Armchair Judge: Operalia 2015 Final

Vocal competitions are more fun if you put yourself on the line and play judge. If you guess the winner, you can wallow in self-satisfaction. If you don’t, you can accuse the real judges of wearing blinders, having cotton bud fluff stuck in their ears, etc. Never mind that they are in the house and we all know you can only fully assess an operatic voice live. These were my real-time thoughts during Operalia 2015, organised and conducted by the indefatigable Placido Domingo.

19:00 hrs CET

Tuned in on medici.tv. Having made the final, all these young artists deserve a big, hypoallergenic bouquet. May the best set of vocal cords win!

First up: Dapper American baritone Edward Parks, baritone, with “Largo al factotum”, delivered with panache.

Soprano Andrea Carroll, elegant in electric blue lace, also from the USA, sings a near-perfect “Qui la voce” from Bellini’s I Puritani. She eschews showiness in the cabaletta, but her performance has the makings of a winner.

Would like to hear her as: Micaela in Carmen

French tenor Julien Behr keeps it close to home with “Salut, demeure chaste et pure” from Faust. I like the placement of his head voice around the nasal cavities, which sounds so appropriate in French repertoire. Maestro Domingo’s pace is a little glacial. Here comes the money note…lovely diminuendo. We’ll attribute the little bobbles to nerves, but this tenor has it all: voice, presence, style.

Would like to hear him as: Nemorino now, Faust later

Australian soprano Kiandra Howarth floats in wearing a dramatic metallic beaded top and full chocolate skirt. More Gounod, with a scene from Romeo et Juliette. A very expressive singer, and the emotion sometimes causes some strain at the top. I wonder if her voice is not a tad too large for Juliet.

Would like to hear her in: The lighter Puccini repertoire

Young bass-baritones are at a disadvantage at these competitions, because their voices take long to mature. At just 24, Bongani Justice Kubheka from South Africa has an impressive voice and you can see he belongs on the stage. Not surprisingly, his “La Calumnia” sounds a little light-weight, but what promise!

Would like to hear him, after further coaching in Italian and technique: Rossini, Donizetti, anything really.

Is it just me, or are competition participants, male and female, much better turned out than they used to be? Gone are the frizzy locks, ill-fitting tuxedos and face-engulfing giant bows of yore. South Korean soprano Hyesang Park, in silver and pink, looks ready for the cover of Vogue. Her “Il dolce suono” from Lucia di Lammermoor was beautifully sung. Her voice possesses both lightness and a substantial tonal core, and her coloratura is very secure. I did crave more emotion is poor Lucia’s text, though. Oops, spoke too soon. She loosened up in “Spargi d’amaro pianto”, earning thunderous applause.

Would like to hear her in:  Lakmé and The Pearl Fishers

Tobias Greenhalgh from the USA showed he has ace acting chops in the second “Largo al factotum” of the evening. Maybe he was a little overenthusiastic with the volume, sounding a bit pushed at times, but I’d love to see him on stage in comic rep. In time he would also make a great Mephisto.

Tenorial gold next: Darren Pene Pati from New Zealand with “Tombe degli avi miei” from Lucia di Lammermoor. No rare repertoire so far: the finalists are sticking to the old warhorses. Any why not? There’s nothing wrong with helping the agents and impresarios in the audience think in the right direction. What a lovely, ductile sound this man has, perfect for Italian opera. His top notes open up like parting clouds letting the sun through. I’m sure Maestro Domingo will make sure this young man gets the right training in phrasing and the great Italianate tenor tradition.

Would like to hear him as: What he’s singing right now: Edgardo. And Alfredo, etc. You can never have enough of this type of golden lyric tenor.

20:09 hrs CET

Noluvuyiso Mpofu from South Africa now singing a lovely “Ah fors’e lui.” from La Traviata. A lovely, lyric soprano voice. Somewhat placid in expression, but something tells me she’ll catch fire in the cabaletta. And she does…I don’t think a clear winner has emerged as yet, but Ms Mpofu is certainly a contender.

Romanian tenor Ioan Hotea is not afraid of those high Cs. He takes on “Pour mon ame” from The Daughter of the Regiment. He nails all the notes, but I’m not sure this is his best voice, or the best aria for him. He sounded a bit hoarse at times.

Lise Davidsen from Norway seems to be the only dramatic soprano, or dramatic anything, in this competition. Also: no mezzos or contraltos among the finalists. She needs the first bars of “Dich, teure Halle” from Tannhäuser  to settle into secure pitch, but then her voice unfurls in Wagnerian splendour. I’m envious of the people in the hall. Her voice probably needs to be experienced live for full effect. I’m envisaging a Nina Stemme-like winner: Lise Davidsen.

20:26 hrs CET

Now for the Zarzuela finalists, a subset of the overall competition. I know very little about zarzuelas, beyond an aria or two, but the first finalist, soprano Andrea Carroll, seems to have a real affinity for the genre.

Now we get to enjoy the molten tenor of Darren Pene Pati again. What impassioned singing! Does Maestro Domingo coach the zarzuela finalists himself? I’m now thinking both Andrea Carroll and Darren Pene Pati deserve to win the zarzuela prize.

Next up: Kiandra Howarth. Again, my impression is that she’s singing repertoire that’s too light for her. Her middle and lower voice are nice and fruity. And she is a very good actress.

Tenor Ioan Hotea: he’s got the right sob-in-the-voice for zarzuela. I love the religious and amorous sentimentality of these zarzuela arias. Mr Hotea’s faring so much better here than in the Donizetti. What talented competitors! Big applause, well deserved.

Hyesang Park’s waltzy zarzuela contribution fills me with hope for the future of operetta. What an Adele she would make in Die Fledermaus!

20:46 hrs CET

My predictions while everyone sings the Operalia Hymn against a background of clouds:

Main Prize: Lise Davidsen, Norway, or possibly Andrea Carroll, USA

Zarzuela Prize: Darren Pene Pati, New Zealand

The Audience Prize could go in all directions, but I can see the audience being totally charmed by Hyesang Park.

UPDATE @ 22:20 hrs CET: 

So what do Joan Matabosch, Eva Wagner, Peter Katona and the Armchair Judge at operayummy.com have in common? Only one thing, apparently: Lise Davidsen, exciting young Wagnerian soprano.

The Winners:

Zarzuela Prize, Male and Female Singers: Ioan Hotea, tenor, Romania, 25 & Hyesang Park, soprano, South Korea, 26

CulturArte Prize: Kiandra Howarth, soprano, Australia, 25

Birgit Nilsson Prize: Lise Davidsen, soprano, Norway, 28 (the only competitor with a Wagnerian voice)

Third Operalia Prize, Male and Female Singers: Edward Parks, baritone, USA, 31 & Noluvuyiso Mpofu, soprano, South Africa, 24

Second Operalia Prize, Male and Female Singers: Darren Pene Pati, tenor, New Zealand, 27 & Hyesang Park, South Korea

Operalia 2015 First Prize Winners: Ioan Hotea, Romania & Lise Davidsen, Norway

Audience Prize, Male and Female Singers: Darren Pene Pati, New Zealand & Liz Davidsen, Norway

Best of luck to all the talented competitors! We are very lucky to have them.

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