Sunday, 19 June 2011

Final Cardiff post- post Cardiff final.

Bondarenko won the song prize- does that mean he’s more or less likely to win tonight? I note he hasn’t cut his hair, so he is obviously not keen to sleep with my flatmate. WOW! J Di-Do is on pundit duty, that’s a coup and she’ll have interesting things to say, so long as she isn’t too hung up on being nice- she might be too generous an individual for this job, although I suppose this five won’t need any special pleading. Cabell is the other pundit, and I’m not going to say anything rotten about what her career says about the quality of the competition’s winners (I’ve never got her, I’m afraid).

A quick run down of the judges (Old! Old! Old! Marilyn Horne is a little white haired old lady and that is just WRONG) reveals that the mystery Russian is a conductor, which makes him even more mysterious, because I’ve never heard of him. Kiri weighs in with some stretched-to-the-limit sporting metaphors and then we get a rundown of the finalists (for once, Petrova is represented by her best rather than worst moment). In fact, the rundown makes me want them all to win, apart from Raval, who I like but don’t really see as a finalist. Her Josie interview reveals, again, a thoroughly energetic and likeable woman.

Ah. Now then. She’s starting with ‘D’Amor sull’ali rosee’ which is interesting in light of the fact it was sung wonderfully in the final heat by the absent Crocetto. Raval’s voice is too thin for the recit, I’m afraid- ‘pressa e la mia difesa’ is really too wimpy. Still, her quiet singing is her strength so perhaps the aria itself will fare better. She launches the aria with a couple of little wobbles- nerves, no doubt. Frockwatch: she’s wearing a Violetta Act One special in a disconcerting shade of ketchup. Her breathing has settled down now, and she pulls out a nice legato, but this is the wrong voice for this music. The second arching phrase on ‘le pene’ (ie the one that isn’t the top C, I don’t have a score to hand) is absolutely gorgeous- it’s the reason she’s chosen the aria- but I can’t help thinking she would have done better to open with something a little less spinto. Ends it beautifully- she really is shimmering when she sings soft and high. She doesn’t essay a ‘Tu Vedrai’, which is probably for the best. Joyce says nice things without actually praising the performance. Oh, now, this is ridiculous- ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’? Really? I don’t see how this will be a good fit for her at all, apart from the fact that she’s a decent actor. She KNOWS this isn’t right, too, if the way she’s forcing the first phrase is anything to go by- pushing the voice into sounding bigger than it is? As predicted, the acting is excellent but what a dumb, dumb choice. She should be wowing us with Gheorghiu rep, not underwhelming with Tebaldi stuff. She throws in a bit of parlando on ‘tutta e finita’ which may have been necessity rather than choice. She gets through the aria all right but why stretch the voice to the limit in this way? She’s finishing with ‘Beim Schlafengehen’, which ought to be a better fit, but unfortunately seems still to be stuck in forcing mode- it’s overwrought, lacking the legato she showed in the Verdi and surprisingly unlovely. The ‘Und die seele’ section really shows her voice at its least impressive I’m afraid. She could have come out, sung Liu and ‘September’ and Pamina and ravished us. Instead she’s doing everything she can to force out tone, to the extent that in some phrases, here as in the Puccini, the breath control is compromised. Disappointing. I wonder if Hagegard is disappointed too- he sure ain’t clapping. Cabell calls her ‘confident’, ‘refreshing’ and ‘impeccably trained’. Petroc asks Joyce a question which suggests that he agrees that her rep choices were strange, and she gives a diplomatic answer about ‘hearing her future’ and it being a big sing.

Petrova is up next and starts with The Tsar’s Bride, and this is very good stuff indeed. She’s much more connected to this aria than in either of the ones we saw in her heat, no hint of that placid complacency which is bothersome for Dalila or the Princesse. She finds some smashing chest tones for the end, which she’ll need now for Ulrica- another potentially excellent choice. Yep, this is terrific and she’s transformed dramatically from the other night. I can see her shortish top causing her problems in future though (I am talking about vocal range, not a skimpy garment, for clarification). I’ll stop banging on about rep soon, I promise, but Raval should take note of what can be achieved with an aria which is securely, safely and solidly in the voice. That really was terrific. Cabell calls her a star in the making and advises caution around big Verdi, which is fair enough. She’s ending with ‘Voi lo Sapete’, which is owned in my personal pantheon by Obratszova, Troyanos and Suliotis, although I suspect she’ll be more lyric and less desperate than any of those three. And so it proves- the start of the aria has that almost reflective quality which marred her Dalila. This is excellent vocalism but Santuzza is on the edge and we don’t really get that from Petrova’s performance, which ends rather abruptly on ‘io son dannata’. Now then, this should be interesting; she’s not at her best when singing in French or being sexy, so of course we’re getting the Habanera. This really can’t afford to be as formidable as some of her other performances. The ‘pas aujourd-hui, c’est certain’, delivered with a beaming smile, is adorable, not dangerous; she’s too nice for Carmen. The aria itself is delivered with a slight frown and, as predicted, no real sense of seduction. Her French is… Russian. She’s sung wonderfully but the other three competitors must be thinking that this competition is winnable. Petroc asks another loded question- this time about ‘sunshine and the world of Carmen’. I think Petrova is a little disappointed, judging by her Josinterview.

DING DING DING! PUNDIT BINGO! Joyce just referred to ‘singing on the interest, not the capital’.

