I mean, I doubt there’s anyone still here. It was October the last time I put interpen to cyberpaper. I’m not really sure why the gap has been so long- I’ve been busy dahn the Nash and that, but I don’t think that’s the only or even the main reason for radio silence. On occasion I’ve felt sufficiently hyped-up about something to start a blog post, and then almost immediately have felt a kind of resignation about it. ‘Do you really think someone hasn’t already said that better?’ says the anger-or-devil-I-haven’t-decided on my shoulder as I start to spout off about equal marriage or food banks or online etiquette or whatever it is I’ve started to type. The result is that I tend to find myself halfway through some tortuously made point and then give up and go off to make a pie* or something.
But no pie here tonight, no siree. Tonight we have the sacred responsibility to blog-as-live the first heat of a competition which has genuine starmaking potential- after all, our last two winners, Valentina Nafornita and Elena Scherbachenko are never off our screens, right? They are so world famous that they dine solely on swan and whole airports are cleared whenever they even ponder going anywhere.
Heavy-handed sarcasm aside, it is tempting to wonder if Cardiff still has the clout it once did. Scherbachenko has certainly made a career on the back of her victory- singing at the Met, La Scala, and as an apparently disappointing Mimi at Glyndebourne- but may not be quite where she’d have imagined, four years on. Nafornita has been even quieter (by which I mean I’ve not heard what she’s up to: she could be alternating Turandot and Siegfried somewhere) and even trusty old Operabase can’t tell me what she’s been doing, although someone on Parterre mentioned something about a Mimi somewhere. It’s this kind of rigorous research that keeps people flocking back here, I know.
At any rate, it seems to me that this has become more of a rubber-stamp for singers already on their way (Scherbachenko had sung Tatiana at the Bolshoi before entering, ffs) than the opportunity to uncover untried youngsters that it was, or at least felt like, back in the day. That I have heard of at least two of this year’s entrants- and one, Jamie Barton, is doing well enough to need the boost of this competition precisely not at all- may be a sign of the times. Or just a completely unsubstantiated theory, but hey. Barton’s certainly someone I’m looking forward to hearing and seeing. A friend-of-the-blog has also had encouraging things to say about another Katherine Broderick, the English entrant who has been the last two Donne Anna at ENO (check THAT out for a precious compound plural) so hopes are high where she’s concerned.
Where hopes aren’t high: The Joserview, if she’s back. It’s not her fault but I’ve banged on before about how Josie d’Arby is always determined (or briefed) to get contestants to say that they never had any interest in being a boring old opera singer and they’re only here because their dream job of space astronaut/ ice-skating trampolinist/ porn fluffer etc etc etc fell through for some reason. It’s always time which would be better spent seeing a bit more of their actual performance.
Where hopes also aren’t high: that young girl from Verona, who wants to live in this dream, per M. Gounod. If I hear one more ‘Je Veux Vivre’ I’ll give her the bloody poison meself. Having said which, that was just 2011’s irritant. Maybe there will be an irritating glut of a different aria this year (last time, the Vespri Bolero was getting close). It could be that, by Friday, I’ll be saying ‘If I hear ‘Ich sah’ das kind’ or ‘To this we’ve come’ ONE MORE TIME... Except that won’t happen.
Final worry: someone, one night, will attempt some coloratura they have no business going near, in the manner of the crazed Chilean Semiramide of 2011. To be honest, I’m not dreading this one, so much as secretly hoping for it.
Also, I hope the judges are sat on big red leather swivel chairs, have to press a button to turn round for any singer they like, and join in the arias showoffishly in the manner of Jessie J and Danny The Nodding Irish Twat.
So, preamble over, here we go!
…with a heat which has already been spoilered for me. I will attempt to keep things tense and unpredictable but could quite easily lapse into ‘grumpily sulky’ at any moment. I hate it when it’s not a surprise. Humph.
Titles: the music is seemingly borrowed from one of the darker chase scenes from a later Harry Potter- stabbing chords, mumbling chorus, you know the deal. We are flying around Cardiff on our Quidditch sticks, while MASSIVE OPERA SINGERS are projected onto public buildings, SINGING. Soundlessly, of course. Drama! Excitement! No Actual Opera!
Nice intro with Dame K and- look!- there’s Nafornita, telling a sweet but slightly random story about how when she won, her sister told her she had won. So that’s nice. Then we cut to Petroc Trelawny, with a salt-and-pepper beard like a footballer who has just taken the decision to become a manager. He introduces Mary King, always a worthwhile panelist, and David Pountney, who was Killing Opera with Big Machines when I was a teenager, if you believed the press (he has since handed over the job to Robert Lepage, I hear). Then a quick Josie before we meet the panel and I cry a little over how old Neil Shicoff is now.
And there are going to be some competitors! Chinese tenor Yi Li, the aforementioned Broderick and Barton, Marko Mimica from OH HELLO HERE’S MY PHONE NUMBER, um, I mean Croatia, and, starting us off, Kiwhan Sim, a Korean bass with hipster specs.
