Sunday, June 19, 2011

Cardiff: Final (June 19)

[As in the rest of this series, all non-bracketed text is by this blog's correspondent on the scene, not by me --JSU]

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2011
The Final - 19/6/11

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Jac van Steen (JS) / Lawrence Foster (LF) (conductors)

Meeta Raval (LF):
D'amor sull'ali rosee ("Il Trovatore", Verdi) / Sola, perduta, abandonnata ("Manon Lescaut", Puccini) / Beim Schlafengehen ("Vier letzte Lieder", Strauss)
Coming on first was the best possible option for Meeta Raval, it allowed her to do her best unhindered by our opinions of the other finalists, and as a result, she made a decent show. The voice is really quite pleasing, and I'd be perfectly happy if my local opera company chose to engage her, but she is not Singer of the World material. Her Leonora was agreeably sure, with some nicely floated top notes, but it wasn't terribly clear exactly what feelings she was trying to express. Worse in that line was the Puccini; again, nothing wrong with the notes, but this was hardly a desperate, despairing and dying Manon - not until the last page or so, from "No, non voglio morir", did the aria come alive. Similarly, "Beim Schlafengehen" made a pleasant noise, but said little of significance. This is a nice voice, but she needs to work hard on her interpretation.

Olesya Petrova (JS):
Nyet, bit'ne mozhet! ("The Tsar's Bride", Rimsky-Korsakov) / Re dell'abisso ("Un Ballo in Maschera", Verdi) / Voi lo sapete, o mamma ("Cavalleria Rusticana", Mascagni) / L'amour est un oiseau rebelle ("Carmen", Bizet)
Once again, two notes into her Olesya Petrova's first aria, and you could feel the audience relaxing with the thought that here was a worthy finalist. Her first choice was interesting; up until a month or so ago, I'd have said that only devoted lovers of Russian opera would have any knowledge of this opera, but then the Royal Opera staged it in May, and it was broadcast on Radio 3 last Saturday (11/6/11). Not that this made the work precisely familiar, but a little less exotic than previously. Petrova's big, warm voice filled the hall comfortably with Lyubasha's anguish and determination, the sound coming smoothly and easily. She let it drop to Stygian depths for Ulrica's invocation, and she was enjoying herself with this, playing it up, as Ulrica is meant to, to impress her largely credulous public. The the timbre cleared to take on Santuzza. she wasn't quite as intense in this as I'd have liked, or perhaps not quite at the right times; the first "Io son dannato" wasn't completely believable, though the second was, but the voice soared effortlessly. Finally, the Habanera was interesting, if a trifle disconcerting. First of all, her French was rather better here than for her Dalilah, but there were still one or two really odd vowel sounds, and at least one that forced a false break of phrase. Secondly, this was not an interpretation that would be satisfactory on stage, it was too frivolous and flirtatious for a real Carmen. The Habanera is a declaration of intent, even one of war; this was a great big come-on. In this context, however, it was fun, and a crowd-pleaser. Win or lose, Petrova is a singer worth the displacement to hear, and I think that she simply needed this competition to get her name out there, which I hope has been successfully achieved.

Hye Jung Lee (LF):
Tornami a vagheggiar ("Alcina", Handel) / A vos jeux, mes amis... ("Hamlet", Thomas)
We had indulged in a lot of speculation after Thursday night as to what Lee might choose to perform for her Finals programme, given the nature of her voice, and I was amused to find that I had guessed right about the Handel. That, unfortunately, marked the limits of my enjoyment of this programme. The Handel was correct, but too lightweight. I'm perhaps too used to non-Baroque practice in this aria, but I thought Lee could have put more vigour into the sound, and I certainly hoped she would do so for Ophelia's Mad Scene. Regrettably, the lightness persisted, and more irritating still, there was an unevenness of projection, so that her vocalises came through far more clearly and strongly than her other singing. Add to this an inaudible text, and we got a performance that was ill-focused and unsatisfactory. A great disappointment after her sterling performance last Thursday.

Andrei Bondarenko (JS):
Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo (Mozart) / O Carlo,ascolta ("Don Carlo", Verdi) / Fin ch'han dal vino ("Don Giovanni", Mozart) / Ya vas lyublyu ("The Queen of Spades", Tchaikovsky)
Bondarenko has been one of the unquestioned favourites of this competition from the moment he opened his mouth earlier in the week. He is a true performer, he loves the audience, loves to catch them and hold them, and uses everything in his power to do so, usually very successfully. "Rivolgete..." (the 3rd this week) was vivacious and good-humoured, though I stand by what I said on Wednesday night, that he could have done with a couple more years under his belt, just in terms of sheer power. That said, the top already rings out with vibrancy and fervour. His Posa was very good - this is an aria that can descend into mawkishness very easily, but Bondarenko managed a fine quality of unforced sincerity. Also, if you've never felt an audience melt, you should have been sitting where I was when he sang that opening "Io morro...". Spine-tingling. Then, very regrettably, he committed his worst mistake of the competition, and tried Don Giovanni's Champagne Aria. I think what happened was that he was so concentrated on getting around the rapid flow of words, and the right devil-may-care-with-an-edge attitude, that he forgot to project the voice itself. At any rate, it sounded like he was singing in the room next door, and that, I'm afraid, put paid to any chances he might have had at the title. Although Yeletsky's aria was well phrased and quietly noble, the damage was done.