Now we have Lee, who I suspect will win if she brings her best form. ‘If I win this competition, I will be flying like a bird, because I will be in a dream’. Bless her. She’s starting with ‘Tornami a Vagheggiar’- odd to do something so very much easier than the arias she sang in her heat, I wonder if she’ll firework it up? Oooch, dodgy start- thin and pitchy. It improves, but she’s nowhere near the standard she set as Zerbinetta and Mme Mao. We get some pin-sharp sparkly stuff at the end, but she’s not done herself justice I’d say. Joyce felt it lacked playfulness, and Joyce is right. Ophelia’s mad scene now, which has the quite low bar of ‘can she do it better than Marlis Petersen’? Second aria syndrome- this is much, much better. She’s got a lot of ground to make up though- I’d say the Handel was weaker than anything Petrova sang. Hagegard appears to be asleep in a cutaway to the judges’ table, and who can blame him? Newsflash: the music of Amboise Thomas is, in the main, dull, and if she was going to insist on singing him, she should have gone for ‘Je Suis Titania’. But really, she could have rocked the place with ‘O Zittre Nicht’ or the Proch variations or Olympia’s aria or ‘Quando rapito’ or just ANYTHING would have been a better choice. She’s singing it prettily but not flawlessly enough to justify its presence, and went badly sharp at the end- another casualty of pushing. She was much, much better in the heat and I think has probably blown her chances tonight.

So, that would mean it boils down to Nafornita v Bondarenko, and the scoreboard on that one is currently running at Moldova 0 Ukraine 1. Bondarenko, wearing my M&S blue linen shirt, discusses his chances of winning with a suddenly flirty Josie. He’s starting with ‘Rivolgete’ which, even though Cosi is on some days my favourite opera, I’ve always found a bit of a slog. Much more dramatic and comic possibilities in ‘Donne mie’, surely? Still, this plays to a lot of Bondarenko’s strength and he attacks it with the confidence of someone who already has one prize under his belt. He’s undoubtedly a very exciting prospect but even this vocally unimpeachable and charmingly acted performance doesn’t quite have the thrill of a prizewinner about it. Now, however, he’s setting himself a challenge- Posa’s death. And it’s beautiful- the long breathed lines wonderfully controlled and with a legato which would be the envy of many more experienced and established singers- shame we didn’t get ‘Per Me Giunto’ as well. He ends it terrifically, giving a look to the heavens and a great gulp of air as a neat solution to the dilemma of a death scene in concert. Champagne aria now, aka the aria which nobody ever, ever sounds good singing. I suppose it’s a calling card- ‘cast me as Don Giovanni’ please- but he sounds every bit as out of breath as everyone who has ever sung this. An odd choice. Twitter is nonetheless calling it for Bondarenko, and we all know that Twitter is always right, hem hem. He ends, perhaps, inevitably, with Tschaikovsky, and it’s quite gorgeous. I think he might win, you know- although my spies in the hall tell me that he has audibility issues, but sounds better downstairs, and downstairs is, of course, where the judges sit.

Nafornita is going to start with ‘Regnava nel Silenzio’, which is spooky as I nearly sort of mentioned it earlier (although I doubt we’ll get the cabaletta). Slightly pitchy start but she’s into her stride by the second phrase. She sings it well, but she’s yet another singer who was better in the heats- there’s nothing as special as the frisson (pun intended) she brought to Juliette’s aria. Cool, we ARE getting ‘Quando rapito’. And it’s absolutely terrific, as the stadium-style cheers from the house reflect. That puts her in touching distance of Bondarenko, I’d say- it depends on her other arias. The first of which is Rusalka, so my tear ducts are in danger. She starts it beautifully, but as I said with regard to Leese in heat 1, it’s all about THAT phrase, which Leese didn’t quite nail. Nafornita does, however, in all its aching beauty. This is singing of very, very high quality indeed. We are ending- wry smile- with Je Veux Vivre. I have heard enough of this aria but there’s no doubt that Nafornita sings it well. Some people are kvetching about the Lucia, but I think her choice of rep has been very clever in both rounds. This is lovely, vibrant, expressive singing. I suspect, though, that Bondarenko has it by a nose.

Good GOD, Joyce di Donato failed to get past the audition stage. In the year that Guang Yang won. Just ponder on that for a moment while we wait for the result.

Audience prize comes first, nicely rechristened the Joan Sutherland audience prize. Bondarenko for this too? But no, it’s Nafornita, which judging from the response in the hall should have been easy to predict- and maybe it’s because people thought she should have won her heat? And- well, that’s a turn-up- she wins the main prize too, to the obvious astonishment of Bondarenko, who is the Arsenal or Chelsea of this competition- talk of trebles followed by disappointment. He wasn't as good in the final as in his heat, which is reflected in the reversed result, which might also have reflected the audibility thing.

I’d have given it to him*, but she’s a worthy winner nonetheless, of what has been a variable but largely excellent competition. But, you know what? Nobody sang Largo al Factotum.

*the prize, I mean. I'm not my flatmate.

If you can't blog the heat...

So, Heat 4 happened on Thursday and was broadcast on Friday, so as I watched it seemed a bit silly to 'liveblog'- especially as the result AND the identity of the finalists had been spoilered for me courtesy of Twitter. I'm looking at YOU, BBC Wales viewers- Grr and Tsk. So, just an overview for this heat, ahead of tonight's final.

Enzo Romano, representing Uruguay, came up with a pretty horrible Non Piu Andrai (friendoftheblog dame gwyneth described, brilliantly, his characterisation as 'redoubtable octogenarian gay jew') but redeemed himself with a much better account of Bottom's Dream- a real case of 'second aria' syndrome.

Ireland's Maire Flavin continued the trend of wonderful mezzos, certainly the most successful vocal category in this competition- there hasn't been a dud yet. She's not the most vivid performer but the voice itself is beyond. She managed to nail the Komponist without screeching, too, which is rarer than it should be. Like her a lot.

