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BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition 2009

On the evening of Sunday, 14 June, the final of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition took place. This biennial event, inaugurated in 1983 to celebrate the opening of the (then) newly-completed St David's Hall in Cardiff, Wales, has become one of, if not the most sought-after titles in the world of singing. There are in fact two competitions: the main Singer of the World contest for pieces with orchestra, and the Song Prize contest for lieder with piano accompaniment. Entry in the Song Prize contest is optional, although competitors in that contest must also take part in the main contest. The competition is open to all singers aged 18 to 32 years. The Singer of the World winner receives a Welsh crystal trophy and a cheque for £15,000. The Song Prize is worth £5,000 to the winner. Potentially far more valuable though is the prestige of winning these titles. The very first winner of the competition, the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, has followed a glittering career, making her Covent Garden début two years later as Pamina in Mozart's The Magic Flute. In addition to the two main competitions, there is a £2,000 Audience Prize awarded to the contestant who finds most favour with the general public.

Over 600 applicants are auditioned, from which 25 singers from around the world are invited to compete in Cardiff. Only one singer may be selected from any given country, the countries represented this year being: Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Bulgaria (replacing the indisposed Austrian competitor), Canada, Chile, Croatia, Czech Republic, England, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Russia, South Africa, Ukraine, USA and Wales. The contestants each appear in one of five concert rounds. After the fifth round, the jury panel announce the five finalists. Although, as this year, these are normally the five concert round winners, it is not necessarily the case. The jury selects the five singers who in their opinion have given the best performances over the whole competition.

The jury comprises internationally-renowned experts from many aspects of the world of singing. This year's nine-member jury consisted of four singers, a conductor, an accompanist, a music director, a BBC Radio 3 producer and an opera house administrator.

The two competitions ran in parallel over nine consecutive days, but for this column I'm going to focus on the main Singer of the World competition. The singers were accompanied by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales—the orchestra-in-residence at St David's Hall—and the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, conducted respectively by Lawrence Foster and Paul Daniel.

Concert One

Three sopranos, a baritone and a bass were the line-up for this concert, won by soprano Eri Nakamura from Japan. She chose arias from Donizetti's Don Pasquale, Massenet's Manon and Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. A particular highlight of this concert for me was Canada's Etienne Dupuis performing 'Papagena' from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). The change in his manner from miserable anxiety to suicidal despair during the course of the aria, and his use (and playing) of the pan-pipes were particularly noteworthy (no pun intended).

Concert Two

A soprano, a mezzo, a tenor and two baritones featured in the second concert. The winner, Russian soprano Ekaterina Shcherbachenko, chose the long Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin as her main offering. Whilst putting most of her eggs in one basket, this possibly gave her the advantage of being able to sing in her own language for most of her programme, but advantage or not, a very fine performance it was.

Concert Three

The high voice of a counter-tenor joined two sopranos, a baritone and a bass for concert three. Croatia's Tomislav Lučić (bass) gave a lovely performance of the Catalogue Aria from Mozart's Don Giovanni. It was a pleasure to hear his Italian diction quite clear of the heavy, veiling accent that is sadly so often the case these days. Another highlight was Israeli soprano Claire Meghnagi's delightful choice of an extract from Poulenc's relatively little-known opera Les mamelles de Tirésias, an aria that I for one had not previously heard and would certainly like to hear again. In the end though, it was the counter-tenor, Yuriy Mynenko from Ukraine who convinced the judges with his programme of arias from Gluck (Orphée et Eurydice), Handel (Giulio Cesare) and Mozart (La clemenza di Tito).

Concert Four

Two sopranos, a mezzo, a baritone and a bass competed in the penultimate concert round. Chilean baritone Javier Arrey elected to start his performance of 'Largo al factotum' from Rossini's The Barber of Seville off-stage, which was unusual in a concert performance of this so well-known operatic warhorse. Another way of refocusing the attention of aurally-fatigued judges is to sing them something different, and this was the approach of American soprano Vira Slywotzky. She gave a riveting rendition of another work I had not heard previously: 'Do not utter a word' from Samuel Barber's Vanessa. This English-language aria held me barely breathing from its opening five-chord, descending scale and the intoned title phrase from the singer, right through to the very end—utterly riveting stuff. Ultimately it was the well-executed and varied programme (Verdi, Gounod, Puccini and Rachmaninov) from the Czech Republic's Jan Martiník (bass) that impressed the jury more.

