Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Stella Maris Round 3 and Winners

Two of the eight Stella Maris singers – Argentine-US mezzo Daniela Mack (nominated by San Francisco Opera) and US baritone John Chest (Bayerische Staatsoper) dominated the prizes, with Mack winning guest engagements at the Washington National Opera and the Verbier Festival, and Chest winning the €15,000 Audience Prize and the test recording with Deutsche Grammophon.

Round 3 on Wednesday 10th, with each singer presenting a single aria, was the decider – though the results were not announced until a gala event on Friday. Two arias per contestant would perhaps have been more satisfying and revealing, but this ‘penalty shoot-out’ approach made for a concentrated and exciting round.

Rising once again to a classic lyric mezzo challenge, Daniela Mack excelled in the Composer’s paean to music from the closing moments of the prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos. Though the role was originally written for a soprano, Mack, exuding impetuosity and idealism, filled the surging high phrases with secure, ringing tone. A winning performance in every sense – one just wished that the aria itself were a little longer.

Mack’s was just one of the parade of operatic hits on the programme. John Chest’s contribution was more surprising. After his chilling excerpt from Winterreise in the song round, he transported us away from the cosseting environment of the MS Europa and onto Captain Vere’s far harsher HMS Indomitable. As Billy Budd, Chest prepared for execution in ‘Look, through the port’. His characterisation and shifts of mood and colour were once again superbly achieved – aided by pianist David Syrus’ spare, but powerful evocation the orchestra. If this was not obvious repertoire for wooing the popular vote, there were clearly connoisseurs on the terraces of the Europa Lounge, since it was this performance that clinched the 15,000 Euro audience prize for Chest.

Also facing a character’s final moments was Chris Lysack, who, in Cavaradossi’s ‘E lucevan le stelle’, again performed with intensity and amplitude of tone and phrase. While I suspect that his future will lie in German and perhaps French and Slavic repertoire, Lysack is clearly an intrepid, individual artist.

Michael Müller needed to be pretty intrepid to perform Don Ottavio’s ‘Il mio tesoro’ in front of jury chairman Michael Schade, a Mozart tenor par excellence, but his daring contrasts of light and shade and his handling of the long phrases was persuasive. Aspects of his tone production are a little idiosyncratic (for instance the nasal approach to top notes), but the freshness of Müller’s interpretations – and the joy he clearly takes in singing – make him highly engaging.

Completing Stellar Maris’ own team of three tenors, Adam Luther once more showed his beauty of tone, this time in a finely chiseled ‘Salut, demeure chaste et pure’ from Faust, but there was also a vague sense of unease – perhaps it was the prospect of the top C towards the end of the aria. Though he hit the note cleanly and truly, it was cut off prematurely (something similar had happened in the first round in ‘Che gelida manina’). I somehow feel we didn’t quite see the best of this singer in the competition – and I also feel that, under different circumstances, there would have been sustained top C’s aplenty.

Floated top notes were just one of the elements that made Anita Watson’s performance exceptionally fine. Her aria was ‘The trees on the mountains’ from Floyd’s Susannah. Time stopped as Watson captured the folksy aspects of this plaintive, modal song while applying the refinement we expect of an operatic soprano. Exquisitely judged, it was also deeply touching.

More overt – but similarly effective – theatricality came from Claudia Galli in her rendition of Micaëla’s aria from Carmen. This seemed ideally suited to her (she is soon to sing the entire role in Nancy and Metz) and she made the character more feisty, passionate and frightened than she usually is. If Galli’s voice still lacks weight in the lower phrases, it soared in the expansive higher lines.

Anna Victorova has not yet sung the role of Carmen on stage, but she was Dalila in 2008 in Dublin, and the Philistine temptress’ ‘Printemps qui commence’ opened the evening’s programme. Victorova’s voice offers splendid, expansive material, but sometimes the tone needs a firmer core. Still, she possesses all the assets of a Dalila and it is encouraging to hear a young singer who has the potential to take on big roles in big theatres.  

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The announcement of the prizes, presented by MS Europa's Captain, Thomas Damaschke, was made at a gala concert on Friday. The line-up offered no solo arias but three duets, a trio, a quartet and a quintet.

