Thursday, 30 June 2011

Hot Off the Press

Apart from WNYO’s upcoming The Sleeper things are generally winding down for the summer at WNO (or at least they are for me) so I thought now would be the ideal time to announce a new sideline from Hairman Enterprises®™.

After two years of offering uninformed, vague, quite often embarrassing and wayward criticisms of singers, conductors, orchestras, directors and other audience members I felt it only fair that the tables were turned and I faced the music, which is why I am announcing the creation of two ugly sister blogs to the one you are currently reading. Collected under the titles Hairman Writes a “Proper” Story and Hairman Does a Bit of Poetry they’ll subject readers to examples of the finest writing money can’t buy, because no-one will publish them.

Hairman Writes a "Proper" Story will be published once every two weeks, taking in a chapter of Hairman’s new (circa five months) work in progress, a story with no title but a “fluid” plotline.

Hairman Does a Bit of Poetry will also be published once every two weeks, taking in Hairman’s stab at poetry – but with a slight difference. Shelving odes to hair curlers Hairman will re-imagine (and update) famous, and not so famous, opera characters. He might even take requests, but as this is poetry it could get a bit downbeat.

For those not too taken with swearing Hairman does drop the odd **** and ******* here and there in his writing. And no, his characters aren’t representative of his outlook on life.

Your reading shall begin with...

Sunday, 26 June 2011

WNO's Le Nozze di Figaro Available on S4/Clic

Rosemary Joshua (Susanna) and David Soar in the 2009 production - photo

In the build-up to Cardiff Singer I rather irritatingly missed S4C broadcasting WNO’s 2009 Le Nozze di Figaro starring David Soar, Rosemary Joshua, Rebecca Evans and Jacques Imbrailo. To make matters worse I even managed to miss the repeat broadcasts, and the behind the scenes documentary. Fortunately S4/Clic have got the whole caboodle to watch, although it will vamoose in twenty days or so. Click here for a crazy day and here for the documentary.

English and Welsh subtitles are available, and while the streaming quality isn't up to BBC iPlayer standards it's watchable enough. Although, just like the iPlayer, I'm afraid it's only available to view in the UK. Lluís Pasqual's inventive, if uneven, production returns to the WMC stage early next year with Soar and Evans reprising their roles and Elizabeth Watts (Susanna) and Dario Solari (Count Almaviva) joining the cast.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Lock up your Sons & Daughters! Artists of WNO Live and Unleashed...

You tell them the time, but a few will still insist on missing the bus - photo

Just a tad late in the writing, this post is here to let you know all about the World’s Best Chorus™ current tour to, in the immortal words of East 17, "the North, to the South, to the East to the West" of Wales. They'll be offering up bits and pieces from the worlds of opera, operetta and musicals. You can groupie to your heart’s content at the following venues (all concerts start at 7.30pm):

William Aston Hall, Wrexham 24th of June
Coliseum, Aberdare 25th of June
Galeri, Caernarfon 29th of June
Taliesin, Swansea 1st of July
Torch Theatre, Milford Haven 2nd of July

But that's not all. WNO, currently gigging in Wrexham, begins a celebratory residency at RWCMD to mark the opening of the college's new recital hall. The concerts run from the 28th of June until the 6th of July. Tickets and further information can be found here.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Hey, Sucka's! The Plan's Come Together!

The briefest of posts to let readers outside of the UK know that all the performances from BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2011 have now been uploaded to You Tube. And my laptop has pulled a groin muscle in the process.

Hope you all enjoy!

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Digitally Replastered Director's Cut

Over the coming days, in response to the many requests I’ve had from distant shores, I’ll upload all of the competitors performances from BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2011 to my brand new, and more than likely soon to be neglected, You Tube channel. Unfortunately, for reasons beyond my technological ken, you’ll have to put up with my box like uploads, which you can stretch with that arrow sign thingy on the bottom of the player. They don’t don’t call me George Lucas for nothing.

Monday, 20 June 2011

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2011 - The Grand Final

Meet the finalists - Meeta Raval, Valentina Naforniţă, Andrei Bondarenko, Hye Jung Lee and Olesya Petrova.

Final day is a funny old thing at BBC Cardiff Singer of the World. For the past week you’ve left reality behind and entered your own magical kingdom where music is all that matters, the nitty shitty gritty of the grown-up world a grey Otherplace where dreams go to wither the moment they are dreamt. And then comes Sunday. You’re aware that your idyll is about to become dreamland and that Otherplace will soon become reality, but you ignore the unavoidable future and cling for a few hours more to your singing pie in the sky land.

Apart from the bittersweet emotions there is another tell-tale sign that it’s Grand Final day, and that’s the increase in audience numbers. Having trotted along to the preliminary concerts I can say that the hall was roughly nine tenths full every night, with only the upper winged tiers not in full occupancy, which I didn’t mind as it gave me ample opportunity to roam around in – there are benefits to be had in being less flashy of the cashy, although whoever designed the hall obviously thought little of the little people as you have to abseil down to the previous floor for the loos. But come final day and suddenly the hall is bursting at the seams, even the iron bladder pauper section. Hardy folk we be.