Leah Crocetto ought to be in the final and it's mental that she isn't. Despite an unfortunate resemblance to Mutya from the Sugababes (just me? Ok then) she sailed through a difficult programme- the Trov Leonora is a real challenge for a young singer, especially the Act 4 aria which only justifies its existence if it's jaw-droppingly lovely, which this nearly, very nearly, was. I'd say she is a far more exciting prospect than another, ahem, young American soprano who is routinely greeted as the second coming.

Davide Bartolucci, representing Italy, wins the 'most ethnically suitable name' award but isn't really memorable for much else. Baritones are the anti-mezzo in this competition, I think; the standard is always lowish, with the odd exception. He did some Handel and some Mozart and they were ok. Not much more that I can say, which is maybe telling.

And then, a star. Hye Jung Lee is a coloratura soprano who is for once worthy of the name- it's all spot-on and she really sings rather than chirp. We get some of Zerbinetta (cutting arias short has been a bete noire of previous Cardiff coverage, which the BBC had hitherto managed to avoid here) and then, thrillingly, Madame Mao, which she absolutely nails. I wonder if this role will become a calling card/millstone for South East Asian sopranos the way Aida did for black ones (No). Still, this is the best rendition of this aria I've heard, although it strikes me I've only heard two other singers do it. So, there's a publicity quote for her- 'Better than Trudy Ellen Craney and Judith Howarth'- notsowunderbar).

So, the finalists (it's just starting as I type) are Raval, Petrova, Bondarenko, Nafornita and Lee. Crocetto should be there instead of Raval, and I'd give an Hon Mensh to Miss Germany, Miss Australia, Mr Romania and Miss Ireland. Lee will win, but I'd like Bondarenko to. There's just a chance, too, that if Narfornita really catches fire, she could do it. Onward!

Thursday, 16 June 2011

It Just. Got. Interesting.

So, here we go with heat three, my second Cardiff dollop of the day. Hopes for tonight centre mainly around singers opting for appropriate repertory- some of last night’s choices were a little dumb, really.

We kick off with Susanne Braunsteffer, a German soprano who will be singing In Questa Reggia followed by Grossmachtige Prinzessin.

I joke, of course. (I wonder if anyone has ever sung both? Nobody springs to mind, except maybe the bonkers Deutekom). Susanne trained with Mirella Freni and doesn’t think opera is elitist. Out comes the mobile, as with the Bulgarian woman the other night. This time it’s Samsung rather than iphone and husband rather than child, but this is turning into a theme.

She’s starting with ‘Come Scoglio’ which my operatic autism (operautism?) reminds me is a portentous choice- previous winners Matilla, Harteros and Scherbachenko all sang it. And this is a lovely, lovely voice, judging by the recit. Slightly mushy Italian but a lovely tone, warm and gleaming simultaneously. This lady could be proper world class, I think. The aria’s a minefield though, of course, but my fingers are crossed for her here. She gets through the fiendish section on ‘affetto’ pretty well, bar an attempt at the C which even my opera-hating flatmate could tell was, quote, ‘a bit ropey’. But she reminds me a little of Persson, and of Gritton, and that’s pretty benchmark-y for Fiordiligi these days. She rises to the challenge of the triplets at the end, although there’s a little bit of a screech in the last phrase. Mark Padmore finds her confident and controlled.

Oh for god’s sake, ANOTHER Vespri Bolero. Sick of this now, 3 times in 3 nights. But she’s singing it very well indeed, and I’d go so far to say that this is the best actual instrument we’ve heard all week so far, better even than Petrova’s, although Braunsteffer’s technique is much ropier than the Russian’s. Elin Manahan Thomas isn’t blown away by her, I’d say, although she’s using complimentary language. Padmore seems more impressed, especially by Come Scog.

An Aussie mezzo, Helen Sharman, is next, and she’ll be doing Una Voce Poco Fa, followed no doubt by bloody Merce bloody Dilette bloody Amiche. Josie- who the flatmate tells me is from Newport, he really is a mine of information- offers her some Welsh cakes. She’s starting with Sta nell’Ircana from Alcina, an odd choice when Bramo di Trionfar is in the same opera and is ace. She’s good, you can tell straight away. The standard of tonight’s heat is already oceans away from last night’s. I like her black and red frock; flatmate thinks she looks like Evil Spiderman from Spiderman III. Make of that what you will. It’s nice to hear some clean, proper coloratura after the crimes against it in heat two, and Sharman’s voice is rich and true- a little reminiscent of Murray but fuller in its sound. Thomas finds her ‘grounded’ and ‘secure’- she’s clearly here to perform the Mary King function of technical merit, while Padmore is there for artistic impression. You know, like in the ice dancing. She’s following it with ‘Una Voce’, also overdone in competitions but I suppose I can see why. Oddly, she’s hardened her tone for the virginal Rosina- it was warmer and more feminine for the warrior Ruggiero. She’s singing it very well indeed, mind, although both singers tonight have been a little generalized where facial expression and selling the arias have been concerned. She negotiates the ‘…ma’ in the ‘io sono docile’ section without the usual frenzied mugging, for which relief much thanks. She’s firing off the fioratura (I fancied a change of word) with accurate ease, and it would be tough to choose between these first two singers. Padmore finds her musical and intelligent and rightly observes that what was lacking from the Rossini was charm. Thomas thought she was nicely masculine in the Handel and more feminine for Rosina, so she and I will have to have a fight at some point.

John Pierce now, Welsh tenor. Wales have never had a home win in this competition (although arguably they should have- Terfel I think is marginally more of a star than Hvoro) and this year their hopes are pinned on this likeable, gentle fella who is what Alexander McCall Smith might call ‘traditionally sized’. He’s starting with the Nemorino aria, which I last heard being massacred by Joe McElderry on that ITV abomination that shall remain nameless (channel hopping rather than watching, I should stress. I’m not a masochist.)