Carmen supplied two of these – the smugglers’ quintet from Act II with Victorova as Carmen, Galli as Frasquita, Mack as Mercédès, Müller as Remendado and Lysack as Dancaïre, and the final duet, with Mack switching to the title role and Lysack moving up to Don José. The quintet – taken at a cracking pace – was a complete delight, while Mack and Lysack struck sparks off each other in the climactic scene. (And ‘chapeau’ to Mack for singing rather than screaming or growling her famous "Tiens!" as Don José gets his ring back.)

Lysack had a busy and successful evening. Sadly, Adam Luther was not well, so his fellow Canadian took over as Nadir in the incontournable duet from Les Pêcheurs de perles (with Chest as a sterling Nadir) and as the Duca in the ever-miraculous quartet from Rigoletto (Watson as Gilda, Victorova as Maddalena and Chest as Rigoletto) . As it happened, Lysack showed a whole other side to his talents after the concert when, once most of the audience had left, he accompanied himself at the piano in some full-blooded renditions of songs by Charles Aznavour and Claude François.

Michael Müller returned to Don Ottavio for the ‘Masks’ trio from Act 1 of Don Giovanni, with Watson as Anna and Galli as Elvira. First Müller and then Watson showed their mettle when they continued to spin an elegant line as a very insistent Port Said fly buzzed around their heads.

The competition’s two winners Mack and Chest, came together for a quicksilver ‘Dunque io son’ from Il barbiere di Siviglia and the entire group brought proceedings to an end with the inevitable ‘Brindisi’ from La traviata, brandishing glasses filled with the Piper Heidsieck that flowed copiously throughout the cruise.

Friday, 12 November 2010

STELLA MARIS -- Round 2 (song & oratorio)

A quick update ... 
At the end of Round 1, the JURY VOTES stood as follows:
1.     Daniela Mack (mezzo)
2.     Michael Müller (tenor)
3.     John Chest (baritone) + Anita Watson (soprano)
And the status on the AUDIENCE VOTES was:
1.     Anita Watson
2.     John Chest
3.     Adam Luther (tenor)

By the end of Round 2, this was how things stood:
1.     Daniela Mack
2.     John Chest
3.     Anna Victorova (mezzo)
1.     John Chest
2.     Daniela Mack
3.     Claudia Galli (soprano)

So, two new entries from the singers who had been ill for the first round and who were given the chance to present their Round 1 opera arias ahead of the evening’s official business for Round 2 – oratorio and song.

Anna Victorova, the nominee from La Scala, is a mezzo in the grand Russian style, with the ability to impress at both ends of the register. The climactic top note in ‘Voce di donna’ from La Gioconda was spectacular, but voice and interpretation were more persuasively integrated in Victorova’s second aria, as she buttonholed us imposingly with ‘Sily potainye’ from Khovanschina.

Claudia Galli (Opéra de Paris) launched a delicious charm offensive with ‘Quel guardo di cavaliere’ from Don Pasquale, then followed it with a poignant ‘Ebben? Ne andró lontano’ from La Wally. Her voice, while too densely coloured to be soubrettish, is still on the light side for the latter aria, but it possesses a plaintive beauty around the top of the stave.

Both Victorova and Galli made a greater impact with their operatic offerings than they did in oratorio and song, and the same applied to Anita Watson, whose Weber and Dvořák had made her the audience favourite after Round 1. Fauré’s ‘Mandoline’ was delightful (again showcasing her superb diction), but the showy trumpeting of Handel’s ‘Let the bright Seraphim’ maybe demands a more extrovert timbre than Watson’s, which has a naturally mellow quality.

Daniela Mack’s long-breathed outpouring of Schumann’s ‘Widmung’ oozed impulsive passion and her ‘Laudamus te’ from Mozart’s C minor Mass was vivid and virtuosic, though, as a number written for soprano, it deprived us of the singer’s enticing darker timbres.

The first of the men to sing in the second round was Michael Laurenz Müller, whose slightly quirky (but fascinating) style was apt for Purcell’s ‘I’ll sail upon the Dog Star’. If his timbre lacks the martial squillo for the ‘Cuius animam’ from Rossini’s Stabat mater, he compensated with subtle use of dynamics – sometimes reducing the tone to a whisper – and acute word-painting.