Another handy aspect of being strapped into the heavens is that a) You get a wonderful balance between voice and orchestra b) You get to nose in on the rest of the hall, including the BBC presentation area manned by Petroc Trelawny. Apart from eye-spying his guests (tonight it was Nicole Cabell and Joyce DiDonato) keeping an eye on PT’s spot was also very handy for knowing when the singers or jury would be about to appear, as after he’d done his duty he’d speak into his mic and hey presto – action would break out onstage. Oh, and there’s also a c) You can spot the competitors turn up throughout the week to watch their fellow combatants when they’ve got free time, and then en masse for the final. I’ll now get a tiny bit sentimental. It’s a funny thing, but at the start of the week you hardly know these singers who come from all over the world, but by the end of the week you can recognize them from three levels (and much plumbing) away. And whatever your sex, you even begin to develop maternal feelings for them, and it’s at this point I’ll move quickly on…

Meeta Raval (England)

Timor di me? ... D'amor sull'ali rosee (Il trovatore) - Verdi
Sola, perduta, abbandonata (Manon Lescaut) - Puccini
Beim Schlafengehen (Vier letzte Lieder No 3) - R Strauss

It’s fair to say that the first finalist, Meeta Raval, was the surprise choice of the jury for the final, with some (at times) (overly) impassioned debates raging online about the worthiness of her inclusion that could only have heaped a lot of unwarranted pressure on the shoulders of a young singer. Saddled with this burden (I’m not sure if she knew about it, but for the sake of drama jump on board my train of thought with me) she was loaded down with yet another heap of responsibility, opening the final as she did the second concert. Now, personally speaking, I’d have been a bag of nerves and would have squeaked and squawked my way through the experience, but thankfully Raval isn’t me. Her performance in the final was an impressive step up from the Tuesday concert. The first thing that struck me immediately was how more at ease she seemed with her characters, drawing the audience in to her performance. Her Verdi was superb, deploying her big voice to great effect before paring back for the quieter passages all done with a great security and confidence. The same could be said of the Puccini, although she sounded dangerously close to over singing at a few points, although not on the marquee moments of the aria which were weighted with great precision. Her final choice, one of Strauss’ final songs, was a brave one considering what she had sung before. This really is glorious music, and she did it justice, though on occasions it felt as though she was losing steam as words were gripped instead of caressed. All in all it was a magnificent start to the final, and shows just what this singer is capable of doing now, with plenty more years in the tank to hone her skills.

Olesya Petrova (Russia)

Nyet, bit' ne mozhet! (The Tsar's Bride) - Rimsky-Korsakov
Re dell'abisso, affrettati (Un ballo in maschera) - Verdi
Voi lo sapete, o mamma (Cavalleria rusticana) - Mascagni
Habañera (Carmen) - Bizet

Luscious voice, with range aplenty Olesya Petrova had the audience in the palm of her hand in the opening concert, and so it proved again in the final. Being my personal favourite for the title I was relieved to see that my ravings of a few days ago hadn’t been blown out of all proportion, she really was this good. The opening Rimsky-Korsakov was a superbly sung introduction to her programme, bathing the audience with her substantial, yet lyrical mezzo. The thing I find so appealing about Petrova is that she’s so comfortable throughout her voice, from top to bottom and in her Verdi she showed off her chest singing to great effect. The Mascagni continued the great dramatic vein Petrova had decided on for her programme, and in lesser lungs cracks would have been appearing, but Petrova’s effortless technique was holding more than firm. Her final aria, chosen as something of an antidote to the angsty nature of her programme was sung with panache – never once did you fear she’d topple off her thoroughbred of a voice. But I was hoping for something else. Something more akin to her Saint-Saëns earlier in the week that would have allowed her to sing with freedom. But it was a glorious performance from start to finish.

Hye Jung Lee (South Korea)

Tornami a vagheggiar (Alcina) - Handel
A vos jeux, mes amis ... Partagez-vous mes fleurs! (Hamlet) – Thomas

The midway point of the final greeted Hye Jung Lee, performer of possibly the best performance of any aria throughout the competition with her take on Adams’ Mdm Mao. The last of the singers to cement her place in the final she must have had an action packed few days. She took on Handel with sprightly ease, her voice as precise as a sparrow navigating the canopy of a beech tree. Pleasant enough, I felt that it was more of a holding pattern of a programme choice before she tackled the Thomas, a reverse of her heat when she started off big and ended up small. I’ll be honest and admit that Thomas doesn’t appeal to me as a composer so I was less disposed towards her second choice of aria. But my likes and dislikes aside she was fearless once more in her approach, living very high in the air and it was only at the end, when tiredness began to creep in with the odd curtailed note, that her form dipped, not greatly, but enough to take her out of the running after what had been a week of extraordinary singing from her.

Andrei Bondarenko

Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo (Così fan tutte) - Mozart
O Carlo, ascolta ... Io morrò - (Don Carlo) - Verdi
Fin ch'han del vino - (Don Giovanni) - Mozart
Ya vas lyublyu (The Queen of Spades) – Tchaikovsky

The Song Prize Winner, Andrei Bondarenko, was the next to perform and an eager audience greeted him, Bondimania is going to be around for a long time. For many he has been the most complete package in this year’s competition, his acting and singing balanced wonderfully in service of the characters he plays. His first take on Mozart was what we had come to expect of this enviably talented 24 year-old and soon the hall was under his spell once again with Verdi, sung with his now customary intelligence and a voice that seems to do whatever he wants it to do. Before popping off for a quick drink he dropped in a sparklingly sung Fin ch'han del vino. The audience were suitably impressed and he left and returned to the stage with huge applause. Now, there is one thing that I didn’t take to with his singing on first encounter, and the same thing reoccurred again and that’s an exaggeration of his flickering vibrato when singing in Russian. It didn’t really put me off his Tchaikovsky but it did make itself aware to me. At this point I had him neck and neck with Petrova.

Valentina Naforniţă (Moldova)

Regnava nel silenzio (Lucia di Lammermoor) - Donizetti
Song to the Moon (Rusalka) - Dvořák
Je veux vivre (Roméo et Juliette) - Gounod

The final competitor was the soprano who I thought had won the third concert but who had been overtaken, in the ayes of the judges, by Bondarenko. For those of us lucky enough to have been in the hall that evening we sat with bated breath as it felt as though everything was going to come down to the wire, especially with her opening Donizetti. If I was going to parachute from outer space I’d at least do a few warm up jumps, but Naforniţă made a bold choice and started off with her toughest sing of the competition. As I’d said before her purity of tone, allied to a seamless transition made her something special in the first concert and she was in the same vein of form here once more. Her Dvořák was sumptuous, though not as sumptuous as I hoped it would have been. She ended with the Gounod, and like the previous two arias she appeared to be perfectly at home. In her first appearance on St David’s Hall’s stage she had bewitched through beautiful singing, and she had done the same again, but his time with a lot more variety in her programme. I had a three way tie in my head.

