Steph Power was at a welcoming and excited St David’s Hall for the Main Prize Concert 2 of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition.
There are all sorts of music competitions held the world over, and many people enjoy participating in or watching them – and of course the winners enjoy winning them. But competitions are by no means universally approved of. The great pianist Mitsuko Uchido, for instance, once said ‘I hate competitions. They always produce the safe choice everyone can agree on.’ Well, maybe, in some musical arenas. But I’m guessing that few, if any, BBC Cardiff Singer of the World contests have produced a controversy-free winner – either at the heat stages or the finals. And I don’t believe the competition would survive long if it tried to do so, were it even possible.
One of the most intense areas of debate concerns repertoire. Of all the possible arias, which to choose? Bearing in mind that each will be plucked out of its operatic context and onto the concert platform in sequence, demanding that the singer step from one musical style and characterisation to another at a moment’s regrouping. In each case, and together as a programme, the arias need to showcase the voice to best advantage without over-reaching the singer’s stamina, range or depth of experience. These are questions of vocal technique and musical and emotional preparedness – and only on stage will the wisdom or otherwise of the singers’ choices truly become clear.
Taking as read that all twenty of the Cardiff Singer competitors are exceptional singers, of the five contestants in the second Main Prize concert, no one candidate was outstanding in all departments. And the differences seemed as much as anything to pivot around their hugely contrasting choices of repertoire, which made for an intriguing, tense and hugely enjoyable occasion.
It was an evening of high voices, with tenors from Malta and South Korea slotted between sopranos from South Africa, Wales and the USA, supported throughout by the exceptional playing of the Welsh National Opera Orchestra under conductor Martyn Brabbins. South Africa’s Kelebogile Besong was on first, starting with a haughty insistence on the virtues of fidelity via Mozart’s ‘Come soglio’ (The Marriage of Figaro) and thence to protestations of innocence via Verdi’s ‘Morrò, ma prima in grazia’ (Un ballo in maschera). Neither were convincing, partly because the arias felt too big for Besong’s nonetheless fine, clear voice, with high notes and passage work flung out but not always supported.
The same felt true of the ‘Jewel Song’ from Gounod’s Faust. However, in ‘The heart is never satisfied’, a clearly cherished song by the South African composer, Mzili Khumalo, telling of the Zulu Princess Magogo, Besong rose to deliver a performance of poignancy and depth. Here she took the audience on an exquisite journey into what for most would have been brand new cultural territory. Regardless of the competition outcome, it was a memorable experience, and a welcome expansion into the less familiar.
Nico Darmanin from Malta piqued the audience’s interest with his initially cheeky-chappy tenor persona, but his Italian programme proved patchy in delivery, with a sojourn into Mozart, as Don Giovanni’s Don Ottavio (‘Dalla sua pace’) lacking in substance and control. He had started well, bringing a light elasticity to Verdi’s lothario, the Duke of Mantua, in ‘Questa o quella’ (Rigoletto). But, by his next Verdi aria, the love song ‘Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola’ (Falstaff), the voice had tired, he struggled with vocal dryness and his passage work blurred untidily.
Yet the timbre of Darmanin’s voice (albeit somewhat hard-edged) is clearly suited to Italian repertoire, and he rallied to finish with an item that showed where he is naturally heading – into bel canto realms. A final ‘Tu seconda’ from Rossini’s Il turco in Italia was delivered with determination and polish – not to mention squarely hit top B-flats – in a way that made me wish he had opted for more of the same rather than the Mozart, if only from a listener’s point of view.
There was delight from the hall at the arrival on stage of the Welsh candidate – also by far the youngest at 25 – Céline Forrest. Though one of the joys of the Cardiff Singer audience is its lack of overt partisanship, and the welcome it extended to its own was mirrored by that offered to all comers to the stage. Forrest’s opening ‘Dove sono’ from Mozart’s ‘Figaro was hugely ambitious for one so relatively inexperienced, but her voice had a lovely, warm quality, and she proved a superb natural communicator.
Rather than tiring post-Mozart as could so easily have happened, as the programme progressed she felt more and more an exciting lyric-dramatic soprano in the making, the voice somewhat unfocused at times, but with Puccini’s ‘Donde lieta usci’ (La bohème) sounding beautifully unforced ahead of a charming ‘Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangeen’ (from Weber’s Der Freischütz) – and some delectable French singing in Gounod’s so-called ‘poison aria’ from Roméo et Juliette. On this showing, Forrest would make a very deserving wild card entry indeed to Sunday’s final.
Three of the candidates experienced problems with intonation – including the eventual winner early on, who was not thrown by the experience and overcame it. Both the tenors were blighted by tuning woes, but especially the otherwise wonderfully poised Jaeyoon Jung from South Korea, whose opening Donizetti (‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from L’elisir d’amore) went badly adrift in the cadenza. It was a great pity, for this was a magical voice, lacking in artifice but rather with a rich fullness and an unspoiled colour and on-stage simplicity – all delivered with bang-on Italian diction and resounding top Cs. In a (too) short programme, Richard Strauss (the Italian tenor from Der Rosenkavalier) was followed by Puccini – and it was Jung’s passionate Rodolpho (from La bohème) that had the audience cheering.
Last in this concert turned out to be very much not least. The striking presence of the American soprano, Lauren Michelle, was matched by her boldness of repertoire and interpretation and, for me, it was her sheer fierceness and grandeur that clinched the victory in the face of an uneven delivery across the programme. She took a thrillingly fresh approach, with a second living composer this evening counted amongst the usual composer suspects, albeit from the least challenging end of the stylistic spectrum. Carlisle Floyd’s ‘Ain’t it a pretty night’ (from the 1955 opera Susannah) took a while to settle, but was delivered overall with great confidence and style.
Including Britten’s ‘Embroidery Aria’ (Peter Grimes) in the programme was laudably courageous – and its performance was very nearly superb but for further intonation struggles and the unclear diction that had dogged the Floyd. However, in Verdi’s famous ‘Sempre libra’ (La traviata), Michelle took off with a rendition that crackled with defiance, far from the yearning victim-to-be we usually get at this point in the opera. Her coloratura was sure, definite, liberating – and, most importantly, applied in service of the role, as she proved a formidable singing actress. Not a perfect winner by any means, but a very worthy one, and it will be fascinating to see what, if any, surprises she brings to Sunday’s Final here at St David’s Hall.
Kelebogile Besong (soprano, 28, South Africa)
Nico Darmanin (tenor, 30, Malta)
Céline Forrest (soprano, 25, Wales)
Jaeyoon Jung (tenor, 31, South Korea)
Lauren Michelle (soprano, 31, USA)
Welsh National Opera Orchestra, conducted by Martyn Brabbins
Illustration by Dean Lewis