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.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.