Off went the judges, and so did the flood alert call in Cardiff’s sewerage system when slightly large queues built up for the toilets – well, someone has to mention this side-effect of TV on the live studio audience strapped to their chairs for over two hours. Wandering around the bars I was hardly surprised to hear the same three names cropping up time and time again. I was running through a plethora of possible outcomes, secretly preferring it if either Petrova or Naforniţă were to win as Bondarenko had already pocketed the Song Prize. Then the Moment was upon us. Called back to our seats we had a fairly chunky medium sized wait until the jury made their way onstage. After a brief flirtation with one of those rambling speeches that can derail the best of parties the Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize was awarded to Valentina Naforniţă. No sooner had she left the stage than John Fisher raised heart rates throughout the hall by saying, “And the winner is...” pause, “Valentina Naforniţă!” I don’t think there was a gasp of amazement in the crowd, as much as a slight gasp of welcome surprise at the result, not because that she wasn’t a worthy winner, but because sometimes being a bit good looking can go against you on times. No, I don’t speak from personal experience.

Then the bit you never get to see on TV – the singing of Hen Wlad fy Nhadau, which the BBC always want to pretend doesn’t happen. It’s one of my favourite moments in that for a few minutes the audience gets to sing for the competitors who’ve given so much throughout the week. It never fails to warm my curly locks to see the singers smiling (I assume) in appreciation at the sound of a few thousand voices aimed towards them, and knowing the kind of flower power gal that she is I guessed that Joyce DiDonato would as well, and sure enough, she had a rather large smile on her face.

Anthem done, it was time to leave, and after the customary log jam on the stairs, where we were treated to a close-up appearance of the winner (yes, she’s as jaw droppingly beautiful as she appears to be on TV) I made it out and headed back home in the Hairmobile, a mixture of happiness and sadness swirling around my bouncing curls. The week had been the oasis of joy it always is, made so by my fellow audience members and, of course, the singers. I was still mulling over the decision as the sun hit the mountains away in the distance (I’m going to get all sentimental from here on in) wondering how they had chosen between the three standouts in the final. And then, avoiding a lumpy looking pothole something that Mary King mentioned earlier in the week about not breathing when listening to a singer came to mind (not sure if it was Naforniţă) and I had a brief flashback to a moment during Naforniţă’s performance when I realised that I had been holding my breath for a while and it was then that I think I understood why it was the judges went the way they did. I would gladly listen to Bondarenko, and especially Petrova many times over, but on the night, for a few seconds, Naforniţă didn’t have me listening to her, she had me believing in her and the music in a way that I was no longer consciously listening, but simply feeling, and experiencing what it was she was doing.

And so it’s all over for another two years. A great week of singing, and making new discoveries, new points on the map to follow as careers take shape over the coming years, new bits of music that will blossom into new operas to be sought out and all thanks to the twenty fantastically gifted singers who flew into Cardiff from all over the globe. As I write the weather is closing in (again) and a steady drizzle is falling on the garden. Summer looks as though it’s taking another year’s leave of absence. But if I close my eyes and think back over the past week, catch threads of voices, remember a phrase turned this way or that way then the drizzle can meander as much as it likes, because thanks to what I’ve been given over the past seven days I’m singing in the rain.

BBC Cardiff Song Prize Final

It’s more than likely you’ll know the result of Friday’s Song Prize Final, but in case you don’t, here's a condensed version of the concert for your perusal, including the all-important decision. As (ill) luck would have it I couldn't make it on the evening, but you can pop over to Intermezzo to see what her reader, Carole, made of the final. And very soon, connection willing, I’ll upload bits from the Grand Final coupled with my thoughts on events.


Saturday, 18 June 2011

Who's your Money On?

The five finalists; Olesya Petrova (Russia), Andrei Bondarenko (Ukraine), Hye Jung Lee (South Korea), Meeta Raval (England) and Valentina Naforniţă (Moldova)

It goes without saying that my Cardiff Singer post today is lacking in something, a review of last night’s Song Prize Final, which I contrived to miss – short story, not worth going into at this moment in time. I’ll be settling down to watch it on BBC4 tonight at 7.30pm, but if you prefer to get (what I assume to be) the full version then BBC Radio 3 are broadcasting the final from 8pm, running a whole hour longer than the TV broadcast.

But it’s tomorrow’s final that I know endow with my slapdash attention, and sentence structure. As is custom, the final is shown live(ish) on BBC 2 and BBC Radio 3 from 5.30pm to 8pm UK time. TV viewers, and Petroc Trelawny, will have a trio of musical divas on hand dispensing wisdom and thoughts on the proceedings in the shapes of Mary King, Nicole Cabell and Joyce DiDonato. Radio listenes will have the double act of Donald Macleod and Iain Burnside.

In a rare act of You Tube bravery I’ve uploaded all the broadcasted performances of the five finalists from the preliminary rounds, this is for the aid of opera folkies outside of the UK who will be listening to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast tomorrow to give them some idea of what to expect. But it would really be handy if BBC considered making the competition available to followers outside of the UK. One look at my blog stats for this week would convince the Powers that Be of a huge potential audience away from these Sceptered Isles, or as I like to call the place, the Humpbacked Pig, for BBC Cardiff Singer of the World. In these days of global communications it’s odd that the last word in the title isn’t as fully embraced as it should be, but perhaps it could be by the time the next edition rolls around – the 30th anniversary of its inception. In order not to have BBC lawyers geting in touch I'll be taking the videos offline in a few days time, so catch them while you can.

Anyway, before I fall off my soapbox and fracture a follicle, here are your five finalists hailing from Russia, England, Moldova, Ukraine and South Korea. I hope the sound quality
does the singers justice since stuck, as I am, with my laptop speakers for company, I can't really tell if the sound is bravo! or buffo!