Valentina Nafornita (JS):
Regnava nel silenzio ("Lucia di Lammermoor", Donizetti) / Song to the Moon ("Rusalka", Dvorak) / Je veux vivre ("Romeo et Juliette", Gounod)
A young woman's programme, expressing the feelings of other young women with great variety and that truly remarkable soprano voice. Her Lucia flowed easily, the runs and trills completely integrated into the vocal line, the top notes emerging flawlessly and effortlessly. The shade of Dame Joan Sutherland hung heavy over Cardiff this year, she was associated with the competition for many years and was a passionate supporter, and to sing Lucia here, just months after Sutherland's death, was to invite the most dangerous of comparisons, but Nafornita could and did take it unflinchingly and successfully. The yearning in her Rusalka was luminous and tender, and as for her Juliette, this really was an adolescent girl, brimming over with exuberance and sweet daydreams. She needs someone to tell her to move about a little less on the concert platform, and some refinement of interpretation, but really, the defects are few. That voice is a beautiful, shimmering thing that is already fully matured in its current range, and while the bloom of youth will eventually fade, hopefully, with the right management, it will be replaced with something equally compelling in later years.


Vox pop in the hall (and I include myself in this) was pretty much unanimous in favour of Nafornita, and if the jury was going to be daft enough to give the prize to someone else, then it had better be Petrova, or there would be a riot. Fortunately, the jury was not daft at all. Valentina Nafornita is the Cardiff Singer of the World 2011, and very well-deserved too. She was also awarded the Audience Prize, which is a telephone vote by the members of the public both present in the hall, and watching/listening via the BBC to the competition, who could choose their favourite performer from all 20 competitors. Well, I did say that Nafornita was young and beautiful, as well as having that voice. ;-)

[And much thanks to my correspondent for these reports. I'll definitely be on the lookout for Petrova, Nafornita, and Bondarenko here. - ed]

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Cardiff: Song Prize Final (June 17)

[As in the rest of this series, all non-bracketed text is by this blog's correspondent on the scene, not by me.  The posting delay today, however, is mine -- my apologies. --JSU]

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2011
Song Prize - Final - 17/6/2011

Simon Lepper (SL) / Llyr Williams (LW) - accompanists

A word about the accompanists, before commencing my survey of the Song Prize Final. Of the 20 contestants for the Cardiff Trophy (the "main prize", if you like), 16 signed up for the Song Prize, and 15 actually appeared. Now, candidates may bring their own accompanists, but it is at their expense, and over the years fewer and fewer independent pianists have appeared on the roster. Instead, the competition supplies three "house" pianists to meet the needs of the contestants, and if you make it through to the Final, you stay with the accompanist you began with, for obvious reasons, hence the presence of two or more pianists during the evening. The standard is never less than good, but for the last few competitions, Llyr Williams has been offering his services regularly, and Williams is not only a first-rate accompanist, he is one of the very best (though most discreet) pianists the UK currently has to offer. Although Lepper is a fine player, he is simply not in the same class. This did, to my mind, impact somewhat on the performances, though I don't think it affected the end result too much.

Leah Crocetto (LW):
Pace non trovo (Petrarch Sonnets No. 1, Liszt) / Chanson d'avril (Bizet) / Die Nacht (Op. 10 No.3, Strauss) / Cacilie (Op. 27, No. 2, Strauss) / The man I love (Gershwin)
Leah Crocetto's opening number was a case in point of the accompanist having a major effect. Liszt's songs frequently have a piano part that is every bit as important as the vocal line, if not more so, and the Petrarch Sonnets, in particular, exist in piano transcriptions that are regularly performed in concert. Crocetto made a very nice noise, but it was Williams that captured the true poetry of the piece. I don't think he was remotely trying to show Crocetto up, it simply couldn't be avoided given the nature of the music, his own considerable talent, and perhaps a little lack of experience on Crocetto's part that would have allowed her to impose herself more effectively. The Bizet was charming, the first Strauss not terribly convincing, but the second was better, though not quite achieving the kind of radiant wonder it really requires. Then she started in on the Gershwin, pulling that big, creamy voice in and "up" - upper chest voice, rather than full diaphragm. This was certainly the right move for the Gershwin, not to sound too operatic, but she was also actually much more involved with this song than any of the others, which left a slightly odd impression.

Maire Flavin (SL):
Widmung (Op. 25, No.1, Schumann) / Lorelei (Clara Schumann) / Chanson triste - L'invitation au voyage (Duparc) / La souris d'Angleterre (Rosenthal) / The Lake Isle of Innisfree (Philip Martin)
Flavin committed a tactical error here. This programme is virtually identical to the one she sang in her qualifying round; she replaced a Copland song with the second Duparc. I had thought it was actually in the regulations that you could not repeat material; obviously not. Nevertheless, nobody else did, so it looked a bit like laziness or complacency, it invited comparisons with her own earlier performance, for better or for worse, and the best number by some way was the new one, "L'invitation au voyage", which got a warm, expressive reading that I would have liked to hear applied to the other Duparc, as well as most of the rest of her recital. The launch of "Widmung" was rushed, the Clara Schumann was interesting, but only moderately so, and Rosenthal's English Mouse was entertaining, but should have been clearer. There was nothing wrong with her French in the Duparc, but she seemed unable to carry that clarity through to the Rosenthal. She ended her section with an unaccompanied setting of a W.B. Yeats poem, as a nod to her home country, which lacked mystery. As in her concert round, the voice is bright, well-placed and attractive, but there is a lot of work to be done still in terms of expressivity.

Andrei Bondarenko (LW):
In der Fremde - Intermezzo - Waldesgesprach - Die Stille (Liederkreis, Schumann) / Autumn - Russia cast adrift - Simon, Peter - O my homeland (Russia Cast Adrift, Sviridov)
Bondarenko's Schumann was only moderately successful. There was some odd phrasing in the first, and a hint of iffy intonation in the last. Intermezzo was nicely tender, but he didn't take the dramatic ballad of Waldesgesprach as far as it can go. Despite a rich, round tone, the different voices of the poem (narrator, knight and siren) were not sufficiently differentiated. His Sviridov, on the other hand, was excellent, giving his very fine voice full reign, with an almost breathless stillness in the first, real excitement in the second, a much surer grasp of the dramatic nature in the third (verging on the gothic, without ever letting the voice distort) and a strong, anthemic quality to the fourth. This was compelling singing and interpreting.

