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Welsh Singers Competition

BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by David Parry
St David's Hall, 5 June 2006


Paul Carey Jones – baritone / Llyr Williams - piano
Sarah-Jane Davies
– soprano / Phillip Thomas - piano
Alun Rhys Jenkins
– tenor / Jeff Howard - piano
Caryl Hughes
– mezzo-soprano  


The Cardiff Singer of the World Competition enjoys International fame, but decisions regarding what countries should be represented and by whom remains something of a mystery. Only in Wales is there a visible selection process to chose the “home” candidate, with the final being staged in St David's Hall, the home of the Competition. Here the short-listed singers present a half hour programme of their own choice made up of operatic or oratorio pieces accompanied by the orchestra or songs with piano. The hall has a packed audience and there are cameras up close giving live TV coverage throughout Wales .


In a very closely fought contest, with the jury * taking much longer than they expected to reach a decision, the soprano Sarah-Jane Davies emerged as winner.


Like Elizabeth Watts who recently won the Ferrier Competition, Sarah-Jane Davies is a member of ENO's “Young Singers' Programme” and this is no mere coincidence. That excellent programme extends support and coaching to recital skills as well as opera and of course provides that extra element of confidence gained through appearing regularly in a big performance space.


Her programme was perfectly balanced, beginning and ending with operatic showpieces – “E gelosia quella tiranna” from Handel's Serse demonstrating her technical skills, and Mozart's “Dove sono” – a favourite with any audience, prefaced by a stylish recitative. Sandwiched between were two songs – “Allerseelen” by Richard Strauss and “The Nightingale and the Rose” in Benjamin Britten's setting. She made both lyrical and sang with quiet restraint, in perfect harmony with the piano playing of Phillip Thomas (who is Head of Training on the YSP). She had one moment of hesitation, perhaps sparked off by persistent and unsuppressed coughing from someone in the audience, but generally gave a polished performance which will hopefully stand her in good stead for the International Competition next year.


At the other end of the experience scale was mezzo-soprano Caryl Hughes , who is just about to embark on the Opera Course at RAM. Physically she may have looked a little tense, but there was nothing uncertain about her singing. College students don't get too many chances to sing with a fully orchestra, which was perhaps a factor in her decision to choose this option for her entire programme. She included the two mainstays of the mezzo audition repertoire: Mozart's “Parto, parto” and Rossini's “Una voce poco fa”, both nice ly presented, but a more interesting selection (and our second nightingale of the evening) was “La maja y el ruisenor” from Granados' Goyescas .


My choice of winner might well have been Paul Carey Jones, a baritone who seems to be in great demand just now. He is touring as Rossini's Figaro with Opera East, in rehearsal covering the role of Nixon in Nixon in China for ENO, and preparing for the premiere of Richard Elfyn Jones' in David's Land at the Fishguard Festival.

He was equally generous in his programme for this evening offering a total of six items. He opened with a velvety, caressing “Ah! Per sempre io ti perdei” from Bellini's I Puritani , and continued with lieder by Schubert and Brahms. His next song, “When Satan fell” by Mervyn Burtch ** turned D H Lawrence's equivocal poem into a perfect piece of miniature theatre with every word clear and perfectly weighted, and those same skills were carried through to “Tarry her, my servant … It is enough” from Mendelssohn's Elijah. I enjoyed his finale from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin which also gave the orchestra a chance to show off. Indeed, the orchestra played superbly all evening for David Parry, switching styles at the flick of a baton.


The fourth contestant was tenor Alun Rhys Jenkins who is a member of the full time chorus of WNO, and his colleagues seemed to have turned out in force to support him. I had serious reservations about his diction but his opening aria from Handel's Alcina made a splendid show of vocal agility, in neat contrast his following piece, Gareth Glyn's nostalgic Llanrwst delivered with poignant calm. “Cujus animam” from Rossini's Stabat Mater provided him with another fine showpiece. His platform demeanour looked totally relaxed, and his irrepressible pleasure in performance was infectious – making Stravinsky's “Here I stand” a natural foil for his talents, and a fine end to his offering.


I overheard a good deal of heated discussion during the interval and once we had resumed our seats there was a further extended pause whilst the jury completed their deliberations. Tension hung in the air as the result was finally announced, and Sarah-Jane Davies came onto the platform to receive her prize visibly shaking her head in disbelief, and a few tears of joy were in evidence as the audience rose to their feet for the anthem.


Serena Fenwick


*   Jury – Julian Smith; Mary King; Sarah Playfair; Dennis O'Neill; Neal Davies


**   There is a chance to hear this unusual piece on Paul Carey-Jones' web site www.paulcareyjones.com/indexa.htm


  photo credit Richard Kendal