La Scena Musicale

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Queen Elisabeth Singing Competition Finals Day 1

We have reached the home stretch - twelve finalists spread over four evenings. The first session took place on May 21, with three candidates - soprano Elizabeth Bailey (UK), baritone Changhan Lim (Korea), and tenor Szabolcs Brickner (Hungary).

Elizabeth BAILEY

Vincenzo BELLINI Eccomi in lieta vesta – Oh! Quante volte [GIULIETTA – I CAPULETI E I MONTECCHI]
Gaetano DONIZETTI Ah! Tardai troppo – O luce di quest’anima [LINDA – LINDA DI CHAMOUNIX]Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART Et incarnatus est [GROSSE MESSE IN C]
Leonard BERNSTEIN Glitter and be gay [CUNEGONDE – CANDIDE]
La Monnaie/De Munt Symphony Orchestra - Kazushi ONO, conductor

The proceedings certainly got off to a fine start with Bailey, who looked lovely in a cream-coloured, tight bodiced gown with flared skirt. She also looked poised and calm throughout. Hers is a high soprano, with a fine upper extension - much like the early Natalie Dessay. High F's pose no terror for her. Her Bellini showed lovely cantilena singing. The tone is bright, if a little limited in colour. This was followed by the aria from Linda di Chamounix, which showed more sparkle, with extra interpolated high notes thrown in. If there is a fault, it is her lack of a truly solid trill to go with her agility and upper extension. As Sutherland would say - you are either born with it (a trill) or you are not! Bailey even interpolated a high F sharp - impressive! The third piece was from Mozart's Grosse Messe. It is a long aria that requires a great range (including low notes) This piece showed her weakness - she had to struggle to keep her legato line steady, especially in the beginning, and the very long phrases caused her breathing to sound a little laboured. One wished for a more solid intonation. The lowest note gave her a great deal of trouble - it simply didn't sound. Overall, I would say this was her weakest piece of the four. She ended with Bernstein's Glitter and be Gay - always an audience favourite, and she sang it very well indeed. Her English diction was not ideally clear, but this is par for the course in high sopranos. She was able to sustain this very long piece nicely, pulling out all the stops for a blazing finish. The audience was certainly behind her all the way. Surprisingly she did not sing a French piece - this is Belgium afterall! But overall it was very well done.

Changhan LIM

Charles GOUNOD Oh sainte médaille – Avant de quitter ces lieux [VALENTIN – FAUST]Giuseppe VERDI Per me giunto – O Carlo ascolta – Io morrò ma lieto in cuore [RODRIGO – DON CARLO]
Maurice RAVEL Chanson romanesque [DON QUICHOTTE À DULCINÉE – MORAND]Gioachino ROSSINI Sois immobile [GUILLAUME TELL – GUILLAUME TELL]Jules MASSENET Ce breuvage pourrait me donner un tel rêve – Vision fugitive [HÉRODE – HÉRODIADE]

This Korean baritone has a smooth, well-trained lyric baritone of ingratiating timbre. It is a compact voice, beautiful but perhaps lacks that true Verdian baritone flavour. He began well, with Valentin's aria. But immediately one noticed the voice was a little underpowered - at climaxes, it does not bloom. The top is beautiful, the bottom a little on the weak side. I felt he sang very well, although the audience response was lukewarm, especially when compared to Bailey. Carlo's aria from Don Carlo also went well, with nicely controlled singing, with a nice diminuendo. He looked very handsome in the traditional tuxedo, but his stage manner was decidedly restrained. He didn't play to the audience, which perhaps explained the rather polite but tepid response. He deserved a bigger ovation. His Don Quichotte song was short, with very good French. In fact, I would say his French is among the best of all the non-French contestants. His last piece, Vision fugitive from Herodiade, is a beautiful piece that requires a voice of real impact and a reserve for the climax. He unfortunately he ran into trouble. Everything beautiful until the high note near the end when he suffered a most unfortunate crack. He didn't come to a dead stop, but the tone turned sour. Too bad, as he is a very fine singer, very musical and he deserved a better fate. I think he was pushing his voice too hard to make a bigger sound, and sometimes it just doesn't pay off. He recovered well and the audience was sympathetic, but I am afraid the damage was done.