Valentina Nafornita (SL):
Ne poy, krasavitsa, pri mne (Op. 4, No. 4, Rachmaninov) / Le temps des lilas (Chausson) / Widmung (Op. 25, No. 1, Schumann) / Les filles de Cadix (Delibes)
In terms of sheer beauty of sound, Nafornita is still the most impressive singer of this competition to my mind; however, the recital platform is not her natural domain. The Rachmaninov was too-tightly controlled, instead of that lyrical flow that I'm sure she can produce under the right circumstances, but did not here. The Chausson is one of those songs that can be tediously long is not given a great deal of the right sort of attention, but here there was just a uniform melancholy, without much relief. Curiously, she made exactly the same mistake on "Widmung" as Flavin, and launched into it too precipitously, then had to throttle back, which really spoils the effect. And finally, although "Les filles de Cadix" had a nice, flirtatious lilt to it, there was no text. I know I said I'd stay off my high horse with regards to diction, but this is a song recital! The texts are sort of important! All that said, it would almost be tempting to listen to that lovely, lustrous soprano voice sing a laundry list.

Olga Kindler (LW):
Muzyka (Op. 34, No. 8, Rachmaninov) / Stehe still! (Wesendonck-Lieder, Wagner) / C (Poulenc) / Fleur jetee (Faure) / Im Abendrot (Vier letzte Lieder, Strauss)
I had a lot of hopes for this programme. In many ways, it looked the most interesting, but it was also in the hands of the one singer who had cracked under pressure in her concert round. Kindler didn't actually crack, but she didn't really connect either. The Rachmaninov was a strange, sparse piece that never quite spoke to me. The first part of the Wagner was a little messy, Kindler not completely in control of the stormy opening, though she settled down later. Her timbre had grown very dark, however, and she had trouble lightening it enough for the Poulenc. "C" is one of his very finest songs, but her phrasing was off, and she did something a little odd on "delaissee", towards the end, that I would need to see a score to verify, and didn't like the sound of. Again, the stormy nature of the Faure got away from her, and if there was a prolonged silence at the end of "Im Abendrot", it was more for Williams' quietly ecstatic coda than for Kindler's reading of the song itself. There is a lot of potential here, but perhaps a problem with discipline, and this was a disappointing presentation.


Nobody had really imposed themselves outright, there were pluses and minuses in every performance. Of the five singers, only Flavin and Bondarenko really sounded like they belonged in a recital. I thought Bondarenko's programme a little limited for a competition, and the Schumann an unwise choice, while Flavin, as already mentioned, had probably lost points because she repeated her programme, but they were still the best of the bunch.

Andrei Bondarenko was named Winner of the Song Prize 2011, a popular choice with the audience.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Cardiff: Concert Four (June 16)

[As in the rest of this series, all non-bracketed text is by this blog's correspondent on the scene, not by me --JSU]

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2011
Concert Four - 16 June 2011

Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Lawrence Foster (conductor)

Enzo Romano (bass-baritone, 31, Uruguay):
E una coas incredibile ("The Italian Straw Hat", Rota) / Non piu andrai ("Le Nozze di Figaro", Mozart) / Bottom's Dream ("A Midsummer Night's Dream", Britten) / La calunnia ("Il barbiere di Siviglia", Rossini)
Romano was clearly out to entertain. All of his programme was solidly turned towards the comic, and he was putting in a lot of busy-work to illustrate his pieces, which was a bit distracting. His hands, in particular, were everywhere, Danny Kaye-style, pointing, fingers fanned out, clutching his face in mock-perplexity. What became immediately apparent was that the voice lacks resonance, and the top is too tight. Also his timbre can become a little unfocused at times. His worst piece was "La calunnia" - it's an aria for a basso-buffo, and Romano simply wasn't deep enough. His best piece was the Britten; he made Bottom an endearing fool, rather than an irritating prat (which is all too easy to do), and his English (despite a fairly thick accent) was remarkably clear.

Maire Flavin (mezzo-soprano, 28, Ireland):
Nobles seigneurs, salut! ("Les Huguenots", Meyerbeer) / Parto, parto, ben mio ("La Clemenza di Tito", Mozart) / Cara speme, questo core ("Giulio Cesare", Handel) / Sein wir wieder gut ("Ariadne auf Naxos", Strauss)
Although these are all trouser-roles, there is a good variety of expression required for these arias. Flavin is a high mezzo with a bright, clear timbre and well-supported top. The Meyerbeer left me rather cold, but it has never been one of my favourite numbers, and I had high hopes for Sesto's magnificent aria from "Clemenza". There was nothing wrong with the singing; the voice had the full compass of range required, the coloratura was fluid and accurate, the phrasing good, but again, it was just so much reasonably agreeable noise. The Handel produced some very beautiful sounds, and a fairly impressive stillness to its slow-moving line, but just when you wanted Flavin to really throw herself into the Composer's Monologue, the same problem of a lack of connection with her material deprived it of its soaring exaltation. Nothing wrong with the singing, technically, but nobody really home.

Leah Crocetto (soprano, 31, USA):
Che il bel sogno di Doretto ("La Rondine", Puccini) / Sombre foret ("Guillaume Tell", Rossini) / Hear ye, Israel ("Elijah", Mendelssohn) / D'amor sull'ali rosee ("Il Trovatore", Verdi)
The Puccini is another of my least favourite arias, which seems strictly designed to allow the soprano to demonstrate she can float her top notes. Crocetto certainly can, the voice is a fine, even, clear-timbred soprano which is well supported throughout the range. My problem with her was that her programme was all much of a muchness. She is not without expression, but we largely only got one colour of it, plangent wistfulness. The extract from Elijah was a little more promising, but it's not the most exciting music ever written, and while her Trovatore was certainly the strongest item, I really wished she had picked "Tacea la notte", with its cabaletta, which would have enlivened things considerably and let us hear what else she may have under her belt, which I hope she will duly demonstrate tomorrow night for the Song Prize.