In Beethoven’s ‘Adelaide’ and ‘Then shall the righteous shine’ from Elijah Adam Luther was – a little surprisingly – at moments reminiscent of the most celebrated Canadian tenor of them all, Jon Vickers. Luther is still very much a lyric rather than any kind of budding heldentenor, yet the Germanic repertoire seems to suit him, and an innate dramatic tension in his tone and style somehow evoked his great compatriot.

Darker drama was to the fore in the song choices of both John Chest and Chris Lysack. Chest’s Auf dem Flusse from Winterreise (a cycle he has already sung) proved spine-tingling, with deeply concentrated tone and consummate use of tone colours, while Lysack’s rendition of Fauré’s ‘Prison’ captured all the poet’s agonised regrets. Another number from Elijah, ‘Lord God of Abraham’ saw Chest in noble, full-toned form, while Lysack rose to the closely packed series of challenges posed by the ‘Ingemisco’ from the Verdi Requiem, confidently claiming a place at God’s right hand.

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Monday, 8 November 2010

STELLA MARIS 2010 -- Round 1 (operatic arias)

A high-profile international singing competition should, of course, present challenges to its contestants. It’s enough to be up against other fast-track singers nominated by major opera houses and facing four influential judges – but how about some extra competition from the verdant coast of the Sea of Marmara, gliding impressively past the windows, finally bathed in sunlight after a day and night of fog that seriously delayed the ship’s departure from Istanbul?

Oh yes, and it’s 11 o’clock in the morning, a little earlier than your usual performance time. Impressively, the young professionals on the Stella Maris switched into full vocal and interpretative gear from the very first moment.

The red and beige, arena-style Europa Lounge on the MS Europa is lower-ceilinged than most performing spaces for classical music, but there was no lack of presence for both voices and piano (the tireless and expert David Syrus, taking some time out from his duties at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden).

In the first round, each singer presented two operatic arias, selected from his or her repertoire list by the judges. The contestant from the Canadian Opera company, Argentinian-born mezzo Daniela Mack, seemed admirably unfazed by being asked to launch proceedings with Rossini in full virtuoso mode -- Cenerentola’s final rondo.

Though Mack’s timbre is fruity, with contralto colours at the bottom, she negotiated the coloratura with ease (she even has a real trill, not always a given for young singers negotiating bel canto) and hit a confident top B at the end. Dark and vivacious (Carmen inevitably beckons), she also made the aria into a convincing piece of theatre. The mezzo was still more impressive in her second number, scheduled in the second half of the concert programme: Stéphano’s ‘Que fais tu, blanche tourterelle’ from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, in which her vibrato – somewhat intrusive in the Rossini – had settled down.

Anita Watson (Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) was the only other female contestant to appear in this opening round, since, sadly, both soprano Claudia Galli (Opéra National de Paris) and mezzo Anna Viktorova (La Scala) were unwell. (The plan is for them to catch up with performances of their arias in one of the subsequent rounds). The Australian soprano is a thoughtful, stylish singer, with an especially attractive lower register that ‘speaks’ very naturally; her diction is also exceptionally clear. In ‘Wie nahte mir der Schlummer’ from Der Freischütz, she exuded serenity and sincerity before whipping up excitement in the final section, while in Rusalka’s ‘Song to the moon’ she cast a suitably yearning spell.

There are no less than three tenors in the line-up of male contestants. The sole baritone is American John Chest, nominated by Munich’s Bayerische Staatstoper and a former apprentice singer at Santa Fe, Chicago Opera Theatre and San Francisco’s Merola programme. With a focused, incisive voice and astute dramatic presentation, he made a powerful impression in Figaro’s entrance aria from Il barbiere di Siviglia  (this factotum was a subtler, more intense operator than usual) and the Pierrot-Lied from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. If his deeply-felt interpretation bypassed the Viennese irony in this gorgeous number, it brought more than one tear to the eye.

