sat 22/06/2024

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition 2013 Final, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition 2013 Final, BBC Four

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition 2013 Final, BBC Four

Opulent mezzo Jamie Barton is the clear winner in a classy line-up

Deserving winner Jamie Barton holds the crystal goblet highBrian Tarr

Once in a blue moon, the judges would seem to have got it wrong.  I can think only of 2001, when stunning Latvian mezzo Elina Garanča failed to win the coveted goblet but has since gone on to deserved fame as one of the top half-dozen singers on the international stage today.

This year, though, it was business as usual: the panel lit up by a gracious Dame Kiri, three of the singers who didn’t make it to the final,sound telly opera trouper Mary King and I all agreed that regal American with a twinkle Jamie Barton deserved the palm.

How so, given that all five finalists – not to mention the winner of the Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize, tried and tested English tenor Ben Johnson – would grace any opera house in the world with at least one of the characters whose arias they adopted? As declared several times in the course of the evening, it’s about the total package: personality, technique, communication, conjuring the world of each given opera in a couple of minutes. And, for that matter, choosing for the final a sequence of strong contrasts, though the judging is made over the course of a week which those of us Britten-tied, amongst other things, had reluctantly foregone.

Small mistakes shouldn’t matter, but Barton was the only singer not to put a foot, or a note, wrong last night. The minute she opened her mouth as the fiery, melodramatic Principessa di Bouillon, love rival of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, you could feel not only the throb but also the quality of the velvet mezzo voice. Dio mio, thought I, a singer who could step into the shoes of Met regular Stephanie Blythe or mezzo-cum-soprano Violeta Urmana at a moment’s notice.

Bass-baritone Marko MimicCilea’s gran scena gave Barton the chance to run the Italianate gamut from jealousy to rapture; Humperdinck’s Witch encouraged the twinkle and a fair bit of lip-smacking at her own plump expense; Sibelius’s opportunity for expansiveness in that wonderful song "Was that a dream?" allowed her to lay down a rich Nordic carpet of sound; and nothing was to go deeper all evening than the bittersweet farewell of Berlioz’s Dido. What was commenter and first competition wonder-winner Karita Mattila going on about, missing colours in the voice and complaining about shallowness of expression? It wasn’t the last time in the evening that the Finn raised my fellow spectators’ eyebrows at home with some odd dismissals of the feminine talent on show.

She went wild, though, for the only male finalist, Croatian bass-baritone Marko Mimica (pictured above) as Verdi’s Attila, all man and, agreed, quite a sound. But no-one was allowed a critical word of his lumpen Figaro Act Four aria – not a number to choose out of context, or if you haven’t been working on the Italian, say, over six weeks at Glyndebourne. He should have inserted a German number into the Italian sequence, too. Soprano Teresa Romano had the Callas manner but slightly generalized Latin passion, and Mary King was right to point out that you don’t tackle Leonora’s "Pace, mio dio" from La forza del destino if you don’t yet have the technique to float a pianissimo top B flat. Yet lirico spinto sopranos are not in such plentiful supply that Romano would be turned away at the Royal Opera, where I’ve seen lesser would-be divas on stage.

Mezzo-soprano Daniela MackI'd have been perfectly happy to see either of the other two win. Argentinian Daniela Mack (pictured left) was a mezzo of quite another sort to Barton, who won't be tackling Mack's Rossini heroines or Mozart trouser roles. A more natural actress than Romano, and looking gorgeous with her big, expressive brown eyes – glamour does matter in these events – Mack contrasted the suicidal determination of Massenet’s Sapho, the palpitating bewilderment of Mozart’s Idamante at his father’s rejection and the can-I-believe-it happiness of Rossini’s Cenerentola. All were sung with perfect intensity, but I’d have liked the option of a whitened tone once or twice and not all the coloratura runs in Cinders’ "Non piu mesta" were flawless, though she made interesting decorative choices. I look forward to seeing her on stage, though, as Strauss’s Octavian or Composer.

Similarly, elfish looking Ukrainian soprano Olena Tokar (pictured below) will travel the world giving her ideally strange Rusalka, as a seamless Hymn to the Moon demonstrated. What was Mattila on about, claiming to know better Czech than her Slavic junior? And was Tokar’s Musetta really too lightweight, as Mattila claimed ? I heard a total change of tone colour as she moved from Pamina’s "Ach ich fühl’s" – again, one top-note snag, slighter than Romano’s - to the Puccini, where musicianship and dramatic instinct seemed flawless.

Olena TokarTokar and Barton were especially lucky with the likeable responsiveness of Jun Mӓrkl, one of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s two conductors; the other, Graham Jenkins, seemed less interested in rapport.  Of the talking heads, King managed to say the most of significance in the shortest amount of time. Petroc Trelawny’s presentation was professional and low key, letting the women do most of the talking without imposing his own views. And while Glyndebourne chatelaine and hyper-communicative soprano Danielle de Niese didn’t get to ask backstage questions any more penetrating than those of the demoted Josie d’Arby  - usually “how do you feel?” and “what would it be like to win?”, which elicited equally bland replies from the contestants - at least she knows her stuff.

You certainly believed her and Petroc about what a good time everyone had been having and how supportive the Cardiff audience was. As for Mattila, more snarky than seemed healthy for balance in her criticisms, well, you can’t win them all. The last image, of Barton holding her enraptured poise as all assembled sang “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” – that’s “Land of Our Fathers” to non Welsh speakers -  was as emotive as any of the many high spots in a very classy evening’s entertainment.

