| The Mozart Singing Competition 2007
Dukes Hall, Royal Academy of Music - 17 February 2006
I have always thought the term “Singing Competition” was something of a misnomer. In my experience singers are a friendly lot, after all most of them have been or will be working together at some time in their careers, so they are not so much competing against each other as striving to show off their skills to best advantage, and of course go home with as much prize money as they can.
The first hurdle is negotiating the rules, and in this case they pose a stiffer test than usual. First and foremost it is the Mozart competition and entrants are required to include “a substantial piece” by him at each stage in the competition. But there are also three special prizes, awarded at semi final stage, for the best Sacred Song or Aria, the best Aria from a Romantic Opera (indicated as Verdi/Wagner/Tchaikovsky), and the best 19 th -20 th century Art Song. With a time limit of 14 minutes, a good deal of ingenuity is required to encompass all these elements in a balanced programme with sufficient overall pizzazz to carry a singer through into the final.
Clearly a bit of doubling up was called for, to make one piece fulfil two purposes, and the most popular solution was a piece of Mozart's sacred music – indeed all of the mezzos sang the Laudamus te from the C minor Mass (with Julia Riley taking the prize with one of these). A more resourceful idea came from the tenor Anando Mukerjee who chose the Ingemisco from Verdi's Requiem, probably close enough in style to pass as opera, and enabled him to end on the words “statuens in parte dextra” (place me on the right side), surely a direct plea to the jury for inclusion in the final.
Relatively few of the singers had a tilt at the Romantic Opera Prize: maybe they felt this repertoire was too heavy for their voices, or maybe the time constraint weighed against it. The prize went to Piotr Lempa who offered Fiesco's Act I aria from Simon Boccanegra . He had drawn a slot shortly after 9am – a time of day not much favoured by singers – and was clearly having trouble getting his voice into gear. This ruled him out of the final, but the Aria Prize was well deserved, and it sounded even better when he gave a reprise prizewinner's performance during the evening judging interval.
Conversely, the majority of singers included a qualifier for the Song Prize. For the most part they chose mainstream lieder, Brahms, Mahler, Strauss etc, but mezzo Annie Gill gave us Reynaldo Hahn's A Chloris , with all its subtle charm, and baritone Paul Carey Jones opted for Gerald Finzi's superb setting of Hardy's The clock of the years ; a marvellous showpiece as long as the words are clear and the timing spot on, which they were. However, the prize went to another baritone, Viktor Rud, whose programme included both Tchaikovsky's O could you but for one short hour and Gurney's In Flanders . We were not told which of these was the winning piece, both were delivered with complete sincerity and would have been worthy candidates.
At this stage in the competition it looked to me as though these two baritones, Paul Carey Jones and Viktor Rud, were in a different class from the other contestants. Although they are pretty much at opposite ends of the baritone scale, Viktor with a creamy lyric voice and Paul whose voice carries real power and weight, there are many similarities between them. They had both chosen intelligent, well balanced programmes which played to their strengths, both had prepared them with scrupulous attention to detail, both used the platform space well to dramatise their presentation, and both actively communicated with their audience.
I found nominating two further singers for the final much more difficult, almost all had made an impression with elements of their programme but that mystery “X factor” which makes a performance really stand out was missing. Would the jury be working on an “add up plus points” or a “deduct for errors” basis? Would they decide to overlook Piotr Lempa's early morning problems? Might Julia Sporsen's clever staging have impressed them? I rather felt I would like to hear New Zealand mezzo Madeleine Pierard sing again – she is still very young, so she's maybe one for the note book. The jury seemed to be having similarly difficulty, and what had been indicated as a 15 minute adjudication period stretched to an hour before their pronouncement was declared.
There is only one certainty about singing competitions, which is that there will be some surprises in the juries' decisions. Baritones Paul Carey Jones and Viktor Rud had indeed been chosen, and they were to be joined in the final by soprano Nina Bols Lundgren and mezzo soprano Julia Riley, both of whom looked to be as surprised as they were delighted.
