After a week of world-class singing and music-making, the final of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World took place on June 21 at St David’s Hall. Steph Power was there to hear which of the five exceptional finalists (Amartuvshin Enkhbat, Lauren Michelle, Oleksiy Palchykov, Nadine Koutcher and Jongmin Park) would be announced competition winner, and to find out who would win the vote in the Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize. In her review of the concert, she offers some closing thoughts on the competition in 2015 and beyond.
Now that the dust has settled following the excitement of the week-long BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, it is clear that the standard for 2015 was exceptionally high across the board. Many of the contestants arrived with international careers already established, and those that did not will surely have the chance to head that way soon, thanks to the world-wide media and industry exposure afforded each of the twenty singers, and especially the five finalists who took to the St David’s Hall stage on June 21, and the three competition winners: South Korean bass Jongmin Park, winner of the Song Prize on June 19; Amartuvshin Enkhbat, the Mongolian baritone who won the popular vote to claim the Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize; and, above all, soprano Nadine Koutcher from Belarus, who won the coveted Main Prize to be crowned BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2015.
As ever, the BBC flexed their corporate muscles to ensure coverage across radio, TV and the internet, albeit for the most part consisting of highlights. Standout programmes were Iain Burnside’s excellent BBC Radio 3 coverage of the Song Prize recitals, and Wynne Evans’s daily up-date show on BBC Radio Wales with soprano Rebecca Evans, which was highly entertaining as well as informative. On social media especially, there was a barrage of public opinion offered as to the respective merits of the singers and results – much of which seems to have been based on watching performances on BBC4 rather than hearing the concerts live in Cardiff. Whether or not that matters is itself open to debate, but the entire on-screen phenomenon is symptomatic of the increasingly rapid reinvention of mainstream opera as a form of TV spectacle, with live cinema relays and internet streaming now an established part of life for many of the bigger houses.
Personally, I find there is something bizarre (although not necessarily ‘lesser’) about the notion of watching TV highlights of opera highlights – never mind those that have been plucked out of context and onto a concert platform to be sung in gladiatorial combat, as if in some postmodern twist on Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. On the other hand, put like that, dare I suggest the entire process sounds somehow… operatic and therefore apropos? In any case, opera as an art form will no doubt continue to grow and evolve, contrary to the fears of those who prophecy its demise. For what it’s worth, my own hope going forward with opera is that we see less predictable rehashing of old warhorse repertoire, and more new, contemporary pieces being composed and produced live in as many creatively diverse ways as possible. It would be terrific, for instance, to see more – and thornier – twentieth century opera encouraged at Cardiff Singer, as the risk is that this and other competitions inadvertently end up promoting the narrowly conservative elements of the profession in their bid to push young singers into popular public arenas.
Happily, for the many loyal devotees who flock from far and wide to attend Cardiff Singer in person every two years, the core of the competition as a live celebration of the art of classical singing remains intact – at least for now. Throughout the week, there were dark mutterings from audience stalwarts about the seeming lottery of a new judging system in which one finalist was selected from each of the four concert heats, regardless of their standard in relation to other singers from other rounds, with one ‘wild card’ allotted a fifth place in the final (in 2015, that honour went to Jongmin Park). But all that was forgotten in the excitement of Sunday evening, when the atmosphere in the hall was charged with expectation at the prospect of hearing the five superb singers who had made it through to the final, whatever the perceived rights and wrongs of the selection process.
Many assumed the fight for the prize would ultimately come down to two singers generally held to be the strongest: Amartuvshin Enkhbat and Nadine Koutcher. As with the final for the Song Prize, Enkhbat was first on stage – and once again he showed what a magnificent, once-in-a-generation voice he possesses. But, as Chair of the Judges David Pountney later noted in a general comment, there is a difference between having a great voice and being a great singer. Whilst Enkhbat’s ‘Eri tu’ from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera was rich in vocal charisma, he did not inhabit the role dramatically – and his German phraseology in the preceding ‘Wie Todesahnung…O du mein holder Abendstern’ from Wagner’s Tannhäuser was not the most convincing. Perhaps ironically, the aria that suited him best this evening was his first: the Prologue from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, in which Tonio the clown movingly bemoans the lot of those who are expected to don masks whatever their inner nature in order to entertain others. Unquestionably, Enkhbat would make a fantastic recording artist, and was a most deserving winner of the Audience Prize; he has a voice that is rare and precious in its pure, liquid sound. Whether or not his stand-and-deliver style is deemed sufficiently malleable for the kind of acting now demanded of opera singers remains to be seen.