Davide Bartolucci (baritone, 24, Italy):
Di Cupido impiegio i vanni ("Rodelinda", Handel) / Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo (Mozart) / Bella siccome un angelo ("Don Pasquale", Donizetti) / Una voce m'ha colpito ("L'inganno felice", Rossini)
This is a darker baritone, more like Vasile, but without his resonance, and far too tight, not just on top but right through the range, as well as being pretty much under-parted in all his arias. The aria from Rodelina was a rare occasion to hear a villain sing, but here it was just another exercise in futility. He took a long time to settle into "Rivolgete...", and never achieved the charm and good humour of Vasile. Malatesta's honey-sweet encomium of his "sister's" merits was spoiled by the tight sound, and it was not until the Rossini that we really got any notion of Bartolucci's potential. The tight sound had not changed, but he had worked at this; it was alert, reasonably precise and focused. Not nearly enough to carry him through this competition, but enough to hope that a few more years' work (and he's still very young) will improve matters for him.

Hye Jung Lee (soprano, 27, South Korea):
Grossmachtige Prinzessin ("Ariadne auf Naxos", Strauss) / I am the wife of Mao Tse Tung ("Nixon in China", Adams)
This was a brave, and very risky programme. When you have less than 20 minutes to impress, spending three-quarters of that time on a single number is what I call putting all your eggs in one basket, and it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to pull it off. But after an evening where all the other singers had sort of been singing in a single mode throughout their programmes, the sheer variety of moods required from Zerbinetta came as a breath of fresh air, as did Lee's silvery high coloratura voice. The vocalises were effortless, the very top notes absolutely sure, the German could have been a bit clearer and there were one or two imprecisions in passing notes here and there, but this was the liveliest, most interesting performance of the evening by quite some way. Adams' Madame Mao requires a voice of pure steel to power through that thundering orchestra, and Lee was a little light, at least in this hall, but on stage in an opera house and standing above the pit it could well be a different story. She negotiated the constant leaps with pinpoint accuracy, and the fearsome conviction of the aria was well conveyed. She even thought to bring a prop - the Little Red Book - which was a nice touch.


For this last preliminary round, there could be no hesitation about the winner; Lee was the only singer who was not only competition-standard technically and vocally, but also brought a real sense of characterisation to her pieces.


The finalists for Sunday's concert are as follows:

Olesya Petrova
Meeta Raval
Valentina Nafornita
Andrei Bondarenko
Hye Jung Lee

And, yes, you may colour me extremely surprised. I can only assume the jury felt they absolutely HAD to have a candidate from Concert Two go through, and under those circumstances, Raval was the only option. However, it almost seems cruel to me. Unless all four of the others catch laryngitis between now and Sunday (not completely beyond the realms of probability!) I don't see that Raval stands a chance. On the contrary, she runs every risk of coming off looking decidedly third rate, which would not be deserved. The guide lines of the competition say that the finalists must be judged solely on the merits of whatever programme they present that night, and their preliminary rounds should not be taken into consideration. That's always struck me as a bit of a tall order, though of course one can do one's best to forget what has already been heard. My spot prediction right now is between Nafornita and Petrova, but it will all depend on choice of repertoire, and performance on the night.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Cardiff: Concert Three (June 15)

[As in the rest of this series, all non-bracketed text is by this blog's correspondent on the scene, not by me --JSU]

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2011
Concert Three - 15 June 2011

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Jac van Steen (conductor)

I'll say this straight off; this was one for the anthologies. Of the five singers appearing tonight, four are surely destined for major international careers if they continue on as they have begun. An extraordinary evening.

Susanne Braunsteffer (soprano, 31, Germany):
Il est doux, il est bon ("Herodiade", Massenet), Come scoglio ("Cosi fan tutte", Mozart) / Un bel di vedremo ("Madama Butterfly", Puccini) / Merce, diletti amiche ("I Vespri siciliani", Verdi)
It was a little hard on Braunsteffer to begin with an aria that had been so well sung the previous evening, and although she made a perfectly passable attempt at it, it wasn't in the same class. Notably, the low notes weren't sounding quite properly. Massenet's Salome is written for the French dramatic soprano, a voice that can easily tip into mezzo, and it didn't entirely suit her. Not that she doesn't have the low notes, as she demonstrated amply with Fiordiligi's Act 1 aria. Here we got to appreciate the quality of the voice, which is exceptional. It is a big instrument, strong and clean, with a really exciting top - think Radvanovsky, but a little cooler in timbre. She wields it well and is very comfortable with it, and really, all she needs is some time with a few top rank conductors and/or opera directors who will show her how to put across the expression, because that was the biggest problem, in the end. Salome was a bit bland, Fiordiligi too po-faced("Come scoglio" should just skirt the edge of comic), Butterfly not quite vulnerable enough. Elena was the most successful, because the least complex in terms of emotional content, at least during this aria. Braunsteffer's voice is remarkable, and expressivity or lack thereof aside, she set the bar high from the outset for tonight's competitors.

Helen Sherman (mezzo-soprano, 29, Australia):
Sta nell'ircana ("Alcina", Handel) / At the haunted end of the day ("Troilus and Cressida", Walton) / Una voce poco fa ("Il Barbiere di Siviglia", Rossini)
Finally, a Handel aria sung as it should be, with clean but not over-articulated coloratura, excellent phrasing, plenty of expression, and the ornamentation placed at the service of the music, rather than just used as a tool to show off a voice. If we thought Braunsteffer was going to be a hard act to follow, Sherman picked up the gauntlet and flung it right down again for the remaining competitors with this exuberant and triumphant interpretation. Sherman has a middle-weight mezzo with a nice, bright top, and she came across as very confident. Hearing the Walton again was interesting; if memory serves (and I have no way of checking right now), Walton re-wrote the role of Cressida from dramatic soprano to mezzo (it could be the other way around), and in this version Sherman's reading was much more intense than Raval's yesterday. Finally, a perennial favourite in Rosina's aria from the "Barber", delivered very cleanly, with well-judged ornamentation, though a little extra zip wouldn't have come amiss here.