Wales is going to have to wait at least two more years. Pierce is perfectly pleasant but unspecial. He phrases nicely and has a decent legato but neither his voice nor his face have much, um, face. Massenet next- ‘Fuyez, douce image’, and, in the tradition of second arias, it’s much more successful. He launches the aria itself quite beautifully, but there’s not much to say about this chap; he’s fine, which is fine. He’ll be a useful lyric tenor for WNO and ENO, but don’t hold your breath for his Scala debut. Promisingly, however, when he opens the choke and let rip, he’s at his best, pointing perhaps to some heavier stuff later in his career where sheer beauty of tone would be less important. Thomas likes his legato but says the louder stuff didn’t do it for her. It’s like she’s set out deliberately to make me look stupid. He’s ever such a sweetheart in his interview with Josie, you just want to give him a hug.

Now, after some technical advice from Mary, it’s Moldovan soprano Valentina Nafornita, following in the Moldovan soprano footsteps of Cebotari and um, um, um. She gives Josie a pirouette lesson. And hurrah for her, she’s starting with ‘Gluck, das mir verblieb’ which I think is an excellent competition choice- not everyone does it, and if you have a good legato and a tonally attractive voice it can be the most beautiful thing in the world. Nafornita is no Fleming (out on her own in this aria, I’d say, although that might make some people cross) but she’s a vivid communicator. The legato is ok, and the voice, while not radiant, is pretty. This is another very polished performance on an evening which is really showing up the last heat. I still couldn’t pick a winner, although I don’t think it will be Pierce. Bad news for England though, in that I’d rank all three women tonight above Raval, who I think J liked more than I did. Now here’s Gounod’s Juliette again, although it is at least the poison scene rather than the waltz. This is the aria that Gheorghiu pulled out of at the Met before pulling out of Juliette at the Met, which is utterly baffling because it is utterly and totally written for her voice. Nafornita, from the same neck of the woods if not the same country, is doing a grand job of this too and this performance may edge her in front, a couple of tentative high notes aside. (three minutes later) I was too busy listening to type- this is the performance of the night, and the crowd knows it- great big cheers even though she’s up against Their Boy. And she’s only 24! Crikey. She’s HUGELY promising. Petroc and Elin are blown away- Elin says it was ‘amazing’, ‘special’ and ‘a privilege to hear her’. It won’t do Valentina any harm that she is model-gorgeous and elegantly slim. Padmore finds her top notes ‘extraordinarily gorgeous’ and ‘thrilling’ so the panel seem decided on who’s going to win tonight.

Tonight’s last singer is Ukranian Andrei Bondarenko, who has central European hair. Inevitably, opera wasn’t his first love, he wanted to be a jazz saxophonist. So that’s a rock drummer, a basketballer, a couple of dancers… these poor opera singers. WHY DO THEY GET FORCED INTO THE OPERATIC SLAVE TRADE AGAINST THEIR WILL? I know I bang on about this, but it’s so fucking patronising to the singers and the audience. ‘Don’t worry, he’s not a freak, he likes jazz! Don’t be frightened, she’s normal, she listens to rap!’ Fuck. Off.

Bondarenko’s good, but it’s all a bit ‘after the Lord Mayor’s Show’ in the light of the previous performance. He’s an animated performer, good looking (flatmate: ‘he’d get it, if he cut his hair’) and possibly the most truthful actor of the competition so far. It’s a good voice, too- he’s singing ‘Vedro mentr’io sospiro’ and putting last night’s Mr China to shame. In fact, four of tonight’s five singers would have won last night. He’s following the Mozart with tonight’s second dose of Korngold, the aria which was so popular with baritones in 2009- and even the first phrase shows him to be better than any of them. This is a gorgeous, secure voice and unlike some of this year’s other male competitors he’s absolutely ready for the international stage. Best baritone so far, and unlucky to be in this heat with Nafornita who will surely win. He gets better and better throughout the Korngold and ends it quite ravishingly, to cheers from the house. He’s finishing with le Maschere- I’m slightly surprised he gets a third aria after two long’uns. Oh lawd help us, it’s a character number- stuttering, to be precise. Maybe he thought it would be zeitgeisty after the King’s Speech. He’s doing it very well, he really is a smashing actor, but it seems odd to end his set being all buffo and erase the memory of his glorious Korngold. But who knew- he’s actually being funny. He’s making me laugh. Remember the date- June 16th 2011, the night an opera singer was actually funny. On purpose. Crowd goes wild, and rightly. He needs to be in the final if he doesn’t win tonight.

So, here we go. This has been an excellent heat- and STOP PRESS Bondarenko wins, despite the panel’s prediction of Nafornita. They should both sing again on Sunday. Hon menshes to Miss Germany and Miss Oz, but I suspect we’ve seen the last of them.

What’s exciting, though, is that unless tomorrow’s heat is exceptional we’ve seen the winner tonight, one way or another.

Tonight, on a Very Special Not So Wunderbar...

Something a little different for heat 2 of Cardiff. Those of you who frequent opera websites (and hello, both of you!) will have come across the 'IM conversation' approach to opera criticism- two people, watching and listening to the same thing, and chatting away about it before your astonished eyes. Since my friend J (not his real name, his real name is longer) and I had both missed last night's heat, I thought it might be fun for us to harness the power of iplayer, Sky Plus and the internet to bring you our thoughts on the- mildly disappointing, as it turned out- second heat of this year's competition.

I should point out that J's real name isn't 'Dame Gwyneth Jones' either, although that is the name under which his posts appear below. However, it might be fun to read or sing his observations in the voice of that redoubtable soprano, so do feel free to do so if it pleases you.

