).