John Pierce (tenor, 28, Wales):
Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schon ("Die Zauberflote", Mozart) / Una furtiva lagrima ("L'Elisir d'Amore", Donizetti) / De' miei bollenti spiriti ("La Traviata", Verdi) / Ah! fuyez douce image ("Manon", Massenet)
The only tenor in the competition, representing a country with a distinguished history of fine tenors, and playing to the home crowd? No pressure, right? I felt sorry for John Pierce before the competition even started, and even more so when he had to follow on from two such striking contributions as the above. Regrettably, he has little personality, and his programme did him no favours; generic tenor fare, all extremely familiar, and therefore inviting invidious comparisons with many an illustrious predecessor. His Tamino lacked wonderment, Nemorino lacked tenderness, Alfredo was intermittently off-pitch, and he was completely under-parted for Des Grieux. All of it lacked the kind of mellifluous, luminous sound one really wants from a tenor in this repertory. Frankly, I don't think Pierce is really an operatic artist at all, but more of a concert (in the sense of oratorio, etc.) one. He made an indifferent impression; as my neighbour put it, sweet, but not really the thing.

Valentina Nafornita (soprano, 24, Moldova):
Non so le tetre immagini ("Il Corsaro", Verdi) / Gluck das mir verlieb ("Die tote Stadt", Korngold) / Amour, ranime mon courage ("Romeo et Juliette", Gounod)
Another exceptionally beautiful voice, Nafornita has a truly lovely lyric soprano, with a luminous timbre throughout the range and a quite radiant top. She began the Verdi a little tentatively, holding the sound in a shade too close, but began to relax into the aria proper, and by the time the Korngold came round, her wings were well and truly spread. By the time she had finished Marietta's Lied, the house was completely won over. Approaching Juliette's dramatic reflections on the potion she has to take, her voice gained some weight and darkness, and she conveyed Juliette's hesitations convincingly. This seemed like the ultimate winning combination; a young and beautiful soprano with a genuinely outstanding voice and a good stage presence is very hard to beat.

Andrei Bondarenko (baritone, 24, Ukraine):
Hai gia vinta la causa ("Le Nozze di Figaro", Mozart) / Mein Sehnen, mein Wahnen ("Die tote Stadt", Korngold) / Kogda by zhizn domashnim krogdom ("Eugene Onegin", Tchaikovsky) / Quella e una strada ("Le maschere", Mascagni)
Bondarenko had everything to play for if he was to have any chance of making his mark. I was not sold on his Count, I felt he was misinterpreting the part, making it too comic. Also, I thought that he should have perhaps waited a couple of years before coming to Cardiff, in order to gain a little more power in the centre of the voice, though the top immediately impressed with its clear ring. Then he started the other hit tune from "Die tote Stadt". It's a bit like white chocolate, that number, creamy and very sweet, and luscious in small doses, though cloying if overdone, and Bondarenko hit it just right. His Onegin too hit just the right note of polite condescension, bordering on blase, and it was beautifully shaped. He has a lighter baritone than Vasile, more golden in timbre, and softer-grained, and he does lack a little heft in the middle as yet, but age will surely fix that. He also sang a clever, well-varied and very entertaining programme, ending with a piece completely unknown to me, an aria in which the character singing has a marked and very comic stutter. This was delivered with impeccable timing and effects, and was an undeniable hit with the audience.


The jury again took a long time to deliberate, this time due to an embarassment of riches. Pierce was out of the running, that much was obvious, but the other four were all notable. My vote was torn between Nafornita and Bondarenko, both with very, very fine natural instruments, bags of personality, and clear evidence of intelligent programming (both are in the Song Prize Final). Nafornita's programme maybe lacked a little variety; Bondarenko's primary defect was the slight weakness in the middle register, and you couldn't have paid me to be a judge tonight. When Bondarenko's name was announced, there was a roar of approval from the house, and it was a well-deserved victory by any account.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cardiff: Correspondent's Notes

In response to a few questions from Concert One:

I asked about the hall that the bass apparently had trouble filling...
St. David's Hall is a modern building, quite broad, with the upper seating arranged in suspended and segmented tiers. My impression from numerous radio broadcasts I've heard from it is that the acoustics are good, and nothing last night seemed to deny that. Yes, I know it's unusual for basses, of all voices, to be weak, but I also had four other singers to compare with, and while all of them were at times almost covered by the orchestra, it was nothing like Ghazaryan. Besides, there was that thing of running out of breath on the Cavatina - he started the crescendo late, and then couldn't hold it.
Commenter asperias asked "i am very curious what you would have said about young Hvorostovsky"...
I would have raved about the young Hvorostovsky. I saw that competition on TV, and still remember it vividly.
Also, a side note about Concert Two:
Take That were in concert tonight at the Millenium Stadium, which is about 500 yards from St. David's Hall, and got out around about the same time as we did, so getting home has been a bit of a trial, to say the least! And they're doing the same thing tomorrow night, blast their eyes! It complicates matters.