Who’s your favourite? I’m up in the air. At the start of the week I felt that Petrova would take some beating, and even though I still think that, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or two others pip her to the post - but it'll be some pipping to the post!

Friday, 17 June 2011

Brrrrrrring! Brrrrrrring! Time to Get Out the Vote!

Telephone lines have opened for UK viewers who want to have a say in who is their favourite singer at this year's BBC Cardiff Singer of the World. Renamed the Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize in honour of the competition's late patron calls cost 15p from BT landlines, with a voting limit of five votes per household. Lines are now open and will close on Sunday at 11am. The winner will receive £2000 and a trophy. You can find the numbers for each competitor below, and full t&c here. To refresh your memory I've embeded the clips from the BBC website below. Who's your favourite?

The embed function isn't working on Meeta's video, so click here to see it.

The embed function isn't working on Susanne's video, so click here to see it.

Yup, the embed function isn't working on Helen's video, so click here to see it.

The embed function isn't working on Hye's video, so click here to see it.

Cardiff Singer of the World - 4th Concert & Fab Five Announcement

I miss Take That. There, I've said it in public. I miss those daft lads and their enjoyable tunes. I miss their hordes of fans. Most of all I miss the giant kick up my backside they’d given me over the past two days, because without the terrifying thought of being stuck in traffic trying to find a parking spot I'd been in situ with plenty of time to spare. Tonight, with little worry in nabbing a parking space, I was just a bit late in getting to the hall, nearly missing the opening contestant.

But got in, I did, and so it was another night, with another new seating preference – but one with an obscured view of the big screen and I had to settle on using my own pesky eyesight for the final preliminary concert.

The singing was brought to the hall tonight by...

Enzo Romano (Uruguay)

È una cosa incredibile (The Italian Straw Hat) - Nino Rota
Non più andrai (Le nozze di Figaro) - Mozart
Bottom's dream (A Midsummer Night's Dream) - Britten
La calunnia (Il barbiere di Siviglia) – Rossini

Looking like David Villa’s older brother, Enzo Romano from Uruguay is that most unappreciated creature of the opera world, the character singer. His opening Rota was a shuffling, wise cracking character (or at least he seemed that way from my perch on high) from an opera I know absolutely nothing about, but after Romano’s performance I think I’ll try and track down a copy of it. While there is plenty of character in his singing, it lacked a tiny bit of strength, especially with his Figaro. And, as much as I enjoyed his acting, I felt that this strength was also a weakness. By this I mean that as his performance continued I didn't get a sense of differentiation between the characters he was singing, with his hunched shoulders and swivelling head on show for all numbers. Reading through all of this again you may think that I didn't enjoy his performance, but actually I did – I found him to be an engaging performer, and if he can tweak little bit here, and a little bit there he, could progress into being a more rounded performer.

Máire Flavin (Ireland)

Nobles seigneurs, salut! (Les Huguenots) - Meyerbeer
Parto, parto (La clemenza di Tito) - Mozart
Cara speme, questo core (Giulio Cesare) - Handel
Sein wir wieder gut (Ariadne auf Naxos) - R Strauss

Máire Flavin was the second of this year's competitors I'd had the opportunity to hear beforehand, with good impressions made that had me looking forward to her set. I’m not sure if nerves got the best of her to begin with, or if I was just a bit listless, but I didn’t catch on to her until the Handel when my attention was fully engaged. I’ve heard quite a bit of baroque rocking this week and this was up there with the best interpretations. But the topping on the cake came with her Strauss. Wonderful diction and carried easily over the orchestra to where I was sitting. And more on voices carrying later on in this post.

Leah Crocetto (USA)

Che il bel sogno di Doretta (La rondine) - Puccini
Sombre forêt (Guillaume Tell) - Rossini
Hear ye, Israel (Elijah) - Mendelssohn
Timor di me? ... D'amor sull' ali rosee (Il trovatore) - Verdi

The last competitor before the interval was the strongly fancied American soprano, Leah Crocetto. I will now utter the stupid comment of the day, so look away now if you don't like to see someone making a fool of themselves. Crocetto's voice struck me as being one of the most emotional I've heard all week. Not that other singers haven't touched me, but I had the impression the music she was singing meant a great deal to her, which will sound strange when I now go on to say that it wasn't until the Mendelssohn that my ears settled to her voice, an agile and burnished quality to it, almost with a hint of jazz to it. If there’s one thing I’d like to happen, it’s for her vibrato to straighten a touch, not much, just a tiny bit.

Davide Bartolucci (Italy)

Di Cupido impiegio i vanni (Rodelinda) - Handel
Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo (Così fan tutte) - Mozart
Bella siccome un angelo (Don Pasquale) - Donizetti
Una voce m'ha colpito (L'inganno felice) - Rossini

After the interval Davide Bartolucci took to the stage, in what appeared to be his big brother’s tails. It’s hard not to warm to Bartolucci, as even from my pigeon nest view he came across as an affable performer. He’s penned in as being a baritone, but I think that could be suffixed with bass as well as he struck me as having depth to his voice. Sticking strictly to Italian language operas he didn't do himself favours in the language department, but then other singers have done the same in the past so it wouldn’t have counted greatly if he had the lungs to make up for it. Unfortunately, tonight he didn’t quite have it. Pleasant to listen to he was missing that spark that make’s you really sit up. But give him, like many other singers in this year’s competition, a few years and he should develop into an interesting singer.

Hye Jung Lee (South Korea)

Grossmächtige Prinzessin ... Als ein Gott kam Jeder gegangen (Ariadne auf Naxos) - R Strauss
I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung (Nixon in China) - John Adams

The act of closing out the preliminary concerts fell to South Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee. With echoes of last year's eventual winner, Ekaterina Scherbachenko, Lee gambled on a lesser program quantity wise, although not as much as the Russian. What to say about the Strauss? Superb. She tackled the notoriously difficult aria with a light, laser like voice, but without any of the shrieking that can come with such an instrument. But for me, the highlight came with her Adams. While the Strauss had been stratospherically soaring, her Adams was a punchy, defiant piece of singing that never once wavered in her attack. The house was duly brought down.