American soprano Lauren Michelle followed the Mongolian with a programme of Massenet, Korngold and Mozart that never quite attained the dramatic daring of the ‘Sempre libra’ that won her her place in the final. Indeed, ‘Oh furie…D’Oreste’ from Idomeneo was almost insouciant by comparison to the defiant fire she had conjured in Verdi’s heroine just a few days earlier. Which is not to say that the performance was insipid; far from it, with ‘Glück das mir verlieb’ from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt exceptional in its lush colouring, poise and beautifully drawn-out lines. Michelle is undoubtedly a great actor-singer to watch – especially so given the refreshing boldness she has shown in both interpretation and choice of repertoire.
Few would have expected the Ukrainian Oleksiy Palchykov to have pulled off the high-energy, high-drama performance he achieved this evening at St David’s Hall, given the crazy schedule which had seen him singing in Paris the two nights preceding the final, on top of a full-on week of Cardiff Singer. Sustained by adrenaline and a kind of excited-puppy delight, the tenor endeared the audience with his performance of Mozart, Donizetti and Flotow, culminating in the most heartfelt, blazing rendition of ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’ from Lehár’s The Land of Smiles. If it were possible to win Cardiff Singer by giving 120%, this performance would surely have taken the prize. Rocking forwards onto the balls of his feet, Palchykov cajoled, implored, and generally embodied the deliriously besotted lover with some very fine singing indeed, surpassing his previous bel canto efforts by far.
The one other competitor to win over the audience as the tenor did on this occasion was last to appear on stage, Jongmin Park, with a superbly characterised ‘La calumnia’ from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. This was his middle piece, and he produced a very canny performance indeed following a ‘Confutatis maledictus’ from Verdi’s Requiem that was rather undistinguished for one with such a distinguished, sonorous voice (although there is no reason why such a piece shouldn’t work in this competition, which need not be restricted to operatic arias). Park’s Dr Bartolo was witty, wicked and deliciously sung, building to a crescendo which brought the house down, causing many to wonder whether he would provide a wild card win for the evening.
But, whilst Park stuck to an-Italian programme comfortably within his capacity, the evening’s eventual winner chose to take risks with her repertoire. And not all of them came off entirely – which only goes to prove that perfection per se is not necessarily the most important quality sought by the Cardiff Singer of the World judges. To my mind, Nadine Koutcher was the only possible winner from this nonetheless vintage gathering of finalists. The Belarus soprano clearly set out to dazzle the audience with her extraordinary coloratura, but – understandably – she seemed nervous, and took some time to settle into her highly ambitious opening aria, ‘Ach, ich liebte’ from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. However, there was expressive pain and sorrow aplenty within the fireworks, and, by the time she sang the famous ‘Bell Song’ from Delibes’s Lakmé, she had warmed both her voice and the audience in a way which transcended any fleeting issues of pitch or clarity of passagework – at least, that is, for many of those within the hall.
In ‘Marfa’s Aria’ from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride, Koutcher proved she is very far from simply a pyrotechnics specialist on the one hand, or mere ‘all-rounder’ on the other, with a performance of ravishing dramatic lyricism. Her voice may not be so rare as Enkhbat’s, but it is a wonderful instrument, possessing great flexibility of range, intensity, and yet lightness when the need arises. It is how she uses her voice that made the difference for me in the competition; how she applies it in deeply intelligent service of the role such that one could see and feel the mirage of Lykov as Marfa / Koutcher conjured him. Not that this is anything to do with the Judges’ criteria, but, of all the candidates in this spellbinding final, Koutcher is the one whom I could imagine truly able to blossom in the most challenging areas of contemporary repertoire, as well as in those roles from the past which we already know and love so deeply.
Whatever directions she and her colleagues choose to go in from here, I wish each of the superb Cardiff Singer of the World finalists the very best of careers to come.
Amartuvshin Enkhbat (baritone, 29, Mongolia)
Lauren Michelle (soprano, 31, USA)
Oleksiy Palchykov (tenor, 29, Ukraine)
Nadine Koutcher (soprano, 32, Belarus)
Jongmin Park (bass, 28, South Korea)
Illustration by Dean Lewis
Steph Power is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.