"me: First observation: They seem to have borrowed their title music from 'Eggheads' or similar.

damegwynethjones: Yes, and Petroc is doing his best impression of the gravelly voiced Americn who does the film trailer voiceovers.

me: They should have swirling 360 degree cameras like on X Factor. Oh look, they do. The judges look so OLD.

damegwynethjones: Kiri, especially, seems to be teetering on the edge of suddenly turning into an old lady. Who is that judge who doesn't get any kind of descriptive tag? Sort of Russian sounding name, with no indiction of what his mandate is.

me: OK, Meeta Raval from England is first. She is down with the kids, follows urban artists, and wants to collaborate with Tinie Tempah. Sigh.

damegwynethjones: Oh God. At least she has some sort of personality and a natural manner.

me: Yep. 'Signore Ascolta' first. (I have to do this descriptive stuff for my PUBLIC, you understand) Hmm. A bit metallic, no? Not sure I like her vibrato.

damegwynethjones: Nice-ish dress. Wouldn't have advised lace for her though. Touch metallic yes, but I basically like it. Natural and free.

me: She's lovely with the quieter stuff, but it gets that 'balloon plastic' sound under pressure. Does that make sense or have I come down with synasthaesia? The end was beautiful.

damegwynethjones: Generous phrasing, lack of inhibition -not usual in one so young. Not completely following the balloon plastic thing tbh.

me: Haha, I'm not surprised. I think I know what I mean but I don't see why anyone else should... What about this then? Walton's Troilus and Cressida must be a new one for this competition. Someone's had a word on rep, I think, after all the endless 'Je Veux Vivres' last time.

damegwynethjones: Yes, but she isn't the only one singing it this year! She does remind me of De Niese up top, which isn't really a compliment.

me: She's singing this very well though, in general, I think. Pouring out lots of tone, to use critical cliche #1.What she is not going to do, however, is win. You're right, the top is iffy. She's good and passionate though.

damegwynethjones: I really like her, I think. Complete command of her voice, good musician, seems like she could probably act. Final high note was lovely.

me: She can act all right. This Vespri aria has every drop of the individuality it was missing in the first heat. She's very immediate.

damegwynethjones: Exactly, good word. Just a bit closed in the lower top (stupid expression but you know what I mean), otherwise, attractive and fab.

me: I'm not entirely in love with the actual voice itself, but she uses it wonderfully.

damegwynethjones: Top E on the cards?

me: Yeah, I reckon she will. She has a glint in her eye.

damegwynethjones: Innit!

me: So much for theories...

damegwynethjones: Oh well. Kiri liked it.

me: So, if you were Tinie Tempah, which aria would you want to urbanly remix with her?

damegwynethjones: Oh the Verdi fo' shizzle.

me: She has personality to burn, judging by her chat with Josie. Mary thinks she's singing heavier rep than she should be.

damegwynethjones: Maybe, but I didn't hear anything too worrying. Top does def need to open up though, that's true.


damegwynethjones: Do you think they even know who he is?

me: Maybe he just strolled in confidently. Wang Lifu next, Chinese baritone, and the first singer so far this year to make me really sit up and take notice just on the rehearsal clip- it sounds like a GORGEOUS voice.

damegwynethjones: Remember Guang Yang?

me: He's her PUPIL. She can't be teaching, she's only twelve.

damegwynethjones: He's goood!

me: This guy is having intonation problems in a RECIT, which doesn't bode well.
He's got that Rad thing where his vibrato takes him off pitch. Smashing basic voice though.

damegwynethjones: Much better than his teacher, anyway. I think he'll calm down.

me: (note: 'Rad' is being used here as an abbreviation for 'Radvanovsky'. I am not trying to be as down with the kids as Meeta Raval. Dude.) He reminds me of- and how obscure can you get?- Jorma Hynninen.

damegwynethjones: Um, ok. I'm rapidly going off him actually. It's like it's all vibrato and no core.

me: I sang this (count's aria from Figaro) at a school concert when I was 17. I held the F at the end far too long, because I could.

damegwynethjones: A born diva, clearly. This tempo for the Mahler is a piss take, no?

me: I kind of tune out when Mahler comes on. He gets in trouble at the top, doesn't he? A couple of actual shouts.

damegwynethjones: Yes. It's all rather over-weighted.

me: There's talent there but I'm not sure he's ready for competition at this level yet.

damegwynethjones: No Mary. I agree. I think he's on the wrong track technically I'm afraid. It should all be easier.

me: Haha, are you going to call me Mary King every time I get pompous and categorical? Because I warn you, I'm going to do that a LOT. He's very emotionally connected to this boring dirge, I mean masterpiece of the orchestral lied, isn't he? Interpretatively good but all kinds of problems with the actual, you know, singing.

damegwynethjones: He's got the whole Birgit 'lean back and drop your jaw' thing. Slightly different result though.

me: Mary agrees with me AGAIN, by the way.

damegwynethjones: I take that song at least twice as fast, btw. So does Hampson, fwiw.

me: Advice for singers from Mary King. Do you do yoga before you go on stage? Mary thinks you should. AVOID ALCOHOL, she says. I'm sure we can all relate to that. Canada now, soprano Sasha Djihanian. She has ‘a passion for belly dancing’ and is ‘not afraid of fun’. I hate all those people who are afraid of fun. Sounds as if she's going to do Da Tempeste from Giulio Cesare by Danielle de Niese.

damegwynethjones: Gorgeous dress!

me: It is yellow, fashion fans. Why do this aria if you can't do coloratura?

damegwynethjones: Where is the Bollywood dance routine? She needs something to distract from the singing, as you say.

me: Nice stage presence. But all these noodles are * stern face* NOT. GOOD. ENOUGH.

