Sunday, March 13th, 2016 – Patrons gathered by the masses at Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera House to get a glimpse of the nine singers fortunate enough to make it to the Grand Finals. This most prestigious of singing competitions has a reputation for identifying young singers with extraordinary talent from all over the globe. It has been referred to as a spring board – or perhaps more appropriately, a catapult – launching high profile international careers. Round one begins with thousands of hopeful young singers auditioning for a panel at designated sites across the United States. These panels slowly whittle down the talent pool through district and regional rounds which culminate in two weeks of final rounds held in New York City.
This year the judges chose nine singers to advance to the Grand Finals…
Brian Vu, a 26 year old baritone from Los Angeles, California, began the afternoon with Figaro’s “Largo al factotum” from Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Gioachino Rossini. It was a spirited performance and set a high bar for the singers who were soon to follow. His second aria was “Avant de quitter ces lieux” from Faust by Charles Gounod. Both pieces showed the ease with which he navigates the passaggio and his comfort singing higher baritone repertoire.
Following Brian was the 21 year old mezzo-soprano from Toronto, Canada, Emily D’Angelo. To her benefit, she chose to sing “Contro un cor” also from Il Barbiere… by Rossini. The florid bel canto piece was sung with unbelievable control, especially considering this performer’s age. Ms. D’Angelo’s second piece was “Must the Winter come so soon” from Vanessa by Samuel Barber. Initially I had my doubts about the rep choice but she sang it flawlessly and it served to balance the virtuosity she displayed in her first aria.
Sol Jin, a 30 year old native of Seoul, South Korea took the stage with Germont’s aria “Di Provenza il mar” from La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi. His voice was well settled within his body producing a resonance and warm palate of colors unlike any singer in the Grand Finals. His stage presence was strong and stately. Mr. Jin showed a softer side in his second aria “Ya vas lyublyu” (I love you) from The Queen of Spades by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Lauren Feider, a 23 year old soprano from Wisconsin began her afternoon with Richard Strauss. The aria was “Das war sehr gut, Mandryka” from Arabella. Ms. Feider sang with a very clear, almost crystalline timber. Too few singers discover Strauss’ gems early in their careers. It was an unexpected treat to hear this music programmed and performed so well. Her second piece was “Embroidered in childhood was a luxury of idleness” from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. A bold choice but it demonstrated her strong musicianship and ability to tackle the challenges of contemporary music.
Sean Michael Plumb, a 24 year old baritone from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was no stranger to the big stage. He fearlessly presented a nearly flawless performance of “Bella siccome un angelo” from Don Pasquale. His voice effortlessly rang to every corner of the theater boasting a rich tone and excitable yet anchored and even vibrato throughout his singing. Mr. Plumb returned to the stage with Robert’s aria from Iolanta, a beast of a piece to which his voice was astonishingly well suited.
Next was Jonas Hacker, a 27 year old tenor with technique to rival any consummate professional. He began with “Ich baue ganze auf deine Stӓrk” from Die Entfϋhrung aus dem Sarail by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Now, if you are familiar with Mozart, you know he did not write “easy” tenor arias; fortunately, that is exactly how Mr. Hacker made it sound. The vocal gymnastics were generously sprinkled throughout the aria. For me, however, the highlight was a single sustained note which, through incredible use of breath, dissipated to nothing at the culmination of a phrase. You couldn’t grasp the gravity of this feat by looking at him. Mr. Hacker achieved this with the most calm of demeanors. His second piece was “Prendre le dessin d’un bijou” from Lakmé by Léo Delibes.
Theo Hoffman, 22 year old baritone and clear hometown hero took the stage offering a heart-felt “Mein Sehnen, mein Wӓnen” from Die Tote Stadt by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The audience cried out in support of the current Juilliard student. His artistry was undeniable. Mr. Hoffman sang with a tender tone and was one of the few artists to earnestly connect with the audience; no small feat in a 3800-seat theatre. He returned in the second half with “Dieux! Qui me poursuivez” from Iphigénie en Tauride by Christoph Wiliibald Gluck. This upbeat, declamatory and rarely performed piece was a welcomed change from the standard competition repertoire.
Jakub Józef Orliński, a 25 year old countertenor from Warsaw Poland chose to begin with “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Benjamin Britten. He sang well but this was but a glimpse of his capabilities. The true display came in his second piece, “A dispetto d’un volto ingrate” from Tamerlano by George Friderick Handel. In true Handel fashion, this piece was rife with melismatic drama. Handel’s challenges were met by Mr. Orliński. He gave an absolutely thrilling performance with only one singer to go…
The final singer was Yelena Dyacheck, a 24 year old soprano from Sacramento California. She first presented “Come scoglio” from Cosi fan tutte by Wofgang Amadeus Mozart. This piece is notoriously difficult because of the way it leaps to and from the extremes of the soprano’s range. Moving between her chest voice and head voice was no problem for Ms. Dyachek. Her high notes possessed a ring that could have carried the sound for miles. Her lower range was sturdy and resonant. To close the final round of singing, Ms. Dyachek sang the letter scene, “Puskai pogibnu ya” from Eugene Onegin by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. “She’s a star,” an audience member said during the applause. I couldn’t agree more.
So, who won? Well, five singers took home grand prizes of $15,000 and an accolade that will undoubtedly help launch a major career. Emily D’Angelo, Yelena Dyachek, Sol Jin, Jakub Józef Orliński and Sean Michael Plumb were the winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.