A truly operatic competition

Bel canto singer Angela Meade seems unpretentious. "The Audition" will be shown as a onetime event at 3 p.m. Sunday in area theaters.
Bel canto singer Angela Meade seems unpretentious. "The Audition" will be shown as a onetime event at 3 p.m. Sunday in area theaters.
Posted: April 17, 2009

Competition drama may be the ultimate inexhaustible device. However overworked the format may be, from American Idol to Miss America, there's no denying the fresh punch of a candid new documentary standing at a different end of the artistic spectrum - The Audition, by filmmaker Susan Froemke, which explores the Metropolitan Opera's 2007 National Council Auditions. All 11 participants deserve to win this shortcut to stardom - and what built-in poignancy there is upon realizing, in advance, that not all of them will.

Shown as a onetime event at 3 p.m. Sunday in area theaters, the film (plus commentary by star soprano Renee Fleming) more than fulfills the one thing indispensable to documentaries: Real-people faces, easily watched for hours because they so readily reflect an inner life, as they meet one another, go through rehearsals and coachings, and have long backstage waits as others perform. You feel downright protective toward them when the camera goes behind closed doors where judges discuss the singers with clinical frankness.

Dominant among the film's faces is tenor Michael Fabiano, a Philadelphia favorite from his Academy of Vocal Arts performances. From Moment 1 - he has the film's opening shot on Spruce Street where AVA is located - he projects a tough exterior. Fellow contestants playfully nickname him "Badass."

Though Philadelphia colleagues know he's just as likely to be outgoing and generous, his determination to win lends a strong charge near the end when he stands backstage at the Met as the winners' names are called. His hands are folded prayerfully while his body falls deeper into a slump with every moment that his name isn't called. And then it is. How often do you see extremes of despair and exaltation in a second?

Another strong presence is Angela Meade, who seems winning and unpretentious, singing a rendition of "Casta diva" from Norma that has been a magnet for contracts. Fine tenors like Fabiano are essential to opera, but bel canto singers like Meade are even more rare.

My favorites included Kiera Duffy (heard in Opera Company of Philadelphia's Italian Girl in Algiers last fall), who carries herself with magnetic poise and intelligence, and surpasses herself in an aria from Handel's Alcina with great feats of vocal color. Then there's tenor Ryan Smith, who was returning to singing after a three-year hiatus marked by serious financial problems. In the rehearsal room, he's transfigured when singing, and even more so when onstage. But bring a hanky: Upon learning that this adorable bear of a man died of lymphoma last year, you'll rage against God.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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