Cardiff: Concert Two (June 14)

[As in the rest of this series, all non-bracketed text is by this blog's correspondent on the scene, not by me --JSU]

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2011
Concert Two - 14 June 2011

Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Lawrence Foster (conductor)

Meeta Raval (soprano, 28, England):
Signore, ascolta ("Turandot", Puccini) / La mamma morta ("Andrea Chenier", Giordano) / At the haunted end of the day (Troilus and Cressida", Walton) / Merce, dillete amiche ("I Vespri siciliani", Verdi)
Achieving the purity and sweetness of tone that Liu's first aria requires when coming straight out of the box struck me as a fairly difficult task, but Raval did well, with a simple and clean reading, and some nicely floated pianissimi at the end. She has an attractive lyric soprano, sure and well-placed, but a little generic, as became evident in "La mamma morta", where without actually making any mistakes, she more or less completely missed the second half of the aria, when the text turns abstract. Maddalena sings of understanding this mystical voice which says to her "I am Love, I am Divine" etc., but Raval clearly didn't. I will try to avoid getting onto my high horse on the question of diction. I'm not expecting miracles (and doubt I'll get any), but I have to admit that it sticks in my throat when I can't understand anything of the two languages I *should* be able to understand without any difficulty (i.e. English and French). Raval's Cressida could have been singing in Outer Siberian for all I got of it. Otherwise, the Walton was an interesting choice, and would have been more so if the text had been clear, and the emotion properly conveyed. The Vespri extract was her best number, crisp and clean, and infinitely superior to Anna Leese's last night (though admittedly, that wouldn't have been too hard).

Wang Lifu (baritone, 24, China):
Hai gia vinta la causa ("Le Nozze di Figaro", Mozart) / Der Tamboursg'sell ("Des Knaben Wunderhorn", Mahler) / Per me giunto ("Don Carlo", Verdi)
This was, I thought, an unwise programme, especially for one of the youngest competitors of this year. The choice of Mahler might seem strange, given that this is the operatic part of the programme, and there is a separate Song Prize (for which Wang Lifu was also competing), but it's not unknown for competitors to pick orchestral lieder from time to time. One of the Four Last Songs, for example, is a regular favourite with a certain type of soprano. However, this particular song is very demanding, and then to bracket it with two of the most popular baritone choices of any year of the competition was just asking for trouble. Trouble is what he got. To begin with, he came on stage looking positively world-weary, which seemed a bit ridiculous given his age, and then he was not nearly angry enough for the Count. The Drummer Boy was set at an excessively funereal pace, which I can only assume was his choice, because these competitors really don't have the time to refine their interpretations much with their conductors before performing, and it fell apart completely both in terms of emotional content, and vocal line. As for his Posa, not enough "ring" in the upper register, and not quite enough breath control, though the attempt was creditable.

Sasha Djihanian (soprano, 25, Canada):
Da tempeste ("Giulio Cesare", Handel) / Ach, ich fuhl's ("Die Zauberflote", Mozart) / Comme autrefois ("Les Pecheurs de perles", Bizet)
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! Whoever is still teaching young singers that random Baroque arias make good warm-up items really needs to revise their copy. The "arie antiche" are one thing, a full-scale Handel war-horse is a completely different matter. This stormy aria was a catastrophic choice for Djihanian, who only succeeded in exposing the limits of her vocal support and her coloratura, and verged on the painful. The moment she got into the Mozart, things sounded very much better, the voice more clearly projected and better supported, but there were still hints of intonation problems. As for "Comme autrefois", I'm afraid I found myself paying more attention to some very fine playing from the orchestra's French horns than to the singer, which speaks for itself.
[Djihanian was also a finalist at this year's Met Council Finals - ed.]

Olga Kindler (soprano, 30, Switzerland):
Dich teure Halle ("Tannhauser", Wagner) / Il est doux, il est bon ("Herodiade", Massenet) / Ritorna vincitor ("Aida", Verdi)
This spot should have been occupied by a Polish baritone, Szymon Komasa, but he dropped out of the competition due to illness shortly before the start, and the first alternative was called in, for both the Song Prize and the SOW title. Kindler apparently made a big impression in her Song Prize round and, indeed, made it through to the Final (more on that later), so there was a certain sense of expectancy in the hall before she started. The voice is certainly large and expansive, but the timbre is still a little light for Elizabeth, though she may gain the necessary heft in later years. Her Salome (Massenet, not Strauss), on the other hand, was outstanding, her tone nicely even and creamy
throughout, and effortlessly following the ebb and swell of Massenet's lush score. She began "Ritorna vincitor" in thrilling, barn-storming form, but then disaster struck when she did not make the top of the phrase on "come raggio del sol". Then, a minute or two later, she consciously marked the high note on "Tremendo amor", undoubtedly out of fear. In short, a crying shame, because up to that point she was certainly the leader of the field this evening.

Marcela Gonzalez (soprano, 24, Chile):
Bel raggio lusinghier ("Semiramide", Rossini) / Barbara! ("Alcina", Handel) / Je veux vivre ("Romeo et Juliette", Gounod)
Gonzalez withdrew from her Song Prize round for reasons of ill health, and there was a point tonight when we were wondering if she was going to compete at all. In the end, she dropped her last item (from Lehar's "Giuditta"), but delivered the rest of her programme. This is a lyric coloratura with an excellent top, bright, strong and clean, but illness may have blurred some of her precision. The voice is considerably warmer than Radoeva's (who also sang "Bel raggio..."), and as such, I found it more pleasing, but Radoeva scored higher on pure technical prowess. Gonzalez' Handel was blessedly short, but there were intonation problems, slight and fleeting, and possibly due to her diminished health, but still evident, and they also marred an otherwise sterling rendition of Juliette's Waltz Song, delivered with all the fresh and eager vitality one could wish for in that number.


Had all things been equal, the contest tonight would have been between Kindler and Gonzalez. They were far more invested in their performances than any of the first three, not to mention producing a more interesting sound. However, things were not equal, and the jury took a good long time before reaching a decision. It's in these kind of circumstances that you realise that even a singing competition can resemble a sporting one. This reminded me of some figure-skating events. You can get a performer who is clearly intrinsically superior, but doesn't deliver a clean performance, and the rules are the rules. The evening's prize went to Meeta Raval - but if she makes it to Sunday's Final, I shall be extremely surprised.


