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)

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