The competition has four major prizes to be distributed between the four finalists, so there is a cushion of reassurance and a little pressure is taken off. What appeared to be a quite unnecessary interval had been scheduled at the half way mark, and this ran on beyond its allotted time. This was the one flaw in the otherwise exemplary administration, and may have unsettled Nina Bols Lundgren who was waiting to sing.
Nonetheless she made a good start with Mozart: Die Zauberer followed by Pamina's very exposed Ach, ich fuhl's, both well coloured and characterised. She moved on to Britten's Be kind and courteous (A Midsummer Night's Dream) nicely inflected, but short on distinguishable words. She returned to Mozart for her finale, Madame Silberklang's Bester Jungling (Der Schauspieldirecktor) but didn't' quite achieve the coloratura zing that is the essence of this aria. 4th Prize
Paul Carey Jones looked relaxed and began with Figaro's Se vuol ballare his face mirroring every detail in the text and sub-text, a model of barely concealed insolence. Mervyn Burthch's When Satan fell , looks like becoming his signature piece, and effectively holds the audience in suspense whilst good and evil compete to tip the scales. Next he gave us an emotionally harrowing account of Britten's Look! Through the port , before switching mood and tempo completely with Ireland 's Great things . Somehow that didn't quite gel and it occurred to me that it might have been better to follow Budd to the grave with the Brahms' Auf dem Kirchhofe which he had placed earlier in this programme. 3rd prize
Donizetti is a composer who doesn't normally feature very prominently in singing competitions. Viktor Rud had sung an aria from Maria di Rudenz in the semi finals and he followed up with another from Don Sebastiano in the finals. He has a real affinity for this bel canto repertoire, but is not confined to it: he was equally effective in a deeply committed account of Rachmaninov's Christ is risen. Don Giovanni's “champagne aria” was a stylish way to finish, but Ho un gran peso from Rossini's Italian Girl in Algiers proved more elusive and hard to put over outside the context of the full opera. 2nd prize.
Julia Riley sang first in the final and opened with what seems to be the mezzo's compulsory chips-down aria Parto, parto . This is sung by Sesto in Act I of Mozart's La clemenza di Tito and is a real show piece, but there is another good mezzo role in the same opera and it was an inspired choice to demonstrate the contrast with Annio's Tu fosti tradito . Julia finished with Handel, to be precise Oh felice…con l'ali (Ariodante) which really suits her to perfection and brought out all the gloss in her voice. 1st prize, and a worthy winner!
Finally, a word about pianists. Geoffrey Pratley was on hand as the competition's highly experienced pianist, but in practice most competitors had chosen to bring their own piano accompanist. As might be expected, the majority of these were seasoned professionals, but notable amongst the student pianists were James Baillieu, who accompanied Piotr Lempa, and Joseph Middleton who accompanied Viktor Rud.
Semi-Final & Final Rounds
1st Prize (£2,500) - Julia Riley
2nd Prize (£1,500) - Viktor Rud
3rd Prize (£1,000) - Paul Carey Jones
4th Prize (£500) - Nina Bols Lundgren
Prize for a Sacred Song or Aria (£250) - Julia Riley
Prize for a Romantic Opera (Verdi/Wagner/Tchaikovsky) Aria (£250) - Piotr Lempa
Prize for an 18 th /19 th century art song (£250) - Viktor Rud
Teresa Cahill; Eric von Ibler; Richard Jackson; Mark Wildman; Barbara Dix (Co-ordinator)
Julia Riley – mezzo soprano / Ian Ryan - piano
Viktor Rud – baritone /Joseph Middleton - piano
Nina Bols Lundgren – soprano /Ulrich Sterck - piano
Paul Carey Jones – baritone /Jane Samuel - piano
Semi - Finalists
Máire Flavin – mezzo soprano; Piotr Lempa – bass; Ida Falk Winland - soprano
Annie Gill – mezzo soprano; Siphiwo Ntshebe – tenor; Julia Sporsén - soprano
Erica Eloff – soprano; Vojtech Šafarík – baritone; Elizabeth Traill - soprano