Another American based in Germany, Chris Lysack – currently with the Hamburg State Opera – has, astonishingly, only been singing at a professional level for three years, having previously taken degrees in piano and French literature. This is a voice that is, as yet, hard to classify – Lysack’s roles in Hamburg this season include Monostatos, Froh and Normanno. If it maybe lacks the Italianate juice for ‘è la solita storia’ from Cilèa’s L’arlesiana – though Lysack’s commitment and passion were compelling – in Max’s ‘Durch die Wälder’ from Der Freischütz it opened up to heroic possibilities.

German tenor Michael Müller, formerly a trumpeter with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester and the Berliner Symphoniker and now a member of the Zurich Opera, made an arresting impression with Gluck’s virtuosic ‘L’espoir renaît dans mon âme’ from Orphée et Euridice. If the coloratura was a little viscous, the tone seemed just the thing for pre-Romantic French opera – attractively dry and strikingly flexible throughout a wide range. In his second, much better-known number, Tamino’s ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’, Müller sounded (in a positive sense) as though he were singing the aria for the first time, such was his freshness and spontaneity.

Adam Luther, from the Canadian Opera Company, stayed firmly with Romantic tenor repertory. Lensky’s nostalgic aria from Yevgeny Onegin seemed ideally suited to his darkish, slightly ‘covered’ tone – perhaps the most immediately distinctive of all the day’s contestants. He brought less light and shade to ‘Che gelida manina’ –  this Rodolfo was clearly out to impress his Mimì –  but vocal glamour was certainly in evidence.

In the afternoon, Michael Schade, Chairman of the jury, announced how the scores stood.
1.     Daniela Mack
2.     Michael Müller
3.     John Chest + Anita Watson

AUDIENCE VOTES (the ultimate audience prize is worth 15,000 EUR)
1.     Anita Watson
2.     John Chest
3.     Adam Luther

NEXT ROUND (Song/Oratorio)
Tuesday 9th November (evening)

Monday, 25 October 2010

The Stella Maris jury

The jury is chaired by Canadian tenor, Michael Schade, one of the driving forces behind Stella Maris.

Joining him on the jury are:

Christina Scheppelmann
Director of Artistic Operations, Washington National Opera

Daniel Goodwin
Director Marketing & Media, Deutsche Grammophon

Martin Engstroem
Director, Verbier Festival, Switzerland

The Stella Maris contestants

Listed here (in alphabetical order) are the singers who will be competing on board the EUROPA, along with the opera house which runs the young artists’ programme to which they belong or have belonged.

John Chest, baritone                
Bayerische Staatsoper

Claudia Galli, soprano            
OpéraNational de Paris

Adam Luther, tenor                  
Canadian Opera Company

Chris Lysack, tenor                  
Hamburgische Staatsoper

Daniela Mack, mezzo               
San Francisco Opera

Michael Müller, tenor               
Opernhaus Zürich

Anna Viktorova, mezzo
Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Anita Watson, soprano            
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A short bio of each singer can be found at:

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Aria ideas?

What would be a good choice of arias for a seaborne singing competition with ports of call as follows: Istanbul/Turkey, Antalya/Turkey, Paphos/Cyprus, Tartus/Syria, Beirut/Lebanon, Port Said/Egypt, Hurghada/Egypt, and Aqaba/Jordan?

The obvious operas are Entführung, Otello and Aida ... Armida was from Damascus and she proved regular operatic fodder ... The ship travels through the Red Sea, so Mosè in Egitto is another apt piece. There must be lots of others.

Videos from the 2009 Stella Maris competition

It helps to have a boat equipped with two Steinways and a Bösendorfer ...

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Stella Maris is the seaborne singing competition for rising young opera stars, nominated by eight of the world's top opera houses. It takes place 6-16 November 2010 on MS EUROPA, the flagship of  Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, visiting Turkey Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

Blogger Yehuda Shapiro is on board reporting for Opera Now, the world’s leading opera magazine.

The competing singers are from the young artists’ programmes run by: Royal Opera House London, Bavarian State Opera Munich, The Canadian Opera Company Toronto, Accademia Teatro alla Scala Milan, Hamburg State Opera, Opéra National de Paris, Merola Opera Program San Francisco Opera and the Zurich Opera House.

In 2009, the first Stella Maris Competition was won by Jong-Min Park, a Korean bass from the young artists’ programme at La Scala, Milan.

In 2011, Stella Maris will be staged in the course of a cruise round the British Isles.