Under Francesca Zambello, however, the young artists’ program is getting a makeover, with new leadership (the young coach Michael Heaston, who has the same function at Glimmerglass and is also a score consultant for the Met’s HD broadcasts) a new competitive audition process, and more performing opportunities for the singers, thanks to new programming initiatives (the commissions of short American works, or the annual holiday opera, are cast with Domingo-Cafritz artists). The program is going to expand next year, from eight singers to 10, with a new team of regular visiting artists (including the remarkable Diana Soviero) coming in to supplement the three-person staff. Continuity is represented by the longtime head coach Ken Weiss, who Monday provided amusing spoken guideposts through the two halves of the program, the Italian/English/French one and the Russian one.
These changes, though, have yet to take effect. At the embassy, it was very much opera business as usual. That is: a glittering, generous party, with drinks and a lavish dinner as a frame for a performance by six young singers and two pianists — four artists from the Domingo-Cafritz program, four from the Bolshoi’s young-artist program (which is even newer than WNO’s, having started in 2009). And, alas, a performance that left me asking, once again, What the heck are they teaching these singers?
It’s not the singers’ fault. They are certainly talented, and clearly working hard — perhaps too hard — to try to assimilate everything they’ve been learning. Apprentice programs often pride themselves on just how hard they make their participants work; the term “singer boot camp” is popular. There isn’t always oversight, though, in what all this work is adding up to. Too often the approach results in performances in which every artist is so palpably earnest and so focused on gettting everything right that the result feels dutiful, without a spark of excitement.
But some basic advice could have helped a lot. First of all, singers should be guided to repertory fitting their voices. The tenor aria “Let not fame the tidings spread” from Handel’s “Hercules” may be a fine showpiece for an experienced tenor with coloratura chops, but the Russian tenor Sergey Radchenko’s nice lyric voice sounded worn out, understandably, for much of its second half.
Then, if something isn’t working, they should be told about it. The smouldering soprano Maria Antunez was making her final appearance with the Domingo-Cafritz program before going on to her next contract, but from her performance in the charming duet from Mascagni’s “L’amico Fritz,” it sounded as though no one had taken the time to help make her Italian diction comprehensible. Nor had anyone let her know that, although it’s a fine thing to sing with your low register, her big, woofy delivery was pushing her line out of balance. She sounded too heavy for the Mascagni, and yet too light in the far more dramatic Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” — which she bizarrely started halfway through, as if to compensate for its rigors, even though she was singing to an audience for whom this particular piece is a national cultural gem. Evidently when she worked on this aria with the Bolshoi’s coaches in Moscow last year, it was decided that she should focus on an excerpt of it for audition purposes. In my view, this is a terrible decision: If the aria is too heavy, or too long, then sing something else.