Off went the jury to do their deliberations, this time with the extra weight of having to choose not only the night’s winner, but also the make-up of the final, with all 20 singers, regardless of if they had won their concert, or not, eligible for the final selection.

It's at this point I will now wander into the field of idiocy. Reading comments on Twitter and other blogs, I've been struck by the sheer dumbness of a few quotes aimed at some of the singers, and I thought I'd draw attention to the fact that watching on the TV and in the hall are two separate things entirely. Watching on TV you get to hear the singer in minute detail. Flaws in techniques, or simple mistakes are magnified tenfold, but what some TV viewers don't appreciate is that a TV audience aren't hearing a faithful representation of the performances, as the singers have a whacking great big orchestra right behind them. Watching concerts on TV, which I’ve attended in the flesh, I've been struck time and again by how quiet the orchestra are on the box, when in the flesh they are naturally playing far louder (not that they’re making gargantuan noise), which the singers have to contend with. In addition there is the obvious fact that nerves will undoubtedly be playing a big part for some singers. And lastly, these are young singers who are competing, not singers with twenty or thirty years worth of experience to call upon and to criticise them for failing to produce faultless singing is liking asking a 12-year-old athletics fan why they can't run a marathon faster than Geoffrey Mutai. As my old mentor, June "Touch my Curling Tongues and you Lose a Fingernail" Peters, used to say to me whenever a client criticized her cutting technique, “If they were so bloody great at cutting hair I’d be knocking off banks for a living.” I haven’t seen June in a while.

But back to announcement time. After a long delay, during which the eighteen competitors present (Anna Leese and Vazgen Ghazaryan were gigging elsewhere) were brought on stage and presented with a crystal bowl / vase, the jury returned with John Fisher saying, “And the winner is, Hye Jung Lee!” A fair result on the evening. Up until she sang I had Leah Crocetto in the lead but Lee’s performance was superb.

And then, without much further ado John Fisher announced the following names as finalists for Sunday’s big day…

Olesya Petrova (Russia)
Valentina Naforniţă (Moldova)
Meeta Raval (England)
Hye Jung Lee (South Korea)
Andrei Bondarenko (Ukraine)

I have to admit that I, like quite a few in the hall, was extremely surprised not to see one of Anna Leese (New Zealand), Şerban Gheorghe Vasile (Romania), Susanne Braunsteffer (Germany), Helen Sherman (Australia) or Leah Crocetto (USA) make the final, but as it always says in the fine print, the judges decision is final.

Best of luck to all five finalists for Sunday!

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Cardiff Singer of the World - 3rd Concert, "Better than sex in chocolate wellies!" says excited punter...

Captains log, star date 1506.2011.

I am currently floating in the troposphere around a planet called Utopia, a by-product of tonight's mission to the Bloody Great Music Nebula. Star Fleet had received reports of dangerously addictive music making taking place in the region and dispatched the USS Sloth to investigate and I, the commanding officer of the one-man crew, duly slumped out of bed in time to beat the pesky galaxy wide menace known to all as Take That groupies to a parking space in John Lewis.

Memorising the basic combat manual written by Capt James T Kirk, including the definitive Star Fleet guide to Maraca-Do – the ancient art of Klingon barroom fighting – I left the safety of my reconnaissance shuttle and headed out into the maelstrom of female groupies, making sure that the words Take crap are That stayed firmly within the confines of my mind. Then I...

...simply dropped the egotistical vein of writing and got on with telling the tale of a wonderful night, beginning with...

Susanne Braunsteffer (Germany)

Il est doux, il est bon (Hérodiade) – Massenet
Temerari ... Come scoglio (Così fan tutte) – Mozart
Un bel di vedremo (Madama Butterfly) - Puccini
Mercè, dilette amiche (I vespri siciliani) – Verdi

Hearing a fifth soprano in less than 24 hours (circa) could seriously damage your appreciation of the voice, unless you happen to run into a singer like Susanne Braunsteffer. From her first notes the audience settled in an oooh state of mind. Mixing culinary metaphors we were treated to a creamy, full-bodied voice with a homely top. It was difficult not to be reminded of another German soprano who'd competed here over a decade ago, and chances are she could be heading in the same direction careerwise. If there was one tiny drawback it was with her relative lack of low notes, most noticeable in the Mozart, but as I'm trying to remind myself, sopranos make their living in clouds, not on mountain tops. Glorious.

Helen Sherman (Australia)

Sta nell'Ircana (Alcina) – Handel
How can I sleep? ... At the haunted end of the day (Troilus and Cressida) – Walton
Una voce poco fa (Il barbiere di Siviglia) – Rossini

The unenviable task of following Braunsteffer fell to the Australian mezzo, Helen Sherman. Surefooted as an elegant, fire juggling, Olympic gold medal winning mountain goat in the boxing competition she took on Handel and more than lived to tell the tale. Her Walton served notice of her dramatic abilities, which ended with a much deserved pin drop hush. And to finish off she revealed yet another sphere of her repertoire with a spiky Rossini. Applause galore.

John Pierce (Wales)

Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön (Die Zauberflöte) - Mozart
Una furtiva lagrima (L'elisir d'amore) - Donizetti
Lunge da lei ... De'miei bollenti spiriti (La traviata) - Verdi
Je suis seul! ... Ah! fuyez, douce image (Manon) – Massenet

Next up was the endangered species of the opera world, a tenor. But just not any tenor, the home crowd's tenor, in shape of John Pierce. This is the third time I’ve seen him sing, so I already knew what to expect, a sweet voice full of character. One of my private reservations about his voice has been a lack of power (only by a few tenths) when the orchestra cranks up to 11, but tonight there was a noticeable change in this area, without losing the sweetness in his voice. His best moment came with the Donizetti, a role that appears to be well within his grasp as a performer. If there's one thing I would love to see him do more it would be to relax a tiny bit more when he's onstage, and to simply sing his character.

