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.

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