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...