Giacomo MEYERBEER Pays merveilleux – Ô, paradis sorti de l’onde [VASCO DE GAMA – L’AFRICAINE]
Gustav MAHLER Revelge – Um Mitternacht [7 LIEDER AUS LETZTER ZEIT – RÜCKERT]
Giuseppe VERDI O, figli – Ah, la paterna mano [MACDUFF – MACBETH]

Of the two tenors in the finals, I have to say I prefer Mr. Brickner over Haradzetski from Belarus. Brickner has a nicer timbre and better technique. That said, the voice has some inherent limitations. Among the three singers tonight, he pushed his voice the most; and his vocal production is too open-throated especially in the middle and upper middle, although not as open as Mr. Haradzetski. The tone is also a little on the thin side - one wishes for a rounder sound. He opened with "O paradis" - very careful with the high notes. This was followed by a short, piece from Britten's Les illuminations, which he sang vividly. Then it was two selections from Mahler's Ruckert Lider. Revelge is a veritable tour de force, and he sang it well, bringing out the "neurotic" nature of this piece by giving a really committed, dramatic reading of a difficult song. His flat-out singing without holding anything in reserve makes for somewhat uncomfortable listening - this is also true in the Macduff's aria. Nice, but one got the feeling he was singing with his capital, not his interest. His last piece, Lensky's Kuda, kuda, together with the Britten, were probably his strongest pieces. Here in Kuda, kuda for once, he had to sing mezza voce, but he didn't sound all that comfortable singing in half voice. Still, he gave a nice rendering of this most beautiful aria and received a strong ovation. This tenor shows promise but he needs not force his voice so much.

There was no clear winner tonight, but if I had to pick one, I would give the nod to Elizabeth Bailey.

On the Web
> Queen Elisabeth Competition

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Queen Elisabeth Singing Competition May 2008

For voice fans, there is nothing quite like a good old vocal competition. Here is where one discovers hidden talents, the diamonds in the rough, the "finished product", and the soon-to-emerge stars of tomorrow. And when you have a competition the calibre of the Queen Elisabeth's in Belgium, it really is a voice aficionado's dream. So far, we have had the First Round and the Semi-finals. There is still time to follow the Finals starting Wednesday - don't miss the excitement!

While there are many terrific competitions around the world - including the Montreal International Competition (vocal edition), in terms of scope, number of participants, prestige, and opportunities for future employment, few can match the QE. In fact, I would put Cardiff and the QE as being tied, at the highest level of excellence. Even the venerable Met Auditions is not truly global because it is limited to the Americas, primarily US and Canada. Others like the Hans Gabor, Operalia, or the Queen Sonja, are fine, but again their impact don't measure up to Cardiff and the QE. The QE in particular has been good to Canada, since it launched the career of contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux. (Incidentally, Operalia 2008 will take place in Quebec City in September. Stay tuned!)

Back to the QE. It is taking place as I write, in Brussels, from May 8 to 24. 83 candidates from 31 countries were invited to the first round (May 8 -10), including 6 each from Canada and Poland. Interestingly, the USA only have 2 singers and none from Australia, usually a strong country in singing competitions. The country with the most number of candidates is Korea (15), followed by France at 8, and then it is Canada and Poland at 6 each. There are 60 women and 23 men, 46 sopranos, 14 mezzos, 2 countertenors, 6 tenors, 13 baritones, and 2 bassos.

Not everyone invited showed up. Only 71 of the 83 invited decided to come to Brussels. Among those absent are two Canadians, sopranos Marianne Fiset and Marie-Eve Munger. Both were on the announced list but did not compete. The remaining four Canadians are baritone Cosimo Oppedisano, mezzo Michele Losier, baritone Philip Carmichael, and soprano Layla Claire. Each candidate in the First Round performed two works from opera, oratorio, or lieder or song repertoire, totaling 15 minutes.

