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.]