damegwynethjones: I cannot believe she is one of the 20 best singers under 30, even in Canada. Better than Bulgaria but come on- not anything like the standard expected.

me: I think Miss Bulgaria did a better job than this. She has been both sharp and flat and not one run has come out cleanly.

damegwynethjones: I think Bulgaria's coloratura was better, but for me the basic production of this girl is healthier. Dreadful rep choice, may yet do something nice and lyrical quite well.

me: Well, we'll find out- here's Ach ich Fuhl's. Yep, this is much more the kind of thing she should be singing.

damegwynethjones: Better. Still exposing some weaknesses though.

me: It's just as hard in a different way, isn't it? * pundit face* And there she goes, totally ploughing the one small piece of coloratura in the whole thing. STEP AWAY FROM THE SEMIQUAVERS.

damegwynethjones: Coloratura comes down to facility, IMO, so I never really take it into account as a measure of a singer's technique or a piece's difficulty. So I'd say this aria is harder than the Cleopatra.

me: She redeemed herself at the end, which was lovely. But no, not really good enough. Still, she's gorgeous and moves well, so she'll be singing Abigaille at the Met before you know it /parterre

damegwynethjones: Yep. She'll be depriving Matos, Meade AND Hong of gainful employment.

me: Josie's right to call her expressive- everyone so far has been right inside the music. Nobody's sung it all that well, though.

damegwynethjones: What is Mary on about??

me: Too much gesture, apparently. I kind of know what she means. David Pountney's saying Miss Canada does a sort of 'ta-da!' at the end of each coloratura passage, which bugged me too.

damegwynethjones: No, I meant where she said the coloratura was good and suited her!

me: Bloody hell, I missed that. Now then. Einspringer time. Olga Kindler from Switzerland, replacing someone who fell ill. Olga is VERY Swiss, judging by her interview with Josie. Fuck me, she's doing Aida. Ah, I see. She's Ukrainian really. Swukranian.

damegwynethjones: Potentially very exciting...Finally some Wagner!

me: Dich Teure Halle is one of the three or so bits of Wagner I allow.

damegwynethjones: Because Gundula did it?

me: Well, Gundula helps. But mainly because I like the end. I note you haven't mentioned the frock, which it might be kindest to ignore.

damegwynethjones: Too distracted by the poodle hair-do.

me: Are you old enough to remember Crystal Tipps?

damegwynethjones: Doesn't ring any bells...


damegwynethjones: Spitting image!

me:She sang that very very well but not very nicely, I'd say. I think Aida is going to suit her better. Tone was a bit squally for Elisabeth.

damegwynethjones: Again, stuff to work on, not terribly exceptional a talent.

me: Beginning of 'Ritorna Vincitor' is exciting though. Chest voice!

damegwynethjones: Got her chest out for the lads there...

me: The top is IDENTICAL to Freni in heavier rep. Although Freni was over 50. OH MY GOD TRAIN CRASH OCTAVE DROP

damegwynethjones: I think this may be the same girl I heard ruin some songs in the Lieder round on R3 today. This is the best thing she has done. OMG yes!

me: Very good recovery though- she's produced some of her best singing since that calamity.

damegwynethjones: WTF was that? I'm not sure she's quite exactly like Freni, up top or anywhere else... she has got better though, you're right.

me: It's that slight leaning in to the top notes from below which was a trick of Freni's Aida/Tatyana/Elisabetta She's had to drop an octave again, poor girl.

damegwynethjones: Don't understand why. Poor thing. She didn't sound like she was in trouble. Mary will blame rep choice, yes?

me: She will. Maybe someone will say something about singing on the interest, not the capital. Josie did well there- asked about the flub then kindly reassured her. I can't really see her pulling that octave trick in, say, Naples and escaping with her life.

damegwynethjones: Ha! No. I think a wobbly hot mess up there would be preferable.

me: So- singer 5 to win, whoever he or she might be?

damegwynethjones: I think Meeta could win the round.

me: Now a summary of round one. BBC- please stop playing us Petrova cocking up the end of 'Acerba Volutta'. Thanks.

damegwynethjones: They're obsessed with the one duff note in her whole programme!

me: Marcela Gonzalez from Chile. Who loves basketball.

damegwynethjones: Rubbish coloratura in the rehearsal clip.

me: Bloody hell, is she doing 'Bel Raggio'?

damegwynethjones: Any top Es in this one?

me: After the first couple of phrases I kind of hope not.

damegwynethjones: Oh God she's really not up to it is she.

me: Nowhere close. She should be singing maybe Lauretta.

damegwynethjones: G&S might work.

me: She has a spread on her voice which shouldn't happen until the farewell Bolenas in 2040.

damegwynethjones: Quite. And it happes on the e on the stave, which is a dreadful sign.

me: Ha, I wonder if anyone has ever done 'Coppia Iniqua' in a competition. That would be sort of cool. (Not this lady though, pls)

damegwynethjones: Yes it would. I wonder if Leah Crocetto could be persuaded at this late stage.

me: Miss Chile's actually not bad at some of the runs, it's the Scotto-in-trouble high notes that are her downfall.

damegwynethjones: Yes, they were better than the preview indicated.

me: BZZZT! JE VEUX VIVRE KLAXON. I'm thinking of banning this aria when I'm Prime Minister.

damegwynethjones: It's exactly the same skills set as the Rossini, which makes it a doubly bad choice.

me: She's making a better fist of this, actually.

damegwynethjones: Meeta has to win.

me: Yep, but possibly not get to the final. Don't think she's as good as Vasile, for example.

damegwynethjones: Maybe. There is something about her that I really liked though.