The finalists for the Song Prize were announced at the start of tonight's event. They are (in no particular order), Olga Kindler (as already mentioned), Andrei Bondarenko, Valentina Nafornita, Maire Flavin and Leah Crocetto, all of whom, save Kindler, I have yet to hear. I will be reporting on the Song Prize Final in due course.
[Crocetto was a finalist -- and winner -- at the 2010 Met Council Finals. - ed.]

Monday, June 13, 2011

Cardiff: Concert One (June 13)

[As in the rest of this series, all non-bracketed text is by this blog's correspondent on the scene, not by me --JSU]

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2011
Concert One - 13th June 2011

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Jac van Steen (conductor)

Anna Leese (soprano, 30, New Zealand):
Song to the Moon ("Rusalka", Dvorak) / Donde lieta usci ("La Boheme", Puccini) / L'atra notte in fondo al mare ("Mefistofele", Boito) / Merce, diletti amiche ("I Vespri siciliani", Verdi)
The competition began a good twenty minutes late, after an interminable, if reasonably charming introductory speech from a regional celebrity, and some more wait while the BBC presenter finished his spiel. This is the advantage for the television audience, all this gets cut out of the highlights programmes, but we in the audience have to put up with it. Then the first competitor appeared, and I'm afraid my initial reaction was that she had let herself be a little too inspired by the new Duchess of Cambridge's wedding dress in her own choice of garment. My impressions didn't improve much thereafter. Anna Leese has a pretty, if slightly breathy soprano that is almost entirely devoid of real expression unless she hams it up (the Boito), and she's not too adept even at that. Oh, the notes were all in the right place, the sound was agreeable enough, but where was the ethereal quality of Rusalka, Mimi's melancholy, or Elena's slightly febrile excitement? Absolutely nowhere. She stood and delivered, and has probably already been forgotten save by those with a penchant for sweet-looking brunettes in white satin.

Vargen Ghazaryan (bass, 32, Armenia):
Il lacerato spirito ("Fiesco", Verdi) / Son lo spirito ("Mefistofele", Boito) / Aleko's Cavatina ("Aleko", Rakhmaninov) / Come dal ciel precipita ("Macbeth", Verdi)
It can be difficult for young basses to get into the paternal spirit, even though so much of their repertoire tends to depend on it. Ghazaryan tried, with both Fiesco and Banquo, but the first was all too evidently a warm-up exercise, and both, like all the rest of his programme, suffered from a lack of power. I would have liked to hear him either in other Verdi, or in something paternal that wasn't Verdi, because it's quite possible he has little empathy with the composer. He was certainly much more at ease with Mefistofele, and a little too much so, because there were too many special effects in the singing. That said, he didn't even make a pretense of whistling after the first verse (he did after the second), some obliging soul in the orchestra supplied that rather essential element. His most accomplished element was therefore the Cavatina, where he managed to avoid over-emoting (easily done, it has to be said) but was let down, again, by that lack of power, and quite simply ran out of breath on that long final crescendo. Like Leese, the voice has a pleasing quality, but seems too soft for a really convincing bass.

Olesya Petrova (mezzo-soprano, 28, Russia):
Adieu, forets ("The Maid of Orleans", Tchaikovsky) / Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix ("Samson et Dalila", Saint-Saens) / Acerba volutta ("Adriana Lecouvreur", Cilea)
Two notes into Petrova's Tchaikovsky, and you could feel the entire hall thinking, "NOW we're talking!". This was unquestionably the first real competition-standard performance. Petrova is the archetypal Russian mezzo, somewhat in Borodina's style, a rich, round sound with a bright, clear top and velvety low notes. She could do with developing the centre just a little more, but I've no doubt that will come quickly enough. She was confident, secure in her manner, calm without being placid. Also like most Russian singers, she massacred the French in the Saint-Saens, but as I'm bilingual in French I tend to be picky about it, and I know most of the public wouldn't really have cared. She was trying a bit too hard at first to get the words out, which distorted them; once she forgot about that and let the music speak, she sounded sumptuous. Her Princesse de Bouillon was vital and vibrantly passionate; put this one on stage, and you'd spend half the opera wondering what kind of fool Maurizio is to think he could keep a hold of this tiger by the tail! Without a shadow of a doubt, Petrova had set the bar for the night, and for the competition to date.

Maria Radoeva (soprano, 26, Bulgaria):
Agitati da due venti ("La Griselda", Vivaldi) / Bel raggio lusinghier ("Semiramide", Rossini) / Quando m'en vo ("La Boheme", Puccini) / Alleluja ("Exsultate, jubilate", Mozart)
Maria Radoeva was certainly able to produce all the fireworks required for her programme; she has a light-voiced, agile coloratura, though not of the cut-crystal variety. That said, there was a tonal quality about her voice that displeased me, a kind of (very small) spread in the middle of the note, allied to a slightly flat quality - I don't mean in terms of pitch, she handled most of that very well, but rather a lack of texture. Two-dimensional, rather than three-dimensional, though I recognise that's a particularly subjective opinion. The Vivaldi was a little tedious, much sound and fury signifying very little. The Rossini was good, even very good, but Musetta was a mistake. I believe she was trying to show that she wasn't just a machine for vocal pyrotechnics, but if she got away with it it was because she has a fairly winning personality, and knew how to play the crowd. Finally, the Alleluja was also disappointingly empty, and she was not helped by a singularly uninspiring performance from the orchestra.