Valentina Naforniţă (Moldova)

Egli non riede ancora ... Non so le tetre immagini (Il corsaro) - Verdi
Glück das mir verlieb (Die tote Stadt) - Korngold
Amour, ranime mon courage (Roméo et Juliette) - Gounod

The Commandments of Hairman.

1) Valentina Naforniţă should be allowed to develop at a natural pace.
2) She shouldn’t be saddled with the “Next Netrebko” tag.
3) Peter Gelb should not be allowed to sign her for the next twenty years.

Unfortunately, with the exception of number one (she’s based in one of the meccas of soprano singing, Romania), the next two commandments will probably be broken at some point in the very near future. Going all Vogue magazine, the moment Moldova’s Naforniţă stepped on stage looking like Audrey Hepburn wearing Marilyn Monroe’s Seven Year Itch white dress, there was a palpable sense that she could be something special and I, along with the rest of the audience, sat for three unbelievably beautiful arias. Big sound. Delicate sound. Pure tone sound. She has it all. Judge for yourselves tonight on BBC4. I wonder if she likes Milk Tray?

Andrei Bondarenko (Ukraine)

Hai già vinta la causa ... Vedrò mentr'io sospiro (Le nozze di Figaro) - Mozart
Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen (Die tote Stadt) - Korngold
Vy mne pisali ... Kogda by zhizn domashnim krogdom (Eugene Onegin) -Tchaikovsky
Quella è una strada (Le maschere) - Mascagni

As emotionally exhausted as a eunuch in a Miss World competition, I applauded the Ukraine’s Andrei Bondarenko to the stage, and a sense of no more please! erupted within me as his booming, tailored baritone brought Almaviva to life on stage. Korngold was dispatched with romantic ease, Tchaikovsky the same, finished off with Mascagni’s Quella è una strada, probably not the most sensitive of aria’s to be written but one which allowed Bondarenko’s effortless comic skills to be added to his more dramatic acting abilities. If there’s one tiny criticism I can make, is that his fast, flickering vibrato, which I noticed (strangely enough) most of all in the Onegin, might not be to everyone’s taste. But ****, what a performer!

Time for my meandering thoughts as the jury go off to pick a winner for the evening. Tonight’s thoughts revolve around audience members. Particularly ones who decide to wear jewellery that makes you think a herd of opera loving reindeers are in the hall with you. This type of jewellery would be okay if you had your arm in a sling, or had covered it with three scarves and a winter woolly, but loud and proud on your wrist the sound carries. A lot.

Another thought is for audience members who like to WHISPER. Again, this type of behaviour is great if you’re in a pub discussing the whereabouts of sunken treasure or your career as an investment banker (ooh, look at me, so topical by a year!), but in a concert hall your WHISPERS aren’t VERY QUIET. In fact, they’re BLOODY IRRITATING and might garner you a visit from an Aeronautically Challenged Programme. But less of my moaning. Forward to the winner!

The heavy mob, led by Kiri D, make their way onto stage and with a few brief words in Welsh and English (peace out to my Welsh brothers & sisters for taking my words into consideration) Jonnie F says, “And the winner is, Andrei Bondarenko!” Cheers, applause galore, very happy baritone waving a crystal mug about onstage.

Was it the correct decision? Veeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeery hard to say. Wild west fistfights could have taken place on the stairs out of the hall if sardine tin mode wasn’t in effect judging by some of the conversations that were taking place. I’d say what probably clinched it for Bondarenko was the make up of his programme. It took in many facets of his character as a singer and showed him at his best. However, as I write this I can still hear Naforniţă’s Amour, ranime mon courage in my ears and I would be very shocked not to see her in Sunday’s final, and perhaps even one more from this evening’s concert.

Musical heaven.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Cardiff Singer of the World - Ding! Ding! Seconds out, round two!

Due to popular Pre Middle-aged Manband Take That playing the Millennium Stadium for two nights, I arrived in Cardiff at 4am to avoid the crush for parking places, armed with a few Paul Henry books, a traditionally stale batch of New York Bakery bagels, two bananas, a litre of water and a set of maracas to do some busking with.

Fifteen hours later and I lumbered into the hall, carrying the books, one stale bagel, a teensy-weensy bit of water, one maraca and £7.59 in busking royalties. I'd had to fend off a pack of profoundly inebriated Take That fans who’d mistaken me for Gary Barlow in Boots and lost the other maraca in the process. I wouldn't have minded if it had been Howard…

With the weekend crowds staying away there was room enough to do some limited roaming and I settled on a new vantage point for the second concert, this time with the Orchestra of WNO providing the backing tracks for the night, with Lawrence Foster at the helm.

Plying their for the evening trades would be…

Meeta Raval (England)

Signore, ascolta! (Turandot) - Puccini
La mamma morta (Andrea Chénier) - Giordano
How can I sleep ... At the haunted end of the day (Troilus and Cressida) - Walton
Mercè, dilette amiche (I vespri siciliani) – Verdi

Singing for her supper first of all Meeta Raval brought an array of characters to the stage, backed up by that most wonderful of things, an infectious personality. Her opening Signore, ascolta! was as daring a choice as fellow soprano Anna Leese’s the previous night. Mess it up and she’d be playing catch-up for the rest of the evening, but she negotiated it with aplomb, including the shrinking money note. And it was this sense of control that impressed me most about her performance, she was never tempted to sing beyond her voice, which would have been an easy thing to do in the circumstances.

