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.
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.