On Sunday I was in attendance for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Grand Finals concert. There were nine singers in this final round of competition, each of whom presented one aria before intermission and one after. I like this plan; one is able to hear them all and form initial impressions, and hear each again later to refine those impressions. The judges then made their collective decision, and five winners were announced immediately. I'm happy to say that all nine of the finalists were good singers, and no one seemed to be having an off day vocally or a bad case of nerves. They ranged in age from 22 to 30, and while some showed their inexperience more than others, there was not a single performer I would opt out of hearing again. Given the high level of the field of nine finalists, it was difficult for any of them to stand out.

Reginald Smith, Jr. © Reginald Smith, Jr.
Reginald Smith, Jr.
© Reginald Smith, Jr.

I had three favorites, each of whom was among the five winners. Baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. was the singer who excited me the most. From the very beginning of his first aria, Ford's dream from Falstaff, I knew this young man would be a winner – if not in the competition, then certainly in the opera world at large. His is a large, robust baritone voice, one I look forward to hearing sing Rigoletto and Scarpia in coming years. His stage presence and his acting were second to none in this group of finalists. Mr Smith's second aria, “Oh Lawd Jesus, heah my prayer” from Gruenberg's The Emperor Jones, only made me more adamant in my admiration and my opinion this is a young man with a future.

Marina Costa Jackson © Marina Costa Jackson
Marina Costa Jackson
© Marina Costa Jackson
Marina Costa-Jackson was another favorite, singing an aria from The Queen of Spades in the first half and “Si, mi chiamano Mimì” in the second. Hers is a luscious, warm sound, with no strain or shrillness at the top. Hers also is a warm, expressive manner, perfectly appropriate to the roles she sings, which include both Mimì and Musetta, Lisa in the The Queen of Spades, and Marguerite in Faust. (I should also mention that her dress was my favorite of any dress on stage.) Joseph Dennis, the only tenor among the nine finalists, sang beautiful performances of “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure” and “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz”. His second aria in particular made me a fan, with his impassioned delivery and clear understanding of every word.

French mezzo Virginie Verrez and American bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee rounded out the circle of five winners. Mlle Verrez sang a beautiful, impassioned performance of “Must the winter come so soon?” from Vanessa in the second half. Her English was that of a native speaker. In the first half she sang an aria from La clemenza di Tito that was lovely. Mr Brownlee gave us Leporello's Catalogue aria from Don Giovanni and an aria from Rachmaninov's opera Aleko. “Madamina” was delightfullly naughty and energetic while also sounding beautiful, and the aria from Aleko was passionate and artistically delivered.

I think all nine of the finalists deserve applause and acclaim. Reading of their current accomplishments and future engagements, I'm sure they will all have great success. Baritone Jared Bybee has a pleasing sound and good looks, and performed his two arias well. I fear he was somewhat overpowered by the orchestra and the acoustics of the hall. Soprano Kathryn Henry, youngest of the lot, looked beautiful and sang Juliette's Waltz and “O mio babbino caro” very well. Mezzo Allegra De Vita sang arias from Ariodante and Roberto Devereux beautifully, but I always wonder whether choosing arias that are less well known is a handicap. Mezzo Deniz Uzun sang “Cruda sorte” and Carmen's Seguidilla beautifully, but her youth prevented her from shining among such a well balanced group of finalists.

Hostess for the afternoon was Angela Meade, a 2007 winner of the National Council Auditions herself, and one of the featured singers in the documentary The Audition (which Peter Gelb gleefully assured us was available in the gift shop). While the judges deliberated, Miss Meade shared her own experience of fear and trepidation while a participant in the competition. She also sang two arias, stirring performances of “Casta diva” (Norma) and “Ebben? Ne andro lontana” (La Wally).

Fabio Luisi and The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra played at their usual level of excellence. Considering the wide range of styles and musical eras heard this afternoon, I call that a great accomplishment, but it's all in a day's work for this excellent orchestra and its unbeatable leadership.