Met Opera Auditions Yield a Young Star: Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen
By ZACHARY WOOLFEMARCH 20, 2017
There were several good singers onstage Sunday afternoon at the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions Grand Finals concert, a venerable tryout for future stars. (Renée Fleming, the event’s host, was a winner in 1988, on her third attempt.)
But there was only one complete artist. At just 23, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, a baby-faced countertenor from Brooklyn, already possesses a remarkable gift for intimate communication in a vast hall, combined with a voice of velvety gentleness — surprisingly penetrating given the tenderness of its texture — and a taste for adventure.
In a competition that hews toward the standards, Mr. Cohen chose a harrowing aria from Jonathan Dove’s 1998 opera “Flight,” based on the true story of an Iranian refugee stranded for years in a Paris airport. While most young performers in the National Council Auditions concentrate simply on nailing their high notes, Mr. Cohen — his diction superb, his acting alert without overplaying — provided an eloquent reflection on a current international crisis.
But he is no contemporary specialist. Twenty-first-century singers, like 21st-century instrumentalists and orchestras, are rightly expected to range widely as well as deeply. For his second selection (the nine finalists each picked two pieces to perform with the Met orchestra, conducted by Nicola Luisotti), Mr. Cohen balanced the aria from “Flight” with “Dove sei,” an aching lament from Handel’s “Rodelinda” (1725). Expressive yet dignified, his phrasing confident and his ornamentation stylishly discreet, he brought tears to my eyes.
Mr. Cohen was deservedly named one of the competition’s six winners, but he stood clearly apart from the pack. Not that there weren’t other talents on offer. I appreciated Samantha Hankey’s mellow mezzo-soprano; the budding heldentenor Kyle van Schoonhoven’s steady, burnished sound; the soprano Kirsten MacKinnon’s liveliness. Vanessa Vasquez impressed merely by acquitting herself in two of opera’s most recognizable soprano hits, “Un bel dì” from “Madama Butterfly” (here nicely dreamy) and “Sempre libera” from “La Traviata.” Richard Smagur offered old-fashioned poise, verging on staidness, in tenor arias from “Carmen” and “Werther.”
Even the three finalists not named winners were pleasing. Natalie Image’s soprano was notable for its pristine high notes, Gabriella Reyes de Ramírez’s for its generosity. Cody Quattlebaum, his bass-baritone voice more restrained than his bicep-length mane of curly hair, was unusually low-key as Mozart’s Figaro and Gounod’s Méphistophélès.
But there was only one singer who could plausibly stand with the voluptuous-voiced Jamie Barton, the commanding Amber Wagner and the impassioned Michael Fabiano — the distinguished previous winners who performed while the judges deliberated. Mr. Cohen is ready.