me: Miss Chile's Gounod is much, much better than her Rossini. What a mental choice that was. Also, we should mention her looks, for she is muchly pretty.

damegwynethjones: Yes, but still not good enough. Pretty though, as you say.

me: Ah- she's dropped one of her arias and pulled out of the song prize. None of this should be happening at 24. Disturbingly, according to her post-match interview with Josie, she thinks it went really well.

damegwynethjones: Hakan [ED’S NOTE: Hagegard, one of the judges] is being a bit cryptic.

me: Look at that tubby elderly man who was the beautiful boy in the Bergman film of Zauberflote. Sigh. Time. The recap just makes it absolutely clear that Raval should win, doesn't it?

damegwynethjones: Yes. The others all had significant problems

me: And lo, she wins, despite the balloon plastic vibrato. Ha, I love her holding up the crystal bowl like it was the FA Cup.

damegwynethjones: I do think she's really good, and deserves success. Disarmingly free of any sort of artifice. Would be ever so nice if she did slow down the career and fix the transition to the top. Don't suppose she will though..."

Back to just me for heat three tonight, as J/Dame Gwyneth will be singing for a living when it's on. I'll hope to be able to update tonight, it's just a question of persuading the flatmate to allow 90 minutes of opera onto our telly, on the eve of his birthday... wish me luck.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Contains spoilers. Also singing.

Crikey, is it that time again? I had so much fun splurging stream-of-consciousness stuff about BBC Singer of the World 2009 that I can barely contain my excitement at getting to do it again. You lucky, lucky people.

Now, who was paying attention two years ago? You will remember that a very exciting Russian soprano called Ekaterina Scherbachenko won, largely off the back of a near-definitive account of – what else?- the Onegin letter scene. You’ll also remember an exciting Ukranian counter-tenor who was tipped for big things.

In the intervening two years I’ve heard precisely nothing of either of them, but let’s not start the evening on a pessimistic note. After all, Cardiff’s first ever winner- one Karita Mattila- is still going strong some 28 years after her triumph, and singers such as Bryn Terfel, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Franz Hawlata, Katerina Karneus and Anja Harteros present compelling evidence that this is a pretty good waiting room for stars of the future. I am of course two years older than I was in 2009- maybe you are too- and I will therefore be two years more horrified by 24 year olds than I was then.

Some other things you may remember from last time: not particularly probing interviews with Josie D’Arby in which all the contestants passionately claim never to have intended to be an opera singer; too much Fiesco from the basses, too much Juliette from the sopranos, too much everything from the baritones, not enough Strauss from anyone. Mary King will prove to be spot on in everything she says, and if they have been brave enough to invite back Tom Randle as one of the Shearer/Hansen/ Lawrenson figures, he will be hilariously, grumpily candid. Oh, and despite the fact that, there having been precisely no pre-publicity and so this will be pretty much the most self-selecting audience ever, the TV presentation will proceed from the assumption that its audience’s knowledge of opera stretches about as far as ‘I like that one from the car ad’. Expect to have fiendishly complex concepts like ‘soprano’ and ‘aria’ explained at length.

So, are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin.

What? What? SECOND round? When was the first? I am frantically checking the TV Guide but this is definitely the first broadcast, apart from a preview programme on Saturday*. Grr. Also- only 20 singers? Has Cardiff downsized?

With Petroc Trelawny are Mary King and Jonathan Lemalu, whose name I now know how to pronounce. Ah- and a friend of mine is currently working with the first contestant, and tells me very good things, so that’s exciting. Anna Leese is a soprano from New Zealand who we see throwing a rugby ball to Josie. Rugby is one of Anna’s passions (because opera singers aren’t allowed to like music) so Josie asks her to do a haka, which Anna politely refuses on grounds of cultural sensitivity. A quick rehearsal clip of Rusalka is promising, and it’s with the Song to the Moon that she will start. This aria is so closely connected for me with my father’s last stage play (which I was in) that I will probably cry. Fair warning. Very good start from Leese, the tone quality itself is lovely, although this aria is all about *that* phrase, of course…

…which she slightly muffs. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s a bit careful, not rapturous, doesn’t transport. The top of her voice is less interesting than the middle, by the sound of things. The big melody goes better second time, but I’m not quite sold on this voice. It’s good, well-schooled, nice-sounding singing, and I don’t mean that as faint praise. It just doesn’t have whatever is needed to go straight to the heart. ‘Donde lieta usci’ now, and she has noticeably lightened her voice for Mimi, which scores points with me. This is lovely, much more successful than the Rusalka, but still unmoving, although I suppose it’s quite tough to do that in concert. She’s sung Musetta, apparently, which I think might suit her better temperamentally.

Oooh, she’s finishing with the ‘Vespri’ Bolero. That’s a ballsy choice. Once again, though, what we get is correct singing from a nice voice, and not a great deal else. There’s no playfulness, the coloratura is sung because that’s what’s in the score rather than to express anything (and is, alas, a little laboured). Leese is a very proficient singer, but in the last analysis not enough of a communicator for me.

Mary King thought Mimi was Leese’s best performance, which proves that I am right and know everything. Up next is Vazgen Ghazaryan, a bass from Armenia. We meet him playing the bongos with Josie, because he really wants to be a rock drummer. Josie underlines this by asking him to sing a bit of Bohemian Rhapsody.

