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The Giargiari Bel Canto Competition

Artistry and the ‘it’ factor

Resident artists of the Academy of Vocal Arts
October 4, 2011
Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia

Selections from G. Donizetti, P. Mascagni, G. Verdi, G. Puccini, G. Rossini, A. Thomas & G. Bizet

Michelle Johnson (Courtesy of Giargiari Bel Canto Competition)

The Academy of Vocal Arts Giargiari Bel Canto Competition is a highly anticipated event in Philly and for the winners a wonderful feather for their bios. In its 32nd year, the completion has been opened up, wisely, to other repertoire that truly shows a range of talent at AVA. It also points up some of the absurdities, fun as it is, of comparing singers on this level. For one it begs the question- do the favorites possess an ‘it’ factor that helps them stand out or is it all about how well they go over at a single performance.

Also, we don’t know the criterion of the sterling panel of judges (this year- Scott Barnes, features writer for Opera News, international opera star Florence Quivar, and Princeton Symphony Orchestra conductor Rosen Milanov). Then there are two audience choice awards- from the live event and from the radio audience- that inherently have different acoustical dynamics.

The competition is usually at the Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center, but because of renovation there was moved this year to the Holy Trinity Church on Rittenhouse Sq., the site of many musical events, but beautiful as it is, has bouncy acoustics that make these singers sound dramatic, but bleeds some of the subtleties they might be trying to vocally exact.

That was first evident with soprano Alexandra Maximova who seemed to have tentative projection in “Ques! Guardo il Cavaliere” from Don Pasquale, but stabilized with expressive phrasing. She was followed by Chrystal E. Williams, who essayed dramatic mezzo territory with immediacy singing Mascagni’s “O pallida, che…” from L’amico Fritz.

Tenor Mo El Zein struggled out of some erratic moments in Verdi’s “Tutto parea sorrier…” from Il corsaro. In contrast, baritone Wes Mason was vocal steel and silk for “E sogno? O realta” from Verdi’s Falstaff, playing the jealous cuckold scene full out.

Sydney Mancasola, a soprano, sounded studied in moments during Gualtier Malde from Rigoletto, but just as often transfixes with stratospheric vocal serenity. William Davenport displayed engulfing warmth and drama in his voice, but was shaky around the edges for “Che gelida manina” from Puccini’s La bohème, but no doubt, he is well on his way to being a distinctive Puccini tenor. His reception bordered on thunderous. Davenport was the judges’ winner.

Mezzo Bettina Schweiger overcame her cold entrance in Rossini’s “Nacqui all’affanno” from La Cenerentola. Tenor John Viscardi, had quiet lyrical command, but otherwise poured himself into a character driven “Elle ne croyait pas” from Ambroise Thomas’ Mignon.

Soprano Chloe Moore sang conservatively for “Tu del mio…Carlo vive?” from Verdi’s l masnadieri. Scott Conner, seemed to revel in the canoodling scales, as he pines for a secret love, from Le Caid. Maria Aleida’s inviting soprano sounding cold out of context in Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims even as she nails those roulades. Aleida really went for technical clarity but had tentative deportment. Musa Ngqungwana has deep chambers in his bass-baritone, all resonating during “la flame de l’amour” from Bizet La jolie fille de Perth, “I laugh, I sing, I drink, tra, tra, tra”, but he sang with interpretive reserve.

Soprano Michelle Johnson sumptuously in character as Aida for “Ritorna vincitor” and this can count as a stellar preview of her a full performance. Johnson was the audience winner and the winner on the WRTI broadcast of the recorded event. Olivia Vote, to me was equally powerful, for different reasons, in in ‘O mio Fernando’ from Donizetti’s La favorita.

Viscardi came in second in the radio broadcast, with the performance not coming over with the dimension he had live, in contrast Davenport’s issues were less noticeable in the broadcast. Danielle Orlando, the musical director and pianist, a marvel of technical support and artistry.

Winners from the live concert:

- 1st place: William Davenport
- 2nd place: Michelle Johnson
- Audience Favorite: Michelle Johnson

WRTI Online Poll Winners:

- 1st place: Michelle Johnson
- 2nd place: John Viscardi
- 3rd place: Sydney Mancasola.

Lewis Whittington



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