Oh, babies! I had forgotten the bit where the competitors show Josie their babies. Last time it was on their phones, this time on iPads. In 2015 we’ll just get snaps of opera singers’ babies beamed into our heads by the power of holograms and thought.
He’s giving us ‘Non piu andrai’, which is close to being on the forbidden list, but he’s got a lovely rich voice and a certain amount of personality- although ‘smiling and hands in pockets’ isn’t quite enough for this most misleadingly playful of arias. Yep, as the aria goes on I have found myself checking the earlier part of this post for typos, which isn’t a great start. I think he’d probably make a decent job of the whole part, but he was just a little dullish in concert.
Bit of Bizet, now. I’ve been to Perth many times, which has affected my take on his opera about the Jolie Fille therefrom. I always picture her in the grim shopping centre, flicking chips about outside River Island. Anyway, this is a nice piece of singing, and yes, I said nice, and yes, that’s double-edged. He’s not doing anything wrong, and really the voice is lovely, but he doesn’t compel. He’s in a wee bit of trouble at the bottom of his range, too.
We are now getting La Calunnia, which Petroc informs us is sung by Dr Bartolo. I’m sure there’ll be some kind of ‘spot the deliberate mistake' competition, later, right? I mean they wouldn’t get something that easy that wrong in an actual written link, would they? Personality again from Sim, but that equates to the same twinkly smile and relaxed body language we had in Non Piu Andrai. His Basilio (you’re welcome, Petroc) and his Figaro are the same person. Shame he doesn’t manage the ‘…far crepar’ section in one breath, but then we can’t all be Giorgio Tozzi. In fact, hardly any of us can.
‘Lovely voice, not enough character’ say Pountney and King, agreeing with me, because I’m right.
Eh? What? There are going to be two South Koreans? That hasn’t happened before. I mean with any country, not just SK. Seoul singers!
Katherine Broderick now, who by the sound of her VT has a slightly stressed dramatic soprano and a glorious folk voice. She’s starting with ‘O Sachs mein freund’, which is a canny choice for a baby dramatic and gives her the chance to impress on the first phrase, which she duly does, opening up to a slightly unlovely but very secure top. She’s an impressive actor too, doing less externally than Sim ever did but inhabiting her character more fully. She means it.
Now we get (some of) Tatiana, courtesy of a rather brutal edit. I know it’s too long an aria to show in full, but we did crash in a little ( at ‘Drugoi!’). For once, I’d be tempted to edit shorter on this one, and just give us the ‘guardian angel’ bit- an easier in. Wait, I’m supposed to be talking about the singing, which is rather lovely. The slight glinty edge on her tone which wasn’t quite radiant enough for Eva is very suitable for Tatiana. It’s a rather Russian-sounding voice all round, in fact, I’d say. And again, her acting is very touching. Look, I’m not going to say ‘innig’ because I’m not a tosser, but you get me, yes? And as the climax of the aria proves, she can open up the throttle when she needs to be, um ‘outig’, too. She gets a huge ovation and a justified one, and certainly puts Sim’s performance into perspective when it comes to the overall standard. I knew I’d like her, because friend-of-the-blog does, and he’s right about everything except Scotto. King and Pountney agree with me AGAIN. Buy an opinion of your own, hey, guys?
Quick break to interview Karita Mattila, looking not unlike a lively Come Dine With Me host, about what it was like to win 30 years ago, and then a few moments of the spectacular Or Sai Chi L’Onore she won it with. You just sit back and think DAMN, she’s good.
The next competitor is Chinese tenor Yi Li, who stands at the piano as Josie sits at it. He should call her bluff and ask her to play Erlkonig. Anyway, we get a double Joserview whammy as they talk about how he likes basketball and has babies. So, he’s doing Pour Mon Ame, which could be fun. Can we all count to nine?
His French is… well, it nearly is, anyway. And we’re not at the Cs yet but his top is already sounding like it could do with a little WD40. Ok, here goes- 1 and 2 ok, 3 worrying, 4 consolidatory, 5 and 6 all throat and hope, 7 dangerous, 8 carcrash/falsetto, 9 ok but pulling a great deal of husk into the voice as he gets off it.
I mean, call me cheap for focusing on the Cs, but really, why try a freak show with 9 when you could impress us with the one or two you actually have in your locker? Petroc consoles with the ‘he was great in rehearsals’ thing, which may be true but is, of course, in the last analysis no help.
‘E la solita storia’ now, which is not necessarily the kind of rep I would have expected from him (although a snatch of ‘Werther’ in the rehearsal VT suggests that he may be undecided too) and this is much more successful, plangent and sweet. He’s an uninteresting performer, though, when he’s not attempting the circus tricks. Broderick’s way in front so far.
Oh, here is the Werther. As you can tell, I wasn’t exactly clamouring to hear another aria from this guy. But this, as with the Cilea, just serves to show what a batshit crazy choice the Fille aria was. This is a pleasant, mildly sappy lyric tenor. If he’s going to do Donizetti, he might want to check out ‘Una Furtiva Lagrima’ for the time being. There’s a reason Juan Diego gets all the Florez. (I’m here all week).