Wang Lifu (China)

Hai già vinta la causa ... Vedrò mentr'io sospiro (Le nozze di Figaro) - Mozart
Der Tamboursg'sell (Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit No 2) - Mahler
Per me giunto ... Io morrò (Don Carlo) – Verdi

Waving the flag for China, and more importantly, for masculinity!!, Wang Lifu was the sole baritone blokey competing amongst a sea of hysterical sopranos. A wonderful tone to his voice he set off well with the Mozart, but then undid his good work with the Mahler. Yep, I’m going to talk about programme choices here. I can understand the temptation to sing the piece as the opportunity to sing it won't come around as often as a Marcello or a Figaro, but in a competition you need to keep good vibes going and I felt that he shot himself in the foot choosing the Mahler. Having said that he got back on track with the Verdi. Overall I enjoyed his performance, and think that with experience and more age in his voice he'll be a singer to look out for in the years to come.

Sasha Djihanian (Canada)

Da tempeste (Giulio Cesare) - Handel
Ach, ich fühl's (Die Zauberflöte) - Mozart
Me voilà seule ... Comme autrefois (Les pêcheurs de perles) – Bizet

The second soprano of the evening brought a broad programme to the stage, and the nicest dress of the competition so far I was told (eavesdropped) by a fellow audience member. Now, I come to most of these singers never having heard them before and I base my thoughts on what I hear onstage, which I guess is as it should be, so I found it curious to see Sasha Djihanian singing a Handel piece that I felt didn't suit her voice, making her sound quite lethargic. The Mozart was a different thing altogether, and I felt quite drawn to her full(ish) rich(ish) voice at this point, as I felt did the audience as a whole. However, the Bizet never caught fire for me, which was a disappointment as Djihanian quite obviously possesses a beautiful voice given the right material.

Olga Kindler (Switzerland)

Dich, teure Halle (Tannhäuser) - Wagner
Il est doux, il est bon (Hérodiade) - Massenet
Ritorna vincitor! (Aida) – Verdi

The third soprano of the evening was also the competition's Wonder Woman as until last week she wasn't penned in as a competitor, but due to Poland's Szymon Komasa being taken unwell she came to the rescue, and has done more than make up the numbers by progressing to the Song Prize Final on Friday. How would she fare on the big stage? Her Wagner was clean and direct, her Massenet wandered slightly – although this may well have been due to the fact that I wasn't overly familiar with it. Her Verdi was probably a mixture of the previous two arias. I'm not sure if nerves, an understandable lack of preparation or a running out of adrenaline after the past few days took hold but I felt that Kindler was a level or two beneath what he can be.

Marcela Gonzáles (Chile)

Bel raggio lusinghier (Semiramide) - Rossini
Crudel, l'immergerò pria nel tuo seno ... Barbara! (Alcina) - Handel
Je veux vivre (Roméo et Juliette) - Gounod

Blingtastic with a necklace that blinded me from 99 levels away Marcela Gonzáles, the last competitor of the evening, took to the stage with a slightly large handicap in that she was soprano number four and, worse still, very much under the weather having had to pull out of the Song Prize competition. So it wasn't unsurprising that her performance was a notch or two below that of the others, as she pushed her voice in compensation for her illness. I understand that this is a competition, and that judgements have to be made on what is heard on the evening, but it would have been a nice touch if the organisers had announced to the audience beforehand that Gonzáles was singing whilst unwell, after all this is what is done for singers in the opera house when they sing with infections. This wouldn't have had an effect on the overall outcome as the judges are far too experienced to be swayed by audience behaviour, and would have allowed the many audience members unaware of Gonzáles predicament.

And so that was it. Off went the jury members, and the audience began their own deliberations. I was stuck between two of the singers, Miss England and Miss Switzerland. Not sure of who I thought would win I began to do some star spotting in the audience below, catching sight of Gwyn Hughes Jones, Wynne Evans, Llŷr Williams and (I think) Nigel Kennedy, or someone who looked like him. Okay, so they might not be Beonce or Rihanna but they’re stars to me and if you disagree I'll take you on in a Permathon Challenge.

Anyway, also in the house was WNO’s new Grande Fromage, David Pountney as a guest alongside Mary “Hand me a Hankie” King for BBC4’s coverage. Future guests include Mark Padmore, Gerald Findley, Sir Thomas Allen (Song Prize Final) and 2005 Winner Nicolle Cabelle will be joining forces with Joyce DiDonato for Sunday’s final. (In case you're wondering I've decided to only bold the competitors, as it's the 20 singers who are the stars of the competition after all.)

After gleaning all this from the programme I pricked up my ears at the sound of applauding as the jury made their way onstage. John Fisher got straight down to the all-important announcement, “The winner of tonight’s concert is…Meeta Raval!” Cue cheers and applause and a visibly delighted Raval hitting the stage. It was, on reflection, the correct decision in my eyes as I trundled out of the hall, because, of all the competitors on the evening she was the one who gave me that most precious of things…sheer enjoyment.

Time for me to pack my maraca and bagels. Take That Pt II is on again this evening.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Cardiff Singer of the World - Round 1

As some of you may have noticed I haven’t been posting for a while, this is due to an old hairdressing injury that’s being a bit of a bugger. Unfortunately I’ll have to put the blog into long-term hibernation, but I thought I’d go out with a tiny bang and do some waffling about goings on in deepest, darkest Cardiff. However, please be aware that these ramblings may be cut short without any notice. And they’ll be even rougher than usual. But less of me, and more of…

The football season has finished, so has the rugby, the NBA finals have concluded and the Stanley Cup Final might well be about to finish if the Canucks can see off the Bruins in six, which leaves your average sports fan with a gap in the calendar. Usually this void until the Tour de France begins would be filled with flirtations with fitness, but thankfully this is the year of the odd (number) and so attention turns towards Cardiff, and their Singer of the World competition.

In attendance at the competition will be agents, and representatives of the big houses throughout the world, all on the lookout for future opera stars. Also in attendance will be a judging panel will know a thing or two about singing. As will the audience.

And then there will be me.

Or I should say, and then there was me, because I've just got back from St Davids Hall and I'm busy writing this with the aid of a bowl of cornflakes and a mug of Horlicks. So, the first night – what was it like I’m hearing you say as you sense a lot of meandering words coming from my keyboard. The answer, unsurprisingly, was very good. Very good indeed Mr Ambassador, because with these singers you spoiled us.

