The Tucker Gala strikes again

The annual Tucker Gala always promises an evening of old-fashioned big singing by people who are opera famous and people who are soon to be opera famous. Usually, it’s also a prime example of the hoary journalistic cliche about opera drama playing out backstage as well as on-. This year was no exception: the event fell on my fall break so I made a trip up to see it, only to discovered that four of the singers had canceled, including Anna Netrebko, the one I wanted to see the most. The remaining program was somewhat underwhelming, honestly.

Tucker Gala, 10/12/2014, Avery Fisher Hall. Conducted by Emmanuel Villaume with a pickup orchestra and the New York Choral Society.

This is a gimmicky gala (remember Bryn Terfel and his beer chugging? that might be my non-singing-related Tucker Gala highlight), so I prefer to cover it in gimmicky fashion. This year I have given everyone a rating in the unit most appropriate to their performance, which I fear has ended up sounding like a demented Twelve Days of Christmas but whatever. Emmanuel Villaume conducted and he did an admirable job with the pacing and balances, all told.

This is, as I said, a really old fashioned event. The singers deployed more variations of Baritone Claw (an outstretched, partially clenched hand gesture most common among baritonal gentlemen) than I have ever seen in one event. There was nothing sung in German or any Slavic language, and it seemingly took only a big loud high note for the audience to erupt. I must admit I was somewhat less enthused, particularly because the printed official program didn’t mention Netrebko. This means she must have cancelled at least a few days ago (according to Barry Tucker, she decided she couldn’t sing the day after Lady Macbething, which seems fair enough), and it was poor form for the Tucker Foundation not to announce this but rather continue to publicize the event with her name attached.

Richard Tucker, Rossini, “La Danza”
We opened with the traditional recording of the Foundation’s namesake, the late tenor Richard Tucker, this year singing what was introduced as an unnamed Neapolitan song but which turned out to be not traditional but rather Rossini. It’s a tarantella-type deal with a refrain consisting primarily of “la la la” and “Mamma mia!” and was more rollicking than most of what followed it.
Rating: Three arancini


Michael Fabiano, Verdi, “Tutto parea sorridere… Si! de’Corsari il fulmine!” from Il corsaro
Fabiano was the winner of this year’s big Tucker Award, and a worthy winner he is. He has a strong, ringing tone with a fast, narrow vibrato. His singing is well-controlled and precise, and yet also intense and exciting. He is definitely going places, probably major places. That being said, he’s a lyric tenor at this point and we’re going to have to wait a bit for him to sing the big stuff. He acts primarily with his chin and is afflicted with, for a tenor, a serious case of Baritone Claw.
Rating: Four “all’armis” with a bonus “Andiam’!”

Pretty Yende, Bellini, “Qui la voce… Vien diletto” from I puritani

Pretty Yende is as charming as her name suggests and her voice is sweet and has a unique color. This wasn’t the best vehicle for her talents. The tiny introduction demands she set a strong mood right away and she didn’t, really. Technically, it wasn’t quite there, with some flatness in the high notes and more elaborate ornamentation in second verse of the cabaletta than she could carry off.
Rating: Two appoggiaturas, plus the Best Dress award

Ildar Abdrazakov, Verdi, “Infelice!… e tuo credevi!” from Ernani
This was authoritative and loud and perfectly fine. I think he’s lacking in charisma, though. He did have some quality Baritone Claw.
Rating: Two “all’armis”

Joseph Calleja, Puccini, “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca
Calleja often lets his beautiful tone do all the work for him and comes across as slightly uninvolved. He’s also pretty light for Cavaradossi. While the opening had a lovely dreamy quality to it, he seemed to lack the heft required for the second half.
Rating: Half a firing squad

Angela Meade, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Massenet, “Esprits de l’air” from Esclarmonde
YOU GUYS THIS PIECE IS BANANANAS! It’s Massenet’s Ride of the Valkyries fused with Lakme’s Bell Song. It is perfect exotic sorceress music. How have I gone to so much opera and not know that this thing exists? It is simultaneously delightful, hilarious, and slightly alarming. I’m not going to describe it any further, I’m just going to have you listen to it in case you have been as deprived as I have.

Thank you, Angela Meade, for singing this with the gusto and high notes such ambitious vocal writing demands, whatever the merits of the enterprise. It wasn’t all audible, but this piece is kind of chaotic. (Meade’s preferred gesture is not The Claw but what might be called The One-Armed Evita.) Jennifer Johnson Cano’s part was smaller but she sounded nice and I wish she had gotten her own solo number to better display her capabilities.
Rating: Ten Valkyries

Ildar Abdrazakov and Ingeborg Gillebo, Mozart, “Là ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni

Gillebo seems like a perfectly good mezzo, but this isn’t exactly a role in which one can judge for star quality. (This number was originally assigned to Isabel Leonard, who cancelled.) Points for choreography.
Rating: One vaguely outstretched hand.