He’s starting with Mefistofele. Good lad, that’s an unhackneyed choice among the Fiescos and Filippos. He’s immediately got more personality than Leese, but a less interesting voice. It’s lightish for a bass, lacking in resonance, and he gets in real trouble at the bottom. He’s almost the opposite of Leese- lacking in voice, he’s selling the number on charisma. He’s not going to win, though. And I have a horrible feeling we may have one of those ‘characterful’ Leperellos or Basilios on the way. Good, we don’t- not yet, anyway, we’re getting ‘Aleko’ instead. And the old ethnic entitlement kicks in- he’s a much better singer in Russian than in Italian. Even the tone quality is suddenly richer. Boring aria though, innit? A couple of husky, gritty throat moments which I suspect were more audible on telly than in the hall. He also runs out of breath at the end, but cannily disguises it as emotion. That was a fine performance, though, all told. Now we have Banquo’s aria, which I heard belted out wonderfully by Raymond Aceto in the Covent Garden HD Macbeth last night. Again, the voice is much more resonant than in the Boito, so perhaps we were dealing with nerves, or Ghazaryan was overdoing the diabolical. This is his most generalized performance in acting terms, and he’s no Aceto as yet, but this is decent singing. Decent, though; not exciting. Lemalu likes his rep choice, and I agree. Mary felt that he didn’t jump the footlights, which is interesting; perhaps he was more animated in close-up than from the back of the stalls.

Oleysa Petrova next, a Russian mezzo, so she has the memory of the Elenas and the Irinas and the Olgas to conjure with. She doesn’t have to play props with Josie, or say that she didn’t want to be a singer, so that’s nice. And she’ll be singing in six languages, the big show off. Wow, and ‘Mon coeur’ to kick off. My mother, who used to sing this as a student, tells me that the top of this aria doesn’t feel as high to sing as it sounds (it’s only a G or something anyway, isn’t it?) so it may be a cunning choice- something which sounds more impressive than it is difficult.

Heh, you knew exactly what she was going to sound like, right? She sounds just exactly like a Russian mezzo. Rich, lush, vibratoey. It’s a smashing sound, although for a seduction this isn’t very, well, sexy. If you didn’t know the aria you’d think it was maybe nostalgia for the old homestead, or perhaps a lullaby. It’s lovely, lovely singing though. And now a bit of the Joan Crawfords, or at least I hope so- we’re getting the Princess of Stock Cube from ‘Adriana’. So Petrova’s going for the full ‘you remember Obratzsova, right? You know Borodina’s Russian?’ This is terrific vocally as well, but, again, a little more placid than one might like. Polite verismo is a kind of oxymoron and this is crying out for a good old dollop of vulgarity. She’ll have wanted the end to go better, the top didn’t quite do what she wanted it to. Nonetheless, she’s tonight’s clear winner so far. Mary and Jonathan are almost speechless with admiration. Backstage interview with Josie reveals an immensely likeable, bubbly personality. Mary is keen to point out to the TV audience that Petrova’s is a huge voice.

Maria Radoeva now, from Bulgaria, who balances singing with motherhood, is honest enough to admit that she was very young to become a mother, and shows us a pic of an adorable toddler (on a rather spiffily new iphone 4- it’s lucrative this opera lark). She appears to be singing ‘Agitata da due venti’, the brave, crazy woman, and in its first mis-step of the evening the band launches it very flabbily. She’s exciting though, this one (although surely she can’t have intended to sing the huge intervals in the second phrase to ‘da-da-da’?). Touch of the Pendatchanskas in her tone quality and her fearlessness. It’s such a pig of a sing, though. Mary isn’t sure she pulled it off, and I know what she means. Musetta now, which should be fun. WHOA THERE LADY YOU ARE SHARP (only for the very first phrase though, as it turns out). She has plenty of what was missing from Petrova’s Dalila- I can kind of see how she ended up pregnant, if you know what I mean. This aria is such a winner. If you can remotely sing and remotely act, you’ll knock it out of the park, as she proceeds to do, moments of suspect intonation aside. She finishes with the Alleluia from Exultate Jubilate, which is ok. Not great, not bad, and Petrova won’t be quaking in her boots. The coloratura is much cleaner than in the Vivaldi- perhaps she should have done them the other way round (or, in the case of the Viv, not at all?). It turns out that I am AWESOME at whistling the Vivaldi aria though, so I’m grateful to her for that.

Serban Vasile from Romania now. He’s a baritone, so 2009 suggests he will overact Largo al Factotum and then do some Korngold. Josie calls on her RADA training (she won the Gold Award, too) to give him an acting masterclass. He’s starting with ‘Rivolgete’, the alternative Guglielmo aria. Actually, all of the programmes tonight have been pretty imaginative, perhaps too much so in Radoeva’s case. This fella is a little blustery, Shimell-like. Well, I don’t mean blustery, really, because that sounds too critical, but that kind of vibrato. You know what I mean. He’s nicely responsive to the libretto, which I suppose is where all the acting talk with Josie came from. The boys are the actors tonight, and the girls have the voices. He’s finishing with Onegin, thus flouting the Code of The Baritones by avoiding mugging his way through the Rossini. I am very grateful for this. Tchaikovsky suits his tone better than Mozart, and I’d be very happy to see and hear him in this part. He looks right, acts it well and finds a nice legato which wasn’t really there for the Mozart. There’s nothing he can do about tonight’s result, though; I’ll eat my hat if it’s not Petrova. Mary thinks he’s a good casting for Onegin as well, which confirms my position as Emperor Of Punditry.

Petroc is pretty blatantly calling it for Petrova, but Mary and Jonathan have words of praise for some of the other singers, especially Vasile. Both pundits agree that tonight is mezzo night.

Which it proves to be. She’ll be in the final, too.

I’m out doing young people things tomorrow, so will have to catch up on iplayer on Thursday. Possess your souls in patience until then.

By the way, despite my light-hearted grumbles, the BBC’s coverage seems greatly improved this year. Then they go and spoil it all by closing the show with a re-run of the end of the Cilea, so very obviously the winner’s weakest moment. Sigh.

*don't know why they called it the second round, it was clearly the first