Tonight, the runners and riders were...

Anna Leese (New Zealand)

Song to the Moon (Rusalka) - Dvorák
Donde lieta uscì (La bohème) - Puccini
L'altra notte in fondo al mare (Mefistofele) - Boito
Mercè, dilette amiche (I vespri siciliani) - Verdi

First up Anna Leese. Let’s face it, who wants to open a singing, or any other competition? The audience is at the start of a mammothish week, your nerves are going to be playing havoc with you and by the time the 20th singer has sung you’ll be “What’s her name, the one at the beginning…” Oh, and you’ve just opened OHP’s Euegene Onegin the night before. Fortunately for The Leese she should be well remembered by the audience. The key, apart from a beautiful clean, clear soprano was her well-balanced, and slightly brave programme. I say brave because if you want to stamp your mark on a competition and announce your arrival most people would be inclined to go for a HELLO I’M HERE kind of number, but the choice of the Dvorák demonstrated a singer confident in her ability to take an audience with her, which she did with ease. My only tiny quibble would be that the lower part of her voice wasn’t quite enough to carry some of the lower passages, especially at the end of the Russalka.

Okay, I fell asleep and it’s now Tuesday. And I’m in a bit of a rush…apologies for the munchkiness nature of the following reviews.

Vazgen Ghazaryan (Armenia)

Il lacerato spirito (Simon Boccanegra) - Verdi
Son lo spirito che nega (Mefistofele) - Boito
Ves' tobor spit (Aleko) - Rakhmaninov
Studia il passo ... Come dal ciel precipita (Macbeth) - Verdi

Second up was Armenian bass, Vazgen Ghazaryan, with a mouth watering programme of some highlights in the bass repertoire. Owning a deep end of the pool bass he had a wonderful range, coupled with a chocolate chewable texture. An expressive performer he took well to the characters he had to perform, although his stunt whistling needs some looking at. Overall a very enjoyable singer, and one with lots of promise, but I would have liked a touch more variety in his programme to showcase his undoubted talents in a way more beneficial to him.

Olesya Petrova (Russia)

Adieu, forêts (The Maid of Orleans) - Tchaikovsky
Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix (Samson et Dalila) - Saint-Saëns
Acerba voluttà (Adriana Lecouvreur) - Cilea

I’m not one to shy away from making a fool of myself, but I think the winner may already have stepped on stage in the guise of Russian mezzo soprano, Olesya Petrova, the last competitor before the interval and the traditional breakdancing throwdowns took place on level 99. I’m going to bang on a lot about programme choice this week and Petrova’s was a master class in making all the correct decisions before a competition. That said, she could have sung the Spice Girls’ B-sides and still sounded sensational. For voice aficionados my quick breakdown – 20 Tog voice, breadth of range like the Veldt (low notes to mmmmmmmmmmmm for) and a voice so effortlessly natural it could get you arrested in Scotland. Any quibbles? She could have sung for another hour.

Maria Radoeva (Bulgaria)

Agitata da due venti (La Griselda) - Vivaldi
Bel raggio lusinghier (Semiramide) - Rossini
Quando m'en vo' (La bohème) - Puccini
Alleluja (Exsultate, jubilate) - Mozart

Once the block rockin' beats had died down it was time for Bulgaria’s Maria Radoeva to strut her soprano stuff. And strut it, she did. If I was to name her programme I would have called it Coloratura Mashup. Her breath control during the Vivaldi had me looking for an oxygen tank at the back of the stage and she’ll certainly be baroquing at a place near you in the future. My Negative Comment from Talentless Critic moment would be that I would love to see a touch more relaxation in her shoulders, which could allow a greater freedom to her sparkling voice – although this could understandably be put down to nerves.

Şerban Vasile (Romania)

Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo (Così fan tutte) - Mozart
Vien, Leonora (La favorita) - Donizetti
Vy mne pisali ... Kogda by zhizn domashnim krogdom (Eugene Onegin) - Tchaikovsky

Closing out the evening was Şerban Vasile, a Romanian baritone, from…Romania. I don’t know if he's a betting man, but if he is I hope his luck is better than it was last night. On most nights he would have been the winner, as he gave an assured and entertaining performance. His programme choices fitted him like a glove, especially the Donizetti and I would have no quibbles in dipping my hand in my pocket to see him on stage. Quibbles? His luck.

And so, as the jury went off to have a cheese and onion buttie and a flat can of Strongbow, the crowd sat and waited for the judgement. This interlude will allow me to point out a new development for the audience in the hall, and that's the introduction of a whacking great screen behind the orchestra, allowing you to see the competitors in close-up during their performances. This is good in one way as it’ll save a lot of neck craning and give you an idea of the performers acting skills. Buuuuuuuut, on the other hand, this could be a disadvantage to those singers who aren’t as clued up in the acting stakes as some of their fellow competitors. Just a thought.

But, lo and behold, the jury are now out on stage. John Fisher’s doing his bi-lingual bit*, now he’s bringing the house down with a short story about a vicar, a lion tamer and a stripper called Johnny Tripod, and now the percussionist is drum rolling with his kettle drums Roman galley stylee…the winner, is…, …, …, Olesya Petrova!

Not much guess work needed really. Despite the great performances of the other competitors there was only ever one name to be called out. You can catch her performance this evening on BBC4, or you can catch her now on the iPlayer with BBC 2 Wales’ nightly highlight shows, live from level 3 – the sea level level. Unfortunately for folks outside of the UK the iPlayer still isn’t available to you (I know), although you can (I assume) listen to a delayed recording of Friday's Song Prize Final on Saturday (and catch the Song Prize concerts on BBC Radio 3 beginning with the first concert) as well as listening to the final live on Sunday.

*Please, please can Welsh speakers not clap after every bit of Welsh. I’m a Welsh speaker but I’m aware that an English version will appear straight away, and it’ll save a lot of bulging bladders if we all applaud together instead of separately.