Lucic demonstrates classic Baritone Claw

Zeljko Lucic, Giordano, “Nemico della patria” from Andrea Chénier
Lucic let out a wimpy evil chuckle at the beginning. He just seems like too nice and decent a guy to be able to pull off villainy. The plus side is that I noticed that this aria actually has some good and pretty parts to it, which are not usually given such sensitive treatment. I usually think Giordano is a relatively crap composer, but to Lucic’s credit this made me wonder if I’ve been missing something. Villaume helped him out with the orchestra volume.
Rating: Two-thirds of a tricoleur

Joseph Calleja, Massenet, “Pourquoi me réveiller” from Werther

At first the answer to the aria’s question seemed to be, “whatever, I’m going back to sleep.” But Calleja seems to be making some effort on the intensity front, and it built up a bit. Unfortunately there was a weird buzz afflicting a few of his forte high notes. No idea what that was.
Rating: Three spring breezes

Michael Fabiano and Joyce El-Khoury, Massenet, “Toi! Vous!” etc from Manon

I believe these two are married, so they’re the Perez-Costello of this year’s Tucker Gala. (Oops, apparently they aren’t married! Sorry, guys!) El-Khoury was new to me; she has a nice rich lyric soprano (sometimes a little harsh under pressure) and is an immediately interesting performer. She injected some welcome energy and intensity into the proceedings and I’d like to see her in a full opera. Fabiano is high octane too, and at times this performance resembled Puccini’s louder and more full-blooded Manon more than Massenet’s. That’s the Tucker Gala for you!
Rating: Four slightly ripped cassocks

Angela Meade, Verdi, “Pace, pace” from La forza del destino
This didn’t appear on the program, not even the updated program. Meade sang with with great control and sensitivity, though at times it could use more color and fullness. While her voice cuts through coloratura, in this kind of rep it can sometimes seem hard-edged and over-bright. Her high C sure is big, though!
Rating: Two intentionally improbable coincidences

Elena Bocharova, Mascagni, “Regina Coeile… Inneggiamo” from Cavalleria rusticana
I’ve never seen this lady live before, I don’t think, but I think there’s a picture of her in the Book of Fachs under “Powerhouse Slavic Mezzo.” She is loud, she is metallic, her dress is from the 70s and is also metallic, and you do not mess with her. You hear her over the whole chorus even when she is singing with them in unison. The New York Choral Society sounded fine in the choral portion of this.
Rating: One Carmen, one Azucena, and an Eboli

Joseph Calleja, Sarazabal, “No peude ser” from La tabernera del puerto

Calleja has a very pretty voice, but I don’t think he has a sexy enough voice for zarzuela. I’m not sure exactly how to define it, but the delivery lacks a certain edge and he’s not quite present in the moment in the way one has to be for this rep to seem exciting. This was fine, but of those present Fabiano would have been better in this number.
Rating: One thing which cannot be
Pretty Yende, Bernstein, “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story

OF COURSE. She kept it classy, but I wasn’t entirely sure what this number was doing here other than punning.
Rating: Two wedding veils

Paul Appleby and Alexandra Silber, “Tonight” from West Side Story

I was less sure of what this number was doing here. Since both the singers who were originally going to do this cancelled (Leonard and Stephen Costello), I’m not sure why they called in these two (who are both fine artists themselves) when they could have called in these two to add to the program and gotten them to sing material more suitable for their talents. They seemed mismatched and both less than ideally cast. Silber would be better off with Rodgers and Hammerstein and Appleby in Mozart or Donizetti.
Rating: A fire escape that only goes up one floor

Fabiano, Meade, and co, Donizetti, Act II finale of Lucia di Lammermoor

I’m not sure about starting this right at the beginning of the Sextet. I think a good part of that number’s magic comes from the big lead-up into it (its stillness in contrast to all the chaos which preceded it), and that’s not something I can imagine when just given the sextet as a cold open. But there’s still the chaos after it, so there’s that. Fabiano did most of that, and rage and anger seems to be one of his strong points so that was good. (I would like to hear him sing something a little more gentle at some point but maybe that’s not his style?)
Rating: Three faked letters and one wedding photographer

Can’t win ’em all. I’m going to hear Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass in Philadelphia later this week, and I still haven’t written about the blistering Netrebko Macbeth, so maybe you’ll hear from me again soon.

Photos copyright Dario Acosta/Richard Tucker Foundation.

You may also like


  1. I'm about to update with some photos from the event. There's one of Lucic doing a textbook Claw (and I didn't even name him as a culprit above, that's how ubiquitous the Claw was!).

  2. It took Esclarmonde for me to realize that I don't hate Massenet, a really inventive and interesting composer – I hate Manon. There's a complete performance on Parterre Box someplace, and I would LOVE for some company to mount it, provided there's a dramatic coloratura out there someplace who can sing the title role.

  3. There are fees associated with performing pieces. This may be the reason for performing repertoire imagined for different people.
    Thanks for the clip from Esclarmonde. I'm sure I've never heard it before.

  4. What on earth is a 'claw'?
    Great review. I agree with you re: the Netrebko cancellation. She clearly cancelled ahead of time, yet they kept her name on the program.

  5. Esclarmonde is pretty glorious trash, love it or hate it. I vaguely remember a lot of fuss about a written offstage high G for Sybil Sanderson that maybe didn't make it into the published score. But you get the idea. Over the top.

  6. Back in the mid-70s SFO and the Met did Esclarmonde for Sutherland. Around the same time the Met and SFO did Thais for Sills and Milnes. It was after seeing these two operas that I started really disliking Massenet.