Concert Five

Two sopranos, a tenor, a baritone and a bass in concert five meant that no two rounds had presented exactly the same combination of voices. It did however afford a second opportunity to hear the Catalogue Aria, this time from New Zealander Wade Kernot. His bass voice had an extra depth to it that underpinned a very smooth performance. He amused the audience by appearing to read the list of Don Giovanni's conquests from the concert programme biography notes! Ireland's Helen Kearns decision to sing the 'Chanson du Rossignol' from Stravinsky's Le Rossignol as part of her widely varied programme (Weber and Donizetti in addition to the Stravinsky) was brave given that for a lot of the time the voice is unaccompanied and requires absolute precision, but in my view she brought it off. The youngest singer in the competition, 21-year-old Italian tenor Giordano Lucà, sang a poignant aria from Cilea's L'arlesiana to great effect as part of his five-piece programme, and won this round of the contest.

Announcing their decision at the end of concert five, the jury saw no reason not to select the five concert round winners to go head-to-head in the Final.

Two of the finalists also won through to the Final of the Song Prize competition: Yuriy Mynenko and Jan Martiník. Finalist Eri Nakamura also competed, having replaced the indisposed Croatian baritone Tomislav Lučić on the morning of the Final. They were joined by baritone Javier Arrey from Chile and Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw.

Between the concerts and the Final, the public have the chance to vote for their favourite artist, from any of the 25 competitors. The winner this time was the young Italian tenor, Giordano Lucà.

The Final

The rules of the competition allow a singer to repeat any work sung in their concert round, but they must present at least one new piece in the Final.

Soprano Eri Nakamura returned to Gounod's Roméo et Juliette for her first piece, but this time picked Juliette's Waltz Song. Then she contrasted this nicely by singing the same character, but in very different mood, with an aria from Bellini's The Capulets and the Montagues. This bel canto aria gave her plenty of opportunity to display her voice to full advantage, as it is quite frequently unaccompanied. She completed her programme with Liù's final aria from Puccini's Turandot, and one of Richard Strauss's harmonically-rich Four Songs Op.27, thus demonstrating her ability in the French, Italian and German languages.

Tenor Giordano Lucà elected to reprise one piece from his previous concert—'Che gelida manina' ('Your tiny hand is frozen') from Puccini's La Bohème—in a programme mainly consisting of well-known nuggets from the tenor repertoire: 'Una furtiva lagrima' from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore, 'La donna è mobile' ('Woman is fickle') from Verdi's Rigoletto, and Pinkerton's Farewell aria from Puccini's Madama Butterfly. To these he added a less often concert-performed aria from Verdi's Macbeth. A small criticism of his programme was that we (and the jury) only got to hear him in Italian, although this is perhaps understandable, given his age, experience and the depth of the tenor repertoire in that language.

Czech bass Jan Martiník's principal piece in the Final was a long melancholic aria from the start of Act IV of Verdi's Don Carlos, in which King Philip of Spain realises that his new marriage is to be a political one only, and that he will never capture the heart of his bride, who instead loves his son, Don Carlos. He prefaced this with another lament, this one from Dvorák's Rusalka, sung of course in his native Czech language, and the lighter, though devious 'La calunnia' from Rossini's The Barber of Seville.

The high, male counter-tenor voice has been through a period of resurgence recently, aided by the influence of high profile singers like James Bowman. Not surprisingly, Yuriy Mynenko's programme was drawn principally from the period of ascendancy of the castrato singer: Riccardo Broschi's 1730 opera Idaspe and Handel's Xerses of 1738, together with Rossini's second serious opera, Tancredi. Created for the contralto Adelaide Malanotte-Montresor, Tancredi was first performed at the Fenice theatre, Venice in 1813. The role, a male of royal blood, clearly falls nicely within the compass of the counter-tenor voice.

Ekaterina Shcherbachenko first sang Marguérite's brilliant Jewel Song from Gounod's Faust. Eri Nakamura had earlier given us Liù's final aria from Puccini's Turandot; now Ekaterina gave us Liù's lovely first aria 'Signore, ascolta!' For her main offering, she presented 'No word from Tom' from Act I scene iii of Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress. We had already heard her in Russian, French and Italian; now we heard her sing in English as well.

The Result

Jury chairman John Fisher, addressing—in both Welsh and English—the hall audience and the worldwide public viewing and listening on television and radio, acknowledged that the judges had had a difficult task in choosing a single winner from such a high-class set of competitors. However, a winner there had to be, and that the winner of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition 2009 was the Russian soprano, Ekaterina Shcherbachenko. She received her Welsh crystal trophy from one of the greatest sopranos of her day, Dame Joan Sutherland, wife of conductor and jury member Richard Bonynge.

Finally, praise must be given to both orchestras who performed magnificently throughout the week, and to the conductors Lawrence Foster and Paul Daniel who each conducted with crystal clarity.

The Song Prize 2009 was won by Jan Martiník.

If you were following this competition as it unfolded, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

Till next time, happy listening.

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