You can still listen to the completed rounds on demand from the RTBF website at Videos of the semi-finals are also available, from Click on "Watch and Listen" on the right side of the homepage.

Twenty-four singers survived the First Round into the semi-finals. Out of these 24, 12 are now in the final round: Elizabeth Bailey, sop. (UK), Szabolcs Bricker, ten. (Hungary), Layla Claire sop. (Canada), Isabelle Druet mez. (France), Bernadetta Gravias, mez. (Poland), Yuri Haradzetski ten. (Belarus), Anna Kasyan, sop. (Georgia), Changhan Lim, bar. (Korea), Michele Losier mez. (Canada), Gabrielle Philiponet, sop. (France), Tatiana Trenogina sop. (Russia), and Jung Nan Yoon, sop. (Korea). From listening to the live streaming, it is clear that the standards are extremely high. All the voices are good, with a number that are truly wonderful and destined for fine careers. There will be four days of finals, starting May 21. Each candidate will sing four to six selections, accompanied by the Orchestre symphonique de la Monnaie with Kazushi Ono conducting. You can listen and watch the live webcast by going to and click on Watch and Listen to the right.
In the semi-finals (May 12-14), each singer performed three to six pieces with a maximum of two by the same composer. There was an imposed work, Canzone, composed for the occasion by Wim Hendrickx. It is typically a modern piece, but tonal and vocally "grateful". It is interesting to hear the different interpretations by the contestants. Some chose to commit it to memory, and from my experience of attending past competitions, a singer willing and able to memorize the piece on short order - and singing it well, of course - stands a good chance of winning the prize for interpretation of the imposed work. A case in point is Greek-Australian sopano Elena Xanthoudakis, who won the interpretation prize and Fourth Prize at the Montreal Competition in 2005. A quick study, she sang the piece from memory, impressing the judges and the audience.

I generally agree with the choices of the twelve finalists. Interestingly, two of the six tenors entered made it to the finals, a success rate of 33% - the world always want more tenors! By contrast, 6 sopranos out of 46 made it - a success rate of only 15%. Similarly, only 1 out of 13 baritones made it. I must say there were a few singers whom I felt were good enough to be in the finals but sadly didn't make it. I was particularly fond of Sri Lankan soprano Kishani Jayashinghe, who has a gleaming, powerful voice, great long breath line, and excellent musicality. The only thing missing perhaps is a sense of humour - her Adina's aria from L'Elisir d'amore lacked sparkle. She was a finalist at the 2006 Kathleen Ferrier competition and is in the Covent Garden Young Artists program. I think she will go far. It is important to remember that not making the finals doesn't mean a singer is not good. So much is dependent on the individual taste of the jury panel, and there is always the possibility of politics, although this is difficult to prove. At this level of competition, jury members tend to look for the finished product. Often, a great voice that is unfinished coupled with ordinary stage presence or preparation may be bypassed in favour of someone with a good voice but in possession of excellent stage presence and attractive physical appearance. Without naming names, I can say there is a baritone in this competition who has a wonderfully strong amd rich if still somewhat rough baritone, and his stage appearance needs work - a better suit would help! He was passed over by the jury in favour of another singer who has a beautiful, well controlled, technically accomplished, smooth lyric baritone, combined with a handsome face, slim physique, and altogether a more polished "package". Modern audiences demand believability, and unless one has a voice the likes of Pavarotti or Sutherland, an attractive, slim singer will always have an advantage, such is the reality of the opera world these days.

Finally, a few words about the jury panel. QE is known for star-studded jurors, but this edition is simply amazing - imagine on the same panel Martina Arroyo, Lella Cuberli, Raina Kabaivanska, Tom Krause, Ann Murray, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Jose Van Dam, Brigitte Fassbaender, and Helmut Deutsch! I would love to be a fly on the wall during the deliberations!
Good listening!

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