REVIEW: Giargiari Bel Canto Competition

By Gregory Moomjy

To say that this year up-ended many performances is a gross understatement. However, a few days ago when I was scrolling through Facebook, I saw that the Metropolitan Opera had announced the district winners of the National Council Auditions. This reminded me that even one of my most favorite parts of opera season – the chance to see the latest generation of up-and-coming singers was changed by this pandemic. Fortunately, as the latest installment on the Opera Philadelphia Channel has shown with some creative thinking, we can still have these wonderful opportunities to glimpse the future of opera.  

The Competition in question is the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) Giargiari Bel Canto Competition which this year is partnering for the first time with Opera Philadelphia. The AVA is the world’s only tuition-free conservatory devoted singularly to opera. Since its founding in 1934 it has produced several operatic luminaries including Phyllis Curtin, Rosa Ponselle, John Alexander, and Eleanor Steber. Among the past winners of the Giargiari Bel Canto Competition have included Stephen Costello, Michael Fabiano, Ailyn Perez and Angela Meade, who was one of the judges this year.  

The Giargiari Bel Canto Competition was first held in 1978. Originally it was centered solely on the stalwarts of bel canto opera; Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and early Verdi, but it has since gone on to include music by composers who were influenced by the philosophy of the bel canto era. Consequently, this year included pieces like ‘Marietta’s Lied’ from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) sung by Kara Mulder, who presented a rich lyric soprano, as well as ‘O ma lyre immortelle’ from Gounod’s Sapho here sung affectingly by mezzo Chelsea Laggan. Mulder, who won 1st prize, is certainly one to watch. Her voice which has notes of Mirella Freni, has the potential to develop into a compelling Butterfly or Tatyana. 

The pianist, Danielle Orlando, provided dynamic accompaniment whether it was playing with the grace notes and other filigree in ‘Depuis le jour’ from Charpentier’s Louise or accentuating the foreboding chords in ‘Abbietta zingara’ from Verdi’s Il trovatore.  After the concert was finished before the prizes were handed out, she sat with Scott Guzielek, VP & General Manager of AVA, to talk about how they adapted the concert around COVID-19.  As Music Director, she paid special attention to aspects of performing that could outlast the pandemic, including preparing for the competition by recording each singer so they could see themselves. 

Mezzo Anne Marie Stanley, who won 2nd place, gave a dynamic performance of ‘O mon Fernand’ from Donizetti’s La favorite. This bel canto rarity was recently performed at the Bayerische Staatsoper in a cast featuring Elīna Garanča and Matthew Polenzani. Stanley gave a perceptive reading of the aria which made much of the swift emotional changes. Her rendition made this piece the scena it is. She made the case that this opera should be performed more often. Hopefully, the recent production with Polenzani and Garanča is a sign of things to come.

The program featured two arias from Il trovatore, ‘Abbietta zingara’ by Eric Delagrange and ‘Condotta’ by Alice Chung. Despite the fact that Il trovatore is a later bel canto opera, both Delagrange and Chung incorporated a heavy dose of verismo style into their performances. Delagrange, who won 3rd place, made the most of the trills, leaps and scales in his aria to project the fear of the gypsy’s ghost which has infected Count di Luna’s entire army. Similarly, Alice Chung’s performance of ‘Condotta’ highlighted the intense PTSD-like emotions that Azucena suffers as she relives not only her mother’s murder but also the terror of throwing the wrong baby into the fire. It must be said that her performance favored emotionality over true bel canto style, but it honestly made sense that Azucena would break down weeping after the end of that aria, as any person would.  

Aubry Ballarò gave a refreshingly lively reading of ‘Come per me sereno’ from Bellini’s La sonnambula. Typically, this piece has been performed in a more-or-less sedated manner, which makes sense as it emphasizes Amina’s innocence and naivete. Instead, Ballarò’s Amina was a young girl overjoyed at her approaching wedding. The fact that Ballarò processes good bel canto technique is an added bonus.

The sad truth is even though we hope we can return to live performances starting September 2021, we don’t know for sure. But, at least the Giargiari Bel Canto Competition shows us that there is a way to still offer audiences a glimpse into the future of opera and thankfully if these singers are any indication it reminds bright. 

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