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.