The second semifinal started with a warning that we would first hear an overture; the previous night’s unannounced one must have really freaked people out.
The question going into last night’s concert was whether mezzo-soprano Deepa Johnny and baritone Brian Murray, the two singers who also appeared in the Art Song finals, would be able to hold the bigger room. Murray sang first, opening with a challenging Gluck aria that kept him at the top of his range, but he was best with more Mahler, which plays to all his soft strengths. Have you ever wondered how it would feel to be a kitten picked up by the scruff of the neck? That’s what he did to us with a shapely and pleasantly powerful “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen.” Johnny was less convincing, still much more characterful than Valerie Eickhoff the previous night, but her “Asie” from Ravel’s Shéhérazade proved too much of a risk. It needed more butter to round out its long winding lines and more heart to rise above the orchestra.
Mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh and countertenor Nils Wanderer should earn their places in the final. McIntosh has a huge instrument—it made me think of going to the zoo. Ever look at the glass in the lion enclosure and wonder, will it hold her? This much power makes her sound younger than she is, but she mostly managed to control it through Mozart and Strauss, ending with Béatrice’s emotional grand tour “Dieu! Que viens-je d’entendre?” There’s big stage potential here, or a supervillain if things don’t go her way.
Opera singers are not known for their vivid acting but even in this crowd baritone Hugo Laporte stood out as awkward–wooden phrasing and occasional splats of pleasant enough sound. To think we could have heard Jusung Gabriel Park instead.
Luckily for us, Wanderer ended the night, unsteadier tuning than in the first round but still exquisite in the alto aria that echoes Jesus’ final words in Bach’s St. John Passion, followed by the charming hypothermia aria from Purcell’s King Arthur. Chilling detailing and a beguiling presence, this is what Homer imagined when he wrote about the Sirens.
Wanderer, McIntosh, and Dufresne were announced as finalists half an hour later. Eickhoff made it too and so did Laporte, to have strong contrasts, I imagine. Murray’s absence could be taken as a sign that he might win in Art Song—winners in both categories are revealed at the same time, but the judges already know—so it would have been too extravagant to have him in both finals.