Petroc is unusually hardline about the daft rep choice, and Pountney points out how nervous the climax of the Werther was- still worrying about the Fille aria. Backstage, Li beamingly tells Josie that he thought it went well, then lets out a bubbly giggle “Some notes not good”.
More Harry Potter drama music as Mary King tells us where some singers come from, and then we’re onto Barton, who I have been looking forward to hearing as much as I’ve been looking forward to seeing that Croatian fella. Barton’s established enough to get a one-shot to camera rather than a Joserview, and she comes across as likeable and intelligent. There’s some pretty exciting rehearsal footage- this is A Voice.
*presses button and turns round*
Oh. Agh. Jamie’s frock is… gowny. She’s a good looking woman but she’s fallen into that fatal way of thinking that if one is a larger lady, One Must Wear Grecian Draperies. A belt detail from the Katie Price Diamonique Collection doesn’t help.
But it matters not a whit, because this is real singing. ThemezzoariafromGiocondawhichisn’tasgoodastheotherone isn’t my favourite aria in the repertory, but she just EATS it. This is by a mile the most finished, polished, secure and glamorous singing we’ve heard tonight. She’s following it with something from I HATE ELGAR’S VOCAL MUSIC HATE IT HATE IT HOW CAN A GREAT COMPOSER BE SO FUCKING STODGY? Sea Pictures which she does an equally sumptuous job with, although- and you may not know this- I’m not a huge fan of Elgar’s writing for the solo voice.
So, this woman has essentially blown me away with two pieces of music I don’t like, while wearing a dress nicked from the TOWIE production of Antigone. I think that means she’s good.
‘O mon Fernand’ to close, making her three for three on rep I’m not wild about, but again this is lovely. And- other competitors take note- the three pieces she’s chosen require different tone colour, different interpretational choices, different vocal personalities from each other. This is how to impress. Sounding alternately like Horne and like Verrett doesn’t do any harm, either. That good. But I want to see her work with a provocative, encouraging stage director- she has that School of Isokoski tendency to stand and sing with an unchanging slight perturbed frown, so I’m not sure how much of an actor she’d be in-house. Clear winner, though, even before she ends the aria with a ‘you wanna know if I’ve got a top? I’ve got a top’ moment. And she’s just so charming and so sweet in her interview and basically I love her.
So, speaking of people I love, here comes Marko from Croatia and he’s really rather a good looking fellow. There’s a weird ‘Look Around You’ style opening to his interview with Josie (to be fair, she was damned good in that, which is what probably reminded me) where she says ‘lights, camera, action’ into different cameras because he likes acting or films or something. He lives in Berlin. Hey! Marko! I LOVE Berlin! Let’s go for a drink in Berlin sometime!
A ropey start for Attractive Marko, though- some nervous Handel where he’s not in control of his breathing at all- ends of lines are being puffed out with the hope that some sound will come with them. It’s a beautiful voice but all he’s really conveying is worry.
Good LORD, he’s doing Tu sul Labbro next, because nothing follows Handel like Big Verdi. He does a good job here- it really is a lovely sound- but he’s not a true bass so it’s compromised a little and the end is more a low hum than anything else. And, alas, the worried expression has hung over from his Handel.
And indeed, we get it in his Semiramide aria too, but it’s otherwise much more successful. He wants to be careful of clasping his hands so hard in front of him though- surely that amount of upper-body tension can’t be helping. But this is very good, nuanced, shaded singing and at the end of the aria proper, he reveals the top of his voice to be totally, unequivocally baritonal- and a rather good baritone at that. Once again, poor rep choice has skewered a good singer. But we’ll hear more of him: he’s only young. I’m not going to say how young because I’m in denial about the age gap and I’m on hold to Berlin Registry Office.
‘I wouldn’t mind having that in my company. In my ensemble.’ say the judges, and my euphometer explodes. Twice. They also found the Italian rep more successful than the Handel. Backstage, Marko broods handsomely over how badly he thinks he did.
A brief chat with Dame Kiri before the results, doing the ‘thank you all for coming, the orchestra was lovely, the singers were terrific, let’s have a round of applause for the bridesmaids’ bit. Then we have a pointless ‘recap’: pointless because we get about ten seconds of singing, which we can’t hear because Petroc and Mary are talking over it. I don’t really understand what this filler is for: THIS IS NOT LIVE.
Everyone is unanimous that Barton should win. I’m saying nothing, because I already know, remember? Thanks a bunch, twitter. Barton duly wins, although I’d say Broderick has a chance for the final. The men didn’t cover themselves in glory, but Marko is a real prospect for the future (quiet at the back), and might have been better off waiting for Cardiff 2015.
A good start, then, and we might have seen the winner tonight. But she’s already booked to do loads of cool stuff at the Met and elsewhere, so is that really all that exciting? Fingers crossed we get some extraordinary 18 year old from a tiny village or something in one of the next heats. Well, not that, but you know- maybe split the difference?
*funnily enough, in between watching the show and typing this blog, I have also made a pie.