Serban Vasile (baritone, 26, Romania):
Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo (Mozart) / Vien, Leonora ("La Favorita", Donizetti) / Kogda by zhizn domashnin krogdom ("Eugene Onegin", Tchaikovsky)
I did wonder if the humdrum Alleluja was the result of a problem with the orchestra. This can happen, despite best efforts, a conductor's own sympathies can't help but interfere at times. However, the sparkling reading of "Rivolgete a lui..." put paid to that notion. Vasile did the rest, really enjoying himself with this lively "out-take" from "Cosi fan tutte", and taking us along for the ride effortlessly. He has a well-placed, very sound baritone, the kind of warm-grained timbre you would unhesitatingly cast as Posa, for example, at least at this stage in his career. I did like his programme; off the beaten track without getting too exotic about it. The Donizetti was sung with a fine level of cantabile, and a swaggering cabaletta, while his Onegin was suave and indifferent in just the right degree.


There was very little question that the decision lay between Petrova and Vasile, they were without doubt the best singers of the evening. My choice would have gone - only just - to Vasile, because this is a competition, and he did not put a foot wrong, whereas Petrova's "Mon coeur..." needed a little adjusting. The jury's choice went to Petrova, though, and I have no real quarrel with that.

Bear in mind that the five singers who go through to Sunday's final will be the five singers who have most impressed the jury during the four rounds, regardless of whether or not they won their round, so there's little point in speculating about that final concert just yet. There is also the Song Prize in progress. Three of the four rounds have been completed, the finalists will be announced on Thursday, to perform on Friday. Of tonight's singers, neither Leese nor Vasile are competing in the Song Prize, but I have not heard who has won these rounds, nor could I find it on the website. Maybe tomorrow...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Cardiff: Preview

[As in the rest of this series, all non-bracketed text is by this blog's correspondent on the scene, not by me --JSU]

The BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition was launched in 1983, created primarily by the BBC and specifically by BBC Wales, one of the regional programming services of that company. You can find details of the genesis on the home site.

The basic premise was that every two years, twenty young singers, between 18 and 32 years of age, would compete in front of a distinguished panel of jurists, for an international level prize which would lead to engagements with the UK's major orchestras and opera companies, and open doors, via important agents, to an international career. That they hit the target right off the mark was evident from the fact that the very first winner of the prize was Karita Mattila.

Because it was a BBC-inspired event means that there has always been television coverage. There was more in the early years, when we only had BBC 1 and 2, on analogue network TV. Once the digital channels came along, regrettably, the TV coverage declined, and shifted predominantly to BBC 4, with only the final shown live on BBC 2 in the early evening. Nevertheless, the standard of singing has rarely declined. Almost all of the candidates have already begun their professional careers, and many have won competitions at national level in the year or two before appearing in Cardiff, so the standard is very high.

Back in '83, each candidate was required to present a 20-odd minute programme, of just about anything they wanted, with the focus on opera, but song was certainly not neglected, and singers were expected to demonstrate versatility in terms of repertory. However, there were still hiccups in the system. In 1987, the prize was won by Valeria Esposito, in the face of performances from both Soile Isokoski and Iris Vermilion, and that was surely the most bizarre result the competition has ever produced. Although I do not know the behind-the-scenes stories, I'm sure that the fall-out from that year was very considerable, and the competition has never again, to my knowledge, transgressed so egregiously as that year.

That the system had become flexible became evident in 1989. This was the year of the Battle of the Baritones. Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Bryn Terfel, head to head. For those of us watching it, it was an unforgettable occasion. There was no question that these two singers were head and shoulders above the rest of the competition, and this was in a year that included Monica Groop and Hillevi Martinpelto. In the end, Hvorostovsky won, but Terfel was awarded a hitherto unknown prize, the Lieder Prize, and as a result of that, the competition developed a second string, (now known as the Rosenblatt Song Prize) which is non-mandatory, but for which most of the contenders also present themselves.

Another change that has happened over the years was the composition of the actual final concert. Previously, the winner of each individual round automatically went forward to the final. More recently, the singers in the final are the five singers judged the best overall by the panel of adjudicators, regardless of their status in individual rounds. This has been an amendment that I, at least, welcomed warmly, because the luck of the draw can sometimes be deucedly unlucky, and place two outstanding singers in the same evening.

What we have seen in Cardiff has been the very best of the new generations. While the winner is always of particular interest, sometimes they are not quite ready for a full-scale career. Esposito, barely 20 at the time if I recall correctly, has probably been the biggest mistake in that regard. On the other hand, the 2007 winner, the Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang, who was only 23 at the time, has already made it to the stage of the Met, and I fully expect to see him all over the world within the next decade. Often finalists, rather than winners, have made the greatest breakthroughs. Franz Hawlata, John Relyea and Nina Stemme have all been very impressive runners-up. Elina Garanca lost out to Marius Brenciu in 2001; I know I am not the only person to think that she may have just lost out because there had been a string of female winners just before her, and certainly both of them have made their mark since. The selection has been wide-spread; Nicole Cabell for the US, Tommi Hakala for Finland, Anja Harteros for Germany and Katerina Karneus for Norway, for the main prize; Ailish Tynan for Ireland, Christopher Maltman and Elizabeth Watts for England, in separate years, Jan Martinik for the Czech Republic for the Song Prize. All names that any lover of voices will know by now, and appreciate in their distinctive ways.

I'm looking forward to this. For nearly thirty years I have followed this competition via television and radio, and I cannot begin to say how excited I am to be able to attend in person. I have opted out of attending the Song Prize rounds, there is such a thing as overload, although I will be attending the Final. But I know that of the twenty young singers competing in Cardiff this week, I will be hearing most, if not all of them, on the radio and in recordings, all over the world, in the years to come.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Cardiff: Foreword

This Sunday, June 12, begins the "Singer of the World" competition in Cardiff, Wales. This year, a correspondent on the scene will be offering daily commentary here on the week-long competition.

Please note that my contribution to this series will be bracketed editorial comments: all other credit is my correspondent's.


Reference links:
official site
official schedule
competitor bios

Posts in the series:
Preview (6/12)
Concert One (6/13)
Concert Two (6/14)
Correspondent's notes (6/14)
Concert Three (6/15)
Concert Four (6/16)
Song Prize Final
Final (6/19)