Longtime opera goers can start to think they can size up a singer within a minute or two. And sometimes that's true. But at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Grand Finals Concert, contestants had a way of transforming themselves during intermission.
The standard format – each of the nine finalists had an aria on each half of the concert, all singing in the same order – allowed warm-ups and second chances that made all the difference. Amanda Woodbury, for example. On the first half she sang "Non mi dir" from Don Giovanni, and all of the right components were there: Fine voice, good diction and pleasing presence, but it just didn't seem to add up to much. In the second half, the soprano from the young artist program at the Los Angeles Opera sang the far longer, more intricate "A vos Jeux, mes amis" from Thomas's Hamlet. Winning, after that, wasn't just probable but an inevitability. Words were more deeply animated, colors more numerous and a level of vocalism that once challenged Joan Sutherland was accomplished with a good sense of the scene's overall shape.
This annual stars-of-tomorrow event, this year hosted by Lawrence Brownlee with a guest appearance by Susanna Phillips, is often a prelude to a Metropolitan Opera contract for the nine finalists, out of which five winners were chosen by a seven-member panel including the Met's Sarah Billinghurst but also opera administrators from the Houston and Utah companies.
No doubt they long-ago learned what became clear to the audience: Don't be quick to dismiss and also beware of making star-is-born pronouncements, though among the other winners (including tenor Yi Li, bass-baritone Ao Li and bass Patrick Guetti) one might be tempted to do just that with Julie Adams, a charismatic medium-weight soprano from the San Francisco Conservatory. She was the audience favorite who made a strong impression on both halves, starting with the seldom-heard "L'annee en vain chasse l'annee" from Debussy's L'Enfant Prodigue and then sealing her winning fate with a the dramatically complicated "Donda lieta usci" from Act III of La Boheme with something the others seem not to have as of yet – a vocal overdrive likely to carry well up into the Met's top balconies.
Not everybody was better in the second half. I was ready to Fed-Ex soprano Nicole Haslett (whose credits include Portland Opera) to La Scala after her excerpt from Verdi's Falstaff, so buoyant was her light lyric soprano. But after her under-characterized second aria, Zerbinetta's great coloratura showpiece from Ariadne auf Naxos, I thought I might wait a year. One of the winners, bass Guetti (from Philadelphia's star factory the Academy of Vocal Arts), also seemed like a work in progress – I don't think he has found his true voice, though what he now has is plenty commanding, and the overall package easily justified his win.
Chinese tenor Li, another winner and now in the Washington National Opera's young artist program, has a lovely, warm voice but lacked personality. Chinese bass-baritone Li, who won the 2013 Operalia World Competition (Rocky Mountain Region), went the opposite direction in his histrionics during the Rachmaninoff cavatina from Aleko.
All of the singers, whose ages ranged from 24 to 29, were highly viable: Whether ready for the Met or not, the likes of tenor Rafael Moras, who sang a good though not great "Una Furtiva lagrima" from L'Elisir d'Amore, would be quite happily received in regional opera. And a few of them are the sort who might make a difference in how certain repertoire is perceived. There still aren't enough countertenors to truly popularize Handel opera, and though Christopher Lowry didn't have a great coloratura technique he certainly knows how to spin out a Handelian vocal line. More distinctive was Rexford Tester, whose light tenor sounded like a pre-Caruso throwback with a clean upward extension could serve him well in hard-to-cast Berlioz roles.