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