It’s about the total package: personality, technique, communication, conjuring the world of each given opera in a couple of minutes


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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I'm glad someone has mentioned the Croatian's almost completely unmusical Figaro as well as Miss Mattila's bizarre contributions - totally lacking in generosity.

How funny that you are all such experts, compared with "Miss Attila"....I look forward to hearing you on stage next time round!

David is a very experienced commentator with many years experience, including as a singer. I have worked professionally in opera for over 30 years. You may not agree with us but we are entitled to an opinion.

Actually, though I think the jury got it right for the main prize, I do not think Jamie Barton should have won the Song Prize. The only one of the Song Prize finalists, who put together a convincing total programme, who thoroughly entered into the world of each song that he sang was the English tenor, Ben Johnson. All the BBC commentators (both on radio and tv) gave him the palm, and it would appear the audience did too. He really had something special, but the jury, in the end just went for the biggest and richest voice, not so necessary in Lieder. I also think that some of Mattila's comments were apposite. When she won she was a genuinely young, inexperienced singer (only 22) and she went on to have a great career. Nowadays most of these singers are well past the stage of showing promise. Barton has a wonderful voice, but I take what Mattila meant about colour. The Berlioz was gloriously sung, but just missed something of the specific. Yesterday I was listening to Scotto sing "Un bel di" on the Barbirolli recording. She was 31 at the time, the same age as many of the singers in the competition, but her artistry was on a completely different level, from Teresa Romano, who sang it in her heat. Though Scotto sounds, correctly, like a young Butterfly, her skillful charting of the aria shows an interpretive maturity beyond that of Romano, who is the same age. Callas was only 24 when she recorded the Mad Scene from "I Puritani", one of the greatest pieces of singing ever committed to disc. De Los Angeles was only 31 when she recorded her superbly accomplished Manon, and her first Marguerite. Tebaldi was one of the main stays of La Scala by the time she was 30, and so on. The male singers in the competition are often younger, and, given that male voice, particularly basses, mature later, Mattila may well have been right when she picked the Croation bass-baritone (25) as having the most promise. Though I hugely enjoyed the whole week, I do think the emphasis of the competition has changed from what it used to be.

Very good points there, Greg. Having caught up with snippets of the Song Prize contestants, I agree totally that the prize should have gone to Ben Johnson (such an intelligent programme, too). And you're not the first to make the point that so many of the contestants now already have a career (especially Jamie Barton, and so did Shcherbachenko four years ago). It's worth remembering that Mimica is very young for a bass baritone and that fabulous instrument can only get richer. I do think the Mozart totally ruled him out, though.

Well I would not have given Mimica the prize. He clearly still has a lot to learn, but my point is that, in the past, all the singers were still inexperienced. It's worth remembering that the year of the baritones - Hovorostovsky and Terfel, both were under 30, and neither of them had had much stage experience. What made that year so exciting was the fact that we really were seeing too young singers becoming stars. Both have richly fulfilled their potential, just as Mattila did hers.It does seem rather a pity to me now that it is established singers who are competing. That said, two years ago the prize went to one of the youngest and least experienced singers, Valentina Nofornita, so I may be talking a lot of nonsense.

Sign of musical jungle today that competition entrants are much older & many are already pro, in piano & strings too. Barton's career is not as developed as you might assume, not on par with duller but slimmer Daniela Mack. She's still only been in bit parts & not much exposure. I think her talent deserves far better, as David said, but weight is a problem in opera houses now. Mezzos her age have 30 years ahead of them (Felicity Palmer was on jury, maybe relevant). Where are other Cardiff finalists nowadays?

Do you mean winners of main or song prizes, Ismene? Most readily to mind are Harteros, Mattila, Cabell, Hvorostovsky, Terfel, Shcherbachenko,. Gasteen (while it lasted), Elizabeth Watts, Christopher Maltman. Not a bad track record.

As for Barton's bit parts, Meistersinger Magdalena in Chicago, Second Norn and more importantly - already planned, I guess - Rheingold Fricka in Houston and Adalgisa at the Met show a career already taking off.

Did you find Mack dull?  I thought if anything she was over-vibrant, just needed to settle to a proper line or two.

Having watched the song final in its entirety, I can see why Barton swept the board with her magnificently voiced and characterised narratives. Johnson was more the tasteful Lieder singer, but there weren't comparable nodal points and I even began to question whether he's a true tenor rather than a baritone.



I thought Mack uninterestingly efficient in style and her beautiful voice so evenly produced as to be monochromatic. Agree none of them are beginners, except bass-baritone, but Shcherbachenko was 32 & well established in Bolshoi a while before 2009 Cardiff, wasn't she? What's to be done? Further age restrictions? What were they in the original competition? Further thought - Operabase lists Shcherbachenko's career roles in past 4 years = a tiny repertoire: Liu, Micaela, Tatyana, Mimi, Rusalka. What is the point of competition if the career is already established before it, & after it the career hardly moves on?

Remember when Nina Stemme ended up second!! Soon Proms Queen Brunhilde in all 3 Wagner Ring marathons.

I don't remember, Christina, to my shame. Mind you, if that was around the time Stemme sang Manon Lescaut for English National Opera, I wouldn't have picked out the rather unsupported and undercoloured voice as a potential winner, let alone a future Isolde or Brunnhilde.

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