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Commentary

Placido Domingo, Lise Davidsen and Ioan Hotea [Photo by Alastair Muir]
23 Jul 2015

Operalia 2015

‘Competitions are for horses, not artists.’ The words of Béla Bartók seemed apposite on Sunday night at the Royal Opera House, as 11 soloists walked swiftly onto the Covent Garden stage, performed their chosen aria, briefly acknowledged the applause and then returned summarily to the wings.

Operalia 2015

By Claire Seymour

Above: Placido Domingo, Lise Davidsen and Ioan Hotea

Photos by Alastair Muir

 

Captions indicated the singer’s name and aria title; images were projected onto the backdrop to set the ‘context’; rudimentary lighting weakly strove to establish mood. There were no surtitles. What was there to distinguish proceedings from one of Simon Cowell’s TV talent shows? Watching this conveyor belt of vocalists, I wondered why a young singer would put his or herself through a sort of operatic cattle-show which offered little chance to show one’s range and diversity or to achieve any ‘meaningful’ communication with the audience.

But, as Operalia’s founder Plácido Domingo remarks, even for the most gifted the world of professional opera is complex and challenging, and sometimes ‘very distressing to the point that sometimes a remarkable talent can pass by unnoticed’. Operalia was established in 1993 ‘to discover and help launch the careers of the best young opera singers’ — singers ranging from 18 to 32 years of age, of all voice tessituras and from every country in the world. And, it seems to be fulfilling its ambition to give vocal talent a leg-up, with singers such as Nina Stemme, Joyce DiDonato, Rolando Villazón, Erwin Schrott Brian Asawa, José Cura, Joseph Calleja, Ailyn Perez, Olga Peretyatko and Sonya Yoncheva coming to prominence at the competition in the early stages of their careers. Moreover, if the superficiality of this vocal parade was somewhat unedifying, then there was at least some compensation in that, having reached this final stage of the competition, all were in a sense winners — and that the contracts will not necessarily go to the official award recipients but to those who make an impression on, not only jury members such as Anthony Freud (General Director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago), Jonathan Friend (Artistic Administrator at the Metropolitan Opera), Joan Matabosch (Artistic Director at the Teatro Real in Madrid) and Jean-Louis Grinda (Director at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo), but also on other scouting impresarios and record producers.

Placido-Domingo-and-Operalia-2015-Winners_(c)-Alastair-Muir.pngPlacido Domingo with the winners of Operalia 2015

Previously held in various cities around the globe, the Operalia Finals reached London for the first time this year. After three days of preliminary rounds involving 40 contestants drawn from 21 countries, the 11 finalists gathered at the Royal Opera House for the concluding round. Each participant sings one aria, accompanied by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Domingo (the event was live-streamed by Medici TV). Born in Madrid to parents who were stars of the zarzuela, Domingo has also established a Zarzuela competition in honour of his parents and to encourage singers to work in this art form; 5 of the 11 singers also presented an aria in the Zarzuela competition.

Much clearly depends on the soloist’s choice of aria; somewhat disappointingly, but not surprisingly, all bar one of the singers selected from the French and Italian nineteenth-century repertoire. The exception chose Wagner.

And aria-choices did prove influential. The two First Prizes, for Best Male and Best Female Singer, went to Romanian tenor Ioan Hotea and Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen. Davidsen had to wait until the end of the roll call to perform ‘Dich teure Halle’ from Tannhäuser but this clearly had no effect on her nerves, and she thrilled with a towering performance of majestic power and penetration. Her plush sound was pin-point accurate and her technical assurance unwavering, though it was rather a stand-and-deliver performance. Davidsen has made a habit of winning prizes of late, including the Léonie Sonning Music Prize, Danish Singers Award 2014 and the Kristin Flagstad Award 2015. She was also, just a couple of weeks ago, a triple winner at the 2015 Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition in Amsterdam, where she picked up Second Prize as well as the Prize of the International Media and the Audience Prize. On this occasion, she also won the Audience Prize (a Rolex watch — courtesy of the sponsors) and the Birgit Nilsson Prize) for performances in German repertoire by Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner).

Hotea’s ‘Ah mes amis’ from La Fille du regiment confirmed both his courage and his ability to firmly nail the nine top-Cs. In Donizetti’s showpiece and in the Zarzuela competition — where his performance of Seranno’s ‘La roca fria del calvario’ from La Dolorosa won him his second First Prize of the evening — Hotea also used his bright shining tenor to engage the audience and convey role and situation, something which both of the American baritones participating, Edward Parks (who had the tough job of opening the competition and was awarded Third Prize) and Tobias Greenhalgh found more challenging in ‘Largo al factotum’ (Rossini, Il barbiere di Siviglia). New Zealand tenor Darren Pene Pati made a big impact with his honey-toned rendition of ‘Tombe degli avi miei’ from Lucia di Lammermoor: with his endearing, relaxed voice and engaging manner, Pene Pati was the foreseeable and worthy recipient of the Audience Prize for Best Male Singer.

The remaining male participants, French tenor Julien Behr — who sang Gounod’s ‘Salut! Demeure chaste et pure’ from Faust with charm but without strong impact — and South-African bass-baritone Bongani Justice Kubheka — who struggled with some of the upper notes in ‘La calumnia’ (Il barbiere) and occasionally lost his grip on the orchestral safety-reins (though Domingo was not particularly helpful to his singers) — did not quite have the necessary technical arsenal at their disposal.

Among the female competitors, Australian Kiandra Howarth (who as a Jette Parker Young Artist is familiar with the Covent Garden stage) impressed with an impassioned rendition of ‘Amour, ranime mon courage’ (Gounod, Faust) showing the diverse colours of her soprano; Howarth was awarded the Culturarte Prize (chosen and offered by Bertita and Guillermo Martinez from CulturArte de Puerto Rico). American soprano Andrea Carroll was persuasive in the Zarzuela round, giving a vivid performance of ‘Al pensar en el dueño de mis amores’ (Chapi, Las hijas de Zebedeo) after a slightly nervous ‘Qui la voce’ (Bellini, Il Puritani) in the main competition. Noluvuyiso Mpofo from South Africa held my attention in ‘É strano, è strano … Sempre libera’ (Verdi, La Traviata) and was awarded Third Prize.

In ‘Il dolce suono’ from Donizetti’s Lucia Korean Hyesang Park revealed a sparkling soprano more than capable of scaling the coloratura heights; she worked hard to establish character too, though I found her posing and gesturing rather mannered — particularly so in the zarzuela ‘No sé que siento aqui’ (Fernández Caballero, Château Margaux). Hyesang Park carried off both Second Prize and the Zarzuela prize, but I could not understand why she was permitted to perform the whole of Donizetti’s mad scene, cabaletta and all, which at 20 minutes or so gave her a platform equal to that of all four preceding participants combined, and thus the opportunity to show her vocal diversity. If there is no rule on the length of aria, then perhaps there should be.

Claire Seymour

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